Renata Scotto Spun an Actor’s Insight Into Vocal Gold

When fans and critics speak about the Italian soprano Renata Scotto, who died on Wednesday at 89, they immediately seize upon her dramatic acumen — her ability to spin character insights into vocal magic. Her combination of style, beauty and meticulousness as a singer made her one of the most original opera stars of the second half of the 20th century.

If she sometimes pushed her voice to harsh extremes in roles that challenged her resources, that only burnished her reputation as a serious artist. And her well-publicized quarrels with general managers and co-stars — including Luciano Pavarotti and the Metropolitan Opera impresario Rudolf Bing — likewise fueled the idea that she had an irrepressible temperament that destined her for the stage.

But what really made her special was her specificity — her ability to connect personal insight to vocal inflection in a way that made that insight legible for audiences.

James Levine, the Met’s longtime music director, championed her early in his career there and helped introduce her artistry to a wide audience in the first-ever “Live From the Met” telecast, a “La Bohème” in 1977, alongside Pavarotti. Levine shaped the delicate inner world of Scotto’s cripplingly insecure Mimì. Too often, the tenor’s and the soprano’s back-to-back arias in Act I feel like a gift exchange of rhapsodic melodies from one vainly beautiful voice to another.

Scotto, though, turned Mimì, a reclusive seamstress, into a foil for Pavarotti’s extroverted, carefree Rodolfo. Her soft tone curled back into itself as she retreated from the light of Pavarotti’s sunny tenor. In Act III, dressed in funereal black, she reasserted the inevitability of Mimì’s lonely life as she broke off their love affair, her voice suffused with self-inflicted pain and feelings of unworthiness.

Scotto enjoyed a long, fruitful collaboration with Levine, who gave her the artistic challenges (not always successful) and splashy new productions she craved. He led her in a season-opening “Norma” in 1981; Verdi’s “Macbeth” in 1982; Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” in 1984; and the company premiere of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito,” also in 1984.

Inhabiting repertoire across a breadth of periods and styles, Scotto had decisive thoughts about what constituted good taste. In a 1978 interview with The New York Times, she praised Maria Callas because she “cleaned things up” and popularized a move away from generalized pathos. (She cited Beniamino Gigli and his tear-stained tone as a prime offender). Veristic growling also came in for a scolding (“It’s ridiculous. Vulgar!”). She made bel canto feel more real and verismo, more beautiful.

Scotto, right, with Claudia Catania in “Madama Butterfly” at the Met in 1986. Scotto said of Cio-Cio-San: “She has to have a beautiful lyric voice, she has to have a huge dramatic voice.” Scotto had both in the role.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

She took these apparent contradictions and reconciled them in singing of indisputable accomplishment. In touchstone bel canto roles like Adina and Lucia, her singing was light and facile without indulgence — she didn’t fuss with the fireworks. In Verdi and Puccini, she was emotionally engaged without sliding around the pitches or gasping in the middle of phrases. Musetta’s and Desdemona’s prayers had a spoken quality; Violetta’s letter reading, a sung one.

Scotto contained multitudes, and that extended to her vocal categorization, too. Was she a leggiero, a lyric, a spinto? She was all and none. Some have described her as a lyric by fach and a spinto by temperament, attributing her vocal decline — inevitable for any singer — to the irreconcilability of the two. Her astonishing piano high notes in dramatic music, the unforced warmth of her middle register, the plangency of her tone, the controlled force at the top of the staff, nonetheless speak to a formidable technique.

Her Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” preserved on two studio recordings, exploits the permeable boundary among those voice types. “Puccini gives to Butterfly everything possible to do for a singer,” she once told an interviewer. “She has to have a beautiful lyric voice, she has to have a huge dramatic voice.” The 1978 recording with Lorin Maazel bears that out: Her Cio-Cio-San, steeped in a romantic fantasy that turns increasingly bleak, alternates among a ravishing head voice, lacerating outbursts and a radiantly balanced middle register. The progress is not linear; her voice responds to hopes and doubts that the heroine continually surfaces and suppresses.

Scotto’s morbidezza — her ability to inflect her middle voice with captivating softness — was arguably her most impressive quality. It’s hardly the flashiest weapon in the arsenal of a singing actress, but it represents its own kind of daring — the courage to lower the volume and expose one’s tenderness. Violetta’s “Ah! dite alla giovine” in “La Traviata” was written for it. But, Scotto reveals, so was much of Desdemona’s music in Verdi’s “Otello”: Her vocal lightness imbued the Act I love duet with the unguarded charm of an open heart and then turned fragile, even fateful, in the Act IV “Willow Song.”

Scotto was aware that her singing wasn’t perfect. At full volume, her top notes rarely cooperated with her. At her best, she could harness and focus their power, but too often they careened in hair-raising ways. In florid music, her pitch wasn’t always true, but when a musical phrase was repeated, you could hear her correct herself and tune those pesky staccatos. She was an alert listener to others — her expressive face registering subtle reactions to her co-stars onstage — but also to herself.

It’s also fascinating to hear her respond to Riccardo Muti’s conducting in their 1980 recording of “La Traviata.” His simmering drinking song elicits from Scotto a sense of the danger that could engulf the defiant Violetta. The Act I finale, pensive yet propulsive, is full of haunted, pale-gold tone, and Alfredo’s dramatically implausible offstage cries suddenly make sense: This Violetta is tormented by her lover’s ghostly presence in much the same way Lucia is in her mad scene.

This is the kind of work Scotto did. She deployed a malleable voice and a sense of taste that could transcend styles to find a through line for heroines like Mimì, Desdemona, Cio-Cio-San and Violetta. She connected the dots to reveal something beautiful, yes, but also somehow new and true.

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