Although no longer at their apogee, in the 1960s the two great sopranos of the time, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, were still burning up the stage, and I had the great good fortune to see them. Thanks to their recordings, I had heard them when they were at the height of their careers. These memorable records, beloved by fans, divided the latter into two rival camps. At the time, I counted among my friends Georges Nicholson (for Callas) and Michel Beaulac (for Tebaldi). Each stoutly defended his idol’s merits, Nicholson being proud of Callas’ strong sense of theatre and vocal prowess, and Beaulac vaunting Tebaldi’s beauty of looks and voice. For my part, although I liked the angelic voice of one and the stage skills of the other, I hadn’t yet found my ideal performer.
Our little circle of aficionados had recently discovered concert recordings on vinyl and were keen to find more. One day I met John Codner, a collector of “pirate” records, who said to me, “I know you collect Tebaldi and Callas, but have you ever heard of Magda Olivero?” I said no, I hadn’t. He said, “Ok, get ready and listen to this voice.” The first aria, In quelle trine morbide from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, drew me in with its lovely phrasing and the ease with which the voice held the sublime pianissimi. Her voice conveyed sensuality, intensity, serenity, and an authenticity I had never found in any other soprano.
The rest of this concert, recorded in Amsterdam in 1964, conquered me. I was so keen that the next day I decided to call Magda Olivero. I tried the telephone exchange in Milan and asked for her number. To my delight, they found it right away.
“Pronto?” – “Madame Olivero?” – “Oui,” she replied in French.
Excited to hear her voice on the end of the line, I falteringly told her how much I admired her, and asked if she was planning to appear soon in North America. She said she was engaged to sing Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea in three months’ time in Hartford, Connecticut. Overjoyed to hear this, I told her I’d be there, and she sweetly said she was looking forward to it.
So there I am on October 18, 1969, sitting in the huge Bushnell Memorial Auditorium, waiting for the curtain to rise on the first act. In her first scene, Adriana has to sing the intense Io son l’umile ancella. Resplendent in her dress, the tragedian captures the audience with the first words of the recitative, delivered in her grave and resonant voice. The aria “I am the humble servant of the creative spirit” ends on a note she holds barely audibly, pushing it into a crescendo, up to a long fortissimo so powerful and unexpected that the entire audience stands, electrified, in an ovation. Her voice is absolutely dazzling. She is 59 years old.
Born on March 25, 1910 in Saluzzo, a small village in northern Italy, Maria Maddalena Olivero began singing at age two. At age eight she was already singing arias from Manon Lescaut and La Wally. She made her debut at La Scala when not yet 24 years old. During her long career, three generations of tenors shared the stage with her: Gigli, Pertile, Schipa in the 30s and 40s; Tagliavini, Di Stefano, Bergonzi, Del Monaco, Kraus and Corelli in the 50s and 60s; and Domingo and Pavarotti in the 70s, the former in Adriana Lecouvreur and Manon Lescaut, the latter in Tosca.
Magda Olivero sang Adriana for the first time in Rome in 1939, alongside the celebrated tenor Beniamino Gigli. He was 49, she 29. In August 1950, Cilea, the composer of Adriana Lecouvreur, begged Magda to grant him one last wish before he died: the pleasure of seeing her in the part of the great tragedian, because for him, Magda was the only singer who could transcend what he wrote. She accepted, thereby ending 10 years of silence and launching what would be her second career, which lasted 30 years. During her life, Magda sang Adriana more than any other soprano. She sang the part 13 years before Tebaldi and, curiously, made her US debut in Dallas in 1967 in Cherubini’s Medea 14 years after Callas and in the same production.
During her double career she gave almost 1,200 performances in over 80 roles, including around 20 premieres. This was unheard of in the annals of opera. Callas: 49 roles. Tebaldi: 45 roles. She lent her voice to such varied characters as Violetta, Gilda, Francesca, Fedora, Santuzza, Wally, Iris, the two Marguerites (Gounod and Boito), Massenet’s Manon, Charlotte in Werther, Elsa in Lohengrin, the Countess in The Queen of Spades, Kostelnička in Jenůfa, the woman in La Voix humaine by Poulenc, and all Puccini’s great heroines: Manon, Mimi, Tosca, Cio-Cio San, Minnie, Giorgetta, Suor Angelica, Lauretta and Liù. On November 4, 1991, Magda Olivero, aged 81, gave a farewell recital in Milan to an enraptured audience of music lovers and friends. Among them was Renata Tebaldi, whom I heard murmur afterwards, “È una grande lezione di canto.” [“A great lesson in singing.”]
Philippe Godefroid in his book Divines et Divas (1989) pays glowing tribute to Magda Olivero: “By its nature this book abounds in extraordinary careers, unique performances… And for her fresh outlook, I’d like to say that Magda Olivero was the greatest operatic actress of the century.”
Why then is an artist of her stature, so acclaimed and adored by the cognoscenti as a living legend, not better known? Why didn’t she make more recordings? Was it because she was rather reserved, and kept out of the limelight once the performance was over? Was it because she retired for 10 years just when her career was taking off? Or was it her discreet return to the stage when two young and ambitious divas, Callas and Tebaldi, were rivals at La Scala? Or was it because she didn’t control this second career by hiring an impresario who could have launched her internationally? I talked over these possibilities with her and she said, “They’re all valid, and they’ve all influenced my professional life, but primarily my role has been to sing no matter where, no matter for whom. In the decisive moments of my life, I’ve always listened to a little voice inside that told me, ‘you must sing, you must sing’, and I’ve always obeyed with love and humility.”