Io son l’umile ancella del genio creator: Italian soprano Magda Olivero, 1910 – 2014
25 March 1910 – 8 September 2014
I never heard the legendary Italian soprano Magda Olivero in an opera house or concert hall, but on recordings I have never heard anyone else quite like her. As Liù in the September 1938 EIAR recording of Puccini’s Turandot, the first studio account of the opera, she radiates both fragility and unflappability; in her singing of the title rôle of Mascagni’s Iris the aroma of chrysanthemums mingles with the stench of death; her Minnie in La fanciulla del West is one of the few portrayals of this voice-wrecking part that manage more than survival of the tessitura; her Carlotta in Massenet’s Werther, sung in Italian, combines Italianate expressivity, Gallic poise, and the Teutonic rectitude of Goethe’s Lotte; her Katiusha in Risurrezione blows through Alfano’s score with the force of a typhoon; her Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa at La Scala dominates even the steel-willed Jenůfa of Grace Bumbry. Then there are her Tosca and Adriana Lecouvreur: one a great prima donna of the operatic stage and the other the doyenne of the Comédie-Française, both are characters with whom Ms. Olivero identified virtually on a cellular level. Certainly, her performances of these rôles transcended the efforts of even her most prodigiously-gifted rivals. When she introduced her Tosca to the Metropolitan Opera in in April 1975, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in the New York Times that her performance represented ‘the art of singing rather than singing itself.’ Audiences who heard her ten MET Toscas—three in New York, the others on tour in locales as far afield as Atlanta, Dallas, and Memphis—did not quite agree. Rewarded on the evening of her début with an ovation that even Mr. Schonberg conceded was one of the most prolonged in MET history, she won the hearts of audiences whose ears were prepared to deny her. Lifelong opera lover James Forrest, himself an esteemed critic and authority on the great singers of the Twentieth Century, as well as a friend and mentor from whom I have learned much, still recalls hearing her Tosca in Minneapolis in May 1969. Now, after forty-five years, details of her musical and dramatic impersonation of Victorien Sardou’s feisty diva remain etched in Mr. Forrest’s memory: such can only have been the work of an irreplaceable artist.
Born according to most sources in the town of Saluzzo in Piemonte, not far from Torino, on 25 March 1910, Ms. Olivero was a musical being almost from birth. Like those of Maria Callas, her earliest efforts garnered little praise or encouragement, but she persevered and, barely out of her teens, launched her career with performances for Italian radio. Possessing a voice that extended with ease to the interpolated E♭6 in Violetta’s ‘Sempre libera’ in Verdi’s La traviata, she quickly developed a technique that enabled her to take on a wide repertory without exacerbating the flaws in her natural instrument. At the start of her third decade, she married and retired from performing, but her legacy was already established. It was at the request of Francesco Cilèa, who longed to again hear her sing his Adriana Lecouvreur, that she resumed her career. Cilèa died in November 1950, just months before Ms. Olivero’s return to the stage, but the rejuvenation of her artistry was a wonderful supplement to the composer’s bequest to the musical world. From the time of the start of the second phase of her career in 1951 until her final retirement from the stage at the age of seventy-one, Ms. Olivero sang an astonishing array of rôles. A 1964 Zagreb performance of La bohème, unfortunately preserved in very poor sound, partnered her delicate Mimì with the Rodolfo of Juan Oncina, an unlikely pairing that nonetheless produced a searing enactment of the Bohemians’ lot. Her Classically-molded portrait of Cherubini’s Medea brought her to Dallas, where she was given a Texas-sized welcome. The enterprising Alfredo Silipigni lured her to New Jersey for Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora, and Mefistofele, and ports of call for her well-traveled impersonation of Puccini’s—and, as the histrionic intensity of her famed 1970 Arena di Verona performance opposite Plácido Domingo suggests, Abbé Prévost’s—Manon Lescaut also included Amsterdam and Caracas. The murky document of a 1961 Naples Madama Butterfly verifies the authenticity of her Cio-Cio-San: other sopranos brought greater vocal amplitude to Puccini’s vocal lines, but probably no other Twentieth-Century singers except Licia Albanese and perhaps Geraldine Ferrar embodied the betrayed geisha with equal grit. Her Naples and Florence Giorgettas in Puccini’s Il tabarro, a decade apart, disclose a character study that was fully-formed in 1960 and remained astonishing unchanged, vocally and dramatically, in 1970. Sampling recordings of her Torino, Trieste, or Venice performances of La fanciulla del West facilitates as complete an acquaintance with the Bible-quoting, gun-toting Minnie as the opera’s discography permits. Even Mariya in Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa—sung in Italian, of course—proved a congenial part, and her espousal of Twentieth-Century opera, particularly the scores of Sandro Fuga, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Renzo Rossellini, Nino Rota, Flavio Testi, and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, legitimized the endeavors of avant garde composers. Among so many missed opportunities for studio recordings almost certain of setting new standards, one of the most regrettable is the failure of a thoughtful label to preserve her Elle in Poulenc’s La voix humaine: she was riveting in Cocteau’s French at San Francisco Opera in 1979, and in her native Italian she was crushing.
Only Ms. Olivero’s unsurpassed traversal of Giordano’s Fedora was recorded commercially in its entirety, and the resulting DECCA set, which couples Fedora with excerpts from Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini with Ms. Olivero and Mario del Monaco (also her Loris in Fedora) that are perhaps even more lustfully sung, served as my introduction both to Ms. Olivero and to Fedora, an opera that I love without shame. Fusing the toughness of Maria Caniglia’s Fedora with the sweetness of Renata Tebaldi’s, Ms. Olivero brings the calculating Princess to life with startling variety. Central to her interpretation are the suggestions in Act One that her liaison with the mortally-wounded Count Vladimir is her last chance at any meaningful kind of love and in Act Two that she is genuinely taken aback by her recognition of her love for Ipanoff. Sentiments that in the performances of many sopranos seem witless and forced are in Ms. Olivero’s Fedora not only credible but inevitable. She enriched her recorded legacy in 1993 when, at the age of eighty-three, she recorded selections from Adriana Lecouvreur [some sources suggest that the complete opera was recorded but that only excerpts were released by the Bongiovanni label] with piano accompaniment in Milan. The voice, never an exceptionally opulent instrument, remained on stunningly good form. Unlike the legions of singers who have squandered fantastic natural voices, Ms. Olivero knew what she had from the start and quickly learned how to manage those resources. She benefited from the informal tutelage of Tullio Serafin, from whose advice she eventually diverged, but the essence of her artistry as a singer and an actress is summarized by a remark that she made in an interview with Stefan Zucker: ‘you always have to make a choice—you try to make the best one.’
Magda Olivero’s career was a study in making the best choices. Vocally, there were compromises: artistically, there were none. Though she sang music in a staggering potpourri of styles, she was wise in choosing rôles in which she was confident of her proficiency. For her, the concern was not having the notes but how to sing them. Above all, she was the composers’ servant, and how miraculous was her service.
Vissi d’arte: Italian soprano Magda Olivero, likely depicted as the heroine in Puccini’s Tosca, circa 1966 [Photo credit and vintage uncertain]