enata Scotto died on August 16, 2023, at the age of 89. In Gramophone's August 1978, Alan Blyth spoke to Scotto about her life on stage, in the recording studio, and at home.
I recall the extremely young Renata Scotto, some 20 years ago now, as an absolutely enchanting young Violetta (opposite the equally youthful Alfredo Kraus), at the old Stoll Theatre and as a touching Amina in Sonnambula. Then came memorable performances at Covent Garden as Butterfly, Manon and later Amina again (why has she been so much neglected at the house in recent years?). One also wondered why the recording companies during the 1960s made so little use of her services. There was the wonderful Butterfly under Barbirolli for EMI (9/67), a Violetta and Gilda for Deutsche Grammophon, little else.
Now, suddenly, she has become the darling of the companies, mostly in a new and rather heavier repertory, this following on a number of successes in America, at the Metropolitan and San Francisco Operas. This new Scotto, now with a soprano of spinto proportions, has come, paradoxically, from a singer who has lost, under doctor's orders, a good deal of weight. I encountered her in the Muti Verdi Requiem (already partially recorded by EMI) at the Royal Albert Hall in the winter. The sound from that slight form was as remarkable as the excellent musicianship: the ‘Libera me’ was considered, on all sides, the highlight of the evening.
I have sung practically all the main Verdi parts – except Aida, and perhaps now I could try that too
About that time I went to see her in her temporary London flat. I found her serious of purpose, but still the light-hearted personality that I recalled from all those years ago. She told me that one of her latest discs was a series of duets from rarely heard operas in partnership with Domingo for CBS. ‘We chose items from Fedora, Romeo [of Gounod] and a wonderful love duet from an unknown Mascagni opera called La Ranzau. I chose that because I felt that people should get to know it. Then – better known – the St Sulpice from Manon. We would have liked to add the Love Duet from Les Troyens, but we ran out of space. Maybe another time’.
She then told me how her voice had been changing. ‘In the earlier part of my career I wanted to keep the tone light with plenty of technical agility. Now that the volume has increased, I want to maintain the bel canto style but adapt that to roles that have traditionally been thought of for heavier voices. I think it's a good idea to bring that kind of singing to verismo parts. The old way of singing these roles in a melodramatic manner is out of fashion.
‘In Verdi, I see no reason why you shouldn't be able to sing Gilda and Violetta at the same time as you can tackle Elena in I Vespri Siciliani or Abigaille in Nabucco. As long as you have the technique and range, you should be able to manage both. After all the range of Gilda is similar to that of Abigaille; the difference comes in the interpretation. I have sung practically all the main Verdi parts – except Aida, and perhaps now I could try that too. The hardest of all is Giselda in I Lombardi. She requires every kind of technique and voice. The Prayer is like Ave Maria in Otello, the cabaletta like Abigaille's music’.
Scotto has recorded Butterfly again, this time with Maazel for CBS – it is to be issued next month. ‘It's ten years since I recorded it last, and I think I can say something new in the role. Again, I would like to show how you can sing this with the emphasis on the music and its lyricism rather than on the drama. I don't believe in attempting anything Japanese, or “little girl”. This is a Puccini role and it must be sung with a Puccinian breadth’.
She appeared this year at the Maggio Musicale at Florence in Vespri under Muti, a conductor whom, as with Maazel and Levine, she says she can ‘really make music’. Levine conducted her recording of Adriana Lecouvreur (6/78), a part with which she scored a success last season at both the Met and San Francisco. Last month she was back in London to record Otello under Levine for RCA with Domingo in the title role. ‘In between I will have recorded an album with Mirella Freni, in which we will interchange between the soprano and mezzo roles in Bellini; that's for an Italian company. One of these will be “Mira, o Norma”. I think of all my parts, Norma is my favourite. It has everything. Bellini's music is so personal and so interesting to sing, the line and the character – the woman, the priestess, the lover. In every word, there can be a different inflexion. I shall open the new Met season some three years hence in Norma. Before that I will have a new production of Manon Lescaut and Don Carlos – my first Elisabetta, not to mention Luisa Miller and Desdemona’.
She has her own personal views on recording. ‘Once I begin, I don't like to stop. I don't want to lose the atmosphere and the spontaneity which can come only if you keep going. In the forthcoming set of Nabucco with Muti for EMI I am happy to say that I did the recitative and aria in a single take. That is we recorded it three limes but in the end we chose just one performance. In Suor Angelica after “Senza mamma”, we recorded the work to the end in a single take. It makes it hard, but the results are, I think, worth it. I also find great satisfaction in knowing that one's interpretation of a particular role is there for good and all’.
Scotto has homes near New York and Mantua. She likes to go to either – to the country – whenever she can, and spend time with her family. Her children, a son of six and a daughter of nine, are educated half in Italy, half in America. ‘That makes them bilingual – which is very good for them. I try to spend at least ten days at a go with them. Singing isn't my whole life. The family must come first. Luckily my husband comes with me to nearly all opera houses and recording. He is my best adviser and coach. I need him by me. Coping with a career and family is hard – but I manage’.