ROME — Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, one of the biggest stars at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala, died Sunday at home in the tiny republic of San Marino, her doctor said. She was 82 and had been ill for some time.
Tebaldi was considered to have had one of the most beautiful Italian voices of the 20th century, relying on rich, perfectly produced tones. She also was known for her supposed rivalry with the fiery Maria Callas.
For years, opera fans devoured details of what they perceived as a prima donna duel, and La Scala devotees were divided into Tebaldi and Callas camps. After her retirement, however, Tebaldi told an interviewer she had never considered Callas a rival and that the supposed feud was whipped up by the media.
Tebaldi made her debut in 1944 as Elena in Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele” in the northern Italian town of Rovigo. Her career took off when she performed a concert of arias conducted by Arturo Toscanini at the 1946 reopening of La Scala, which had been damaged by bombs during WWII.
The maestro later said that she had an “angel’s voice.”
Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing had a different nickname for Tebaldi, calling her “dimples of iron” — a reference to her sweet appearance that belied an iron will.
Tebaldi sang in La Scala’s 1946-47 season and appeared there frequently from 1949 to 1954, singing roles including Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca and Giuseppe Verdi’s Desdemona.
Born in Pesaro, Tebaldi contracted polio when she was 3. After recovering, she studied at the conservatory there and in Parma.
She made her London debut at Covent Garden as Desdemona in “Otello,” on the opening night of the Scala company’s London season in 1950 and returned to London in 1955 to sing Tosca. Her U.S. debut was in San Francisco in 1950 as Aida.
Tebaldi performed Desdemona, one of her favorite roles, in her debut at the Met, on Jan. 31, 1955, as well as in her final appearance there on Jan. 8, 1973. She sang 270 performances at the Met.
Tebaldi also sang rarely heard roles such as Gaspare Spontini’s Olympia, Pamyre in Gioacchino Rossini’s “Le siege de Corinthe,” Cleopatra in George Frideric Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” and the title role of Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco.”
Her many recordings include perfs as Aida, Desdemona, Mimi, Tosca and, most notably, Leonora in a live recording of “La Forza del Destino” from Naples in 1958.
As early as 1950, Callas’ competitive attitude toward Tebaldi, the then-reigning prima donna at La Scala, had begun. When Tebaldi did not quite succeed in her first “La Traviata” at the Milan theater, Callas called her a “poor thing.”
The less combative Tebaldi suffered in her relationship with La Scala because of house superintendent Antonio Ghiringhelli’s deference to Callas, but she remained publicly silent on the subject.
When asked about the supposed feud, Callas said simply they were friendly but were very different as singers. In 1968, when Tebaldi sang a Met opening-night “Adriana Lecouvreur,” Callas visited her backstage afterwards. A photo taken then shows the women embracing warmly.
Callas’ husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, once suggested the “feud” was a cynical move to boost record sales, with both divas playing along.
In 1976, Tebaldi retired from performing and devoted much of her time to teaching. In a 2002 interview to mark her 80th birthday, she said she stopped singing while her voice was still powerful to avoid seeing “the mortifying season of decline.”
At Venice’s La Fenice theater, on news of her death, the audience observed a minute of silence.
A funeral service will be held Tuesday in San Marino, her doctor said, and a memorial likely will be planned in Milan.