Coda: The Performance I Can’t Forget
Bundle of bravery: Scotto as Cio-Cio-San, 1965
© Arnold Rosenberg 2012
Spending one's teenage years at the old Met offered a dual education — the one afforded by the performances in the house and the one gleaned by soaking up the knowledge, experience and gossip shared on the standing-room line. Both were of importance to a neophyte opera lunatic. For instance, while I luxuriated in the vocal performances of Sutherland, Tebaldi, Nilsson and Price, I learned from the little old men outside that these were unworthy, inferior successors to the likes of Galli-Curci, Ponselle, Flagstad and Muzio — to name just a few. This inspired a curiosity about historic singers. The fact that, in the space of the first three months of the 1965–66 season, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Grace Bumbry and Montserrat Caballé all made their Met debuts made no impression on the old guard — who were probably not much older than I am now.
One debutante who made a huge impression on me, and on the majority of the audience — and even made a dent in the resistance of the "it was better then" crowd — was Renata Scotto. This was due partly to the lack of fanfare that preceded her arrival. While Freni, Bumbry and Caballé came with much hype (most of it deserved), I knew Scotto only from a few opera LPs and a recital disc that was no longer in print. But there was no way to be prepared for what took place when she unveiled — one might say "unleashed" — her Cio-Cio-San on an unsuspecting Met public. At the sound of her voice offstage during Butterfly's entrance, a frisson ran through the house. A surprising richness and power joined with sunshine-bright vowel coloration, projecting the character's excitement and ingenuousness — and it didn't hurt that she not only took the optional high D-flat but managed a diminuendo on it, to stunning effect.
Scotto was no beginner even then; although she was only thirty-one, she was a decade and a half into her fifty-year singing career. With her Cio-Cio-San, she seemed to bring back the Italian tradition — already, even then, being lost to international casting and big record labels — yet fuse it with a modern theatrical sensibility. In other words, her performing style was timeless — and entirely her own. Even a device such as the use of voce bianca in Act I, to convey Butterfly's youth, was employed in a way that honored a tradition (think Toti Dal Monte) while feeling new. Her wide-open vowel pronunciation had the effect of making a word such as "rinnegata" sound at the same time Italian and Japanese.
Scotto's physical portrayal was enhanced by the extra weight she went to great pains to shed a decade later. Tiny, round, adorable at one moment, a powerful bundle of bravery the next, she created a living, breathing person, with a voice to match. In fact, we "experts" were certain that the big voice that poured out Butterfly's lines could no longer manage the coloratura Lucias scheduled to follow. We were mistaken.
Scotto knew the art of drawing an audience in. All the parlando lines, so perilously written on the lower passaggio, were handled seamlessly. In "Ieri son salita," Butterfly's religious conversion had a mystical intimacy; the way she looked at Pinkerton spoke volumes; the caressing way she had with "Vogliatemi bene" was spellbinding — and, knowing what was to come, heartbreaking. Act II was the Scotto show; it's impossible to remember anything or anyone else. "Un bel dì" inspired a long and vocal ovation, not because it's the famous aria but because she managed to pull us into her own desire to believe so entirely that when Suzuki left the stage and Scotto's Cio-Cio-San fell apart, we dissolved as well. The piece was also sung with myriad colors and a magnificent, sustained B-flat at the end. The letter scene with Sharpless was almost too suspenseful to bear, her reading of "Non mi rammenta più" ending in an almost inaudible whisper. When Sharpless asked what she would do if Pinkerton didn't return, Scotto's entire body went lifeless, her arms limp at her sides, her voice devoid of all color. The aria "Che tua madre" was one of the many instances in which this singer made a less famous passage even more vivid than the beloved familiar one — the sign of a great artist. When the ship was spotted, the crescendo on the high A on "Ei torna e m'ama!" (He's returned, and he loves me!) drew an explosion from the audience, cheering both for Cio-Cio-San and for Scotto. Entirely drained, I retired during intermission to Squire's coffee shop for a milkshake to work up the fortitude to stand for Act III.
The final act included the most ravishing rendition of Butterfly's little lullaby imaginable, capped with an ethereal high B pianissimo — and in contrast soon after, an angry Cio-Cio-San, impatient with Suzuki, her voice taking on an edge when referring to "lui," Pinkerton, coming to collect their child. Scotto's powerhouse singing of the death aria remained a highlight through her final Butterflys twenty years later, but one can never forget the perfection in her timing of the collapse of the screen behind which she'd just impaled herself — her hand reaching up (those amazingly expressive little fingers!), the screen toppling, the cherry blossoms she'd scattered for Pinkerton's return flying in the air. Scotto's Cio-Cio-San, an artistic revelation, became a part of my operagoing life for the next two decades. But, as they say, you always remember the first time.
IRA SIFF, a New York-based voice teacher and coach, is commentator on the Saturday-afternoon Met radio broadcasts.
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