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Episode 42. Battle Hymn of the Scotto
On the weekend that my benighted nation celebrates its birthday, I turn for real leadership to Renata Scotto, specifically her portrayal of the Druid priestess Norma in Vincenzo Bellini’s eponymous cornerstone of the bel canto repertoire. Scotto began her career as a charming lyric-coloratura, lending her distinctive voice and artistic personality to roles from such country damsels as Amina in La Sonnambula and Adina in L’elisir d’amore to the more substantial title roles in Lucia di Lammermoor and La Traviata. With Butterfly, she moved into heavier repertoire and eventually, in 1974, first took on Norma. Singing this role for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera season in 1981 was a risk that took a toll on her reputation for posterity. But, I contend, even with its flaws, her Norma is one of the greatest post-Callas assumptions of the role. Scotto understands both the gravitas and the tenderness of this character and her occasional vocal vulnerabilities contrasted with her continuing fearlessness in coloratura. And her insights into the varying aspects of Norma’s persona: her wisdom, her compassion, her conflict between love and duty, and finally, her ability to admit wrongdoing and accept the consequences, show us all the characteristics of a true leader. In 1978, at the peak of her achievement, Renata Scotto sang the role of Norma in at least three different productions: in Philadelphia (with the gleaming John Alexander); in Houston (with the glorious Tatiana Troyanos); and in Firenze (conducted by the stern but compelling Riccardo Muti). I offer extended excerpts from each of these performances as well as a beguiling performance of “Casta diva” from her first assumption of the role in Torino in 1974. I also offer John Alexander and another podcast favorite, Shirley Verrett, in the Adalgisa-Pollione duet. Finally, I top off the episode with Scotto’s oh-so-wrong yet oh-so-right performance of “Send in the Clowns,” which serves as the perfect commentary for the current political situation in the USA.
RECORDINGS HEARD IN THIS EPISODE
Julia Ward Howe: Battle Hymn of the Republic. Norma Zimmer; The Lawrence Welk Orchestra and Singers
All remaining selections are from live performances of Bellini’s Norma, as noted.
No, non tremare. Renata Scotto; Nicola Rescigno, Houston Symphony Orchestra [12 November 1978]
Sediziose voci. Renata Scotto; Riccardo Muti, Teatro Communale di Firenze [19 December 1978]
Casta Diva… Ah, bello a me ritorna Renata Scotto; Giuseppe Patanè, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino [9 April 1974]
Meco all’altar di Venere. John Alexander; Richard Bonynge, San Francisco Opera [06 October 1972]
Me protegge, me difende. John Alexander, Sarah Caldwell, Opera Company of Boston [June 1971]
Deh, proteggimi, o Dio. Tatiana Troyanos; Nicola Rescigno, Houston Grand Opera [12 November 1978]
Ah, crudele. Shirley Verrett, John Alexander; Gianfranco Masini [New York, 28 February 1976]
Vanne, e li celi entrambi. Renata Scotto, Giuseppina Arista; Riccardo Muti [19 December 1978]
Adalgisa… Alma, costanza. Renata Scotto, Tatiana Troyanos; Nicola Rescigno [12 November 1978]
Dormono entrambi. Renata Scotto; Riccardo Muti [19 December 1978]
Ei tornerà. Renata Scotto, Giuseppina Arista; Riccardo Muti [19 December 1978]
Io ferir deggio… In mia man… Qual cor tradisti… Deh, non volerli vittime. Renata Scotto, John Alexander, Mario Rinaudo; Carl Suppa, Opera Company of Philadelphia [10 January 1978]
Stephen Sondheim: Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music). Renata Scotto; Lorenzo Anselmi, John Atkins, Seymour Barab, Mary Batow
Finally, here is a link to a great interview with Scotto that appeared on the Politico website in February 2011.
And check the comments section to this article for reminiscences (and some real opera queen bitchiness) regarding Renata’s 1981 Norma and some of her other late-career assumptions at the Met.