The Renata Tebaldi Museum – alive with the voice of an angel
by Rino Alessi
The newborn Renata Tebaldi Museum in Busseto pays homage to a beautiful voice and to Italian excellence in singing. It is located in the province of Parma, in Verdi’s small hometown, in the newly renovated, historical Stables of the wonderful Villa Pallavicino (home to the National Giuseppe Verdi Museum). Here, you can admire plentiful mementos from the life of the most anti-diva among the divas in the history of melodrama, loved and sought after by all the greatest theaters in the world. You can see costumes and stage jewelry designed by Giorgio De Chirico and Alexander Benois, Nicola Benois and Beni Montresor, concert dresses and personal items from a precious, incredibly refined wardrobe, travel trunks and rare documents, letters, and testimonies – including some from Kennedy, Toscanini, and the former Mayor of New York City, Giuliani.
Born in Pesaro (like her father) in 1922, Renata Tebaldi received her musical education in her mother’s hometown (Langhirano, Parma) and later in Pesaro’s Conservatory, where she studied under the famous Carmen Melis.
She debuted in 1944, while Italy was still at war, in Boito’s “Mefistofele” at Rovigo’s Teatro Sociale; after a brilliant career, her final performances in 1976 were a triumphal farewell to her many fans, first at New York’s Carnegie Hall and then at La Scala in Milan. In 1946, Toscanini chose and directed her “angel voice” (and gave her this nickname) for the opening concert after Teatro La Scala’s post-war renovation. The following year, she played her first operatic role at Piermarini’s opera house: Eva in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (“The Master-Singers of Nuremberg”). She was acclaimed on all the major stages in Italy – especially Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples – and Europe. In 1951, her success in South America sparked her rivalry with Maria Callas: for the sake of peace, she decided to self-confine herself to the United States. Tebaldi’s American debut was in 1955 at the New York Metropolitan (“Otello” with Del Monaco), where she would remain the undisputed queen of opera until 1973.
After the great singer died in San Marino in 2004, her long-time factotum, Ernestina Viganò, destined her legacy to the Renata Tebaldi Committee (soon to become a Foundation) and its president, Giovanna Colombo, to perpetuate the artistic and personal life of this “angel voice”. After setting aside the idea of creating a “Castle for the Queen” inside the Torrechiara Castle in Langhirano, and thanks to the interest shown by Riccardo Muti – who was always fond of Tebaldi – the Municipality of Busseto gave the Committee permission to use Villa Pallavicino’s Stables.
Musicologist Giovanni Gavazzeni – grandson of the unforgettable Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who was alongside Tebaldi when she came back to La Scala to perform in “Tosca”, interrupting her American exile – has been entrusted with coordinating the Committee’s activities and curating the museum, in order to best display its treasures. He has created, for example, a whole room dedicated to “Madame Butterfly” – a role Tebaldi performed in Barcelona in 1958, in her return to the stage after her mother’s passing. “The word ‘museum’ can be quite terrifying,” Gavezzeni says. “But I want visitors to feel like the Tebaldi Museum is alive.”
It is, indeed, so alive that on August 31 (weather permitting), a concert by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra will be held in the inner part of Villa Pallavicino’s courtyard and connected garden. Zubin Mehta, who was with Tebaldi in her golden years at the Met, will conduct the orchestra; on the occasion, he will receive the “Verdi d’Oro” award. The program includes instrumental pieces from Tebaldi’s favorite and most often performed operas, ranging from “Manon Lescaut” to “The power of faith” (“La forza del destino”). Puccini and Verdi, after all, were the composers who gave this “angel voice” her wings.