Alfred E. Vecchio, Ph.D.
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To The Music Critic A.B.

Dear A.B.:

I have read your somewhat curious review of the·Toscanini Traviata in the current issue of Gramophone. It raised a few questions in my mind. Allow me to express them.

An early publication on Callas (the title of which eludes me at this point in time since it came out a good number of years ago) recounts an encounter between Callas and Toscanini, the only one insofar as we know. Apparently he granted the then young singer an audition from the stage of the Teatro alla Scala; it was during one of his sojourns in Milan. The audition ended, Toscanini was said to have shrugged his shoulders muttering "I didn't understand a word she sang." There is no reason·to suppose, based on this story, and on the fact that Toscanini had no further contact with Callas (insofar as we know), that he would have chosen Callas as his ideal Traviata, or ideal anything whatever. A Scotto Violetta? Did you ever hear her Violetta in live performance? I did. That evening she didn't quite know where to place the voice: she decided to play it the Callas way--thus coloratura, lyric, spinto all made their appearance, sometimes in the same passages. With the result that by the time she ended the first act she was exhausted vocally, and her 'Sempre libera' ended (literally) in a fortified screech. Your ideal Violetta, having run her voice ragged prematurely, has been teaching opera and voice in the music department of some American school or other for a number of seasons now. I ask you: by what stretch of the imagination do you conclude that Callas or Scotto would have been the better, or "ideal" choice to sing Violetta under Toscanini's direction? Since you've given yourself the license to guess at such things, let me indulge in a few guesses of my own. I guess that Callas, Scotto, yes, and even Muzio would have buckled under the Toscanini pressure. It was their vocal habit to wallow in the dragged out musical line. Where Albanese took those inappropriate "three breaths in the first phrase of 'Addio...'," I would guess that Callas, and Muzio in particular, would have been audibly panting by the end of the second act duet between Violetta and Germont. And, since we're imagining this and that, how do you think Toscanini's ear would have tolerated the Callas imitation of the Bert Lahr wobble, the all too studied slowness of the delivery, the mushy vowels, and the swallowed consonants? My guess is that he would have launched a well-rounded explicative, for which he was renowned, such as, "va fa'nculo, Maria."

Toscanini chose Albanese for his Violetta with good reason. She was in fact the celebrated Violetta of her time. From the 1942-43 season to 1965-66, Albanese sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera House alone 87 times. Compare that to Callas and Muzio who sang it at the Metropolitan all of two times each.

Scotto sang Violetta at the Met all of three times. I cannot speak for their European performances. The only close runner-up was Bori with 58 performances. Apart from Bori, neither Callas nor Scotto were memorable Violettas--unless one wants to count those Violettas Callas sang at La Scala under the "direction" of Visconti, but then it's rather confusing when one considers that reviewers seemed to focus on Visconti's Traviata, rather than on Callas. The truth of the matter is that Callas and Scotto did present their Traviata in America, but couldn't hack it when pitted against Albanese (whose powers were by then beginning to diminish:), or even Moffo in those years.

The qualities that Albanese possessed and that Toscanini would and must have in fact admired were: the extraordinary ability she had to communicate vulnerability and concentrated emotional power all in one; the crystalline clarity of her consonants and vowels (as one critic put it with respect to her Susanna, for example) were a joy to one's ear. There was no faking it, such as Callas and Muzio were given to. To catch Albanese's mercurial way with a text or with the music when called for (with or without Toscanini) requires, granted, an equally sharp ear on the part of the listener. And perhaps most important of all; a first-hand knowledge of conversational spoken Italian. A dumb ear such as yours would wonder what all the fuss was about, I would imagine.

Verdi paces Violetta's music with vigor, not with the somewhat geometric rigor which Toscanini brings to his reading of the score. The real problem as I see it, with Toscanini's Traviata, whether because he was fighting a race with radio time, or whether he genuinely believed that he was being faithful to Verdi's tempi) is that he sacrifices the breath of musical life in.the name of whatever fundamentalism (the clock's dictate or what he believed to be Verdi's intentions) he rather slavishly followed.

Maybe you should read up on the stuff; maybe too you should listen to Albanese's studio recordings of Traviata, and maybe then you too might come away with a fairer, more sensitive review of the artist. Who knows, you might end up even agreeing with Deems Taylor who wrote of Albanese's Traviata, "she did not simply sing the role, but recreated it for our times." In New York the following was said of the Toscanini/Albanese Traviata: "Pity Albanese didn't record it with any· number of conductors then available." What a great Traviata indeed that would have been!

Your review was insensitive, and your comparisons asinine.

AE Vecchio

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