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Just yesterday, we learned of the death at 104 in Milan of the fabled Italian soprano, Magda Olivero.
We first heard Olivero's astonishing voice in her 1940 recording of the Traviata aria “É strano . . . Ah, fors’è lui” and its cabaletta “Sempre libera.” Here it is.
And we first heard Olivero live in Florence in 1966 in Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, and then in Newark, New Jersey in 1970 as Tosca. It was not until 1975 that she made her Met debut, again as Puccini’s Roman diva. The company had scheduled twenty performances of Tosca for 1974-75. The last of the seven sopranos to undertake the title role that season was a late replacement for Birgit Nilsson. At the urging of Marilyn Horne, who had heard her in Dallas, Magda Olivero made her Met debut at sixty-five, an age at which leading sopranos, if not long retired, have lost not only their high Cs, but their appetite for the Act III leap from Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.
Olivero had made her Italian debut in 1932; by the late 1950s, she had an international following of fervent fans thanks to recordings, mostly pirated. Beginning in 1968, U.S. audiences in Dallas, Kansas City, Hartford, Newark, and even at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall, received her rapturously. In her three Met performances, uninitiated patrons must have wondered at the prolonged ovation that greeted her entrance. They soon understood why so many in the audience shouted so loudly and long. With rock-solid technique, Olivero's hollow middle and lower registers and vibrant upper produced a uniquely expressive and, yes, beautiful sound. Then there were her vocal feats—the ability to swell and diminish a phrase on an endless stream of breath, the clean attacks of high notes, in particular the fearlessly held high C in Act III as Tosca relates her triumphant murder of Scarpia. Voice and technique were wedded to an uncanny command of the body. Fending off the violence of Ingvar Wixell, an excellent Scarpia, Olivero found herself sprawled on an Empire bench, her head and torso bent sharply back. In this contorted position, she began “Vissi d’arte.” Slowly she rose with the arc of the music, was finally upright at the aria’s climax, then on her knees for the next phrase, her plea for mercy. Here is the Act II aria in a 1960 Italian television video where she is allowed less freedom of movement than she had in the theatre.
On April 18, 1975, her last Met appearance (she sang Tosca on tour in 1979), Olivero amazed and alarmed the audience at her final curtain call. Answering the relentless cheers and applause, and the throng pressing forward on the orchestra floor, she edged along the narrow lip at the base of the proscenium to touch the outstretched hands of her admirers. A misstep would have plunged her into the pit. With this gesture, Olivero conveyed what made her unique: she sang and acted as if her life depended on it.
Olivero’s signature role was Adriana Lecouvreur. Here she sings Adriana’s entrance aria from a 1965 Amsterdam performance. Like Tosca, Adriana is an actress, but in this case, a legendary star of the Comédie-Française in the 18th century. Rehearsing backstage, she begins by declaiming a few lines, then finds their proper expression in song, not as the histrionic thespian but as the humble handmaiden of creative genius.