Renata Scotto

Born: February 24, 1934;

Died: August 16, 2023

The soprano Renata Scotto, who has died aged 89, was at the centre of a major Edinburgh Festival scandal in 1957. The famous La Scala Opera Company from Milan were performing at the King’s Theatre with the supreme soprano of the day, Maria Callas, giving four performances of Bellini’s La Sonnambula. It was a Visconti production and a hugely prestigious event for the Festival.

Over the years the story has become much muddled by differing accounts but what is for certain is that Callas and La Scala had been contracted to give four performances of the opera. However, Robert Ponsonby, the EIF director, and La Scala scheduled a fifth performance. For some inexplicable reason neither seems to have informed Callas. She had not felt well before the festival and had wanted to cancel. But Ponsonby begged her to complete her obligations.

The fourth performance was greeted as her best rendition of the taxing role. Callas, however, had no intention of changing her plans and promptly left Edinburgh.

All hell broke loose and the press had a field-day condemning La Scala and pouring scorn on Callas. The EIF were caught in the middle trying to fend off the vitriol. The stories got more extravagant – one had it, never substantiated, that Callas had stormed out of the Jenners hair dressing salon. All such stories were proved wrong when Callas was photographed at parties in Venice.

The four performances earned her standing ovations. The Kings was sold out and Callas had scored a great personal triumph.

However, La Scala, without admitting any error, announced the understudy the 23-year-old Renata Scotto would sing – a role she had never sung before.

Callas remained furious that La Scala had refrained from making any statement exonerating her. Later they reluctantly explained the situation. At a press conference in 1980 John Drummond, the then Festival director, stated that any misunderstanding in the scheduling of the Callas visit was not her fault.

The fraught situation was saved by Scotto. In fact, Scotto had stood in for another soprano in L’elisir d’amore three nights earlier and that had caused not a ripple of comment. But taking over from La Divina went international. Scotto had a huge success. The audience gave her over ten solo curtain calls and eventually the conductor Antonino Votto implored the house to “let her go.” The new star, he explained, had to get up early the next day to fulfil a recording session in London.

Scotto has written, “It was a fabulous experience! I was very young, but I loved it! Every young singer wants the opportunity to have an international career before the most important and difficult audience, which is what I faced at the Edinburgh Festival.”

Scotto did return to the Festival and sang a triumphant Gilda in Rigoletto in 1969. Opera magazine wrote that she was, “possibly the best Gilda of the day.” In 1972 she gained wide praise in a seldom heard Bellini opera La Straniera.

Scotto soon became the number one soprano at the Metropolitan in New York, performing 314 times in 26 roles, beginning in 1965 with Madame Butterfly. She and Pavarotti sang in La Boheme in 1977 inaugurating the live broadcasts from the Met.

Scotto knew her own worth and demanded to be recognised as a star, “Many times I have discussions, sometimes fights, and always win,” she said. She fell out with the Met on occasions and slapped the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano across the face mid-performance. He had wandered off stage in their duet to eat an apple.

She did sing at Covent Garden in various revivals but made a powerful impact in 1981 in a new production of Macbeth conducted by Riccardo Muti.

During rehearsals for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda in San Francisco, Scotto referred to her co-star Luciano Pavarotti as “a certain tenor, made a musical mistake every other line”.

But this cannot take away from Scotto’s amazing ability to get to the heart of a character – especially in Madame Butterfly – and produce a wonderfully dramatic interpretation. Her singing was assured and she floated notes with consummate and beguiling ease.

Her lasting legacy is some superb recordings of the Italian repertory especially Puccini: Turandot (with Birgit Nilsson) and Madame Butterfly (with Carlo Bergonzi).

But that evening at the King’s Theatre was the making of a soprano of real style and superb vocal technique. Ponsonby wrote some years later, “La Scala management had simply hoped that she would have a change of heart at the last moment. So when she flew out of Edinburgh on schedule the press had a field day, and she took the blame. Renata Scotto won over a hostile audience at the final performance. Callas never worked in Scotland again.”

Scotto married Lorenzo Anselmi, a member of Las Scala orchestra in 1960. He predeceased her and she is survived by their two daughters.

Alasdair Steven