THE LAST PRIMA DONNAS by Lanfranco Rasponi

THE LAST PRIMA DONNAS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Interviews with 56 sopranos and mezzos of bygone decades--a few (dating from the '30s and '40s) caught in mid-career, most in retirement, many no longer alive. Rasponi, a veteran PR-man and opera-world correspondent who's distressed over the un-starry state of today's singers, begins with a solid yet crammed introduction to the variations in female voices, the nuances of the repertoire. Then come the interview/profiles, most of them quite short, grouped by voice type--but also sometimes by more subjective pigeon-holes: ""The Huge Voices,"" ""The Wagnerian Enchantresses,"" ""The Great Creators,"" ""The Great Coloraturas,"" ""The Great Drarmatics,"" ""The Great Spintos,"" ""The Great Lyrics,"" ""The Great Artists,"" ""The Great Interpreters of Verismo and Realismo,"" ""The Late Bloomers,"" ""The Money-Makers"" (Swarthout, Moore, Pons--all very brief), ""The Italian Beauties,"" The Opera-and Lieder Singers,"" ""The Small Voices that Traveled Far"" (e.g., Bidu Sayao), ""The Switchers,"" ""The Meteors"" . . . and in-their-own-category spots for Lucrezia Bori and Maria Callas (only a few scraps of conversation). Perhaps because Rasponi worked from notes rather than tapes, most of the famous and not-so-famous singers here speak without much personality--in similar, rather flat, often stiff and prosy voices. Rasponi's own remarks tend to be gushy or clichÉd. (In a single paragraph, Grace Moore holds the audience ""in the palm of her hand"" and uses ""all the tricks of the trade."") And a far more illuminating book might have been made with more attention (critical analysis, references to recordings) to fewer singers. Still, students and aficionados will browse rewardingly--for the comments on roles, voice problems, conductors, stage directors, training, and teaching. Those interested in opera history will especially welcome a 1936 interview with Galli-Curci (who eloquently defines the coloratura challenge--""to give palpitations of the heart to the sort of instrument that is almost an abstraction""), as well as testimony by the creators of many 20th-century roles, including Maria Carbone. (""I spent my life creating operas that never saw the light again."") There's a bit or two about gossip and feuds--Renata Tebaldi denying the Callas enmity, Viorica Ursuleac detailing her Lotte Lehmann problems. And, un-surprisingly, there's a slew of attacks on Opera Today--the money-mindedness, the bizarre productions, the over-reaching singers (Scotto and Freni get slammed repeatedly), the lack of true glamour and tradition. Not for the casual opera fan, then, but career after career for nostalgic buffs--along with more than a few passages of wider musical interest.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Knopf