Renato Cioni, who died today, left at interview just a few months ago, talking to Stephen Hastings, the editor of the Italian magazine Musica. Hastings asked him about the London Tosca with Maria Callas fifty years earlier.
Two years before singing with Callas, I’d written her a letter, saying that I’d be the happiest man in the world if I ever had the opportunity to sing with her. When we found ourselves together at Covent Garden in 1964, she remembered that letter. She was quite tense during the rehearsals because she hadn’t sung an opera for almost two years, but everything went smoothly and our relationship was wonderful.
One evening, during the rehearsals, we went to an Italian restaurant with Zeffirelli and Gobbi. She very sweetly asked me if I could leave the seat opposite her empty, as “maybe someone is arriving”. I imagine she was thinking of Onassis, even though we knew he wouldn’t show up.
On stage she was always caressing me, touching my hair, crossing her arms around my neck. Maria magnificently brought to life a character who was, in a way, herself. She was a woman who was generous and insecure. Her voice was strong and dramatic, yet also sweet.
Before each performance she walked around the set to ensure that everything was in its place: her eyesight was poor, and she wanted to be certain that she could find her props. With the rehearsals, and the performances in London and Paris, we sang the opera twenty or so times. The second act, which was filmed, was part of a programme called, “A Golden Hour from the Royal Opera House”, and in it were the two arias of Cavaradossi, sung by me.
On the opening night, we went to the Savoy Hotel with Gobbi and Zeffirelli, where she was staying. She didn’t eat with us, but afterwards invited us up to her suite, where she complimented me on my performance. She told me that she was often deluded by friendships, “Promise me Cioni, that you will not make too many friends!”
During that period Zeffirelli asked Cioni if he’d like to sing with Callas in Norma. Thinking he could not match up to Del Monaco and Corelli he declined – though years later he sang the role with Joan Sutherland – but Zeffirelli disagreed, so Cioni asked Callas what she thought: “I can’t decide such things, and don’t let yourself be influenced by anybody else,” she told him.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.