RENATO CIONI -Una vita da tenore by Giuliano Giuliani

(212 pages -self-published 2021) + click here to order the book

Click here for a video interview with the tenor

Finale Ligure 1980. Those were the days when Italian seaside-resorts still offered opera & belcanto concerts to visitors.

I remember a fine one at the Grand Hotel in Riccione with tenor Luigi Ottolini (of Nilsson’s Decca Aida Highlights LP). In Finale I also saw an advertisement  for a Concerto Lirico with soprano Rita Talarico (one LP on Felmain) and the better known tenor Renato Cioni. On the afternoon of the concert I drove from the mountains surrounding Finale to the coast and I passed the school were the concert was to be held. I had to stop for a few moments and in front of me stood a fine red sports car and a gentleman in a spirited conversation with a few passers-by. I immediately recognized the tenor and noted he didn’t deem it necessary to spare his voice.

In the evening my wife and I were in for a small surprise. The concert was in open air in the playground of the school and not in an auditorium and outside one clearly heard children screaming and dogs barking. The concert started with few spectators, mainly Germans. Madame Talarico did her best. Enter Mister Cioni: completely uninterested, hoarse, crooning his way through Niedermeyer’s Pieta Signore. At his second appearance he clutched his throat in the middle of an aria and simply left. Talarico took over; clearly annoyed at Cioni’s behaviour.

This was the only time I heard the tenor whose rise was as spectacular as his fall. Still I am interested in a good biography; even a self-published one as the interest in Italy in singers of the past is almost non-existent and no publisher (unless a local bank sponsors) will put money in it. Even in those circumstances an author can write an acceptable biography and add a chronology and a discography. Forget it. Giuliani simply copied his discography from the internet and there exist a lot more live recordings than mentioned. Forget a chronology as well.

The author is an old friend of Cioni who promised to write a book on him before the tenor died. I doubt he has some knowledge on the operatic world. Witness his “Johan Sutherland”, “Salvatore Licita”, “Sandor Garlinski” and “Kalageropoulos instead of Cales”.  

Giuliani fairly succeeds in highlighting the successes of Cioni while at the same time hiding the tenor’s important steps in the wrong direction.

Renato Cioni was born in 1928 on the isle of Elba of Bonaparte fame; one of nine children in a family of fishers. The child had a ringing voice, scoring successes in church and at parties. According to Giuliani someone wrote to Mussolini to have Cioni enrolled at the Academia Sancta Cecilia but the German invasion of Poland crushed the hope of the ten years old star. “Se non è vero, è ben trovato” they say in Italian. Once the war over Cioni definitely wanted to be a professional singer. Mr. Giuliani troubles the waters by refusing to give us some solid dates on Cioni’s activities between his 17th and 26th year when he finally made his début.

Cioni studied briefly at the conservatory of Firenze but left after a few months, same story in Torino. Finally he went to Rome where he took lessons from tenor-teacher Renato Gigli who “in due messi e poco più” ( a few months) succeeded in improving Cioni’s technique. In other words, Cioni had a God given voice  but never took pains to study properly and he paid the price for his lack of vocal education.

He was already 26 when he was one of the winners of a vocal competition and made his début at Spoleto. He got fame almost in a night when RAI chose him to sing Pinkerton in a television Madama Butterfly with Anna Moffo broadcast in January 1956 (click here to watch).

It comes as a surprise to me that for a time the tenor sang a lot of modern music: scores by Langella, Gentilucci and Mulé besides Lucia and Tosca. Cavalli and Scarlatti too were on his repertoire. He once again got a lot of attention with an Il Duca d’Alba conducted by Schippers and directed by Visconti. He started singing outside Italy and during a new production at De Munt in Brussels he met young Franco Zeffirelli. The producer spoke well of him to Joan Sutherland who had made a sensational impression on the operatic world after a series of Lucia in Covent Garden.

Giuliani confirms the story one can read in the Sutherland-biography written at the start of her world career by Russell Brandon. Cioni had an agreeable lyric tenor and moreover he was a few centimetres taller than the Australian diva who didn’t like short tenors. That got him a invitation to sing with her at La Fenice and still more important to make recordings of Lucia and Rigoletto for Decca in the summer of 1961. Those two recordings are his only official ones. It seems Decca originally thought of Carlo Bergonzi but the tenor was already committed to Verona.

Anyway, the casting of Cioni proves that Decca banked all sales on Sutherland as record executives still thought the prima donna was the reason people bought records. Decca already handicapped Tebaldi with Poggi for Traviata while Columbia set up Callas with such luminaries as Fernandi, old Tagliavini or Miranda Ferraro. In her memoirs Sutherland mentions Cioni several times as a partner though her only comment on his voice consists of “a delightfully young tenor”. Critics were more severe. Most of them thought Cioni had a fine “tenore di grazia” though still with some rough patches. In the final scene of Lucia he was over parted by the high lying tessitura of the Originalfassung and tried to save himself by sobs. And Decca couldn’t or didn’t want to hide the fact that the voice was far smaller than Sutherlands. Of course these recordings helped a lot for Cioni’s renown  and from these moments on it was smooth sailing for a few years.

Giuliani then follows the artistic career which goes -almost needless to say- from triumph to triumph all over the world. He quotes only positive reviews for “nostro tenore”. A few critics think the tenor a fine “leggero” and one soon wonders if roles like Turiddu in the Verona arena are suited to Cioni’s voice. Anyway, it all led to what seems to be the apex of Cioni’s career: singing Cavaradossi next to Callas and Gobbi at Covent Garden in 1964. The second act was broadcast on BBC and the writer proves his lack of knowledge by stating “l’unico preziosi document visivo” from a Callas performance; not knowing the 1958 Paris broadcast.

Many pages are devoted to the few performances Callas and Cioni sang in London and one year later in Paris. Giuliani devotes far less space to Cioni’s opening La Scala in 1964 in La Traviata with Karajan conducting and well known for Mirella Freni’s Waterloo after one performance.

Giuliani writes Cioni had accepted to record Tosca with Callas in December while at the same time having a contract at La Scala. According to the author she never forgave the tenor cancelling the project at the last moment. A specialist of recording history Maxwell Paley told me he has never heard of Cioni contracted for  Mario Cavaradossi and thinks it was always Bergonzi to sing the role one month later in the stereo Callas Tosca (In fact a second Tosca was set up in 1962 with Kraus, Gobbi and Maazel. Everybody arrived in due time and after some desperate calls they got the message that Madame Callas was ill and couldn’t leave Paris).

An extra performance in Paris led the tenor to cancel his contract in Miami. He was replaced by a young hopeful: Luciano Pavarotti (Sutherland confirms this story in her autobiography). Cioni continued his career singing heavier roles in Gioconda and Manon Lescaut. Giuliani admits -apart from cancelling- a few other warts like a boxing match with bass Paolo Washington when milking the audience for applause. Cioni reached the Metropolitan as a member of the Rome Opera which performed I Due Foscari in New York in 1968. Two years later he made his début as a member of the company and the biography is silent on it for a reason. He sang six performances of Pollione: one in the house as a compensation for five on tour which Bergonzi didn’t want to do.

Cioni’s career went downhill. He was welcome at La Scala in 1975 with the tenor role in Jenufa; not in an Italian role anymore. By then his operatic career was almost over. The author gives us Cioni’s opinion on the affair. “I sang too much abroad”. Nonsense of course. The author doesn’t give us a date for the end but it’s clear that the career only lasted twenty years. Cioni then tried his luck with a hotel on Elba which was a failure. In 1979 he got a new chance as a tenor in a travelling operetta company singing in Italian roles in Lehar’s Die Lustige Witwe and Kalman’s Die Czardasfürstin. Not a glorious end but probably the money was needed.

In 2002 he and his wife went to live in Milano in “Casa Verdi”. No mention is made by the author of financial difficulties but we all know why musicians are welcome in that institution. After a few years the Cionis could return to their beloved Elba where Cioni got a stroke and died in 2014. This is a book for fans and friends of the tenor; for knowledgeable collectors of singer biographies I cannot recommend it.

Jan Neckers, March 2022