Recorded 5-12 September 1960, Teatra alla Scala, Milan
Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellineck, Balance Engineer: Robert Gooch
This was actually the first opera set I ever owned, and, so it comes with a host of memories. I was only 18. Why Norma for a first opera, you might ask. Well I had recently discovered Callas, and at that time very little of her recorded repertoire was available. I knew that Norma was considered her greatest role, so I thought it would be a good place to start. Collecting opera was expensive in those days, and my older brother, who was working by this time, bought the set for me for Christmas. I was unbelievably excited, my excitement only slightly tempered by the discovery that no libretto was included, only a synopsis, and that I would have to send off for it, not of course that I waited for its arrival before sampling the set.
It being my one and only opera set for a good few months, I got to know the opera pretty well, and of course Callas’s unique inflections will for ever be part of that knowledge. Since then of course, I have heard a fair amount of other Normas, Sutherland, Caballe, Eaglen, Bartoli (please, never again), Sass live at Covent Garden (disastrous) and plenty more by Callas herself; the live 1952 Covent Garden, the 1954 studio, the 1955 Rome broadcast and, best of all, the live 1955 La Scala, as well as excerpts from many others, right up to her final performances in the role in Paris in 1964.
So how does it hold up? Well, pretty well actually. True, notes above the stave have taken on a metallic edge, and they don’t always fall easily on the ear, but the middle and lower timbres have a new found beauty, and a characterisation that was always complex and multi-faceted has taken on an even greater depth, parts of it voiced more movingly here than anywhere else.
There are other gains too. The cast here is a vast improvement on the earlier studio one, Corelli in particular being a shining presence. Fillipeschi was a liability on the earlier set, but, whilst not quite a paragon, and chary of some of the coloratura in his role (Serafin making a further cut in the great In mia man duet to accommodate his lack of flexibility), Corelli’s is a noble presence, and his clarion voice is ample compensation. Zaccaria may be less authoritative than the woolly voiced Rossi-Lemeni, but his tones are distinctly more buttery. Ludwig is an unexpected piece of casting, but she too is an improvement on Stignani, who, great singer though she was, was beginning to sound a bit over the hill by the time of the first Callas recording (she was 50 to Callas’s 30). Ludwig sounds, as she should, like the younger woman. Her coloratura isn’t always as accurate as one would like, certainly no match for Callas, but she sings most sympathetically in duet with her older colleague, and Mira o Norma is, for me, one of the greatest performances on disc. After Ludwig states the main theme, Callas comes in quietly almost imperceptibly and at a slightly slower tempo with an unbearably moving Ah perche, perche, her voice taking on a disembodied pathetic beauty. When Ludwig joins her for the section in thirds, she perfectly matches Callas’s tone on her first note, before Callas joins her in harmony, a real example of artists listening to each other in a sense of true collaboration.
One should I suppose mention the losses from the earlier recording. Yes, some of Callas’s top notes are shrill, and we lose some of the barnstorming heroics that were a part of Callas’s Norma right up to 1955. This Norma is more feminine, more vulnerable, if you like. How much this had to do with interpretive development, and how much with declining vocal resources is a moot point, but there is no doubt Callas is still a great singer, doing the best she can with what she has. Some sections are more moving here than in any of her other performances. I’ve already singled out Mira o Norma but the earlier duet is its equal, Callas wistfully recalling her own awakening to first love.
The beginning of Act II always brought out the best in her, and here she is sublime. Dormono entrambi is an unusual piece which alternates passages of recitative with arioso, rather like Rigoletto’s Pari siamo. Callas draws on all the colours in her palette to express Norma’s contrasting emotions. You can almost feel the chill that comes over her at un gel me prende e in fronte si solleva il crin followed by the choked emotion of I figli uccidi! The arioso of Teneri figli is couched in a tone of infinite, poignant sadness, but then her tone hardens with her resolve at Di Pollion son figli, before, with a cry she drops the knife (and we can almost hear the precise moment), crying out Ah no, son miei figli! Operatic singing and acting on the highest level.
Serafin’s conducting is much as it was in the first set. He has the virtue of not conducting the opera as if it were Verdi, as so many do. Sometimes I’d like him to get a move on a bit, but his pacing of the final two duets (one in public, one in private) is superb, and he perfectly judges the climaxes in the Grand Finale, one of the greatest in all opera.
I’ve always found it difficult to choose between Callas’s studio recordings of Norma. I wouldn’t want to be without either. Nor would I want to be without her 1955 live La Scala account, with Del Monaco and Simionato, which is where voice and art find their greatest equilibrium. One thing is for sure, Callas remains the quintessential Norma. No singer has yet challenged her hegemony in the role.