Recorded 4-11 September 1959, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Producers: Walter Legge and Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Harold Davidson
Suicidio! (in the earlier Cetra performance) was one of the first Callas arias I ever heard. It knocked me for six. I had no idea a human voice, an operatic soprano at that, could have such expressive power, and from then on Callas cast her spell on me. This recording of La Gioconda was the second, and best, of the four Callas stereo remakes, and also the first complete opera she recorded (on the aforementioned Cetra set). The first pressing I owned was an American HMV Seraphim import, and I can’t in all honesty say much about how the sound on that compares with this. What I mostly remember is that one LP developed an annoying scratch in the scene after she gives Laura the vial in Act III, so annoying that it took me ages to relax and realise it wouldn’t be there when I listened on CD.
When I began listening to the Warner pressing I had the best intention of comparing the sound with my original CDs (the 1987 digital remaster). First of all I compared the orchestral introduction. There was very little difference to my ears, but the new master did seem slightly clearer, as if the 1987 one had a slight fuzz on it. I then tried the Angele Dei at the end of Act I. Again, I found very little difference, but the voices on the Warner seemed a bit more finely focused, Callas’s voice at first blending with the male chorus, then soaring out over it. But I soon lost patience for making comparisons. The performance drew me in and I just wanted to get on with listening.
Recorded in September 1959, this Gioconda finds Callas in firmer voice than at any time since, say, the Dallas Medea of 1958, her top, right up to a solid top C in the last act, more focused and in control than it had been of late. She was in the process of separating from Meneghini, so maybe work came as a necessary distraction.
Callas only sang 12 performances of the role of Gioconda on stage (in Verona in 1947 and 1952 and at La Scala also in 1952), but she has become peculiarly identified with the role due to the success of her two recordings. Neither recording can boast the best supporting cast, but the second brings extra refinement from Callas, if less animal power, much improved recording and better orchestral playing from the La Scala orchestra.
The supporting cast is an interesting one. Cappuccilli had recorded Enrico in Callas’s second Lucia, as well as Masetto in the Giulini Don Giovanni and Antonio in his Figaro. He was still at the beginning of his career and his Barnaba lacks a certain authority. So too does Cossotto’s Laura, which is no match for Barbieri’s on the early Cetra set, beautifully though she sings. Ferraro can be an exciting singer at times, but it has always seemed an odd casting choice to me. He sings Gualtiero in the live Callas Carnegie Hall performance of Il Pirata, but appears to have done little else. Why on earth not Corelli, who only a year later was to sing Pollione on the second Callas Norma, and with whom she had sung on many occasions? Still, he is a great deal better than the wholly inadequate Poggi on the Cetra set. Vinco is no more than adequate as Alvise, Companeez rather better as La Cieca.
However, if we don’t get the six greatest singers the world could offer at the time, we do get the one greatest, and this is the reason the Callas La Gioconda remains the most recommendable recording of the work. Phrase after phrase is etched into the memory. Her very first entry brings a thrill of recognition, her legato digging deeply into the consoling phrases with which she comforts her mother. The score abounds with contrasts, and the first comes straight after this scene when she is confronted by Barnaba, spitting out the line Al diavol vanne colla tua chitarra, her voice dripping with loathing.
There is something so intrinsically right about her every utterance that it is impossible to imagine any other singer matching her achievement. She fails only on the pianissimo top B at Enzo adorato! Ah come t’amo! a phrase beloved of singers like Milanov and Caballe. If anything it is more in control here than it was in 1949, but where Caballe reaches to heaven, Callas is earthbound. That said if the performance of a whole opera can be ruined for you by one note, then I rather take pity on you. Callas’s singing was never about individual moments. A role had to be seen as a totality.
Interestingly, when Tebaldi came to record the opera quite late in her career, her recording producer suggested she listen to the Milanov recording, but when he went to visit her, he found her listening to Callas. “But why didn’t you tell me Maria’s was the best?” So much for rivalry.
Callas famously said of the last act of this set, “It’s all there for anyone who wishes to know what I was all about.” Looking back we can almost now see this as a valedictory statement, as she was never again to sing with such ease and security.