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Recorded 16-21 March 1959, Kingsway Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Christopher Parker

Popular opinion holds that Callas’s Lucia is best represented by her earlier commercial recording made in 1953, and by the live Karajan performance from Berlin.

So why would anyone bother with this remake, made in 1959? Surely, apart from much better sound, it can’t have much to commend it, given the problems Callas was beginning to have with her voice, especially in the upper register, in the late 1950s. In addition the other soloists on both the 1953 studio and live Karajan are much better than the ones we get here. Cappuccilli is nowhere near as menacing as either Gobbi or Panerai, and consequently there is a loss of drama in the first act and in his confrontation with Lucia. Tagliavini may have seemed like a good idea at the time, a lyric tenor in the old style, but by 1959 he was in his late 50s, and, quite honestly, he sounds it. One misses Di Stefano’s youthful ardour, even if Tagliavini is more stylish. As for Bernard Ladysz, just why? As far as I’m aware, the only other recording he made was of Penderecki’s  The Devils of Loudon. Who on earth thought he might be any good in Donizetti? He is no match for either Arie on the earlier recording or Zaccaria in Berlin.You might therefore think that this set is  only for the die-hards, only I’m not so sure it’s that simple.

Listening to it again for the first time in a few years, I was actually astonished at just how good she sounds, and it reminded me that in fact I first really got to know Callas’s voice from post weight- loss records.  This set was my first exposure to Lucia di Lammermoor, and I don’t remember the state of Callas’s voice bothering me too much back then. I was just overwhelmed by the truth of the interpretation, and the beauty, yes beauty, of much of her singing. Ok, the top Ebs are not exactly things of beauty, and she shortens the cadenza in the Mad Scene substantially, but the filigree of the role is stunningly executed. If she is strained by its upper reaches, then it seems a pity the bel canto revival hadn’t moved on enough for her to be able to record the version Caballe recorded, in generally higher keys, but without the stratospheric top notes. It might well have suited the Callas of 1959 a lot better.

There is no doubt this Warner re-master is a vast improvement on the Callas Edition CDs. Most of the shrillness on high seems to have faded away. In some ways, and though she sounds no more secure, the voice in general falls far more easily on the ear, and she has peered even deeper now into Lucia’s psyche. From the word go, this Lucia is highly strung, a romantically inclined dreamer, completely lost in the cruelty of a man’s world. There is desperation in her Ah, no…rimanga nel silenzio sepolto per or l’arcano affetto. Already she sounds slightly unhinged. It is not difficult to understand that it would take very little to tip her over the edge. Later in the scene with Enrico, Ahi. La folgore piombo pierces one’s very soul, and the ensuing Soffriva nel panto is sung with heart-wrenching sorrow.

In the Wedding Scene, she sounds almost in a trance, and even in the few solo lines she has, she manages to convey Lucia’s utter despair. As an assault on women, Lucia di Lammermoor must be one of the cruellest operas in the repertory. As for her singing, her legato line is as usual superb, the coloratura has a lovely finish and in the Mad Scene, her singing has almost an improvisatory air about it. This is surely the art that conceals art.

I have a fondness for it. It was not recorded at La Scala, but at Kingsway Hall with the superb Philharmonia orchestra, and the sound is very good indeed. The 1955 Berlin performance would still be my desert island choice, the sound much better than most of her live recordings, but both studio recordings also have a lot to commend them, and, as I’ve already pointed out, this one does enjoy much improved sound.

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