Having discussed Callas’s live Macbeth from La Scala a few posts ago, I thought I would start reviewing some of the many live Callas performances that exist. I do not propose to go into which are the best versions of these live recordings, as it can be quite a minefield, but I would just mention that, in any cases where they are available, Divina Records will be your best bet. In September Warner will be issuing a deluxe box set of many of Callas’s live performances, and, until it is, we will not know what the sound will be like. If they just re-hash the EMI versions, which should be avoided, by the way, then the news is not quite as exciting as it might have been. It remains to be seen.
This Medea was recorded in house from a single microphone at the front of the stage, which means that voices can disappear when at the back. However I found this Instituto Discografico Italiano version not at all bad, and so intense is the performance that it draws you in and the ear readily adjusts.
Unbelievably, considering Callas’s total mastery of the role’s difficulties, this was the first time she ever sang Medea. So successful was her assumption that La Scala ditched plans to stage Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore with her later that year and replaced it with Cherubini’s Medea. Subsequently the opera was revived for her in productions at La Scala (twice), in Venice, Rome, Dallas, London and at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece. So much associated was she with the role, that when she came to make her non singing cinematic debut, it was in the role of Medea in the movie directed by Pasolini.
Cherubini’s Medée is actually a French language opéra comique with spoken dialogue, and was much admired by Beethoven and Schubert. It premiered in Paris in 1797, the first performance in Italian translation being given in Vienna in 1802. In 1855 Franz Lachner prepared a German version, for which he wrote his own recitatives. This Lachner version was first performed, in an Italian translation by Carlo Zangarini, in 1909, and it is essentially this version which Callas sang, though each of the conductors she performed the work with (Gui, Bernstein, Santini, Serafin, Rescigno and Schippers) prepared their own version of the work, making different cuts in the score. Apart from the studio recording with Serafin, we can hear live performances from Florence with Gui, La Scala with Bernstein, Dallas and London with Rescigno and La Scala again with Schippers.
Gui’s view of the work is essentially Classical, closest in conception to Serafin, who was to conduct the studio recording, though more propulsive in the work’s many exciting climaxes. His cuts are less extensive than the other conductors’, and this is the only time we get to hear Medea’s last scene complete. However, there are times where some judicious snipping might have helped. He leaves in the orchestral bars before Medea’s final Pieta in her aria Dei tuoi figli, which makes the ending of the aria anticlimactic, and leaves the audience uncertain when to applaud. Still, I prefer this to Bernstein’s solution of cutting the final Pieta as well. All the others cut just the orchestral bars, which seems to me the better solution. There are also times, particularly in the scenes before Medea’s first entrance, where Gui’s speeds are just too slow. The overture is dramatic and exciting, but the long first scene which sets the idyllic atmosphere that Medea bursts into, drags on interminably. There are times later on too, notably the duet between Medea and Creon, where his speeds are on the slow side, but the ends of each act and the finale itself are absolutely thrilling.
Callas herself is in superb voice, the top rock solid and gleaming, managing the treacherous demands of the role (it was said that Mme Scio, its creator, died singing it) with consummate ease. She sings with a wide range of colour, though her conception of the role is a deal more subtle by the time she sings it in Dallas in 1958. No complaints about her entrance, though, which is sheer brilliance, the veiled sound of her middle voice carrying with it a threat of menace which gives way to beguilingly feminine pleading in her first aria Dei tuoi figli. The aria itself is magnificently sung, its wide leaps and high tessitura expertly managed, and it provokes a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience, unfortunately cut short when they realise the aria isn’t quite over.
In the ensuing duet with Giasone I feel she slightly overplays her hand, and this scene is not as effective as it was to become in later performances. Nor does the duet with Creon have quite the subtle play of light and shade it will have on the studio recording and in Dallas, but the final scene is mind blowingly, blazingly terrifying, her voice cutting through the orchestra with coruscating force, and there is a great deal to be gained from hearing this scene in its entirety. Gui, too, supports her brilliantly at this point. Not surprisingly the audience go wild.
Barbieri is a superb Neris, Gui making of her aria, that still, calm centre of the score, a beautiful duet between voice and cello, which Gui substitutes for the more usual bassoon. Guichandut, an Argentinian tenor I’ve never heard of before or since, is good, but no match for Vickers, who would sing the role with Callas in all productions from 1958 onwards. Gabriela Tucci is a lovely Glauce, Mario Petri perfectly acceptable as Creon, but the great moments are all with Callas. That she is so much associated with the role (even in this hybrid version of the score, which misrepresents what Cherubini actually wrote) is hardly surprising, for no other singer, before or since has made Cherubini’s score live and breathe as she has done. There have been occasional revivals, both of the Lachner version Callas sang, and the original opera comique, but none have caught the imagination the way that Callas’s performances did, and it seems likely that the opera is again to become the museum piece it once was.