Most Callas fans have known of the existence of these live recordings for some times, and they have proliferated on many different labels over the years, with variable results. On the one hand there are companies like Divina Records and Ars Vocalis meticulously transferring these recordings in the best possible sound, and others with a more slapdash approach. Regrettably EMI generally adopted the latter approach, often just copying what were bad sources in the first place, in their attempt to cash in on the pirate market.
So how does the new Warner set measure up? I have yet to hear the whole set, but it would at least seem that they have adopted a more serious approach. Though they have not always found the best sources (there will often be more than one source tape for a single performance), they have at least done what they could with often intransigent sound. Though these transfers may ultimately not turn out to be the last word in Callas Live, at the price they are good value, and, with this release, Warner is at least making some amazing performances available to a wider audience. That said, the set should come with a warning for first timers that most of these recordings are not even up to the standard of reasonable mono studio recordings of the time. Perseverance is rewarded, though you do have to learn to listen through the sound, as it were. If you can , you will discover some truly remarkable singing.
In many ways this set gives a truer reflection of Callas’s stage career than the studio set, which includes operas she never sang on stage, as well as some that were only peripheral to her success. Of the operas represented here, twelve of them (Nabucco, Parsifal, I Vespri Siciliani, Armida, Macbeth, Alceste, La Vestale, Andrea Chenier, Anna Bolena, Ifigenia in Tauride, Il Pirata and Poliuto) were never recorded in the studio. Of these Andrea Chenier is an oddity. Callas sang the role of Maddalena only once at La Scala in 1955. She had been scheduled to sing Leonora in Il Trovatore, one of her greatest roles, but Del Monaco, who was to be the Manrico, suddenly professed himself not well enough to sing the role and offered Andrea Chenier instead! Maybe, as Callas didn’t know the role, he expected her to stand down, but, typically for her, she learned the role in a couple of days and was a very effective Maddalena. It’s very much the tenor’s opera though, and one wonders why she bothered. The production followed Visconti’s superb production of La Vestale, which opened the La Scala season, and she would go on to have spectacular successes at the house that same season in Visconti’s La Sonnambula and La Traviata and in a Zeffirelli production of Il Turco in Italia. The role of Maddalena hardly offered her the kind of challenge she was used to.
One might think Parsifal (sung in Italian as all Wagner was in Italy in those days) an oddity too, but we forget that Callas sang a good deal of Wagner in her early days. Aside from Kundry, she also sang Isolde and the Walküre Brünhilde, famously deputising for an ailing Margherita Carosio in I Puritani whilst still performing the role, a feat that dramatically changed the direction of her career. Her Kundry is much more than a curiosity, her singing sensuously beautiful as it should be, though the orchestra is muddily recorded in this 1950 broadcast.
I have a few gripes about some of the performances chosen. Rather than Covent Garden 1952, I’d have gone for the La Scala Norma of 1955, with Simionato and Del Monaco, arguably the greatest of all her recorded Normas, recorded on a night when her voice was responding to her every whim. For me it is the one where voice and art find their greatest equilibrium. It also sounds pretty good, at least in Divina Records’ transfer. For Medea I tend to turn to Florence 1953 or Dallas 1958, though it’s a close run thing, and for La Sonnambula I prefer the 1957 Cologne performance, which also enjoys better sound. The Lisbon Traviata is also a justly renowned performance, but Covent Garden from the same year is even better, and also in better sound.
I wonder about the inclusion of the Mexico Rigoletto, which is a bit of a mess of a performance, especially when the studio recording with Gobbi remains one of the greatest in the catalogue. Why not the 1957 La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera under Gavazzeni, which is a superb performance, in much better sound? On the other hand the inclusion of the Covent Garden Tosca, despite the existence of the classic De Sabata studio performance, is warranted by its fame and it being the last of her great successes.
Warner have also included BluRay discs of all the concert material, including the complete Act II of Tosca from Covent Garden, though I haven’t yet sampled these to find if they are any better than the DVD copies I already own.
Presentation is, mostly, exemplary, each opera enclosed in a hard cardboard gatefold sleeve, the cover graced with a photo from the production (though it should be noted that the photo on the cover of the Lisbon Traviata is actually from Covent Garden the same year). Inside the cover is a note on the recording itself, though Warner doesn’t go into much detail about sources or methods of transfer, the booklet that comes with each opera, restricts itself to a track listing, opera synopsis and essay on the opera in English, French, German and Italian.
The accompanying book would have benefited from a hard cover. I have a feeling its thin paper cover will become tattered in all too short a time. The book itself includes an essay on each performance and its history, and I was very pleased to see the name of the late John Steane amongst the contributors. However I regret the absence of a CD-Rom with libretti and translations, such as was offered with the Warner Studio set.
I intend to review each opera individually later in my blog, when I will discuss both sound and performance.