One might think Abigaille a Callas role par excellence, but in fact she only ever sang the role at this series of performance in Naples in 1949, though she often programmed Anch’io dischiuso into her concert programmes. She is on record as calling the role a voice wrecker and advised Caballé against singing it. “It would be like putting a precious Baccarat glass in a box and shaking it. It would shatter,” she told her. Caballé heeded the advice and never sang the role. Callas’s words may seem a surprising statement, given Callas’s astounding assurance and brilliant execution of the role’s difficulties, but maybe she was right. After all, Giusppina Strepponi, the role’s creator and eventually Verdi’s second wife, retired practically voiceless at the age of 31, only a couple of years after she had such a success in it. Elena Souliotis forged her career in the role and had burned herself out in less than five years.
In terms of sound, this is one of the worst extant Callas broadcasts, and no amount of tweaking by the engineers is going to disguise that. It is at its worst in the last act, but, as Abigaille has so little to do in the last act, this affects Callas the least. That said, the Warner issue is clearer than any I’d heard before, though I’m told the one on Ars Vocalis is even better, if you can get your hands on it.
It is worth persevering with the sound, though, for this is the most thrilling performance of the role of Abigaille you are ever likely to hear. The young Callas ( she was 26 at the time) is in full command of the role’s many difficulties, tossing off the coloratura with demonic force as if it were the easiest thing in the world, the top of her voice rock solid and gleaming. She even exacerbates the role’s difficulties by interpolating a free and ringing high Eb in the Act III duet with Nabucco.
However there is much more than just power and ferocity to Callas’s Abigaille, and it is full of lovely details often overlooked by other singers. Note, after her barnstorming entrance, the way she softens her tone at the words Io t’amava, with a suggestion that she loves Ismaele still. The recitative Ben io t’invenni is thrillingly powerful, but she spins out the ensuing aria Anch’io dischiuso with Bellinian grace, tracing its filigree to heavenly lengths. In the duet with Nabucco she is exultantly triumphant, but this gives way to her most meltingly moving tones in the death scene, which unfortunately loses some of its effect due to the crackly recording. All in all, Callas’s Abigaille is a considerable achievement, and it is incredible that she can sing with such power, but with such needle fine accuracy in the coloratura.
Vittorio Gui conducts a tautly dramatic performance, but something strange happens during the chorus Va, pensiero, the end of which is drowned out by a cacophony of boos. He reprises the chorus and this time the audience go berserk cheering. This is presumably what going to the opera in Italy in those days was like.
Gino Bechi, a well-known baritone at the time, is an effective Nabucco, but not in Callas’s class, and no match for such as Gobbi, who recorded the role for Decca late in his career. The rest of the cast is perfectly adequate without being outstanding, but the recording, dreadful sound or not, is a must for Callas’s superb, vocally resplendent Abigaille.