Chronologically the second recording in the Warner box set is Parsifal, which many no doubt will find an oddity. However one should remember that in the early part f her career, Callas sang quite a bit of Wagner. The next role after her Italian debut, was Isolde, which she sang in Venice, and then the following year in Genoa (with Max Lorenz as Tristan), and in Rome in 1950. She added the Walküre Brünnhilde in 1949, singing the role in Venice (when she famously deputised for an ailing Marherita Carosio in I Puritani, learning the role of Elvira whilst still singing Brünnhilde). She first sang the role of Kundry in 1949 in Rome, but this RAI concert performance heralded her farewell to Wagner, though she was supposed to sing Kundry again at La Scala in 1956 under Erich Kleiber, a project that was abandoned when the maestro died. It was rather surprisingly replaced by Fedora. Like all Italian Wagner productions in those days, the opera was sung in Italian.
Wagnerites will no doubt be put off by the language. They will no doubt be further bothered by the poor recording of the orchestra, though the singers are well caught. I can’t in all honesty say that this Warner issue is a marked improvement on the Verona transfer I had before, and, though there are some fine singers amongst the cast (Boris Christoff, no less, as Gurnemanz, Rolando Panerai as Amfortas), I found enjoyment of much of the opera seriously compromised by the dim orchestral sound.
However, it is wonderful to have this one example of Callas in a complete Wagner role, and Act II, where Kundry has the lion’s share of her music, had me gripped. Admittedly it is strange to hear the libretto in Italian, but the language does enable Callas to sing a more sensuously silken line than we often hear in the role and her Kundry is a true siren. She uses her superb legato to display the music’s beauty, a million miles from the barking Sprechgesang we often hear.
Despite the cuts to the score, Gui displays a firm understanding of the score, and, aside from Callas, has some excellent singers at his disposal; Boris Christoff as Gurnemanz, Rolando Panerai as Amfortas and Giuseppe Modesti as Klingsor. We even get Lina Pagliughi as the First Flower Maiden. Africo Baldelli’s Parsifal is adequate, no more no less.
The dimly recorded orchestral sound is a problem, especially in Wagner, and this recording could never be considered a contender for that reason. However it is much more than a curiosity, and Callas’s superbly sung Kundry certainly deserves to be heard.