With this set, I was able to make a direct comparison between the new Warner transfer and that by Divina Records, and have to say I prefer Divina. Neither version can eliminate the overloading and distortion at tutti climaxes, but to my ears the voices are much more clearly captured in the Divina version. The Warner isn’t bad, but possibly in an attempt to provide a more comfortable listening experience, they have removed some of the presence of the voices. Other ears and other equipment may have a different reaction of course, but I quickly abandoned Warner and continued listening on Divina. Furthermore Divina includes about 12 minutes of music, omitted by Warner, where you can hear a speaking male voice overlaid onto the music. Though admittedly irritating, it means we lose some of Callas’s singing. Divina also includes fuller notes, fuller documentation, photos and a libretto. I suppose you might see it as the luxury compliment to Warner’s cheaper offering. Personally I prefer Divina’s warts and all approach. Divina is of course more expensive, and others may have different priorities, so choice will reside with the individual listener.
But choice must be made, for this has to be some of the most astonishing dramatic coloratura singing ever committed to disc, and it is a great shame that Callas never sang the role again, nor felt able to take on any more of the roles written specifically with Isabella Colbran in mind.
In 1952 Callas undertook a punishing schedule. In January she sang her final performance of Elena in I Vespri Siciliani in Milan, followed it with I Puritani in Florence, then her first Normas at La Scala. February saw more performances of Norma at La Scala, with a few concerts sandwiched between. In March she gave three performances of Violetta in Catania, whilst rehearsing for a new production of Il Ratto del Seraglio (the first ever at La Scala). This opened at the beginning of April, and this production of Armida on April 26th after a further performance of Norma at La Scala. Incredibly, though you’d never guess it from her confident delivery, she learned the role of Armida in 5 days!
Astonishing though the vocal pyrotechnics are, Callas not only sings the role with consummate ease, but makes musical sense of its difficulties, so it becomes much more than a vocal showcase. She is by turns, imperious, commanding, sensuous, elegant and powerful, cascading up and down two-octave chromatic scales with fluent ease. A critic of the Giornale delle Due Sicilie described Colbran’s singing of the aria D’amore al dolce impero thus.
She proves herself superior to any other singer in some variations in which she embellishes a delightful tune of Rossini’s with all the graces of the art of song, now running through chains of triplets of extraordinary and …insuperable difficulty, now giving a vocal imitation of the most difficult arpeggios of stringed instruments, and finally, with superb nonchalance, executing a formidable ascending and descending scale of two octaves.
The critic might well be talking of Callas’s performance, which is absolutely electrifying, as it is throughout the opera.
Unfortunately, none of the other singers is anywhere near her achievement and Serafin heavily cuts the opera, presumably to accommodate their deficiencies. All of the tenors have trouble with the florid writing, aspirating the runs in what’s left of it, and their singing is clumsy and effortful. I’d love to hear it sung by the likes of Juan Diego Florez or Michael Spyres.
Essential listening, none the less, for Callas’s superbly commanding singing of the title role. There are of course more modern recordings out there, more textually accurate and more complete, but nowhere else will you hear such a thrilling portrayal of the title role, nor one so brilliantly sung. The cumulative power of the finale is simply staggering, where, with a voice of massive power, Callas peals forth vengeful coloratura flourishes with insouciant ease, capping it with a top Eb of huge proportions. You have to hear it to believe it, indeed, were it not for recorded evidence, you would not believe it possible.