This recording captures Callas’s debut before one of her most loyal audiences. She returned the following Coronation season, reprising the role of Norma and adding Aida and Leonora in Il Trovatore. She was back for Norma in 1957, then La Traviata in 1958, Medea in 1959, and finally the legendary Zeffirelli production of Tosca in 1964 and 1965, her last ever performance on stage.
Callas sang Norma more than any other role, and is particularly associated with it and there are quite a few extant recordings of her singing it.. Aside from the studio recordings of 1954 and 1960, we have live performances from Mexico in 1950, Covent Garden in 1952, Trieste in 1953, Rome and La Scala 1955, Rome in 1958 (the infamous walk out), and also of her final performances in the role in Paris in 1965.
Though this Covent Garden performance is very good, I would have preferred it if Warner had chosen the La Scala performance of 1955 with Simionato and Del Monaco, a performance in which art and voice find their truest equilibrium, and without doubt the greatest performance of the opera I have ever heard. In its Divina incarnation it is also, apart from some radio interference during the opening of Act II, in much clearer sound than this Covent Garden performance. It is the recording I turn to most often when I want to hear Norma.
That said, it is a long time since I heard this 1952 set, and I certainly enjoyed listening to it. The sound is not too bad, but not great, and a bit boomy in places, though the solo voices come across reasonably well. The chorus sound a bit muffled. I don’t have any other version I can compare it to though, so can’t tell you if it’s any worse or better than others.
To deal with elements other than Callas first, Vittorio Gui has an excellent grasp of the score, and has the merit of not conducting it as if it were Verdi. His tempi are, for the most part, judicially chosen, and he supports his singers admirably, though very occasionally I felt he hurried things along a little too much. There are one or two lapses between stage and pit, but, in general, the performance is well prepared and executed.
Giacomo Vaghi is a sonorous, firm voiced Oroveso, and Mirto Picchi, who sings Giasone on Callas’s studio recording of Medea a welcome surprise as Pollione. He doesn’t have Del Monaco’s or Corelli’s heroic sound, nor their clarion top Cs, but he is a good deal more stylish than Mario Filippeschi, the Pollione of Callas’s 1954 studio recording.
The Adalgisa is Ebe Stignani, one of the most acclaimed mezzos of her age, who was much praised at the time. She has a voice that is seamless from top to bottom, firm and beautifully produced, but she was twenty years Callas’s senior, and to my ears at least, doesn’t sound in the least the giovinetta Norma refers to. We should remember that, though Adalgisa takes the lower line in the duets, the role was originally created by the soprano Giulia Grisi, who, by all accounts, had a lighter voice than Giuditta Pasta, who created the role of Norma. Also, though reasonably flexible, she doesn’t execute the florid music with quite Callas’s accuracy. In the duets (both sung down a tone) it is only when Callas sings that you can hear when Bellini separates descending scales into duplets. Stignani also ducks some of her high notes. The downward transpositions were presumably made to accommodate her, as they are not used when Simionato plays Adalgisa to Callas’s Norma. Apparently it used to annoy Callas that critics never noticed that Simionato sang them in the right keys.
Clotilde is sung by a young Joan Sutherland, and it is interesting to hear what she had to say about what it was like to appear alongside Callas in these performances.
[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine. It was a bigger sound in those earlier performances, before she lost weight … It was thrilling. I don’t think that anyone who heard Callas after 1955 really heard the Callas voice.
Callas’s voice does indeed sound huge in these performances (“colossal” Sutherland referred to it elsewhere), but, maybe because of that, her Norma here is more the warrior, whereas at La Scala 1955, her singing is more subtle, with more of the woman emerging. What is remarkable is how this large voice gets round the notes, the fastest of coloratura passages holding no terrors for her whatsoever. The top of the voice is also absolutely solid and the top D that ends Act I, held ringingly and freely for several bars, is an absolute stunner.
Her Norma here is vocally stunning, her voice flashing out in anger with scalpel-like attack in the Act I finale, powerful and commanding in her public scenes with the Druids, but in 1955 at La Scala she is infinitely more moving in the private scenes and in the finale. Furthermore in 1955 her voice still had power and security at the top.
This Covent Garden performance is a great memento of her London debut, but it is still the 1955 La Scala performance I will listen to most often. The cast (Simionato, Del Monaco and Zaccaria) is just about as good as you could get at the time. Votto, who conducts, is not Gui’s equal, but he does at least understand the score and knows how to support his singers. I’d say it’s one of those rare occasions in the opera house where everything went right.