It is actually somewhat down to happenstance that La Scala staged Medea in December 1953. Callas was originally to have appeared in a new production of Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore but the success of her appearances in Cherubuni’s Medea in Florence at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino made La Scala change their plans and stage the Cherubini opera instead. Nor was Bernstein slated to conduct, but Victor De Sabata, La Scala’s original choice fell ill just before rehearsals started, leaving them without a conductor. As luck would have it Bernstein was winding up a series of concerts in Italy, one of which Callas happened to hear, and she suggested they approach him, and fortunately he was free.
Unlike many of the operas Callas sang, there was absolutely no performing tradition with Cherubini’s Medea, and consequently each conductor she performed it with prepared their own, slightly differing, version, their interpretations of the score often markedly different. Where Vittorio Gui, who conducted the opera in Florence, brought out its classical dimension, Bernstein seems to see it as reaching forward into the Romantic era, his conducting more in line with his fiery interpretations of Beethoven. After the turbulent overture, the opera opens in gentle, pastoral vein, and, though I might wish that Gui (and later Serafin in the studio recording) would get a move on a bit, Bernstein seems too much in a hurry to get to the crux of the drama and his speeds are often so fast the orchestra and chorus can hardly keep up with him. However after the entrance of Medea, he really gets into his stride, and conducts a blisteringly intense realisation of the score, to match Callas’s blisteringly intense singing.
Io, Medea, are her very first words,, and, though the notes look simple enough on the page, the tone she uses carries a threat that completely dispels the pastoral calm of the previous scene. Ah, quale voce! indeed, as Giasone comments. The crowd disperse in terror, but, left alone with Giasone, Callas is quick to make us realise that it is love alone that brings her to Corinth, particularly when she sings the words, Ricordi il giorno tu, la prima volta quando mai veduta? The aria Dei tuoi figli is sung in melting tones and, though in later years she would find even more insinuating colours, she manages its wide leaps and high tessitura with staggering ease. Unfortunately Bernstein cuts its final Crudel! and robs the aria of its true climax.
That said, his conducting of the ensuing duet is superb, especially when he suddenly slows down what had been a propulsive tempo at the lines O fatal velo d’or, with a reduction in volume from both singers and orchestra, which creates a chilling effect not duplicated in any of her other performances. Elsewhere in the duet, there is a touch too much vehemence from Callas here, and I feel she overplays her hand, as she does later in the duet with Creon, which lacks the play of light and shade found in her performance in Dallas in 1958.
Indeed throughout this performance, we get more of the sorceress and less of the woman, which makes her traversal of the role in Dallas so much more fascinating. Nevertheless, it is very exciting and, by the time of the closing scene, we are confronted with a voice of blackest evil. Bernstein also cuts a large section of the lament for her children, possibly to remove some of Medea’s human dimension in her final inexorable revenge. This solution has a justification of sorts, I suppose, but I prefer the dichotomy of woman and sorceress we get in Dallas, and, to a lesser extent, in Florence, where Gui lets us hear the closing scene in its entirety.
On the plus side, Callas’s voice is in fabulous form at La Scala and she rides the music’s climaxes with ease. The effect is undeniably thrilling, and you can hear from the audience’s reception that they gained a spectacular success.
Barbieri, is, as she was in Florence, an excellent Neris, this time singing her aria with bassoon obligato, rather than the cello substituted in Florence. I prefer Guichandut in Florence to Penno at La Scala, but nether challenges Vickers, who sings the role of Giasone in Dallas in 1958, Covent Garden in 1959, and at La Scala in 1961. Giuseppe Modesti, who also sings the role of Creon on her studio recording of the opera, is fine as Creon, though I slightly prefer Zaccaria in Dallas and Maria Luisa Nache is a sweet-toned Glauce. However it is surely for the contributions of Callas and Bernstein that we are most likely to turn to this recording , and here they are absolutely as one in their conception of the piece.
As far as the actual recording goes, again the source material is not great, so we cannot expect too much. This Warner issue is a lot clearer and cleaner than EMI’s usually shoddy presentation, but I couldn’t hear that much difference between this and the one issued by Ars Vocalis. Eventually I decided on a slight preference for the Warner, but there is not much in it, and either would be a good choice.