First a word of warning about the sound on this recording. This has always been one of the worst Callas La Scala broadcasts, and Warner can’t do much about that. It overloads and distorts badly in orchestral tutti and in the choruses, though solo voices fare slightly better. I was hoping for a marked improvement, but I guess there is not a lot one can do with such severely compromised source material.
It is a great pity, as I feel sure that if this recording had enjoyed better sound, then Callas’s Alceste would be a lot better known. By April 1954 she had considerably slimmed down, but her voice is still firm and powerful.
As with Orphée et Eurydice, Gluck considerably revised Alceste for Paris in 1776, and it is this version, translated into Italian and in an edition by Giulini, that was performed at La Scala in 1954. It was, as were most of her appearances at La Scala, a new production, directed by Margherita Wallmann with designs by Piero Zuffi and conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Surprisingly this was also La Scala’s first ever production of the opera.
It is a great shame Callas didn’t sing the role of Alceste again for she is, in Max Loppert’s words,
a Gluck soprano of the highest order…. (who) answers every demand the role has to make
She will return to Alceste’s great apostrophe to the Gods, Divinités du Styx, on her French recital of 1961, but, though infinitely subtle as a performance, it will lack the clarion security of her top Bs here. In a sense she sculpts the music, portamenti much more chastely applied than they are when she sings operas of the bel canto. Though neither she nor Giulini add appoggiaturas, her sense of the classic style is spot on.
Every musical phrase, word and gesture was developed with the logic indicated in Gluck’s score,
according to Giulini, who thought Callas a musical genius.
There are many extant photos from the production, and you can see that the new svelte figure has given Callas a new found confidence in movement. For those who think that her amazing weight loss resulted in the loss of her voice, Giulini had this to say,
She became another woman and a new world of expression opened to her. Potentials held in the shadows emerged. In every sense, she had been transformed.
Giulini is a major asset in the pit, and it is a great pity that the recording obscures so much of the orchestral detail.
None of the male singers is in Callas’s class, and, as a representation of the opera, one would really have to look elsewhere, probably to John Eliot Gardiner with Anne Sofie von Otter, who conducts a vital, dramatic version of the score, with von Otter a wonderfully committed and sensitive Alceste, but even she can’t quite match Callas’s range of colour and intensity. On the other hand, the present recording is essential in expanding our knowledge and appreciation of Callas’s art, and, if you can get past the vagaries of the actual sound, and the inadequacy of most of the other singers, patience will definitely be rewarded.