7 December, the feast of St Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, is the official opening date of the La Scala season, and for the third time in four years, Callas was granted the privilege of opening the new season with a new production. This was also the first time she worked with Luchino Visconti, who was lured into directing opera by the prospect of working with Callas. He had first fallen under her spell when he saw her as Kundry in Rome in 1949; from that day onwards he tried to catch as many of her performances as he could . Between 1954 and 1957 he directed Callas in some of La Scala’s most iconic productions, La Sonnambula, La Traviata, Anna Bolena and Ifigenia in Tauride. He was also to have directed her return to the theatre in 1960 in Poliuto, but he withdrew in protest after his film Rocco e suoi fratelli was censored by the Italian authorities.
This was Callas’s first appearance in Italy after the spectacular success of her first season in Chicago, which was her US debut. Her hair was now blonde (a short lived effect) and the transformation from everyone’s idea of an overweight prima donna to a svelte, elegant picture of glamour was complete.
With designs by Pietro Zuffi and sets by Nicola Benois, the production certainly looked stunning, and was cast from strength, with Franco Corelli as Licinio, Ebe Stignani as La Gran Vestale and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Il Sommo Sacerdote, but, for all the splendour of the staging and the excellence of the singing the opera failed to ignite the imagination the way Medea (even more unknown) had the previous year, and there the fault must lie with Spontini. whose music resists even Callas’s attempts to bring it to life. Though the opera is often dubbed a “junior” Norma, the character of Giulia has none of Norma’s inner turmoil or ultimate sacrifice, her sentiments, whether mooning over Licinio or gazing upward to Vesta, all too similar.
Callas does what she can, filling the music with her customary passion and wide palette of tone colour, and she moulds the phrases beautifully, her legato in such sections as O nume tutelar well nigh impeccable. Thrilling too is her propulsive singing of the cabaletta to Tu che invoco, but Spontini’s music never allows her to make the impression she does as Norma or Medea, or even Alceste.
The cause of the opera is not helped by Votto’s stodgy, soggy conducting. Maybe it needs a John Eliot Gardiner to bring it to life, as it rather resists even Riccardo Muti’s efforts in his recording.
For the rest, we have Corelli, compensating for some less than stylish singing with the clarion brilliance of his voice, Stignani a matronly Gran Vestale, which is apt enough for the character, I suppose, and Rossi-Lemeni dramatically committed, if woolly toned.
The sound here is no better nor worse than any of the other transfers I’ve heard, and distortion and overloading is, as it was in Alceste, pretty bad. I am happy that we have this document of a key production in Callas’s career, but, truth to tell, it is not an opera I turn to often, finding that the best of Giulia is to be heard in the three arias Callas later recorded in the studio with Serafin for the Callas at La Scala recital disc.