Callas first sang the role of Imogene in Il Pirata in May 1958 at La Scala, Milan, her last appearance there until she returned to the house for Poliuto, the opening opera of the 1960 to 1961 season. It was not a particular happy time for her. Ghiringhelli, the intendant of La Scala, had been increasingly cold to her since the Rome walk out on January 2nd earlier that year. Relations had already cooled after her appearance in La Sonnambula in Edinburgh, after Ghiringhelli announced an extra performance without first getting Callas’s agreement. Ghiringhelli was playing a dangerous game, as he did not tell the Edinburgh Festival management that Callas was only contracted for four performances and let them sell a fifth using her name, presumably thinking that, once it had gone on sale, Callas would cave in and agree to the extra performance. Already unwell, and having fulfilled her contractual duties, she refused to sing the extra performance and left Edinburgh for warmer climes, a much needed rest, and, unwisely as it turned out, a party given by Elsa Maxwell in her honour. The press were merciless, painting Callas as the capricious prima donna, who had cancelled a performance in order to go to a party.
Though she had redeemed herself in the eyes of the La Scala audience the previous month in a revival of Visconti’s production of Anna Bolena, Ghiringhelli did nothing to squelch rumours that Il Pirata would mark Callas’s last appearance at La Scala, and Callas seized a moment to point out the reason for her departure at her last performance. The word palco in Italian has a dual meaning. In the opera it means scaffold, but it also means theatre box, and when Callas came to sing La! Vedete! Il palco funesto! she strode to the front of the stage and gestured towards Ghiringhelli’s box in the theatre. Her meaning was not lost on the audience and it went wild, but Ghiringhelli had the last word, demanding that the fire curtain be lowered before Callas had been able to accept the ovations raining down on her.
It is a huge cause for regret that none of the La Scala performances appear to have been recorded, for there she was singing with first class support in Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini. Pier Miranda Ferraro, who sings Enzo on her second recording of La Gioconda, and Constantin Ego are not in the same class. Callas herself is in variable form, top notes occasionally afflicted with hardness and unsteadiness, but she is still a great Bellinian stylist, and the way she caresses and moulds the phrases shows up the provincial attempts of her colleagues. In the absence of a La Scala recording, we are fortunate that this concert performance was recorded.
There was an enormous amount of excitement attending her arrival in New York, fans having been deprived of seeing her at the Met after Rudolf Bing sacked her for not agreeing to the performance schedule he set out. Callas’s relationship with the Met had always been a tense one, but Bing’s boorish unwillingness to understand that a voice cannot switch to and fro between roles as differing in their vocal demands as Lady Macbeth and Violetta would suggest that the fault lay with his intransigence. His only concession was to offer a substitution of Lucia di Lammermoor for La Traviata, a role even further away from the demands of Lady Macbeth.
Understandably then, a certain amount of tension marks out her singing in her opening scene. Nevertheless, she stamps a Norma-like authority on her first recitative, and the whole scene, which she later recorded in the studio with Antonio Tonini, is a perfect example of how to express conflicting emotions, of carefully differentiating between public and private utterances. However she doesn’t really relax and get into her stride until the first duet with Gualtiero. Throughout this duet she gives a masterclass, unfortunately unheeded by Ferraro, in how to shape and mould phrases, ensuring that the arc of the melody remains paramount.
Worth noting in the Act I finale is a dazzling four bars of rapid scales, which Callas executes with incredible virtuosity. Rescigno recalls that at the rehearsal, she muffed the scales at the fast speed with which he launched the stretta. He told her he would put the breaks on before her entry, but Callas responded,
“No, don’t do that, I like the tempo very much; it is valid and I don’t want you to help me.” “Well,” I said, “what if you don’t make it in the performance?” “That’s my business, not yours,” she countered. However out of her fantastic will came this superb, astonishing thing at the performance, all in order.”
In the second act duets she achieves marvels of elegance and grace, given the inadequacy of both Ego and Ferraro, neither of whom are in the least bit comfortable with any rapid passagework, and both of whom alter the vocal line to accommodate their weaknesses.
However it is when left alone in the final scene, a scene which she programmed regularly into her concert programmes, that she makes the greatest effect. Apparently at the performance, all the lights were lowered leaving just a spot on Callas. According to Louis Biancolli,
“An eerie glow fell on her face. At this ghostly juncture Miss Callas made the most of her strange and haunting timbres. It was something to be left in the dark with the voice of Maria Meneghini Callas.”
As ever the recitative is a lesson in how to weight and measure phrases, and the cavatina benefits from her deep legato, the filigree drawn out to heavenly lengths, but Rescigno takes it at a slightly faster tempo than both the studio recording of the previous year, and concerts later that year in Hamburg and Amsterdam, where she spins out the phrases to even greater length. The cabaletta too is more propulsive, but this only adds to the excitement, and the audience go wild at its close. As reported in the New York Times
Hundreds debouched down the aisles to the footlights. They applauded and yelled and screamed “Bravo Maria!” Miss Callas returned again and again for curtain calls. Finally a man came out and turned off the lights, and the worshippers departed.
Away from all the attendant excitement, the listener will no doubt realise that the performance, as a whole, is a little lacking in polish, but Callas’s greatness remains, regardless of the fact that she is not in her best voice. I may regret the absence of a recording of the La Scala production, but, as the only example of Callas’s Imogene, this recording is definitely worth having. None of the commercial recordings of the opera quite matches its fire and excitement.
The sound on this Warner issue is a good deal better than that of the old EMI issue, which would suggest that it comes from a different source.
2 thoughts on “Callas in Il Pirata – Carnegie Hall 1959”
When you have a unique voice, being a capricious prima donna may make the difference between something excellent, and something unique. A great review providing insight into a past heroine.
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I’m not sure capricious is the right word, though she was certainly temperamental. She was totally committed to her art, often the first to arrive at rehearsals and the last to leave. Her cancellation record was actually pretty good – better than most singers.