In 1965 Elena Souliotis burst into the operatic firmament like a shooting star. The star’s trajectory was swift and by 1971 it had pretty much burned itself out. In fact the recordings she made for Decca pretty much sum up the path of Souliotis’s career. The best of them are the 1965 recording of Nabucco under Gardelli, made when she was only twenty-two, and this recital disc made the followiing year. By the time of the recording of Macbeth, made in 1971, she was sung out, and it is salutory to compare the recording of Lady Macbeth’s opening aria heard here to the one on the complete set. The problems hinted at in the recital (the occasionally unsupported middle voice, the chest voice and upper registers not properly integrated) have now become major issues. Her voice aged twenty years in five. Macbeth was the last major recording she made for Decca, though she did pop up again in 1991, singing the Zia Principessa to Mirella Freni’s Suor Angelica. Hearing the two singers together, you would never for a minute think that Freni was the older singer.
But back to the recital in question, and listening to it now, even with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to understand why she created such a stir at the time. It was becoming obvious that Callas was leaving the stage (indeed she made her last ever stage appearance in 1965) and people were looking for a singer of comparable dramatic flair. Souliotis, spelled Suliotis back then, certainly seemed to fit the bill. It was not a plush voice, but had a penetrating thrust and power, good flexibility and she sang with real dramatic conviction.
The first item, and the first side of the orignal LP, is the closing scene from Anna Bolena, a Callas speciality, and one would have to admit that there are times that she sounds as if she is ghosting the performance by the older singer. On the debit side also is her lack of a trill. The cabaletta is famous for a rising series of trills, delivered with incredible accuracy and tremendous force by Callas, but Souliotis doesn’t even attempt them. Aside from these flaws, though, the performance is alive to the drama, the melismas in the cavatina beautifully spun out, and the cabaletta thrilling in its rhythmic thrust. Callas may still reign supreme, but I’d still rate this performance more highly than those by Sills, Sutherland, Caballé and Gruberova.
Next up is Lady Macbeth’s entrance aria, which is thrilling, if a little vulgar. Comparisons with Callas are again inevitable, and it has to be said that in Callas’s performance, particularly in the complete live recording under De Sabata, we get a greater sense of Lady Macbeth’s vaulting ambition. Her chest voice is also better integrated, whereas with Souliotis it tends to be a feature unto itself. I like the Luisa Miller aria, though a little too mich of Lady Macbeth creeps in and she tends again to overdo the chest voice. On the other hand, Morro, ma prima in grazia from Un Ballo in Maschera is feelingly sung and actually quite beautiful.
Still, there is the overriding sense that, though there is enormous potential here, this is a voice that is as yet unformed. Singing so many performances of Abigaille at the tender age of twenty-two can’t have been good for her. Callas sang the role only once, at the age of twenty-six, but never touched it again, calling it a voice-wrecker. Maybe she was right. The role’s creator, Giuseppina Strepponi, who became Verdi’s mistress and later his wife, also sang the role a great deal and she was also sung out by the time she was thirty-one.