Barbara Bonney – Diamonds in the Snow

Barbara Bonney, though American, was once married to the Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard and is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, so it is not at all surprising to find her recording a disc of Scandinavian song, though of the composers represented here, only Stenhammar, Alfven and Sjöberg are Swedish, Grieg and Sibelius taking up the lion’s share of the recital.

The recording was made in 1999, by which time Bonney would have been 43, and though the voice retains its springlike freshness and purity, maturity has brought with a new richness and depth that perhaps would not have been available to her a few years earlier. Not only is it a beautiful instrument per se, but it is also beautifully expressive and she easily fills all the requirements of this varied group of songs.

Some of the Grieg songs are well known, but I am guessing that most of the others will be unfamiliar, and whilst there is nothing here to challenge the greatness of song writers like Schubert, Schumann or Wolf, there is plenty to enjoy. The emotional range is wide too and Bonney seizes every opportunity for expression afforded to her.

Pappano, unlike many conductors who have a go at piano accompaniment, offers superb support and the whole disc feels like a wonderful collaboration between two artists totally at one with their vision.

A lovely disc and one of the most enjoyable recitals in my collection. Like Bonney’s disc of early English song, which I reviewed a few months back, this comes with the highest recommendation.

Jussi Bjørling – O paradiso – Great Opera Arias

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Great Opera Arias announces the subtitle of this disc, but it is actually a mixture of arias and duets, mostly taken from some of Bjørling’s RCA compete opera sets, plus a few excerpts from concerts featuring Bjørling with piano accompaniment. They cover a period from 1951 to 1958, just a couple of years before he died at the age of 51. The date of 1959 given for the duet from Tosca is surely wrong, as it was first issued in 1957. Bjørling sounds terrific by the way, but Milanov is decidedly over the hill and sounds more like Cavaradossi’s mother to me. I don’t much care for her in the Aida duet either to be honest, but she is a singer I’ve never really got on with.

Milanov crops up in the duet from Cavalleria Rusticana as well, and, though it was recorded five years earlier, she still sounds old and, well, blowsy. Bjørling is terrific though, both vocally and dramatically, as he is in the excerpts from the 1952 recording of Il Trovatore, tossing off the free, ringing top Cs in Di quella pira without a hint of strain.

His ardent Des Grieux from the Puccini opera is sampled from the Perlea recording with Licia Albanese, one of his best recorded performances. It is set alongside a performance of the Dream from the Massenet opera, this time in concert with piano, which displays his beautiful mezza voce. Also from this concert is a performance of Don Ottavio’s Il mio tesoro, which is somewhat too muscular in approach and a little short breathed when compared to versions by John McCormack and Fritz Wunderlich. This is the only item that gave me limited pleasure. The final piece, Calaf’s ubiquitous Nessun dorma, is also from a piano accompanied concert , though a later date (1958) is given. The audience go wild for it, and we’d be privileged to hear such a performance today. However I continue to prefer his poetic, but thrilling 1944 account. I also wonder why BMG didn’t opt for the version from the complete recording with Nilsson and Tebaldi.

Not quite as satisfying as the two EMI discs taken from 78s, which I reviewed a few months ago, but it is always a pleasure to hear the voice of Jussi Bjørling and this is an enjoyable selection.

Fritz Wunderlich -Live on Stage

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This issue passed me by when it was first released in 2010, but what a treasure it is. Always a pleasure to hear Wunderlich’s glorious tenor, here we have the added frisson of hearing him live in the opera house.

His Tamino is well known from the Böhm recording. These excerpts are taken from a 1964 Munich performance, where he is joined by Anneliese Rothenberger as Pamina and Karl-Christian Kohn as Sarastro under the baton of Fritz Reiger. As on the Böhm recording, he is an ardently lyrical but also heroic Tamino and remains my touchstone for the role. Don Ottavio’s two arias from a performance of Don Giovanni, conducted by Karajan in 1963 are also superb and Ottavio emerges as a more positive character than he often does, benefiting from Wunderlich’s golden tone, his superb breath control and ease of movement. As in the Jochum recording he is also an ideal Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

The excerpts from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with Hermann Prey as Figaro, are unfortunately sung in German, but the language does not impede Wunderlich’s superb legato, nor the warmth of his tone, and we get to hear his wonderfully light touch in comedy.

For me, though, the Strauss items are the biggest eye opener. I feel sure that, had Strauss heard them, it would have reconciled him to the sound of the tenor voice. The duet for the Italian Singers in Capriccio (with Lucia Popp, no less) has probably never sounded more gloriously, well, italianate, so beautiful that it elicits a spontaneous round of applause from the Vienna audience. The same could be said for his singing of Di rigori armato from Der Rosenkavalier, which is sung with burnished tone. I doubt any Italian tenor could sing it better. So too, in the excerpts from Daphne and Die schweigsame Frau his liquid legato stays in tact, however tough the going. Did Wunderlich ever make an ugly sound? Somehow I doubt it. Truly he was a prince among tenors.

Fritz Wunderlich – A Poet Among Tenors.

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As well as for DG, Wunderlich recorded extensively for EMI and this 6 disc set, now on Warner, has very little overlap with the DG set I reviewed earlier. Indeed it is amazing how much Wunderlich recorded in his relatively short career. Most of these EMI recordings were all made in the years 1959 to 1962. The exceptions are the excerpts from Klemperer’s Das Lied von der Erde, which was recorded in 1964. Some have doubted Wunderlich’s ability to ride the Mahlerian orchestra, suggesting that he might have had some studio assistance. Well we now have two live recordings of the work (under Krips and Keilberth, both with Fischer-Dieskau singing the lower songs) to refute that. Whether large or not, the voice had a fine ring to it and its heady beauty remained unimpaired whether at piano or forte. I think there is a discernible increase in its carrying power between 1959 and 1964, and I have no doubt he would have gone on to sing certain Wagner roles – Lohengrin and Walter von Stolzing at least.

So what do we have here? Well disc 1 starts of somewhat surprisingly with early German fifteenth century songs, then progresses through Bach, Handel (a sublime Ombra mai fu), Mozart arias from Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte (Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön slightly more diffident here than it is on the later Böhm recording), and excerpts from Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann and Der Wildschütz which rather outstayed their welcome for me. It finishes with excerpts from Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, including his glorious version of Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain.

Discs 2 and 3 are mostly operetta, with the addition of ecerpts from Flotow’s Martha and Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad. Wunderlich’s infectious joy in the act of singing made him ideal for operetta and though there is admittedly rather a lot of it here, he makes no concessions to the music; like Schwarzkopf and Gedda, he can make the music sound much better than it is.

However, for me the jewels of the set, with a couple of exceptions noted above, are all to be found on discs 4 and 5. Though all sung in German, we get some ideal performances of excerpts from Italian, French, Czech and Russian opera. Disc 4 starts with the Act I duet for Donna Anna and Don Ottavio (with Elisabeth Grümmer no less), in which he is both aristocratic and ardent, with a touch of the heroic often missing from singers of Don Ottavio. Wunderlich’s Mozartian credentials are further strengthened by the inclusion of both Don Ottavio’s arias and Ferando’s Un aura amorosa from Cosí fan tutte. Nemorino, the Duke and Alfredo’s arias are all treated to his golden tone and winning manner, his liquid legato hardly impeded by the fact that he is singing in German rather than Italian. There are more extended excerpts from La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, in which he is an ardent Rodolfo and Pinkerton (a glorious top C in Che gelida manina), whilst disc 5 gives us some lovely excerpts from French operas (Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche, Thomas’s Mignon and Massenet’s Manon and wonderful Smetana (The Bartered Bride). Best of all perhaps is his plaintive singing of Lensky’s Kuda, kuda, but he is also superb as Hermann in The Queen of Spades.

The last disc concenrates on Lieder; Schubert, Wolf, some glorious Strauss which might just have reconciled the composer to the sound of the tenor voice, and of course his headily free singing of the tenor songs from Das Lied von der Erde. It finishes off with a song cycle by his friend Fritz Neumeyer, which unfortunately rather outstays its welcome. No matter, these are wonderful reminders of a gorgeous tenor voice that shot through the operatic firmament only to be silenced too soon.

It remains to be said that the orchestral contrubutions are fine and it is good to also encounter the voices of Aneliese Rothenberger, Lisa Otto, Pilar Lorengar, Rudolf Schock, Hermann Prey and Gottlob Frick in some of the duets and emsembles.

25 Movies

People on Facebook have been posting stills from movies that have had an impact on them, and it got me to thinking of which ones I would choose.I’ve chosen 25, and realise that most of these are quite old, but maybe that’s because things make more of an impact on you when you’re younger and have experienced less. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are stills from 25 of mine. They are numbered for convenience, but that in no way reflects any preferential order. How many of you can guess the titles from the stills here?

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Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl
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Maria Callas – Icon

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This is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote on gay icons for an online gay magazine, so I thought I’d include it in my blog. Please remember to take into account its intended audience.

There may have been divas before Maria Callas, but there is no doubt that the modern idea of what is a diva owes a great deal to the legendary opera singer, who, without ever singing a note of popular music, was as famous during her lifetime as a movie star. Even today, 41 years after her death and over 50 years after she last appeared on stage, her records outsell those of any other female opera singer.

Callas was born in 1923 in a New York hospital to Greek immigrant parents. Her mother, bitterly disappointed not to have had a son, wouldn’t even look at Maria for the first few days after she was born. Maria was an awkward, bespectacled, dumpy child with, in her mother’s eyes, one redeeming feature. She could sing. And, from an early age, Evangelia, Maria’s mother, decided Maria would become a star. No doubt here began the seeds of Callas’s burning desire to succeed, and also, what her record producer Walter Legge called, her superhuman inferiority complex. It was only by singing that she could get approval from her mother. It was a tempestuous relationship, and later they had a very public quarrel, leaving them estranged for the rest of Maria’s life.

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Callas started out as everyone’s idea of the fat lady who sings, but shed 80lbs to become the svelte, elegant, iconic figure we know today, modelling her look on that of Audrey Hepburn. Some say this weight loss was also the reason for her relatively early vocal decline. Paradoxically, the more famous she became, the more her voice let her down, and her brilliance was relatively short, its peak lasting barely ten years, though as American opera star Beverly Sills once said, “Better 10 years like Callas, than twenty like anybody else.” She created a revolution in the staging of opera too, for Callas didn’t just sing, she could act, and it was her burning desire to fulfil all the dramatic demands of her roles, which was behind her decision to lose weight. To her way of thinking, it was crazy to have a fat, healthy looking soprano supposedly dying of consumption.

From the very beginning she caused controversy. Her voice was not conventionally beautiful, but it was better than that. It was a voice like no other, instantly recognisable with an extraordinarily wide expressive range, which she exploited to searingly dramatic ends. It was a large, dramatic voice too, and yet she had the technique to sing roles usually associated with much lighter voices. Those who just wanted to close their eyes and listen to beautiful sounds were jolted out of their complacency, and they didn’t like it. In her early days she enjoyed showing off her versatility, and within a week she alternated one of the heaviest roles in the repertory (Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre) with one of the lightest (Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani). It was a feat unheard of at that time, and she began to be known as the soprano who could sing anything. The traditionalists didn’t like it and battle lines were drawn.

From 1951 until 1958 she was the reigning queen of La Scala, Milan and Luchino Visconti, lured into opera by the prospect of working with her, here mounted some of the greatest opera productions ever in operatic history. It was also at La Scala that she worked with Franco Zeffirelli for the first time, and with conductors such as Victor De Sabata, Carlo Maria Giulini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. It was a period of amazing artistic achievement, and tenor Jon Vickers, often referred to Callas as one of the people most responsible for the revolution that occurred in opera after the second world war, rescuing it from the fustian stand and deliver concert in costume it had become, and creating living, breathing theatre. The La Scala audience was never an easy one, and she often had to deal with hostility from it, but, such was her genius, she could usually win a hostile audience over by the end of the evening. She was definitely a fighter.

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The Callas myth is very much one made by the media. Her musical genius is often lost amongst the details of her private life and the scandals attached to it. The media concentrates on the occasional cancellations, the rows with opera managements, and often forgets the genius which made her a star. They build a picture of the capricious, temperamental, demanding opera singer, which, though partially true, tends to ignore the fact that she was intensely professional, dedicated and respected by most of the musicians she worked with. Her outbursts were usually brought about by what she saw as unprofessionalism. Unlike many divas who flounce in, do their bit and flounce out, Callas was often the first to arrive at rehearsal and the last to leave. She lived for her art. That is, until Aristotle Onassis arrived on the scene. Callas stupidly, blindly, fell in love and from that moment the media hardly ever left her alone.

When she met Onassis, she was still married to a man 51 years older than her, Gian Battista Meneghini. She married him shortly after she arrived in Italy in 1947, still only 23, overweight and gauche, and he had provided inestimable support in the early days of her career. By the time she met Onassis she was a very different person, svelte and elegant, and used to mixing with the artistic elite. Onassis, still married himself, was as taken by her fame as by her beauty and determined to make her his own. Callas, the ugly duckling who became a swan, was flattered by his attention, and became his mistress. She practically gave up her career for him, believing that one day they would marry, until, devastatingly, he married Jackie Kennedy instead. After the affair, Callas did try to pick up the threads of her career, but, along with the growing problems she was having with her voice, much of the fire had gone. During the Onassis years, she severely curtailed her engagements, attempting a comeback in 1964, after Onassis’s marriage. She agreed to appear in two new Zeffirelli productions to be shared with Covent Garden and the Paris Opéra, Tosca and Norma. Though the London performances of Tosca scored her an enormous personal success, the Normas in Paris went less well, and when she returned to the role there in 1965, the final performance of the run was abandoned, as Callas was simply too exhausted and unwell to continue. Later that year she made her final ever appearance in opera at a royal gala performance of Zeffirelli’s Tosca at Covent Garden, the only performance of the scheduled run she felt well enough to sing. She was singing against doctor’s orders, and even then only on condition that she sing only that one performance.

After that she lived as a recluse in Paris, occasionally attempting to revive her career. She played the role of Medea in Pasolini’s non-operatic film. Though her performance was enthusiastically greeted by the critics, the movie was not a commercial success, and she made no further pursuits in the direction of a movie career. She also gave a series of public master classes at the Juilliard in New York (the basis of Terrence McNally’s play Masterclass), and had an unsuccessful attempt at directing, with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, at the Turin Opera. She was, by this time, in a relationship with Di Stefano, and, probably unwisely, agreed to embark on a world concert tour with him, at which they would sing duets and arias, accompanied by piano only. She had only just turned 50, but her voice was a pale shadow of itself. Only too aware of her shortcomings, she wryly noted how the critics were being much kinder to her then, than they were years ago when she was singing brilliantly. Audiences, though, went mad, screaming for more, besieging the stage with floral tributes, as if finally acknowledging now, in her ruin, the great star that she was.

When the tour came to an end, she holed herself up in her Paris apartment. She never stopped loving Onassis, for all that he treated her so badly. They secretly revived their friendship, though, according to her secretary, Nadia Stancioff, she flatly refused to have any kind of physical relationship with him after he married Jackie. After he died, it was as if all the fight was knocked out of her. Conductor Jeffrey Tate, who was working with her at this time (she never completely gave up the idea of a comeback), felt that she simply gave up living.

She died in 1977 at the age of 53 in circumstances that are still unexplained. Officially she died of a heart attack, but she was on so many uppers and downers by then, that some think it may have been an accidental overdose. Whatever it was, dying young certainly contributed to her legendary status.

Nowadays she continues to enthral and inspire, and her influence goes far beyond the opera house. Aside from the aforementioned Masterclass, Terrence McNally also wrote a play The Lisbon Traviata (taking its title from an at that time unavailable live recording of Callas singing La Traviata in Lisbon), which focuses on two of McNally’s pet subjects; gay relationships and the gay man’s love of opera. During her lifetime she was something of a fashion icon, having fabulous gowns designed for her by Milanese designer Biki, by Pucci, Fendi and Yves St Laurent. Not so very long ago Dolce and Gabbana produced t-shirts with her image on them for their 2009 collection, and recently American designer Zac Posen based an entire collection on costumes Callas wore in Argentina in her early years, and a couple of years ago, Mark Jacobs incorporated  images of Callas onto his designs of capes, t-shirts and bags.

In the world of film her records are frequently used on film soundtracks. Most recently it is the voice of Callas we hear singing Casta Diva in The Iron Lady.  Marvel’s Bruce Banner (the Hulk) listens to her version of the same aria in The Avengers movies and Gus van Sant used her recording of Tosca as a backdrop for much of his brilliant Milk. And who could possibly forget that scene in Philadelphia, in which Andrew Beckett (played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks) attempts to explain to his lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), what opera means to him? As Maria Callas’s recording of La mamma morta from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier begins softly in the background and then swells to fill the theatre, Andrew translates the words and conveys the passions and emotional meanings behind this operatic excerpt.

“I am divine, I am oblivion, I am love. “

No wonder the Italians called her La Divina. After her death, baritone and colleague Tito Gobbi, said

“I always thought she was immortal, and she is.”

Curmudgeonly Critics

Anybody who knows me will know that back in 2016 I was lucky enough to be cast as one of the featured dancers in the film Finding Your Feet. It stars some of Britain’s finest (Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Timothy Spall, Joanna Lumley and David Hayman), was directed by Richard Loncraine  and was eventually released on 23 February this year.

The whole process, from the auditions, where I reconnected with so many friends from my past, through the rehearsals and filming, was an absolute joy, and I number it among the most satisfying experiences of my career. This no doubt coloured my reactions to the film, which I first saw at a cast and crew screening just before its official opening, but I absolutely loved it. I found it heart warming and life affirming, funny and sad, beautifully played and directed, and felt sure that the reviews would reflect that.

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Imelda Staunton and Celia Imrie. Me in the background.

Unfortunately, the majority of the British critics were curmudgeonly and grumpy, most of them giving it just two out of five stars. It has been much better received in Australia, New Zealand and the US (winning the audience prize at the Palm Springs Film Festival last year), and audience reactions have in general been extremely positive.

My partner’s aunt saw it at a special preview in Australia last year, and told me the audience applauded at the end, an unusual occurrence which has been repeated at many showings here in the UK. Indeed one of the lovely young nurses, who was taking care of me during my recent spell in hospital, told me that the audience applauded at the end of the film when she went to see it last week. She’s a regular cinema goer, and found the spontaneous response somewhat out of the ordinary, but, according to many of the people I know who have been to see the film, it’s a regular reaction of audiences.

So why were the British critics so down on the film? It seems to me that they criticised the movie for what it wasn’t (and didn’t set out to be) rather than what it was. It’s a film about hope, about it never being too late to change your life, and it really isn’t. There is an element of fantasy, I suppose (though not the kind you will find in any blockbuster sci-fi movie) but what’s wrong with that? It doesn’t set out to be grittily realistic, in the manner of a movie by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh.

So please ignore the curmudgeons. Go see Finding Your Feet. I guarantee you will be entertained, and leave the cinema in a happier frame of mind than you were when you went in, unless of course you’re a curmudgeon too.

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Singers Who Changed My Life

This is an expanded version of something I wrote a few years ago. 

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Back in 2011,  John Steane, an expert on voices and an eminent critic, died at the age of 83. He had his favourites of course (who doesn’t?), but I learned a lot from JBS over the years, and I do miss his wonderfully constructive musical criticism. When he was still active at Gramophone Magazine, the editor asked him to write an article detailing the twelve singers who had changed his life, the one injunction being that one of them should still be active as a singer. For someone who knew his writing, his choices didn’t come as much of a surprise. I recently re-read this article and it got me to thinking of who mine would be. I’ve stuck to just ten, but  these are all singers, who have said something personal to me, the voices that have spoken to me down the years, from when I first started to enjoy opera and lieder as an impressionable teenager, up until now. 

 

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Callas as Norma

Anyone who knows me won’t be in the least surprised by my first choice.  I first heard the voice of Maria Callas on an LP reissue of her first recordings, originally issued on 78s. The Mad Scene from Bellini’s I Puritani was coupled with the Liebestod (in Italian) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and excerpts from her early Cetra recordings of La Traviata and La Gioconda. This was a voice like none I’d ever heard. It was a large voice, with dazzling flexibility, a rarity in itself, but what struck me most was the way that voice penetrated your very soul. It was a voice bursting with emotion. I may not have appreciated then her amazing musicality, but I certainly recognised the work of a genius. Callas made you feel that the music sprang from her throat newly minted, that she meant every word, every note. More than that, it was the way the voice could change from the sweet innocent Elvra to the womanly Isolde, from the passion of the courtesan Violetta, to the almost primeval sounds of her Gioconda. It hardly seems believable now, given that Callas’s recordings have formed the backbone of EMI’s (now Warner’s) Italian opera catalogue for years, but most of them were unavailable at the time. I slowly built up my collection by scouring second hand shops and pouncing on any imported issues that made their way into specialist record shops.  As I slowly built up my collection, it was Callas who introduced me to the world of Italian opera. Nowadays I can be aware of some of the vocal failings, especially in the later recordings, but nobody has ever come within a mile of her fantastic musicality, and up until at least the mid 1950s, the voice was an amazingly responsive instrument. For evidence of her musical skills, no better example could exist than her Leonora in Il Trovatore, full of aristocratic phrasing and almost Mozartian delicacy. Though a little strained by some of the high lying passages on the  Karajan recording of 1956, she still phrases like a master violinist, her sense of line and rubato unparalleled, the trills and cadenzas beautifully bound into the musical fabric of the whole.

She was also an amazing vocal actor, and though she has a voice that is instantly recognisable, she continually changes the weight of that voice to suit the character she is portraying. The woman who sings Lady Macbeth and Medea with such demonic force is hardly recognisable from the one who sings such a virginal and innocent Gilda, and though she may use the same lightness of touch for Amina in La Sonnambula as she does for, say, Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, they are still two completely different voice characters, and she can make us see that happiness is quite a different thing for Amina from what it is for Rosina.

Callas is still my touchstone for all the roles she sang (I can almost hear her in my mind’s ear in some of the ones she didn’t), and, though I recognise that some have made prettier sounds, there will always be a moment, maybe a single word, where Callas’s unique colouration will suddenly do something to nail the character as no other singer does. I regret that Walter Legge, excellent producer though he was, did not have the foresight to record her in much of the repertoire for which she was famous, and though I treasure all her studio recordings, it is a great pity that she didn’t get to record some of her greatest stage creations, like Lady Macbeth, Anna Bolena, Armida, Imogene in Il Pirata, and perhaps even Alceste and Ifigenia. Legge wouldn’t even touch Medea and Callas only got to record the opera by exercising a get out in her contract with EMI, though EMI did eventually release the recording, which had been made for Ricordi. I might also regret that Legge was so chary of stereo and that Callas was not accorded the kind of good stereo sound Tebaldi was accorded in her early 1950s recordings.

There is no doubt that Callas’s glamour and tempestuous personal life has done much to maintain her popularity, but she has been dead for 40 years now, the dust has settled, and it is surely her musical gifts for which she should be remembered; for Callas was not only a great singer, she was also one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. The great conductor Victor De Sabata once said to Walter Legge, her recording producer, “If the public could understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.” I have known her recordings now for the best part of fifty years and I continue to be newly stunned each time I listen.

 

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Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin

My next choice might seem a little more surprising, a singer as far away from Callas as it would seem possible to be, though I often think of them as flip sides of the same coin. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is the singer who introduced me to Mozart, Richard Strauss and lieder. Her recordings of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and of the Vier letzte Lieder were my first exposure to these works, and have remained in my collection ever since. Hers was a voice shot  through with laughter, and she also made many great recordings of lighter works. Her album of Operetta Arias can lighten the spirits like no other. She and Callas admired each other enormously (their repertoires were very different of course), and though they only made one recording together (Puccini’s Turandot), they met often, as Schwarzkopf was the wife of Callas’s record producer, Walter Legge, on one occasion Schwarzkopf giving Callas an impromptu singing lesson in the middle of the restaurant at Biffi Scala. Schwarzkopf was a good person to ask. She rarely put a foot wrong, and it is this attention to detail, that some find gets in the way of the music. There can be a lack of spontaneity, it is true, and, where Callas is able to conceal the huge amount of work that goes into each of her musical recreations, Schwarzkopf can occasionally be accused of artifice. Her Liu in the above mentioned Turandot may not sound for one moment like a slave girl, but I love her singing of the role, so beautiful and so richly nuanced.  

Still, when it comes to opera, I treasure her most in Mozart (an incomparable Donna Elvira, Countess and Fiordiligi) and Strauss (an unbeatable Marschallin and Countess Madeleine) and (in recital) in Agathe’s arias from Weber’s Der Freischütz, though I also prize her delightfully high spirited Alice in Karajan’s recording of Verdi’s Falstaff. In Lieder some find her singing too detailed, and she is often accused of being mannered. Well, I’d aver that all great singers have their mannerisms. It’s one of the things that makes them instantly recognisable, and I prefer to think of them as idiosyncrasies. Warner recently reissued all her EMI recital records in their original programmes, and though it means each disc is rather short for CD, it shows the care that would go into creating these recitals, the same care that would go into her programming of material for her recital programmes. Each of them makes eminently satisfying listening.

I remember many years ago attending one of Schwarzkopf’s Master Classes at the Wigmore Hall with my singing teacher, the late Ian Adam, who adored her incidentally. She was a very hard task master, rarely letting a student sing more than a few bars before stopping them, and watching the classes was a peculiarly frustrating experience. It must have been even more so for the students. But that was the way she studied and rehearsed herself. She was actually severely self critical, as is shown in the book Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career on Record, in which she listens to some of her recorded performances with John Steane. On many occasions she dismisses performances of her own that Steane admires, pointing out faults that none of us can hear. Though Schwarzkopf herself had refrained from singing at the classes, at one point she did sing out for just a few bars, in an attempt to show the student how to bring moonlight into the sound of their voice. Well, as Ian said, to me “You can’t teach that. Either you can do it, or you can’t.”

 

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Janet Baker as Vitellia

 

Unfortunately I never got to hear Callas or Schwarzkopf live, but I did hear  Dame Janet Baker quite a few times, though only in concert, never on the operatic stage, where she was equally at home. The first time was in a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst I was at college, a performance that has remained in my memory ever since. In a very different repertoire, she had an almost Callas like intensity and an ability to sing pianissimi  that somehow reached the furthest recesses of the hall. Dame Janet introduced me to the music of Monteverdi and Handel, Bach and of course Elgar’s Sea Pictures (memorably coupled to Jacqueline Du Pre’s seminal recording of the Cello Concerto). She was also a great Berlioz singer. I actually prefer her Barbirolli recording of Les Nuits d’Ete (and a live one under Giulini) to Crespin’s famous one, and I doubt her recording of the closing scenes of Les Troyens has ever been bettered. 

She recorded extensively for EMI, then Philips and, towards the end of her career, for such independents as Hyperion, Collins Classics and Virgin Classics, singing a vast range of repertoire that took her from the music of Monteverdi and Cavalli to Respighi, Britten and even Schoenberg, taking in Donizetti, Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler along the way. Some of her greatest recordings are those she made with Sir John Barbirolli, with whom she had a great rapport, The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures, Les Nuits d’Eté, Shéhérazade and, maybe the greatest of them all, the orchestral Lieder of Mahler, particularly her wonderfully sensitive and inward performance of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. She was also world renowned for her singing of the lower part in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which I twice heard her sing live. She recorded it in the studio with Haitink, and there are at least three live recordings knocking around. Best of all of these is a Bavarian Radio broadcast under Rafael Kubelik, in which her singing of the final song, has a quiet intensity , which is almost too much to bear. So palpable is her emotional commitment to the music that I save this performance for rare occasions. Like Callas’s shattering performance of Violetta at Covent Garden in 1958, it reduces me to a quivering wreck.

 

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Domingo as Otello

Placido Domingo’s was a voice I first heard on record in an early recital of arias, but I will never forget the thrill of first hearing him live at the Royal Opera House, in La Fanciulla del West, if memory serves me rightly. Domingo certainly had presence and a glamorous voice to go with it. A real singing actor, he seemed to improve as a performer every time I saw him. Incredibly, he is still singing today, though he has moved over to the baritone repertoire recently, taking on such roles as Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto. True, it is remarkable that a singer, and a tenor at that, can continue to sing into his seventies, but, great stage performer though he is, I am not sure that his excursions into the baritone repertoire have been entirely successful, and I prefer to remember him in the great days of his tenor glory.

In his early days, beautiful though his singing was, he could be accused of a somewhat generalised attitude to characterisation, but, over the years, he became more and more of a committed performer. Some of his roles he recorded several times, and one can hear how he progressed. The voice always had a dark, burnished quality, and the very top of the voice was never as easy as some, but, paradoxically, it sounds freer to me in his middle period than when he was young. Still, he wasn’t ashamed to admit that his top Cs were hard won,  and I actually applauded his decision to omit the unwritten ones, in Il Trovatore at Covent Garden, rather than doing what so many do and attempting to trick the audience by transposing Di quella pira down.  His Otello is a towering achievement, and, for many years, there was no one around who could challenge his hegemony in the role. He made three recordings of the role at different stages of his career, and there are quite a lot of visual documents of his portrayal, including the controversial Zeffirelli film.

 

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Wunderlich as Tamino

 

Free, ringing top Cs were never a problem for Fritz Wunderlich, who had a voice of overwhelming heady beauty. He died just before his 36th birthday, at a time when his interpretative artistry would have been reaching its maturity, his final concert in Edinburgh being testament to that. However if you ever want to hear someone just revelling in the sheer joy of singing, then listen to his DG performance of Lara’s Granada. Admittedly it is in German and the splashy arrangement is pretty vulgar, but he sings with a freedom and passion that would be the envy of any Latin tenor. For me, Wunderlich’s singing always conveys a sheer joy in the act of singing itself. Though he died young, he made many recordings, and it is this sense of joy that I most prize.

Interpretively, his recordings of Lieder don’t probe as deeply as some no doubt, but he was still young when he made them and unfortunately hadn’t reached his interpretive maturity before he died. For instance, the Dichteriebe he sings at his final concert in Edinburgh is a great deal more interesting than the recording he made for DG a year or so earlier. He did leave us arguably the greatest Tamino on disc, on Böhm’s Die Zauberflöte, which for once has a truly heroic dimension, a superb rendition of the tenor songs in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (both in the studio under Klemperer and live under Krips), and of the tenor arias in Karajan’s recording of Die Schöpfung. Most of his Italian and French repertoire was sung in German, but still has a golden, Italianate warmth, and we do have at least one recording of him singing Verdi in Italian, a live performance of La Traviata from Munich with the young Teresa Stratas as Violetta. His early death was a tragedy beyond reckoning, as one wonders what he might have gone on to achieve. His Steersman on the Konwitschny recording of Der fliegende Holländer gives notice that he could have gone on to sing Lohengrin at least, and, in Verdi, what a wonderful Duke, Don Carlo or Riccardo he would have made.

 

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Vickers as Giasone with Callas as Medea

 

Staying with tenors for the moment, I turn to Jon Vickers, who had a voice and manner of startling individuality, and an intensity of performance that could almost be too painful to listen to. Though well known for his Tristan, his Siegmund, his Florestan and his Grimes, he first came to prominence singing in Italian opera. In 1958 he sang Giasone to Callas’s Medea in Dallas, and then also in London, at La Scala and at the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus. He had enormous respect for Callas and named her as one of the two people to have the most profound effect on opera in the post World War II period (the other being Wieland Wagner).  He was also Don Carlo in Covent Garden’s legendary Visconti production of Don Carlo, conducted by Giulini, which also had Gobbi and Christoff in the cast. With a voice of such power and penetration he naturally progressed to Wagner, singing towering performances of Tristan and Siegmund. His Otello suffered like no other and his Peter Grimes, mercifully preserved on film, is one of the greatest creations of all time. Like all the singers in this survey, his voice is instantly recognisable, his style somewhat idiosyncratic, but intensely musical. There is always something monumental about a Vickers performance. On disc, I find his Aeneas (in Berlioz’s Les Troyens), his Florestan, his Tristan and his Otello unequalled by any who have followed, and his Grimes, so totally different from Pears, utterly convincing.

 

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Teyte as Melisande

Next on my list are two more sopranos, one from well before my time and one who died only recently. I first heard the voice of Maggie Teyte in a performance of Duparc’s Chanson Triste and was totally captivated. Her performance of the song remains my yardstick to this day. Born in 1888, she was cast in the role of Mélisande by Debussy himself, replacing the creator of the role, Mary Garden.  She prepared the role by studying with Debussy, and is the only singer ever to be accompanied in public by the composer (in a performance of his song Beau soir). She married twice and went into semi-retirement after her second marriage in 1921. Like her first marriage, this ended in divorce and Teyte had some difficulty reviving her career afterwards. For some time she appeared in music hall and variety, which explains much of the lighter repertoire she sang and recorded. However the recordings of Debussy songs she made with Alfred Cortot in 1936 attracted a lot of attention, helping her to gain a reputation as one of the leading interpreters of French song, The voice remained pure, without a hint of excessive vibrato even into her sixties, and she made her final concert appearance at the Royal Festival Hall at the age of 68.

I would recommend any and all of her recordings of French song, as well as her wondrous rendering of ‘Tu n’es pas beau’ from La Périchole, which shows off to advantage her gloriously individual chest tones, and a twinkle in the eye. A private recording of her singing bits of Salome (to a piano accompaniment) show that she might even have been an ideal Salome, the silvery purity of the voice being close to Strauss’s ideal, and it is a great pity that plans for her to sing the role at Covent Garden never came to fruition.

 

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De Los Angeles as Manon

Truth to tell, I hadn’t much liked Victoria De Los Angeles when I first heard her (as a rather insecure and out of sorts Hoffmann Antonia) and I think it was probably her record of the Canteloube Chants d’Auvergne that first led me to investigate further. She had a particularly wide song repertoire, which took in early and late Spanish composers, as well as Lieder by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms and French song. One of her greatest quality was her charm and that quality the Italians refer to as morbidezza, meaning that, on the operatic stage, she was most at home playing gentler heroines. That Antonia was misleading and later I discovered she could be the perfect Marguerite (Faust), Butterfly, Rosina and Mimi displaying a golden voice allied to a winning personality. Best of all perhaps is her Manon in Massenet’s opera.  Where some make the character too knowing, De Los Angeles emphasises the childlike innocence and delight in pleasure that is at the heart of Manon’s downfall. She was also a superb Desdemona (in a live broadcast from the Met) and it’s a great pity she never got to record the role commercially.

Her Carmen on the Beecham recording has been much praised, but here I find her less convincing, though, as usual, her singing is unfailingly musical. I just can’t imagine De Los Angeles’s Carmen pulling a knife on a fellow worker. She is altogether far too ladylike. She is on record as saying that she based her Carmen on the Andalusian gypsies, who were known for their charm, a quality De Los Angeles had in abundance, but my Carmen is dangereuse est belle (Micaela’s description) and De Los Angeles, charming and adorable as she was, never sounds dangerous to me.

 

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Gobbi as Scarpia with Callas as Tosca

So far the list is rather top heavy with high voices, so I am happy to include as my next choice a baritone, colleague of Callas’s and one who encompassed many of her qualities. Like Callas, Tito Gobbi had an immediately recognisable voice and always sang with a wealth of colour and understanding. I can still remember the shattering effect of my first listen through Rigoletto, actually the first ever time I’d heard the opera. His cries of “Gilda” at the end of Act 2 after she has been abducted went straight to the heart. He may not have had the most beautiful baritone voice in the world, but, like Callas’s, it had a myriad of different colours. And like her, though always recognizably himself, he was always able to change his timbre to suit the role he was playing. 

We are fortunate indeed that, though they sang rarely on stage together (most famously in Zeffirelli’s renowned Covent Garden production of Tosca), they made many recordings together; two recordings of Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, their collaboration possibly reaching its apogee in Rigoletto, with its long series of duets for father and daughter. Again, like Callas, he could put more meaning into a line of recitative, even into a word, than bars of singing by less dramatically attuned singers. The way he utters the single word Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, when he discovers the identity of Riccardo’s midnight tryst, resonates in my mind’s ear even now. Some would aver that he didn’t have a true Verdi baritone voice, but, as I think now of the parade of Verdi roles he sang – Rigoletto, Amonasro, Posa, Simon Boccanegra, Renato, Iago, Germont, Falstaff, Nabucco – they all emerge as distinct and different characters. Of how many other singers can you say that? Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca might be his most famous creation (a repulsively reptilian character, who is both a gentleman and a thug) but it is in Verdi that his musical skill is most evident. What a tragedy that Walter Legge never had the foresight to record Macbeth with him and Callas as the murderous couple.

 

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David Daniels as Caesar with Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra

Looking back at this list of singers, I realise that they all have certain things in common; the individuality of their voices (you only have to hear a few notes to know who it is) and their ability to make the listener see as well as hear. This is no less true of countertenor, David Daniels, a singer still very much before the public today. Some years ago, I was more or less dragged to a concert of Vivaldi sung by Daniels and accompanied by Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Till then, apart from the Four Seasons and the Gloria, I had had little enthusiasm for Vivaldi’s music and had a total antipathy for countertenors in general. Daniels changed all that. Here was a voice of surpassing beauty, coupled to a marvellously natural personality. It was a total conversion and Daniels has now opened the door on a whole world of music I had previously ignored, which shows it is never too late to expand one’s horizons. I have hardly missed any of his appearances in this country, and, like all the singers on this list, he has a gift for communication vouchsafed to just a few.

He has also expanded the repertoire for countertenors, embracing American song, Lieder, French song and even Broadway. Sometimes the experiments don’t quite work. For instance, though his singing is, as ever, unfailingly musical and filled with meaning, the countertenor voice, even one as mellifluous and beautiful as his, just doesn’t have the range of colour required for a piece like Les Nuits d’Eté, and though I appreciate and enjoy his excursions into nineteenth century and modern repertoire, it is for the music of the baroque, and especially Handel, that I turn to him. In his early days his coloratura singing was sensational, but I treasure most his deeply felt singing of some of Handel’s slower arias. In an aria like Scherza infida he holds the line beautifully and firmly, but evinces a pain that is almost palpable. No other singer I have come across quite makes the same effect in this music. I am guessing that he will be coming towards the end of his career now, and I count myself fortunate indeed to have been able to experience his singing live whilst he was in his prime. I saw him so many times, that I swear he actually spotted me in the audience on several occasions, and acknowledged my applause with a nod in my direction.

Of course, apart from these singers, there have been many memorable performances. I recall the excitement of the first time I heard a really world class singer, Helga Dernesch in Fidelio and as the Marschallin (still the best I’ve seen live on stage); Agnes Baltsa’s Carmen with the no less memorable Don Jose of Jose Carreras; ditto Baltsa’s thrilling Eboli; the superb Dejanira of Joyce Di Donato; Angela Gheorgiu’s first Violetta, and Ileana Cotrubas‘s Violetta too;  Roberto Alagna’s first Romeo (in the Gounod opera); Kiri Te Kanawa’s exquisitely, if placidly, sung Fiordiligi (with Baltsa again, as an adorably funny Dorabella); Renee Fleming in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire; Margaret Price and Lucia Popp in concert. I also regret never seeing live the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who was taken from us far too early and at the height of her artistic maturity, and whom I first remember in a Proms concert on TV, at which she was the radiant soloist in a performance of Elgar’s The Music Makers. These too will always stay in the memory, but I send my gratitude to the ten on my original list, for through them I have discovered a whole world of great music. They may not necessarily be the ten greatest singers of all time but they have enriched and enlightened and can truly be called singers who have changed my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My fave teenage pop albums

Loads of people seem to be doing lists of their favourite/most played albums, and showing themselves to be pretty cool in the process. Looking at mine, I was obviously not that cool as a teenager. The first single I owned was Johnny Leyton singing Johnny Remember Me and the second was Doris Day singing Move Over Darling. Definitely not cool.

The first LP I ever owned was Dusty Springfield’s A Girl called Dusty(it cost 32/6 or around £1.65) but that was supplanted by some of her later albums, particularly Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty,

This was a real deluxe affair and came in a hard back cover with several pages of  photos of Dusty inside. The track listing above is for a CD reissue. Side 1 of the original LP ended with Doodlin’. There isn’t a dud on the album, but favourites included the gently reflective I had a talk with my man and the rip-roaring account of the Gerry Goffin/Carole King classic I can’t hear you.

The Shangri- Las never quite made it in this country, but I was hooked from the first time I heard their debut single, Remember (walkin’ in the sand) and the following single Leader of the pack (banned by the BBC, believe it or not), I liked even more. It has since become a classic of course. Their debut album had on it both singles and their B sides, plus their next hit, Give him a great big kiss, on Side 1, and a live concert (with added audience noise) on Side 2. It was hardly ever off my turntable.

The Beatles were unavoidable back then. I’d love to say that the album I played most was The White Album or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but truth to tell, it was much later that I learned to appreciate them. My favourite album, at least in my early teens was With the Beatles.

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Should I be ashamed to admit I had a bit of a crush on Paul McCartney back then? In my defence, he was pretty cute when he was young. Favourite tracks were All my loving and Please Mister Postman.

The latter was covered by the Carpenters and their third album called simply Carpenters was another regular visitor to my turntable. The first time I ever heard Karen’s voice was on the radio singing Rainy days and Mondays and I was hooked from the outset. She had a voice of velvet, which she used with consummate skill, never seeming to breathe, with a vein of melancholy that tinged every song she sang. I still rate her as one of the greatest female singers of all time.

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It was my brother who first became a fan of French chanteuse, Francoise Hardy. I think we first saw her on Ready Steady Go singing Et même. Pencil thin, with her long straight hair and fringe shading her eyes, she was the very epitome of sixties chic. I had loads of her albums, but the one that stood out for me was one she brought out in 1968, called Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux, which had on it what is still one of my favourite ever tracks, Il est trop loin. One of the great things about her, for a French student anyway, was that she had perfect diction. Even with my schoolboy French I could understand what she was singing about, and even used to write down the words. I remember one of our student teachers at school using her albums in class to get us more engaged with the language.

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I think it was the summer of 1965 when Sonny and Cher made it big, with their seminal hit I got you babe. I’ve been a fan of Cher ever since, and one has to admit that the woman has had the most extraordinary career. I had most of Sonny and Cher’s early albums, as well as Cher’s solo efforts, my favourite of which was her third album, called simply Cher.

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Aside from the opening track, Sunny, this included Cher’s rendition of the Bacharach/David penned Alfie, which was the theme song for the film that made Michael Caine a star. I also really liked her version of Buffy St Marie’s Until it’s time for you to go. That said, there is no doubt that Cher is a much better singer now than she was then.

The Mamas and the Papas swept to fame with their single California Dreamin’ and subsequently had a stream of hits including Monday Monday and Creeque Alley, which basically told the story of the group. I only ever owned one of their albums, but it is rather special, my one big favourite being the folk inspired Dancing Bear. Great vocals from, especially, Mama Cass and Denny Doherty, with fantastic renditions of Dancing in the street and Words of love, amongst others.

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In the early 60s I had been a big fan of The Walker Brothers and had even seen them live in Stockton-on-Tees. Scott Walker’s rich baritone was at the centre of some major hits, including Make it easy on yourself, My ship is coming in and The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore, and it seemed inevitable that Scott would eventually leave the group to go solo. His first two albums mixed pop standards with more esoteric fare by Jacques Brel and Scott himself, but the third album was dedicated almost exclusively to material by Scott, apart from three Jacques Brel songs at the end of side 2. For me he reached his peak with Scott 4, which was the first album of songs only penned by Walker. Maybe not coincidentally it was the first of his albums not to chart and was soon deleted, though it has now achieved something like classic status. Walker was finding it harder and harder to balance the creative and the commercial. However I’ll go for Scott 3 as the album I listened to most in my teens, with its progression of vignettes of sad, lonely individuals. Stand out tracks for me were Big Louise and the opening It’s raining today, not to mention the best ever version of Jacques Brel’s If you go away.

Just creeping into my teenage years is Carole King’s Tapestry, which is surely an all time classic. I’d known Carole King mostly from the many hit songs she penned with her then husband Gerry Goffin during the 60s, many of them sung by Dusty Springfield. I was unaware of her as a singer until the release of the single It’s too late, which also appeared on the album Tapestry, which has since become one of the best selling albums of all time. Every track is a winner and most of them have been covered by artists as diverse as James Taylor and Barbra Streisand.

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And finally there was Barbra Streisand herself. I was knocked out by her performance in Funny Girl, and subsequently bought every single one of her albums, but I think the one that first did it for me was My name is Barbra, which John Morton originally leant to me, then finally gave to me. I couldn’t get enough of that voice and I used to go around the house emulating her singing style. How on earth didn’t anyone, least of all I, know I was gay? The album has some of Barbra’s best vocal performances on it, I can see it, He touched me, Jenny Rebecca, Where is the wonder and of course My Man, which had ended the movie version of Funny Girl.

Maria as Cover Girl (6) + An Utterly Special Discovery: Opera Magazine’s Review of La Traviata at Covent Garden in June 1958 (August 1958 Issue) + Very Rare Filmed Footages of La Divina at Covent Garden

This provides a great opportunity for Callasiana to present an utterly W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L and E-X-T-R-A-O-R-D-I-N-A-R-Y discovery, shared on facebook by Signore Jose Luna, who met Divina in the 1970…

Source: Maria as Cover Girl (6) + An Utterly Special Discovery: Opera Magazine’s Review of La Traviata at Covent Garden in June 1958 (August 1958 Issue) + Very Rare Filmed Footages of La Divina at Covent Garden