Elena Souliotis Opera Recital

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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.

Montserrat Caballé sings Bellini and Donizetti

The lion’s share of this CD is a reissue of what, I believe, was Caballé’s first recital disc for RCA, recorded in 1965 when the voice was at its freshest, and at around the same time as her sensational international debut in Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall, when she was a last minute replacement for Marilyn Horne. Up until then her repertoire had focused on Mozart and Strauss, plus Massenet’s Manon, and in fact she made her Glyndeboure debut later the same year as the Marschallin. However it was as a bel canto specialist that she would eventually become known, and she was one of the sopranos (along with Sutherland and Sills) who spearheaded the bel canto revival, set in motion by the legendary La Scala Visconti production of Anna Bolena with Callas.

The voice itself was rich and velvety, even throughout its range, her breath control exemplary, with the ability to float the most incredible pianissimi, an effect she perhaps overused in later years. There were a few chinks in her armour, especially for a bel canto specialiste; her trills were somewhat ill defined, and though the voice had flexibility and negotiated florid music well, there was the occasional hint of an aspirate, never encountered in the singing of Callas or Sutherland.

The tendency to aspirate, noticeable in the very first phrase of Casta diva, mars the beauty of the performance and the aria is not as mesmerising as it can be, despite the gorgeous sound. But this is nit picking and hers is still one of the most ravishing performances of the piece you will hear. Better I think is the Mad Scene from Il Pirata, which is sung with deep feeling and a true appreciation of the dramatic situation. The cabaletta does not have the lacerating effect of Callas in the same music, but works well within Caballé’s gentler conception.

All three Donizetti roles which follow became Caballé staples in the next few years, and she fulfils all their demands for vocal gandeur and personality. Always evident is the sincerity of her art, but she is not one of the world’s character actors. It has to be admitted that all these Donizetti and Bellini heroines sound much the same, the characters pretty interchangeable. Does that matter? Well I suppose that depends on one’s personal preferences, and mine are well known. That said, I am grateful for what she has, and Caballé is certainly not unfeeling, in fact often most affecting. Where Sutherland’s dazzling performances often leave me cold, I find Caballé’s dramatic commitment, albeit rather generalised, satisfies me more. We would be privileged to hear singing of such beauty and accomplishment now.

RCA have here added a Mira o Norma recorded in 1972 (I assume this is from the complete set with Fiorenza Cossotto, though she is not credited) and the first part of the closing scene from Anna Bolena, recorded in a somewhat boomy acoustic in 1970. Already there is just a very occasional hint of the hardness that would later affict her loud high notes and result in the over-exploitation of those floated high pianissimi, but there is still much that is very beautiful. Befittingly, the disc ends with the quite close to the cavatina from Anna Bolena, the final phrase spun out and floated through the air on a pure thread of glorious sound. It is for moments such as these that the art of Montserrat Caballé will most be remembered.

Callas as Anna Bolena (Warner transfer) – La Scala 1957

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One of Callas’s greatest nights in the theatre is also, unfortunately, one of Warner’s worst transfers. This sounds very much like the old EMI, which was transferred from a very poor source. The sound is muddy and apt to wander in pitch. You just have to listen to Divina’s wonderfully clear, clean and crisp version to hear the difference.

I reviewed the performance in its Divina transfer back in June last year, and, rather than just repeating myself, would enjoin you to read my review by clicking on the following link  https://tsaraslondon.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/anna-bolena-la-scala-milan-april-14-1957/

 

Callas in Anna Bolena- La Scala, Milan April 14 1957

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This live recording captures a great moment in operatic history, a moment when bel canto opera was finally taken seriously. As Montserrat Caballé once stated,

She opened a new door for us, for all the singers in the world, a door that had been closed. Behind it was sleeping not only great music but great ideas of interpretation. She has given us the chance, those who follow her, to do things that were hardly possible before her.

Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, Gencer, Scotto, even today’s DiDonato and Radvanovsky should all give thanks to Callas, for without this one production, their careers might have taken very different paths. True, Callas had by this time made people re-evaluate operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula, and she had had an enormous personal success as Rossini’s Armida in Florence in 1952, but it was La Scala’s spectacular production of this one opera, Anna Bolena which paved the way for the bel canto revival, and for the next few decades, long forgotten operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini would be revived all over the world.

Such was the anticipation and excitement surrounding the production that it was covered in the international press, the UK’s Opera Magazine dedicating seven pages of its June 1957 issue to Desmond Shawe Taylor’s review.

There is no doubt that La Scala wanted to make a splash, and there is ample photographic evidence of Nicola Benois’ stunning sets, and the superb costumes. It was also the apogee of Callas’s collaboration with Visconti, though unfortunately, after the production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, which followed they never worked together again. Visconti recalls.

It was rather beautiful, if I do say so myself. But not sublime as everyone else has said. It had atmosphere. Benois and I used only black, white and grey – like the grey of London – for the sets. The castle interiors, such as the broad staircase down which Callas made her entrance, were filled with enormous portraits. The colours of the costumes – Jane Seymour, the king’s new love, wore red, for example, and the guards scarlet and yellow – played off these sombre sets. But for Anna Bolena, you need more than sets and costumes. You need Callas. Each day I went with her to the tailor to watch over every detail of her gowns, which were in all shades and nuances of blue. Her jewels were huge. They had to be to go with everything about her – her eyes, head features, her stature. And believe me, onstage, Callas had stature.

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The opera was heavily cut, so if you are looking for some ur-text version, you would have to go to studio recordings featuring Sutherland, Sills, Souliotis or Gruberova, but you would be missing out on the greatest Anna on disc, who, according to Richard Fairman in Opera on Record III,  “alone, of latter-day artists, has the power to grasp the emotional crux of every line and put it across.”

First off I should mention that this Divina Records transfer is in a different world of clarity from the murky EMI version, which unfortunately is also the source for the recent Warner transfer. Available as a download, I recommend it unreservedly.

Callas’s conception of the character of Anna is absolutely right from the word go. When asked by Rescigno, who conducted her in several concert performances of the final scene, why she phrased something in a certain way, she replied simply, “Because she is a Queen,” and it is this simple statement of fact that informs and shapes her portrayal. Callas’s Anna, though she suffers like any other woman, never forgets that she is a queen. In Callas’s own words.

Now history has its Anna Bolena, which is quite different from Donizetti’s. Donizetti made her a sublime woman, a victim of circumstance, nearly a heroine. I couldn’t bother with history’s story; it really ruined my insight. I had to go by the music, by the libretto. The music itself justifies it, so the main thing is not the libretto, though I give enormous attention to the words. I try to find truth in the music.

Contemporary reviews (and photographs) attest to the nobility of Callas’s bearing, and her first entrance vocally reflects that. Her first words have a natural authority and regal reserve, which gives way to deep private melancholy in the aria Come innocente giovane, which she sings in a gentle, perfectly focused half voice, her command of line and legato as usual superb. In the cabaletta, which is addressed to the court, she uses more voice, but the voice remains supple and she never loses for a moment that sense of regal composure.

In the following scene, where she unexpectedly meets Percy for the first time, she publicly retains her composure, though the conflicting emotions running through her heart are exposed in the many asides, and she starts the ensemble Io seniti sulla mia mano in a movingly intimate tone of infinite sadness.

These first scenes have introduced us to the character of Anna, regal, melancholy, troubled and noble, but the next scene is the one that will seal her fate and the one in which Anna will show her mettle. Alternately tender, then anxious, then truly terrified with Percy (who, it has to be said, behaves like a lovesick schoolboy throughout the opera), she is found in compromising circumstances by Enrico. Overcome with emotion she faints, but wakes to plead in melting tones her innocence in the superb ensemble In quegli sguardi impresso. Deaf to her pleas, Enrico asserts that the judges will decide her fate, and this is where Callas’s Anna really rises to her full stature, bringing to bear her queenly outrage in the words Giudice ad Anna! Guidice ad Anna! Ad Anna! Guidice! before launching the final stretta with an intensity that has to be heard to be believed. Singing with all the force at her command, she caps the ensemble with a free and secure high D, held ringingly for several bars. Anna_6

The first scene of Act II (or Act III in this performance) contains the magnificent duet for Anna and Giovanna, prototype for so many of those female voice duets that pepper the operas of Donizetti and Bellini. In it Giovanna confesses her guilt, is at first repulsed by Anna, and then magnanimously forgiven. No doubt Bellini had this duet in mind when he penned the first duet for Norma and Adalgisa in Norma. Simionato, superb throughout the opera, is a worthy foil here, but Callas again transcends the music. Her interjections into Giovanna’s confession run the gamut of emotions from shock and revulsion to resignation and acceptance, until, in one of the most moving moments in the opera, she forgives Giovanna in a voice quivering with emotion. Always notable is the way Callas achieves her effects without once disturbing the musical line. She recognises that in bel canto opera it is the arc of the melody which carries the emotional impact, her sense of line and rubato always instinctively right.

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The final scene in the tower is one she programmed into recitals on several occasions and recorded (in its entirety) for EMI on what is arguably her most successful recital disc Mad Scenes. Many have since recorded it, so it has become relatively familiar, but one should remember that it was practically unknown at the time of this performance. In Al dolce guidami Callas’s voice takes on an unearthly, eerie beauty, the music seeming to emerge from the very depths of her soul. Though closely adhering to the score, she sounds almost as if she is extemporising on the spot, and the audience listens in rapt silence, hanging on her every note, until it erupts in a corporate outpouring of applause and cheers at its quiet close. Her delivery of the recitatives in the scene is again a lesson in how to weight and measure the proportions of each line. The final Coppia iniqua is sung with massive force, the famous rising set of trills, either ignored or sketchily sung by others, sung with both accuracy and intensity, her voice rising with power to the top Cs. This is Callas at her best.

She is ably, and brilliantly, supported by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who gives her ample rein to play with the music in the quiet, reflective moments and urges the ensemble to absolutely thrilling heights in the big finales. Rossi-Lemeni’s Enrico is authoritative but woolly-toned and Raimondi’s Percy pleasingly Italianate without being particularly individual. Simionato, inspired to give of her very best, is the only other singer who comes close to Callas’s achievement, singing with glorious tone and dramatic involvement, but even she is less specific, more generalised, in her responses than Callas.

Anyone who has any interest in bel canto opera has to hear this set, which puts you in the stalls on one of the greatest nights in Callas’s career. At the end of his review Desmond Shawe-Taylor, asked if Anna Bolena could enter the international repertory.

With Callas, yes; without her, or some comparable soprano of whom as yet there is no sign, no. Many people think it a flaw in these old operas that they depend on the availability of great singer; but what would be the fate of the standard violin and piano concertos if there were scarcely a player who could get his fingers round the notes, let alone fill them with a lulling charm or a passionate intensity?

Well, eventually other sopranos did take it on, with varying degrees of success, and the opera is still performed occasionally today, but none of these other sopranos has quite matched the genius of Maria Callas, who was, without any doubt, not only a great singer and actress, but also one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.

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Callas Mad Scenes

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Recorded 24-25 September 1958, Kingsway Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Harold Davidson

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is the best recital record Callas ever recorded, and by default one of the classic recital discs of all time. The 1954 Puccini disc and Lyric and Coloratura will find her in better voice, but this one sums up more than any other her greatness, her ability to bring alive music that can seem formulaic, and even plain dull in the hands of lesser artists.

I know I’ve said this elsewhere, but her singing has an improvisatory air about it, almost as if she is extemporising on the spot; how she achieves this whilst closely adhering to what is on the printed page is a mystery beyond solving. In the Anna Bolena finale, the recitative alone provides a lesson in how to bind together disparate thoughts and ideas. She brilliantly conveys Anna’s drifting mental state, whilst still making musical sense of the phrases and the long line. We can only imagine what she might have achieved in Monteverdi’s recitativo cantavo.

Once into the first aria, Al dolce guidami, her voice takes on a disembodied sound, as if the singing is coming from the far recesses of her soul. Her legato is as usual superb, her breath control stupendous, those final melismas spun out to the most heavenly lengths.  In the cabaletta Coppia iniqua, her voice takes on a majestic power, and she manages the rising set of trills with more force than anyone (Suliotis doesn’t even attempt them).

In the magnificent Final Scene from Il Pirata, she traces a long Bellinian line second to none; spinning out the delicate tracery of the decorations from Digli ah digli che respiri  onwards with magical fluency. A complete contrast is afforded when she rears back with the words Qual suono ferale, before launching into the thrillingly exciting cabaletta.

Ophelia’s scene from Hamlet is quite different. There is no formal recitative, aria, recitative, cabaletta construction. The scene is more a series of arioso segments interspersed with recitative and can often sound disjointed as a result. Callas binds together its disparate elements with masterly ease. Her voice is lighter here than in either the Bellini or Donizetti, and though the very upper reaches tax her somewhat, she sings with delicacy and consummate skill. The switch from Italian to French causes her no problems at all, her enunciation of the French text admirably clear. Yet again every fleeting expression, every change of thought is mirrored in her voice.

A listening companion of the eminent vocal critic John Steane once said to him regarding Callas, “Of course you had to see her,” to which he replied, “Oh, but I can, and I do.” This was her genius, amply displayed in this recital; the ability to make us see as well as hear.

I did try to make sound comparisons with my other CD issues of this recital, but, as usual, I had little sympathy for the task. Callas drew me in and all I wanted to do was listen. Without making direct comparisons then, I can only state that the sound here is very satisfactory, with plenty of space round the voice.