Il Trittico with Gobbi and De Los Angeles

This isn’t a complete recording of Il Trittico. Admittedly all the operas use Rome forces, but each opera is led by a different conductor, and they were all originally issued at different times. The first two, released respectively in 1956 and 1958 are mono, but Gianni Schicchi, released in 1959 is stereo. The only unifying element is that De Los Angeles and Gobbi both appear in two out of the three operas. Still, it was useful and inevitable that the individual releases would eventually be grouped together and, as far as I’m aware, they have not been available singly since.

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Bellezza’s conducting is efficient rather than inspired and the recording is a bit muddy, but this recording of Puccini’s terse piece of grand guignolIl Tabarro, has at its heart one towering performance in the Michele of Tito Gobbi, a characterisation fit to set next to his Scarpia and Rigoletto. Not only is the role powerfully sung, but we see deep into the man’s tortured soul, the violence bubbling beneath. In no other studio performance of the opera do we feel Michele’s pain with quite such terrifying immediacy.

None of the other singers is on his level, but they are apt enough for their roles. Margaret Mas, a singer who appears to have done nothing else on record, sounds a bit mature, but that suits the role of Giorgetta well enough, as does the slightly raw tone of Giacinto Prandelli’s Luigi. The smaller roles are all well characterised, but it is Gobbi who puts the seal on this recording.

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This has always been my least favourite of the triptych, as I find its over-sentimentalised quasi religiosity a bit too much for my taste. However it is difficult not to resist such generous hearted sincerity as we get here from the adorable Victoria De Los Angeles, superbly supported by the veteran Tullio Serafin, who doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Fedora Barbieri presents a truly magisterial and implacable Zia Principessa, aristocratic, cold and dispassionate in her treatment of Angelica.

However even in a performance as committed as this, the ending stretches my suspension of disbelief just a bit too far and ultimately I prefer the sense of repressed passion and sexuality implied in the Scotto/Maazel version, which plays out almost like a scene from Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. In their hands, Angelica’s final vision comes across more as a drug-fueled hallucination, which helps to ameliorate my problems with the piece.

On the other hand I wouldn’t want to be without De Los Angeles’ beautifully sung and characterised Angelica. She is a little stretched by the highest reaches of the role, but in general the voice sounds absolutely lovely and her singing is as musical as ever.

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Verdi had his Falstaff and Puccini had his Gianni Schicchi, though Puccini’s comedy is a lot blacker and more cruel than Verdi’s.

Gobbi was brilliant in both comic roles of course, but he presents two very different characters. His Falstaff was all genial bluster, a lovable rogue, where his Schicchi is a clever schemer, with more than a touch of the venal tempered by a genuine love and affection for his daughter.

This is probably one of the best things Santini did for the gramophone, and the performance is superbly paced, with wonderfully pointed characterisations from the supporting cast, the libretto so crisply delivered that you can all but taste the words. I find myself chuckling out loud quite a few times. Carlo Del Monte might seem a bit light of voice, but for once Rinuccio sounds like the young man he is supposed to be, and Victoria De Los Angeles is simply adorable as Lauretta – none better on disc.

Gobbi recorded the role again towards the end of his career (under Maazel, with Domingo as Rinuccio and Cotrubas as Lauretta), but this one, the only one of the operas in this set to be recorded in stereo, remains my first choice.

Callas sings Medea at La Scala 1953

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It is actually somewhat down to happenstance that La Scala staged Medea in December 1953. Callas was originally to have appeared in a new production of Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore but the success of her appearances in Cherubuni’s Medea in Florence at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino made La Scala change their plans and stage the Cherubini opera instead. Nor was Bernstein slated to conduct, but Victor De Sabata, La Scala’s original choice fell ill just before rehearsals started, leaving them without a conductor. As luck would have it Bernstein was winding up a series of concerts in Italy, one of which Callas happened to hear, and she suggested they approach him, and fortunately he was free.

Unlike many of the operas Callas sang, there was absolutely no performing tradition with Cherubini’s Medea, and consequently each conductor she performed it with prepared their own, slightly differing, version, their interpretations of the score often markedly different. Where Vittorio Gui, who conducted the opera in Florence, brought out its classical dimension, Bernstein seems to see it as reaching forward into the Romantic era, his conducting more in line with his fiery interpretations of Beethoven. After the turbulent overture, the opera opens in gentle, pastoral vein, and, though I might wish that Gui (and later Serafin in the studio recording) would get a move on a bit, Bernstein seems too much in a hurry to get to the crux of the drama and his speeds are often so fast the orchestra and chorus can hardly keep up with him. However after the entrance of Medea, he really gets into his stride, and conducts a blisteringly intense realisation of the score, to match Callas’s blisteringly intense singing.

Io, Medea, are her very first words,, and, though the notes look simple enough on the page, the tone she uses carries a threat that completely dispels the pastoral calm of the previous scene.  Ah, quale voce! indeed, as Giasone comments. The crowd disperse in terror, but, left alone with Giasone, Callas is quick to make us realise that it is love alone that brings her to Corinth, particularly when she sings the words, Ricordi il giorno tu, la prima volta quando mai veduta? The aria Dei tuoi figli is sung in melting tones and, though in later years she would find even more insinuating colours, she manages its wide leaps and high tessitura with staggering ease. Unfortunately Bernstein cuts its final Crudel! and robs the aria of its true climax.

That said, his conducting of the ensuing duet is superb, especially when he suddenly slows down what had been a propulsive tempo at the lines O fatal velo d’or, with a reduction in volume from both singers and orchestra, which creates a chilling effect not duplicated in any of her other performances. Elsewhere in the duet, there is a touch too much vehemence from Callas here, and I feel she overplays her hand, as she does later in the duet with Creon, which lacks the play of light and shade found in her performance in Dallas in 1958.

Indeed throughout this performance, we get more of the sorceress and less of the woman, which makes her traversal of the role in Dallas so much more fascinating. Nevertheless, it is very exciting and, by the time of the closing scene, we are confronted with a voice of blackest evil. Bernstein also cuts a large section of the lament for her children, possibly to remove some of Medea’s human dimension in her final inexorable revenge. This solution has a justification of sorts, I suppose, but I prefer the dichotomy of woman and sorceress we get in Dallas, and, to a lesser extent, in Florence, where Gui lets us hear the closing scene in its entirety.

On the plus side, Callas’s voice is in fabulous form at La Scala and she rides the music’s climaxes with ease. The effect is undeniably thrilling, and you can hear from the audience’s reception that they gained a spectacular success.

Barbieri, is, as she was in Florence, an excellent Neris, this time singing her aria with bassoon obligato, rather than the cello substituted in Florence. I prefer Guichandut in Florence to Penno at La Scala, but nether challenges Vickers, who sings the role of Giasone in Dallas in 1958, Covent Garden in 1959, and at La Scala in 1961. Giuseppe Modesti, who also sings the role of Creon on her studio recording of the opera, is fine as Creon, though I slightly prefer Zaccaria in Dallas and Maria Luisa Nache is a sweet-toned Glauce. However it is surely for the contributions of Callas and Bernstein that we are most likely to turn to this recording , and here they are absolutely as one in their conception of the piece.

As far as the actual recording goes, again the source material is not great, so we cannot expect too much. This Warner issue is a lot clearer and cleaner than EMI’s usually shoddy presentation, but I couldn’t hear that much difference between this and the one issued by Ars Vocalis. Eventually I decided on a slight preference for the Warner, but there is not much in it, and either would be a good choice.

Callas’s First Medea – Florence 1953

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Having discussed Callas’s live Macbeth from La Scala a few posts ago, I thought I would start reviewing some of the many live Callas performances that exist. I do not propose to go into which are the best versions of these live recordings, as it can be quite a minefield, but I would just mention that, in any cases where they are available, Divina Records will be your best bet. In September Warner will be issuing a deluxe box set of many of Callas’s live performances, and, until it is, we will not know what the sound will be like. If they just re-hash the EMI versions, which should be avoided, by the way, then the news is not quite as exciting as it might have been. It remains to be seen.

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This Medea was recorded in house from a single microphone at the front of the stage, which means that voices can disappear when at the back. However I found this Instituto Discografico Italiano version not at all bad, and so intense is the performance that it draws you in and the ear readily adjusts.

Unbelievably, considering Callas’s total mastery of the role’s difficulties, this was the first time she ever sang Medea. So successful was her assumption that La Scala ditched plans to stage Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore with her later that year and replaced it with Cherubini’s Medea. Subsequently the opera was revived for her in productions at La Scala (twice), in Venice, Rome, Dallas, London and at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece. So much associated was she with the role, that when she came to make her non singing cinematic debut, it was in the role of Medea in the movie directed by Pasolini.

Cherubini’s Medée is actually a French language opéra comique with spoken dialogue, and was much admired by Beethoven and Schubert. It premiered in Paris in 1797, the first performance in Italian translation being given in Vienna in 1802. In 1855 Franz Lachner prepared a German version, for which he wrote his own recitatives. This Lachner version was first performed, in an Italian translation by Carlo Zangarini, in 1909, and it is essentially this version which Callas sang, though each of the conductors she performed the work with (Gui, Bernstein, Santini, Serafin, Rescigno and Schippers) prepared their own version of the work, making different cuts in the score. Apart from the studio recording with Serafin, we can hear live performances from Florence with Gui, La Scala with Bernstein, Dallas and London with Rescigno and La Scala again with Schippers.

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Gui’s view of the work is essentially Classical, closest in conception to Serafin, who was to conduct the studio recording, though more propulsive in the work’s many exciting climaxes. His cuts are less extensive than the other conductors’, and this is the only time we get to hear Medea’s last scene complete. However, there are times where some judicious snipping might have helped. He leaves in the orchestral bars before Medea’s final Pieta in her aria Dei tuoi figli, which makes the ending of the aria anticlimactic, and leaves the audience uncertain when to applaud. Still, I prefer this to Bernstein’s solution of cutting the final Pieta as well. All the others cut just the orchestral bars, which seems to me the better solution. There are also times, particularly in the scenes before Medea’s first entrance, where Gui’s speeds are just too slow. The overture is dramatic and exciting, but the long first scene which sets the idyllic atmosphere that Medea bursts into, drags on interminably. There are times later on too, notably the duet between Medea and Creon, where his speeds are on the slow side, but the ends of each act and the finale itself are absolutely thrilling.

Callas herself is in superb voice, the top rock solid and gleaming, managing the treacherous demands of the role (it was said that Mme Scio, its creator, died singing it) with consummate ease. She sings with a wide range of colour, though her conception of the role is a deal more subtle by the time she sings it in Dallas in 1958. No complaints about her entrance, though, which is sheer brilliance, the veiled sound of her middle voice carrying with it a threat of menace which gives way to beguilingly feminine pleading in her first aria Dei tuoi figli. The aria itself is magnificently sung, its wide leaps and high tessitura expertly managed, and it provokes a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience, unfortunately cut short when they realise the aria isn’t quite over.

In the ensuing duet with Giasone I feel she slightly overplays her hand, and this scene is not as effective as it was to become in later performances. Nor does the duet with Creon have quite the subtle play of light and shade it will have on the studio recording and in Dallas, but the final scene is mind blowingly, blazingly terrifying, her voice cutting through the orchestra with coruscating force, and there is a great deal to be gained from hearing this scene in its entirety. Gui, too, supports her brilliantly at this point. Not surprisingly the audience go wild.

Barbieri is a superb Neris, Gui making of her aria, that still, calm centre of the score, a beautiful duet between voice and cello, which Gui substitutes for the more usual bassoon. Guichandut, an Argentinian tenor I’ve never heard of before or since, is good, but no match for Vickers, who would sing the role with Callas in all productions from 1958 onwards. Gabriela Tucci is a lovely Glauce, Mario Petri perfectly acceptable as Creon, but the great moments are all with Callas. That she is so much associated with the role (even in this hybrid version of the score, which misrepresents what Cherubini actually wrote) is hardly surprising, for no other singer, before or since has made Cherubini’s score live and breathe as she has done. There have been occasional revivals, both of the Lachner version Callas sang, and the original opera comique, but none have caught the imagination the way that Callas’s performances did, and it seems likely that the opera is again to become the museum piece it once was.

Callas’s Two Recordings of Un Ballo in Maschera

Amelia is a role that should probably have figured more in Callas’s career. She sang excerpts as a student, almost got to sing it at La Scala under Toscanini, but actually didn’t tackle the whole role until the recording she made under Antonino Votto in 1956, and after singing it in a lavish new production at La Scala the following year, never sang it again, though she returned to Amelia’s two big solos in the studio in the mid to late 1960s.

We are fortunate that the La Scala live performance was captured in sound, and, though sonically it is not as clear as that on the studio recording, it is one of the best preserved La Scala broadcasts. Common to both the studio and live sets are the La Scala forces, Eugenia Ratti’s Oscar, Callas and Di Stefano. Everything else is different, so which is best?

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First off we note that Gianandrea Gavazzeni on the live set is a much more positive presence than the somewhat prosaic Anotonino Votto. It is testament to his soloists that the Votto recording remains one of the most recommendable of studio sets 60 odd years after its release, but Gavazzeni’s performance is definitely more alive to the drama, and, from that point of view at least, the live performance is preferable. One should also note that the audience is a palpable (and vocal) presence, which some may find distracting. Personally I find it all part of the fun. Though one of the best of Callas’s La Scala broadcasts, it still tends to overload at climaxes. The studio set is in good mono sound.

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Let’s now take the other differences. What I miss most on the live recording is Gobbi’s Renato. Bastianini on the live set was a fine singer, and probably had what we consider more of a Verdi baritone sound, but he is not nearly as imaginative as Gobbi. Bastianini has the more beautiful voice. Gobbi creates the more interesting character. When Gobbi sings the single word “Amelia” at the moment his wife is revealed to be the Duke’s paramour, he invests it with a wealth of conflicting emotions far beyond the scope of the more forthright Bastianini, so, in this respect at least the studio version is preferable. The conspirators on the studio set are also slightly better at vocal word painting than their live counterparts, but the difference is marginal.

Both the Ulricas are excellent, and if I prefer the magnificent Simionato on the live set, my preference is again only marginal. Barbieri is also excellent on the studio set. Eugenia Ratti is a trifle shrill for my liking on both the studio and live sets.

As for Callas and Di Stefano, I’d find it hard to choose between their performances, as they are both in terrific voice on both sets. Di Stefano is not the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but he has bags of personality. In the live set, he can be guilty of playing to the gallery somewhat, but the audience give him a rapturous reception, so who can blame him?

Callas is in magnificent form on both sets, her singing full of incidental details most singers miss, her command of the role’s difficulties staggering. I often wonder why her voice sounds so much fuller and richer in this role than it does on the studio Aida, which was recorded in 1955, the year before the studio set and two years before the live version. Possibly because Amelia is a transitional role, requiring a full compliment of trills and vocal graces of which Callas was a mistress. However it also requires quite a large voice, which is why the vocal niceties of the role are usually glossed over or ignored. Listen to Callas sing in her first scene the arching phrase Consentimi o signore with a pure legato and refulgent tone, whilst perfectly executing the little turn at the end of the phrase that signifies Amelia’s nervous state. Note also that when Amelia mirrors Oscar’s trills in the Oath Scene, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills. It is moments such as these that make Callas stand out from all others.

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A month after the La Scala prima, she was to sing Norma at the Rome Opera at a gala attended by the Italian president. She was unwell and tried to cancel, but, against her better instincts allowed herself to be persuaded by the management to do the performance, as, incredibly, they had not bothered to engage an understudy. During the performance, she felt her voice slipping away from her, and refused to carry on after Act I. This created one of the biggest scandals of her career. The Rome Opera refused to make any announcement on her behalf, and then compounded the problem by cancelling the rest of her contract, even though she had representations from doctors confirming her illness. The press had a field day, even fabricating footage of her supposedly rehearsing in good voice, though the footage was actually from a radio broadcast in 1955. She eventually sued the Rome Opera, a case that was settled entirely in her favour, but the case dragged on for years, and by the time she won the case, the damage done to her personally was irrevocable.

When she returned to La Scala later that year in a revival of Anna Bolena, the La Scala audience greeted her with icy silence, though, as was her wont, by the end of the first performance, she had scored a personal triumph even greater than at the prima the previous year. Unfortunately, when she returned to her villa with Meneghini, it was to find the walls and gates covered and daubed with dog excrement. Is it any wonder she began to doubt whether devoting her life to her art was really worth the trouble? Is it any wonder that the world of the glitterati, empty though it would turn out to be, should suddenly seem so attractive?

After the live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera, there are of course some stupendous performances to come, the Cologne La Sonnambula, the Dallas Medea, the London and Lisbon La Traviatas for instance, but we rarely hear her sing again with such security, and ease. Pure conjecture on my part of course, but I often wonder if that Rome cancellation, and the fall out from it, was when the pressure of performing, of always having to be the best really started to get to her.

Callas’s 1952 La Gioconda

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Recorded 6-10 September 1952, Auditorium RAI, Turin

Producer & Balance Engineer unknown

Callas’s first ever complete studio recording was made for the Italian firm Cetra in 1952, before she had signed with EMI. The role of Gioconda had furnished her with her Italian debut in 1947, and was the occasion she met two of the most important men in her life, her mentor Tullio Serafin and her future husband Battista Meneghini. Paradoxically she would make her second recording of the opera at the time of her affair with Onassis, and when she was separating from Meneghini.

When Callas recorded La Gioconda for Cetra she was still a large lady and at her vocal peak. It was recorded just a couple of months before she made her spectacular debut at Covent Garden in Norma and shortly before her only series of performances as Lady Macbeth at La Scala, a role one wishes had figured more in her career. She then went on to sing Gioconda at La Scala, her last performances in the role until the EMI recording in 1959.

Given the sheer animal power and massive, freewheeling brilliance she could command at this stage in her career, you would think this Cetra recording would, in all but matters of sound, win hands down over the later one, recorded seven years after when her vocal powers were failing, but I’m not sure it’s that simple, and, whilst listening to this one, there were quite a few passages where I found myself hankering after the later recording. True, the singing is often magnificent, and it is easy to be swept away by the coruscating force of her delivery, but I find myself missing some of the refinements she has made by the time of the second recording. This may be a controversial opinion, but this one seems to me to be a series of thrilling highlights, whereas the characterisation on the EMI set feels more of a piece, with a cumulative power I don’t get here, for all the added security of her voice; and actually there are certain, purely vocal moments, she manages better on EMI than she does on Cetra (the pitfalls of Ah come t’amo, the E un di leggiadre section from Suicidio, the whole of the section after she gives Laura the sleeping draught, for instance).

As against that, I should also state that her performance of Suicidio here completely floored me when I first heard it. I had no idea a female voice, a soprano at that, could sing with such passion, could have such powerful chest notes. It was absolutely staggering and one of the things that first turned me on to the genius of Callas in the first place. If I later got to know the opera better from the EMI recording and place that at a slightly higher level of achievement, it is none the less  a close-run thing.

The Warner engineers have done a great job of the re-mastering and it sounds much better than I remember it from my previous CDs, though obviously not so good as the stereo EMI set. One also misses the greater refinement of the La Scala orchestra and chorus.

As for her colleagues, it is largely a case of swings and roundabouts. Barbieri is a much more positive presence than the young Cossotto as Laura, but none of the men on either of the sets are particularly good. Ferraro on EMI isn’t very subtle, but he certainly makes a pleasanter sound than the awful Poggi. Honours are about equal between Silveri and Cappuccilli, Neri and Vinco. Votto’s conducting isn’t much different in the two sets, and remains some of his best work on disc.

One thing is for sure, Callas as Gioconda is an absolute must, and, regardless of any reservations surrounding her colleagues or recording quality, eclipses every other performance of the role on disc.

Callas’s Studio Aida

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Recorded 10-12, 16-20, 23-24 August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

I’m going to make a confession. Aida is not my favourite Verdi opera. I find it hard to identify with any of the characters, and they usually emerge as representatives rather than real people. It is full of great music, but I have to admit I admire it rather than love it. Nor would the role of Aida be considered a natural for Callas, though she sang it, with a great deal of success, quite often between her debut in the role in 1948 and her last stage appearances in it in 1953, this 1955 recording being the last time she would ever sing the complete role, though she returned to the aria Ritorna vincitor and the Nile duet with Radames (with Corelli) late in her career in the mid 1960s. Interestingly enough, though one doesn’t think of Aida as a Callas role, when the now defunct International Opera Collector magazine conducted a poll of its readers to assemble the ideal Aida cast, Callas was one of the favourites, alongside such famous Aidas as Ponselle and Leontyne Price.

The reason for this can only be that she brings the rather placid character of Aida to life like no other. Though she may not have the sweetness of timbre one might ideally want from an Aida, there are plenty of other rewards. She takes a little while to settle down in the first trio, but Ritorna vincitor is alive with meaning and contrast. Just listen to the way she spits out her hatred for del egizii coorti, the power with which she exhorts her compatriots to destroy the legions, with particular emphasis on the word struggete, the complete change of colour at Ah! Sventurata che dissi, the tenderness with which she sings of her love for Radames and the pain and desperation in her voice at Da piu crudeli angosce un core affranto; the last imprecation to the Gods sung with her tone drenched in sorrow, her legato as usual impeccable. Aida’s cruel predicament is set before us in this one aria with a psychological penetration second to none.

There are wondrous little details in the ensuing duet with Amneris too, like the touch of pride that enters her tone at Mia rivale! Ebben sia pure, quickly withdrawn when she realises she could easily give away her true identity.

But it is the Nile Scene that makes the greatest impression in this set. It starts with Aida’s O patria mia, which some commentators have found to be the weak link in her portrayal, but she yearns most wistfully, floating the tone wonderfully at O freschi valli. She always had problems with the ascent to top C, but it is a lot more solid here than she is often given credit for. It may not be dolce as marked by Verdi, but I don’t hear the wobble that so many commentators claim to have problems with. The following duet is magnificent music and magnificently sung by both Callas and Gobbi, and the finest realisation of it on disc. I doubt any singers have come close to them in the way they create drama in sound, and Serafin is at his very best in this scene too. I found it impossible to hold back the tears as Callas launched into that glorious tune at O patria, patria, quanto mi costi, and how brilliantly Serafin makes the violins weep with her.

The duet with Radames is hardly less fine, though Tucker can be a bit graceless at times. Yet again, Callas brings out a wealth of detail, like the insinuating way she sings Pur, se tu m’ami with that slight portamento on the word m’ami. She plays Radames brilliantly here, wonderfully seductive when she sings La tra foreste vergini. This is operatic singing on the highest level. In the last act too, she has something to offer, singing with grace and accuracy the difficult fioriture of Vedi? Di morte l’angelo.

As already mentioned Gobbi is superb as the implacable Amonasro, masculine and forthright of tone,  though still able to inject some tenderness into his duet with Aida. Tucker has the right heroic timbre for the role of Radames, but he can be a bit lachrymose, and tends to aspirate and sob, as if mimicking the mannerisms of a true Italian tenor. Barbieri is more subtle than I remember her, and provides a barnstorming Amneris, though I have come to prefer Baltsa on Karajan’s second recording, who reminds us that Amneris is a young princess and a valid rival for Aida.

Serafin is on top form, conducting in the best Italian tradition, lyrical and dramatic in equal measure. There may not be any great surprises or revelations, but his deep understanding of the music and its style is its own reward.

All in all, it was a great surprise to re-discover this set, to enjoy the opera more than I thought I would, and to find myself appreciating Callas’s very individual take on the role

The Callas Karajan Il Trovatore

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Recorded 3-4, 6-9 August 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Though Callas, even in her early days, often courted controversy, there was very little disagreement about her Leonora, which seems to have been universally acclaimed from day one. Schwarzkopf called it “a miracle”, Bjoerling “perfection” and Lauri- Volpi “glorious”. Il Trovatore was of course a staple of the repertoire, but years of lazy singing by less technically accomplished sopranos had removed much of Leonora’s filigree. When Callas sang the role, critics said it was as if an old master had lovingly been restored to its original glory. Writing of her performance of the role in London in 1953, Cecil Smith in Opera wrote,

For once we heard the trills fully executed the scales and arpeggios tonally full-bodied but rhythmically bouncing and alert, the portamentos and long-breathed phrases fully supported and exquisitely inflected.

Used to enlisting Serafin’s support with a new role, she had had to prepare it alone for her first Leonoras in Mexico,  as she would be singing it under a different conductor (Guido Picco). A recording of that performance in 1950 shows that most of Callas’s ideas on the role were her own, and her singing is wonderfully accomplished, though she would eschew some of the interpolated high notes in later performances of the opera. She subsequently sang the role in Naples (under Serafin), at La Scala, in London, in Verona, in Rome and in Chicago (with Bjoerling), and finally for this recording in 1956.

By 1956 Callas’s voice is not what it was even in 1953, when she sang the role at La Scala, and high notes can be strident, but her voice in the middle and lower registers still has a dark beauty absolutely apt for the role. Her breath control is prodigious, her legato superb and throughout she phrases like a violinist rather than a vocalist.  Not only are the trills, scales and arpeggios fully executed, as Cecil Smith points out, but they are bound into the vocal line, becoming expression marks rather than just trills or scales. Even with a great singer, like Ponselle, the cadenza at the end of D’amor sul’ali rosee can seem as if it is just tacked on. With Callas, it becomes the natural conclusion of the aria, a musical expression of Leonora’s voice flying out to Manrico. In this recording we are also vouchsafed the cabaletta after the Miserere, (Tu vedrai) which was usually cut before then, presumably because most lyric-dramatic sopranos would find it beyond their capabilities. Callas is magnificent. Musically, I have no doubt that Leonora was one of her greatest achievements.

The rest of the cast are probably as good as could be assembled at the time. Di Stefano almost convinces his voice is right for the role, though, truth to tell, it’s a notch too small. He doesn’t really have the heroics for Di quella pira, but he is always alive to the drama, always sings off the words. Barbieri is a terrific Azucena, Panerai an intensely obsessive Di Luna, and Zaccaria a sonorous Ferrando.

But if Callas is the star vocalist, then Karajan is the second star of the recording. I’d even go so far as to say this is one of his very best opera recordings. His conducting is thrilling and one is constantly amazed at the many felicities he brings out in the orchestral colour, like the sighing two note violin phrases in Condotta ell’era in ceppi, or the beautifully elegant string tune that underscores Ferrando’s questioning of Azucena in Act III, cleverly noting its kinship with Condotta ell’era in ceppi. His pacing is brilliant, rhythms always alert and beautifully sprung, but suitably spacious and long-breathed in Leonora’s glorious arias. Nor does he shy away from the score’s occasional rude vigour. It is a considerable achievement.

My LP pressing was in the fake stereo re-issue, and I had the 1997 Callas Edition on CD. This Warner re-mastering sounds a good deal better than both, with plenty of space round the voices and plenty of detail coming through from the orchestra.

A classic Il Trovatore then, which has stood the test of time, and has held its place amongst the best. In all but recorded sound, I would prefer it to both the Mehta with Leontyne Price and Domingo and the Giulini with Plowright and Domingo again, though Giulini does have possibly the most interesting Azucena of them all in Brigitte Fassbaender. Callas and Karajan, on those rare occasions they worked together, are a hard act to follow.

Callas’s Studio Un Ballo in Maschera

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Recorded 4-9 September, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

It may come as a surprise to find that this 1956 recording of Un Ballo in Maschera was the first time Callas was singing the role of Amelia complete, and that she would not sing it on stage until the following year at La Scala in a lavish new production by Margarita Wallman, her only stage performances of the role. As is her wont, she completely inhabits the role and so deep is her identification with it that one would assume she had been singing it for years.

Amelia is a transitional role in Verdi’s canon, looking forward to Verdi’s later style, but still with a requirement for many of the vocal graces one expects from a bel canto singer, most of them glossed over or ignored by technically less accomplished sopranos. Callas’s voice and technique were well suited to it, her dark timbre uniquely telling, filling out its phrases with true spinto tone. Amelia’s very first phrases are sung with breadth and a deep legato, and yet she executes the little turns Verdi adds to indicate Amelia’s nervous state of mind nimbly and with accuracy, and how beautifully she spins out the arch of the great melody at Consentimi, o Signore.

Act II finds her at her very best, first in the great scena that opens the act, including a secure top C at its close. But note how she phrases onwards and through the top note, so that the final cadenza and its quiet close become the focal point of the aria. Note also how she observes the sforzando markings at Deh mi reggi, whilst at the same time maintaining her impeccable legato. The ensuing duet with Riccardo (one of Verdi’s greatest inspirations) has an erotic charge not heard in any other version, save possibly the live one from the following year; who but Callas can invest the line Ebben si t’amo with so many conflicting emotions? Throughout this recording her voice, rich and dark hued, is more responsive than that of Eugenia’s Ratti’s light voiced soubrette. In the ensemble at the end of the first scene of Act III, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills, and hear in the Oath Quartet just before, how she whips through a series of triplets which take her from a sustained top Bb to D and Eb at the bottom of the stave with dazzling accuracy. This is Callas at her best, both vocally and dramatically.

The rest of the cast could hardly be bettered. Di Stefano may not be the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but it is still one of his best roles, sung with his own brand of slancio and lashings of charm. Gobbi is superb as Renato. Others may better him in the cantabile of Alla vita che t’arride, but few have expressed so eloquently the anguish and conflicts at the heart of Eri tu. Barbieri is a formidable Ulrica, and Ratti a pert, if occasionally too bright-voiced, Oscar. We also get a nicely ironic pair of conspirators in Maionica and Zaccaria.

Votto is, well, a good accompanist, and nowhere near as propulsive as Gavazzeni at La Scala the following year. Serafin would have been the better conductor for the job, but Callas was in a funk with him for agreeing to record La Traviata with Stella instead of her.

This was one of the few La Scala recordings not produced by Walter Legge, though the La Boheme which preceded it was. I have no idea why this should have been the case.  I originally owned the first UK reissue of the set on LP, and later the 1987 EMI Angel CD issue. Callas always sounded well on this set, but it is Ratti who sounds less shrill on the Warner than she did on the previous CD incarnation. Either that or my ears have become more forgiving.

I would never want to be without the live Un Ballo in Maschera from the following year, possibly the last time we hear Callas singing with such power and freedom, but this recording remains one of the most recommendable studio sets around, despite its mono sound. The opera was recently the subject of Radio3’s Building a Library programme. Final choice was eventually narrowed down to Muti with Domingo and Arroyo and this Callas set. If Roger Parker eventually plumped for Muti, that was because of the better, more modern sound and the greater refinement of Domingo’s Riccardo. However he comforted himself by making the Callas recording his historical choice, leaving him the best of both worlds.