Paolina in Donizetti’s Poliuto was Callas’s final new role. The opera opened the 1960/1961 season at La Scala, an honour granted to Callas five times since her official debut in I Vespri Siciliani in 1951. It also marked her return to the house since her last performances of Imogene in Il Pirata in 1958. The opera was to have been directed by Luchino Visconti, but he had withdrawn from the project in protest after his film Rocco e suoi fratelli had been censored by the Italian authorities. The sumptuous designs were by Nicola Benois, and Herbert Graf took over from Visconti as director.
The opening gala was attended by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the Begum Aga Khan, Onassis and what one might call the worldwide glitterati, all of whom had come not for Donizetti, but to see the most famous woman in opera, Maria Callas. Callas herself had had only two other engagements in 1960, singing Norma at the ancient amphitheatre in Epidaurus in Greece (the first time opera had ever been staged there) and making her second recording of the same opera for EMI. Nor did these performances signal a return to her erstwhile busy schedule. Her 1961 schedule was not much busier. She made her first disc of French arias, sang some arias with Sir Malcolm Sargent at the piano at a concert at St James’s Palace in London, and appeared in a new productions of Medea in Epidaurus and at La Scala. After a couple more performances of Medea at La Scala in 1962, she didn’t return to the stage until 1964 for the Covent Garden Tosca and the Paris Norma.
Paolina may seem a strange choice for Callas, considering that she is something of a secondary character to that of her husband, Poliuto, but publicity accompanying her every move was now at such a feverish level, that she no doubt thought it would take some of the pressure off her comeback at La Scala. An example of the hysteria which now surrounded her every move is the prolonged ovation which greets her first entrance, so loud and long that Votto has to stop the introduction to her aria and re-start after the hullabaloo has died down.
The reason I mention all this is that it helps place this performance in context, giving us an insight into Callas’s state of mind and the condition of her voice, and there is no doubting she seems nervous and uncharacteristically tentative at her first entrance. It is evident she is treading with caution, though, characteristically, her phrasing is as eloquent as ever. In Act II she appears to have gained in confidence, and the duet with Severo goes quite well. However she is still cautious in the upper reaches and an attempt at a top D at the end of the act is soon abandoned.
Her most eloquent singing comes in the Act III duet with Poliuto, and though the top of the voice is no more secure here than elsewhere, her singing is reminiscent of some of her best work. I remember a recording of this duet sung by Montserrat Caballé and her husband Bernabé Marti, but, though Caballé’s tone may be more ingratiating, her handling of the music is clumsy in comparison to Callas’s, nor does she make anything of the descending scale passages in Un fulgido lume, which Callas imbues with such significance.
Corelli is a splendid Poliuto, his voice burnished and golden, and less likely to indulge in those annoying sobs he often introduces into his singing of verismo, and the opera is cast from strength, with superb performances from Bastianini and Zaccaria. Votto, though he makes some swathing cuts to the score, is a reliable, if not particularly inspired, leader.
Being from 1960, the sound on this recording has always been quite good, and this new Warner master would appear to be a new transfer of the EMI one, which was also reasonably acceptable. A qualified success then. Not Callas at her best certainly, but definitely worth a listen.