Katia Ricciarelli in Recital

This disc is mostly taken from a recital given by Ricciarelli in Switzerland in 1979, with the final two items from a concert given the following year. The programme is a good one, starting with bel canto items and finishing with verismo, with early and middle period Verdi bridging the gap.

The voice is mostly in good shape, though it develops a slight beat on high when under pressure, more noticeable in the verismo items than it is in the gentler bel canto she chooses, and it is the items by Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi that make the greatest impression.

We start with Giulietta’s Oh quante volte from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a role that suited her like a glove and for which she receieved rave reviews when she sang it at Covent Garden in a revival of the production first mounted for Gruberova and Baltsa. I also heard her sing the aria at a recital at the Barbican Hall in 1987 in a programme very similar to the one we have here. This aria was undoubtedly the highlight of the night and she was forced to encore it at the end of the evening. She spins out the phrases quite deiciously and with superb musicality and, as she never has to force her voice, the result is mesmerisingly beautiful.

The Donizetti items are also beautifully moulded, the lines caressed, though one notes that she does not sing the more forceful cabaletta to the Anna Bolena aria, and I imagine it would have taxed her limits, though she did sing the role quite a lot, apparently with much success. The Lucreia Borgia is also an elegiac piece and again she fills its phrases with signifcance, her phrasing unfailingly musical.

Of the two Verdi items the first from Il Corsaro suits her better and I rather wish that she had been cast in Gardelli’s Philps recording of 1976. Norman, who sings Medora, isn’t bad by any means, but Ricciarelli is more inside the music, more stylish. The following year she joined the Philips early Verdi stable, singing Lucrezia in I Due Foscari and Lida in La Battaglia de Legnano and she is superb in both.

The Forza aria suggests that the role may have been a bit too big for her and the voice does rather glare on the climactic Bb on Maledizion. The floated one on Invan la pace is better, but still sounds a mite insecure.

The verismo arias also have their attractions and are very well received by the audiences, possibly because they were better known, but again climactic high notes are apt to glare uncomfortably, particularly in the exposed climax to Wally’s lovely Ebben. Ne andro lontana. None the less the aria is beautifully felt and delivered with a sighing loneliness that is most effective. She also differentiates nicely between Tosca’s utter desperation and Butterfly’s single minded conviction that Pinkerton will return.

All in all, then a rewarding programme. Ricciarelli is a singer I have come to admire more with the passing years. More vocally fallible than such  contemporaries as Freni or Caballé, less individual in her response to the text than Scotto, her singing is unfailingly musical and I derived a lot of pleasure from this recital.

Callas’s Norma – 7 December 1955

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1955 had been a spectacular year for Callas, though its beginning was inauspicious. She had been scheduled to start the year singing one of her speciality roles, Leonora in Il Trovatore, at La Scala, but Del Monaco, who was to have sung Manrico pleaded indisposition, though oddly he felt well enough to sing Andrea Chénier (who knows the vicissitudes of tenors), so La Scala made a substitution. Callas could have stepped down, but learned the role of Maddalena in a few days. The opera, a La Scala favourite, had a big success, but the role was hardly one in which her rarified gifts could shine, and is omething of a curiosity in the Callas cannon. Thereafter she went from one major success to another. She sang Medea in Rome and followed it with three productions at La Scala, which have entered the realms of legend, the Visconti productions of La Sonnambula and La Traviata, and, by way of contrast, Zeffirelli’s production of Il Turco in Italia. During the summer she recorded Aida, Madama Butterfly and Rigoletto then in September she had a massive success in Karajan’s La Scala production of Lucia di Lammermoor, when the opera toured to Berlin. The autumn saw her back in Chicago for her second season, where she sang Elvira in I Puritani, Leonora in Il Trovatore (perfection according to her co-star Jussi Bjoerling) and her only stage performances of Madama Butterfly. Truly 1955 had been her anus mirabilis and she closed it with what, by common consent, is the greatest recorded performance of her signature role, Norma.

First a word about the differences between this Divina transfer and most others you will hear. Divina’s remaster is from a first generation master tape and the sound is very good, certainly the best I’ve heard. As the first fifteen minutes were not recorded, like other companies Divina have included music from another performance, but whereas other labels do not credit it, Divina tells us they used a 1965 performance under Gavazzeni for the overture and Oroveso’s first aria, and the Rome broadcast of 1955 under Serafin for part of the recitative before Pollione’s Act I aria. There was some radio interference in Norma’s long solo at the beginning of Act II, and most issues substituted the same scene from the Rome broadcast of the same year, but Divina have left it as it stands to retain the integrity of the La Scala performance, and so as not to lose some of Callas’s most moving singing. It lasts only a few seconds and is easy to live with.

The La Scala season starts every year on December 7th, and for the fourth time in five years, Callas had been given the honour of a new production to open the season. The last time she had sung Norma there was in 1952, the year she first became a permanent member of the La Scala company. The La Scala years saw a period of incredible artistic achievement and there is no doubt that by this time Callas had become the reigning queen of La Scala. The new production was by Margherita Wallman, with designs by Nicola Benois and the starry cast included Mario Del Monaco as Pollione, Giulietta Simionato as Adalgisa and Nicola Zaccaria as Oroveso.

Callas is in fabulous form from the outset, stamping her authority on the performance, and the Druids, in her opening recitatives, her voice taking on a veiled, mysterious quality when she sings about reading the secret books of heaven, before singing a mesmeric Casta diva. The repeated As up to B harden slightly in the first verse, but that hardness has dissipated by the second verse and therafter the voice seems to be responding to her every whim. The linking recitative between cavatina and cabaletta was always a high point of her performances, with that wondrous change of colour at Ma punirlo il cor non sa, leading her into the cabaletta. It’s a jaunty tune with plenty of opportunity for display, but Callas somehow invests it with a private melancholy available to few others. I find it impossible to think of the words Ah riedi ancora, qual eri allora without hearing Callas’s peculiarly plaintive voice in my mind’s ear.

The duets with Simionato are also high points of the performance. The two singers first appeared together in Mexico in 1950 and became life long friends. Before these La Scala performances, they had sung together in the opera in Mexico, Catania, London (in 1953) and Chicago. Though the pairing of Callas with Stignani had become a famous one, Simionato was a better fit for the role than Stignani, who both looked and sounded too mature, and no downward transpositions had to be made to accomodate her. Furthermore their voices blended well, and you can sense the deep rapport that existed between them after so many performances together. It is great cause for regret that Simionato was contracted to Decca and therefore never appeared on any of Callas’s studio recordings.

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There are so many things to cherish in this first duet, particularly the wistful way Callas’s Norma recollects the dawning of her love for Pollione and then the fullness of heart with which she consoles Adalgisa at Ah tergi il pianto. However the most arresting moment is in the cabaletta to the duet when she hits a top C forte, then makes a diminuendo on the note before cascading down a perfect ‘string of pearls’ scale, eliciting audible gasps of disbelief from the audience.

Having been all warmth in the duet, her voice flashes out in anger in the trio, the coloratura flourishes hurled out with terrific force, the top Cs like scalpel attacks. The act comes to an exciting end as Callas takes a thrilling, rock solid top D, which she holds ringingly for several bars.

The opening of Act II, a mixture of recitative and arioso akin in some ways to Rigoletto’s Pari siamo, always provoked some of Callas’s most moving singing. What other singer matches her range of tone colour in this scene? I’m thinking of the hard tone at schiavi d’una matrigna when she contemplates the fate of her children at the hands of a stepmother, and the way she drains the tone of colour at un gel mi prende e in fronte mi si solleva il crin so that it becomes a literal expression of her hair standing up on end. This leads to wonderfully tender singing as she looks at her sleeping children, and of course ultimately she cannot bring herself to kill them, her voice drenched with maternal love at son i miei figli.

The following duet, one of the most famous in the bel canto repertoire is, even more than the Act I duet, a perfect example of two artists at one with each other, their voices intertwining and their timing perfect. Not unsurprisingly it provokes rapturous applause from the audience.

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Callas’s performances were always cumulative and the final scene is almost unbearably moving as Callas takes us through the gamut of emotions, from the almost youthful joy with which she sings Ei tornera spinning out the melisma on come del primo amor ai di felici, through suppressed anger and barely contained rage to ultimate peace and magnanimity, heart-wringinly moving in her final plea for her children. But what we should always remember is how musically her effects are made, her phrasing and the way she shapes the musical line, her sense of rubato unparalleled. Another moment that has entered the history books is her singing of the words son io when Norma confesses her guilt. Apparently she would simply take the wreath from her head and you can almost hear the moment she does it. The audience respond with a sort of corporate moan. Was Ponselle ever as moving as this? Was Pasta? We will never know, but at least with Callas we have recorded evidence. So much is Callas’s way with the role imprinted on my subconscious that inevitably I find all others wanting. Her Norma is so complete, so all enveloping that it remains unchallenged to this day and we are fortunate indeed that this performance, which captures that moment in her career when art and technique reached their truest equilibrium, was captured in sound.

For the rest, Simionato is arguably the best Adalgisa Callas ever sang with and is in terrific form here. Zaccaria is a sympathetic and sonorous Oroveso. Del Monaco makes up for his lack of coloratura with a voice of heroic, clarion splendour and Votto, though he pales next to Serafin, is the perfect accompanist, which, with such a cast, is perhaps all he needed to be.

Great Normas have always been thin on the ground, though all sorts of unsuitable singers appear to be attempting it these days, but let no one think they have truly heard the opera until they have heard a performance with a great protagonist. The studio recordings have their value in enjoying better sound, but I have no hesitation giving this one the prize as the best of all Callas’s recorded Normas.

 

 

Joan Sutherland – The Art of the Prima Donna

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So what more can one say about this famous two disc recital? It was recorded in 1960, not long after Dame Joan had enjoyed a spectacular success in Lucia di Lammermoor, in 1959, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She was already 33 and had been a member of the company since 1952, when she had sung Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the Priestess in Aida. She had sung a wide number of roles there, including Agathe, the Countess, Gilda, Pamina, Eva and even Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, but none of these undertakings had prepared anyone for the spectacular success she would have as Lucia, with Serafin, Callas’s mentor, in the pit. The role became her calling card and shortly afterwards she sang it in Paris, at La Scala and at the Met, performances that put her firmly on the map and paved the way for the direction her career would take. Thereafter she concentrated almost exclusively on the bel canto repertoire and many operas were resurrected specifically for her.

Let us try and listen now with fresh ears, as if, for instance, this was the work of a singer new to us today. First impressions would be of the beauty of the voice, the fullness of tone, the ease on high and the way those top notes ring out with brilliance but without a hint of shrillness. We would also notice the rocketing virtuosity and the stunningly accurate coloratura. She also sings with feeling, but the first impressions are definitely vocal. This is an exceptional instrument used with great technical accomplishment. What I don’t think we quite get is a true impression of the size of the voice, which, according to all who heard her in the theatre, was quite exceptional.

Some of the arias (particularly the opening track, Arne’s The soldier tir’d, Handel’s Let the bright Seraphim and Semiramide’s Bel raggio) have become yardsticks against which all subsequent comers might be judged, and almost all the others would no doubt be considered amongst the best versions available. Vocally she has few limitations, though these might include a relative weakness in the lower register. Nor is she ever likely to suddenly throw into relief a word or a phrase and her diction, though a lot better than it was later to become is not particularly clear. We might also note that characterisation is not her strong point. As one aria follows another there is little to distinguish one character from another. We do not get a gallery of different people, as one would with a Callas or a Schwarzkopf.

For many these reservations will not be a problem and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the purely visceral experience of hearing such a beautiful voice in full bloom tackling with accomplishment a wide range of music. For others, and I would count myself among them, that certain sameness of interpretaion will be a problem and I for one prefer to listen to the recital piecemeal rather than all in one sitting. When listening in sequence, I start out being stunned by the singing but, after a while, my mind starts to wander as one interpretation emerges much the same as the one before. The best arias are, as I intimated above, those in which Sutherland can display her amazing vocal dexterity.

Going back to first impressions, though. There is, as far as I’m aware, nobody singing today who can even approach the accomplishment of what Sutherland achieves here. This two disc set stands as testament to her greatness, before the mannerisms (the poor diction, the mushy middle voice, the droopy partamenti) became apparent and should be in the collection of all those interested in singers and singing.

Sylvia Sass – The Decca Recitals

 

Sylvia Sass shot to stardom at the age of 25 after singing the role of Griselda in a 1975 Covent Garden production of Verdi’s I Lombardi which also starred José Carreras. Decca were quick to sign her up and her first recital LP (one side of Puccini, one of Verdi) followed in 1977. A further opera recital followed in 1979 and finally in 1981 a recital of songs by Liszt and Bartók, in which she got to sing in her native Hungarian. She also appeared on Solti’s recordings of Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira) and Bluebeard’s Castle and on the Philips recording of Stiffelio. She was hailed as the new Callas and, like others saddled with the epithet before her, her international stardom was short-lived, though she continued to sing in opera (though mostly in Hungary) until 1995 and made many records for Hungaraton.

From the very first notes of Turandot’s In questa reggia it is clear that this is a singer with a personality, always aware of the dramatic possibilities of the music. The voice can caress, but equally it has bite and power and the top can glare when singing at full tilt. The four Puccini heroines given here (Turandot, Tosca, Manon and Butterfly) emerge as distintinctively different characters, which isn’t always the case in a Puccini recital. There is also much that is fine in the Verdi items, the Sleepwalking Scene from Macbeth being particularly good, but here we notice a tendency, also evident in the Puccini items, for there to be too great a gap between her loud and soft singing, where the loud singing can take on a strident, squally edge that contrasts too greatly with the almost disembodied purity of her soft singing.

By the time of the second recital this tendency to veer from ultra soft to ultra loud has become more pronounced, even more noticeable when singing live. I remember seeing her as Norma at Covent Garden in 1980 and you could hardly hear her when she was singing quietly. Not that the second recital doesn’t have its attractions. Lady Macbeth continues to be impressive, and there are some lovely moments in the Il Trovatore aria, with its spectacularly floated high D.

The 1981recital of Liszt and Bartók songs, with András Schiff at the piano, is rather impressive. Sass brings vivid personality to and drama to a song like Liszt’s Die Loreley, as well as a beautiful, comforting quality to Kling leise, mein Lied. She also makes musical sense of Bartók’s sometimes angular vocal lines, brilliantly supported by Schiff’s superb playing of the difficult piano accompaniments.

It is a great shame Sass never really fulfilled the promise of her early successes, but these discs serve to remind us why people found her so exciting when she first burst onto the scene and receive a qualified recommendation from me.

Maria Callas- Soprano Assoluta

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This is a superb compendium of recordings taken from live concerts given by Callas between 1949 and 1959. It is being offered as a FREE download (yes, you read that right, free) from Divina Records, so surely there can be no reason not to snap it up while you still can. The sound, while hardly state of the art, is not bad for the period, all of the performances having been taken from radio broadcasts. Taken from BJR LPs, transfers are up to Divina’s usual high standards and the download comes with an excellent pdf of the booklet which accompanied the original release.

The first track is actually her first 78 recording, made for Cetra in 1949, a beautiful performance of Casta diva and Ah bello a me ritorna, though without the opening and linking recitatives in which Callas always excelled. The aria is ideally floated, the scales and coloratura in the cabaletta stunning in their accuracy. We next turn to a radio concert recorded for Turin radio in 1952, with Oliviero de Fabritiis conducting. Callas was obviously out to demonstrate her versatility, and was also trying out for size a couple of roles she would sing later that year, Lady Macbeth and Lucia. To Lady Macbeth’s Letter Scene and the first part of Lucia’s Mad Scene, she adds Abigaille’s Ben io t’invenne from Nabucco and the Bell Song from Lakmé. She is in stupendous voice in all, the high E in the Bell Song ringing out here much more freely than it does in the 1954 recording. Not only is the singing technically stunning, but the contrasts she affords as she switches from the powerfully ambtious Lady Macbeth, to the sweet and maidenly Lucia, from the demonically triumphal Abigaille to the improvisatory story-telling of Lakmé are simply out of this world. You really don’t hear singing like this nowadays.

Next we move to a 1954 Milan concert, starting with her justly famous and technically brilliant recording of Constanze’s Martern aller Arten from Die Entführung aus dem Serail (sung here in Italian as Tutte le torture), her one Mozart stage role. Not only does she execute the difficulties with ease, she sounds properly defiant. It is a thrilling performance. Louise’s Depuis le jour (sung in French) suits her less well, and the performance is marred by occasional unsteadiness. Nonetheless it is hard to resist the quiet intensity of her intent. Armida’s D’amore al dolce impero from Rossini’s opera is, like the Mozart, stunningly accomplished, even if some of the more daring variations from the Florence complete performances have been trimmed down. The bravura of the singing is still unparalleled. The last item from this concert is Ombra leggiera from Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, a rather empty piece, which is hardy worth her trouble, though it improves on the studio recording with the addition of the opening recitative and the contribution of a chorus. Her singing is wonderfully accomplished, the echo effects brilliantly done, but it is not a piece I enjoy.

Another Milan concert, this time from 1956, brings us her best ever performance of Bel raggio lusinghier from Semiramide, though she adds little in the way of embellishment and the effect is less thrilling than her singing of the Armida aria. We get her first version of Ophélie’s Mad Scene from Hamlet (sung here in Italian rather than the original French of the studio recording), which is superb, it’s disparate elements brilliantly bound together. We also have a beautiful performance of Giulia’s Tu che invoco from La Vestale, which seques into a rousing performance of the cabaletta, and she revisits the role of Elvira in I Puritani with a lovely performance, with chorus and soloists, of Vieni al tempio.

From Athens in 1957, there is a dramatically exciting performance of Leonora’s Pace, Pace from La Forza del Destino, in which she manages the pitfalls of the piano top B on invan la pace better than you would expect for post diet Callas. Her performance of Isolde’s Liebestod (again in Italian) is very similar to the Cetra recording, warm and feminine, passionately yearning.

From the 1958 Paris Gala we have her minxish Una voce poco fa from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with its explosive ma, as Rosina warns us she is not to be messed with. She sings in the mezzo key with added higher embellishments. This is followed by a couple of lesser known performances from a UK TV special, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Mimi’s Si mi chiamano Mimi is similar to the performance on the complete recording, charming and disarming, whilst Margarita’s L’altra notte from Mefistofele is a touch more vivid, a little less subtle than the studio recording.

Just one item from the 1957 rehearsal for the Dallas Opera inaugural concert, the Mad Scene from I Puritani. Though, by this time, Callas’s voice had been showing signs of deterioration, Bellini’s music still suits her admirably, and she sounds in easy, secure voice here up to a ringing top Eb at its close. The scale work is as supple as ever, and she executes its intricacies with ease even when singing at half voice.

To finish off we have the Mad Scene from the 1959 Carnegie Hall concert performance of Il Pirata. It had been a variable evening, with Callas’s colleagues hardly in her class, but here, left alone on the stage, Callas responds to the challenges of the final scene superbly, the cavatina, in which she spins out the cantilena to incredible lengths, becomes a moving lament to her son, and the dramatic cabaletta is then thrillingly flung out into the auditorium. The audience unsurprisingly go berserk.

How lucky we are to have these wonderful live performances preserved in sound, and how grateful we are to Divina Records for offering them to us free of charge. Nobody need hesitate.

 

 

Joyce DiDonato – Stella di Napoli

 

Joyce DiDonato gives us here a collection of largely little known bel canto arias, some by composers such as Pacini, Mercadante, Valentini and Carafa who are hardly household names. It doesn’t get off to the best of starts as the heroine of Pacini’s Stella di Napoli sings a jolly little ditty, in which the heroine berates her lover for not being there to hear her dying breath. It is the sort of aria that gives bel canto opera a bad name and is exactly the thing Gilbert and Sullivan took such delight in parodying.

Happily we are on much stronger ground with the next item, a lovely elegiac piece from Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, and thereafter things greatly improve, though it is safe to say the best items are those by the more well-known triumvirate of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, even if the final item, a fourteen minute excerpt from Pacini’s Saffo does much to exonerate him.

DiDonato’s singing is supremly accomplished with a mastery of coloratura, scales, trills and legato which is second to none. Added to her technical accomplishments, she has a wonderful grasp of the dramatic situations presented and there is no doubt that she is pre-eminent in the field today. If I were nit-picking, I would say that her singing doesn’t quite have the sheer personality of some of her predecessors in this music, and the preghiera from Maria Stuarda doesn’t quite erase memories of Montserrat Caballé or Janet Baker in the same piece. But, that would be unfair and we should be grateful for what we have, which is a great deal; a singer at the height of her powers with a beautiful voice, technically proficient, put at the service of the music.

She is excellently supported by the Orchestre ey Choer de l’Opéra de Lyon under Riccardo Minasi and the disc comes with notes, texts and translations, though a little more information about the dramatic situations would have been welcome. Warmly recommended.

Montserrat Caballé & Shirley Verrett sing Great Operatic Duets

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Duets from Semiramide (Rossini), Anna Bolena (Donizetti), Norma (Bellini), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach), Aida (Verdi), Madama Butterfly (Puccini) and La Gioconda (Ponchielli).

The 1960s and 1970s were halcyon days for opera on disc. New recordings of both repertoire and rediscovered works appeared on an almost monthly basis, alongside recital records by major artists. Duet recitals, though not as frequent, were also a feature of this time, and could sometimes provide more variety in the juxtaposition of two different voices.

This 1969 duet recital finds both singers at the height of their vocal powers and provides a feast of great singing. It doesn’t quite get off to the best of starts however, with a performance of Serbami ognor from Rossini’s Semiramide in which Caballé’s scale passages are less than perfect, and which does not erase memories of Sutherland and Horne in the same music.

Vocally the duet from Anna Bolena is much better, and Caballé is here very touching in the section beginning Va, infelice where Anna forgives Giovanna; maybe not as moving as Callas with Simionato, but then, who is? Their voices blend well in the Norma duet too, and the Aida finds both singers alive to the drama.  It is great cause for regret that Verrett never got to record Amneris in a complete recording.

The principal pleasures of both the Barcarolle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann and the Flower Duet from Madama Butterfly are primarily vocal, and it is certainly wonderful to bask in the sheer beauty of two such gloriously rich voices in full bloom. The disc finishes with the great combative duet from La Gioconda, with the two ladies striking points off each other in splendid fashion.

This is a great memento of two singers, recorded before Caballé’s top notes started to harden and before she began to overindulge her penchant for floated pianissimi. This is also, to my mind, the best period for Verrett, when she was definitely a mezzo and before the move to soprano roles started to compromise the glorious individuality of that voice.

 

Joan Sutherland – Grandi Voci

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On 17 February 1959, Joan Sutherland sang her first Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden. She had first been engaged at Covent Garden in 1952, singing small parts, such as Clotilde to Callas’s Norma. That same year she sang her first leading role there (Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera), but the administration didn’t at first realise her potential and the roles she sang (Agathe, The Countess, Desdemona, Gilda, Eva, Pamina, Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage) gave no real indication of the direction her career would take. She herself had thought she would be a Wagnerian soprano, but Richard Bonynge, who married her in 1954, eventually convinced her otherwise, and in 1959 Covent Garden gave her the honour of a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Tullio Serafin. Sutherland proved a sensation, and, at the age of 35, she became a star, in demand all over the world for dramatic coloratura roles.

This disc adds to her debut recital, made shortly after the Covent Garden Lucia, two arias from one of her most successful sets The Art of the Prima Donna (Casta diva and the I Puritani Mad Scene), recorded in 1960 and Santo di patria, lifted from another set The Age of Bel Canto, recorded in 1963.

Those who know me will know I am not much of a Sutherland fan. The mannerisms (the mushy diction especially, the droopy portamenti, the weak lower register) that crept in as early as the 1960s irritate me so much I find it hard to listen, and the beauty of the voice is no compensation.

It is good to be reminded, then, that it was not always so, and she sounds quite different here, the voice much more forwardly produced, and, even if she rarely uses the words to suddenly bring a phrase into sharp relief, there is nothing much wrong with her diction in these discs. Maybe this has something to do with the conductors she was working with then, all Italians, Nello Santi for the debut recital, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli for The Art of the Prima Donna, Tullio Serafin at Covent Garden. Interestingly Serafin advised her to study the role of Lady Macbeth, but Bonynge obviously thought otherwise.

The main meat of the disc, however, is that first ever recital made with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under Nello Santi. Lucia’s two big solos were an obvious choice, to which are added Merce, dilette amiche from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, Ernani! Ernani involami from Ernani and O luce di quest’anima from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix.

Throughout the technical command is stunning, as is the beauty of voice, the top notes, of which there are many, one of its greatest glories. Nor is she just a technical machine. Though there is little attempt at vocal characterisation (Norma doesn’t sound much different from Lucia), she is not an unfeeling singer. There is command in Norma’s Sediziose voce, poetic feeling in the recitative to the Ernani aria, breezy grace in the aria from I Vespri Siciliani.

Fresh from the success of the Covent Garden performances, the Lucia arias are predictably best of all. Here not only is the execution vocally stunning, but she is the very epitome of the young Romantic heroine, driven mad by despair. Like Callas, she is a far cry from the piping, doll-like sopranos who had made Lucia something of a laughing stock among opera cognoscenti. Unfortunately already by her first complete recording of the opera made in 1961, the tone has become more occluded, the diction less precise, the vowels begin to be rounded and dulled, and the vitality and immediacy heard here starts to droop.

Though vital and alive in the scene from Verdi’s Attila, conducted by Richard Bonynge, the diction is not as clear as it is on that frst recital, though the recording here does give some indication as to the size and fullness of the voice. Even with that small niggle about the diction, this is still a stunning performance, thrilliingly dramatic, and I’ve never heard it better sung. Deutekom on the Philips complete set is pallid by comparison.

This disc, along with The Art of the Prima Donna, is, I would suggest, essential Sutherland, and remain permanent parts of my collection. The rest, personally, I can live without.

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 in Il Pirata – Carnegie Hall 1959

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Callas first sang the role of Imogene in Il Pirata in May 1958 at La Scala, Milan, her last appearance there until she returned to the house for Poliuto, the opening opera of the 1960 to 1961 season. It was not a particular happy time for her. Ghiringhelli, the intendant of La Scala, had been increasingly cold to her since the Rome walk out on January 2nd earlier that year. Relations had already cooled after her appearance in La Sonnambula in Edinburgh, after Ghiringhelli announced an extra performance without first getting Callas’s agreement. Ghiringhelli was playing a dangerous game, as he did not tell the Edinburgh Festival management that Callas was only contracted for four performances and let them sell a fifth using her name, presumably thinking that, once it had gone on sale, Callas would cave in and agree to the extra performance. Already unwell, and having fulfilled her contractual duties, she refused to sing the extra performance and left Edinburgh for warmer climes, a much needed rest, and, unwisely as it turned out, a party given by Elsa Maxwell in her honour. The press were merciless, painting Callas as the capricious prima donna, who had cancelled a performance in order to go to a party.

Though she had redeemed herself in the eyes of the La Scala audience the previous month  in a revival of Visconti’s production of Anna Bolena, Ghiringhelli did nothing to squelch rumours that Il Pirata would mark Callas’s last appearance at La Scala, and Callas seized a moment to point out the reason for her departure at her last performance. The word palco in Italian has a dual meaning. In the opera it means scaffold, but it also means theatre box, and when Callas came to sing La! Vedete! Il palco funesto! she strode to the front of the stage and gestured towards Ghiringhelli’s box in the theatre. Her meaning was not lost on the audience and it went wild, but Ghiringhelli had the last word, demanding that the fire curtain be lowered before Callas had been able to accept the ovations raining down on her.

It is a huge cause for regret that none of the La Scala performances appear to have been recorded, for there she was singing with first class support in Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini. Pier Miranda Ferraro, who sings Enzo on her second recording of La Gioconda, and Constantin Ego are not in the same class. Callas herself is in variable form, top notes occasionally afflicted with hardness and unsteadiness, but she is still a great Bellinian stylist, and the way she caresses and moulds the phrases shows up the provincial attempts of her colleagues. In the absence of a La Scala recording, we are fortunate that this concert performance was recorded.

There was an enormous amount of excitement attending her arrival in New York, fans having been deprived of seeing her at the Met after Rudolf Bing sacked her for not agreeing to the performance schedule he set out. Callas’s relationship with the Met had always been a tense one, but Bing’s boorish unwillingness to understand that a voice cannot switch to and fro between roles as differing in their vocal demands as Lady Macbeth and Violetta would suggest that the fault lay with his intransigence. His only concession was to offer a substitution of Lucia di Lammermoor for La Traviata, a role even further away from the demands of Lady Macbeth.

Understandably then, a certain amount of tension marks out her singing in her opening scene. Nevertheless, she stamps a Norma-like authority on her first recitative, and the whole scene, which she later recorded in the studio with Antonio Tonini, is a perfect example of how to express conflicting emotions, of carefully differentiating between public and private utterances. However she doesn’t really relax and get into her stride until the first duet with Gualtiero. Throughout this duet she gives a masterclass, unfortunately unheeded by Ferraro,  in how to shape and mould phrases, ensuring that the arc of the melody remains paramount.

Worth noting in the Act I finale is a dazzling four bars of rapid scales, which Callas executes with incredible virtuosity. Rescigno recalls that at the rehearsal, she muffed the scales at the fast speed with which he launched the stretta. He told her he would put the breaks on before her entry, but Callas responded,

“No, don’t do that, I like the tempo very much; it is valid and I don’t want you to help me.” “Well,” I said, “what if you don’t make it in the performance?” “That’s my business, not yours,” she countered. However out of her fantastic will came this superb, astonishing thing at the performance, all in order.”

In the second act duets she achieves marvels of elegance and grace, given the inadequacy of both Ego and Ferraro, neither of whom are in the least bit comfortable with any rapid passagework, and both of whom alter the vocal line to accommodate their weaknesses.

However it is when left alone in the final scene, a scene which she programmed regularly into her concert programmes, that she makes the greatest effect. Apparently at the performance, all the lights were lowered leaving just a spot on Callas. According to Louis Biancolli,

“An eerie glow fell on her face. At this ghostly juncture Miss Callas made the most of her strange and haunting timbres. It was something to be left in the dark with the voice of Maria Meneghini Callas.”

As ever the recitative is a lesson in how to weight and measure phrases, and the cavatina benefits from her deep legato, the filigree drawn out to heavenly lengths, but Rescigno takes it at a slightly faster tempo than both the studio recording of the previous year, and concerts later that year in Hamburg and Amsterdam, where she spins out the phrases to even greater length. The cabaletta too is more propulsive, but this only adds to the excitement, and the audience go wild at its close. As reported in the New York Times

Hundreds debouched down the aisles to the footlights. They applauded and yelled and screamed “Bravo Maria!” Miss Callas returned again and again for curtain calls. Finally a man came out and turned off the lights, and the worshippers departed.

Away from all the attendant excitement, the listener will no doubt realise that the performance, as a whole, is a little lacking in polish, but Callas’s greatness remains, regardless of the fact that she is not in her best voice. I may regret the absence of a recording of the La Scala production, but, as the only example of Callas’s Imogene, this recording is definitely worth having. None of the commercial recordings of the opera quite matches its fire and excitement.

The sound on this Warner issue is a good deal better than that of the old EMI issue, which would suggest that it comes from a different source.