The Callas Bernstein La Sonnambula – La Scala 1955

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Having got Andrea Chenier out of the way, and after singing four performances of Medea in Rome, Callas started work on what might have seemed a surprising role for her, that of the sweet ingénue Amina in La Sonnambula; surprising, that is, until one recalls that Bellini wrote the opera for the very same singer who created Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Bellini’s favourite Amina was evidently Maria Malibran, who was also a great Norma, but where Norma had become the property of large voiced, dramatic sopranos, who often couldn’t cope with the florid demands of the role, Amina had gone to light voiced, bird-like soubrettes, who rarely brought any depth to the character. Like Donizetti’s Lucia di LammemoorLa Sonnambula had become a vehicle for vocal display, nothing else, though this is clearly not what Bellini or his librettist, Romani, had in mind.

According to Romani,

The role of Amina, even though at first glance it may seem very easy to interpret, is perhaps more difficult than many others which are deemed more important. It requires an actress who is playful, ingenuous and innocent, and at the same time passionate, sensitive and amorous; who has a cry for joy and also a cry for sorrow, an accent for reproach and another for entreaty… This was the role created by Bellini’s intellect.

Used to the doll-like pipings of so many light voiced sopranos, Callas’s performances no doubt came as a revelation. She performed the role 22 times, always in the same La Scala Visconti production, which was revived in 1957, the same year she made her commercial recording of the opera, and travelled to Cologne and Edinburgh that same year too, though, by that time, Votto had replaced Bernstein as conductor and Nicola Monti had taken over from Cesare Valletti. Live recordings exist of both Cologne and Edinburgh, and my personal favourite has always been Cologne, where Callas, with slightly more limited resources, sings a more poetic, a gentler Amina; a portrait in pastels rather than oil.

However, I would never want to be without this thrilling La Scala recording, and to appreciate it fully, maybe a little background on the production would be helpful. Visconti, with his designer Piero Tosi, had sought to create a picture-book, dreamlike depiction of a nineteenth century village that never existed, the villagers dressed like ladies and gentlemen, the women in shades of pink, pearl and grey, and the men in black and white. Visconti’s vision of Amina was no village girl, but the evocation of a bejewelled nineteenth-century prima donna performing the role. She was costumed to look like the nineteenth century ballerina Maria Taglioni, and PIero Tosi recalls that when she made her entrance in the first sleepwalking scene, the impression she created was of “a sylphide tripping on the moonlight.”

Though one can see what Visconti was driving at, Callas’s genius ensures that at no point does she seem to be performing the role, so completely does she inhabit the character of sweet, trusting Amina, but it does explain some of the intricate variations Bernstein created for her, flung out to the Milanese audience with insouciant ease. Later performances under Votto would find some of the vocal display trimmed away. Bernstein also opens up some of the cuts reinstated by Votto, possibly because he had a tenor, Cesare Valletti, more capable of singing the music. Valletti is, in every way, far superior to Nicola Monti, who appears on the commercial recording and in the Cologne and Edinburgh performances.

Visconti undoubtedly built the production around Callas dramatically, just as Bernstein does musically. A trifle impatient with the choruses, he is wonderfully expansive in Amina’s solos, giving Callas time to shape and mould the phrases, their musical rapport absolutely as one.

From her first entry, Callas’s voice has a pearly softness, Come per me sereno exuding an inner happiness and fullness of heart that is at the core of her conception of Amina. For the cabaletta, Bernstein has given her some supremely ambitious embellishments, which she executes with staggering ease and agility, and the audience unsurprisingly give her a rousing reception.

But, as always with Callas, it is not just in the big set pieces that she excels. She is as inclined to make her mark in a word or line of recitative. I am thinking here of the way she imbues the words Il cor soltanto, when the Notary asks what she is bringing as dowry, with such love and trust and warmth. One should also note that Valletti is a worthy and distinguished partner, and, though he eschews some of the high notes written for the great Rubini, he proves himself to have been the perfect choice for the role. He makes a wonderfully sympathetic partner for Callas in the duet that ends the scene. A simple soul, his duping by the scheming Lisa becomes entirely believable,

Note also how Callas adopts a more veiled tone for the scenes in which she is sleepwalking, her confusion and terror when she wakes in the count’s bedroom palpably real. When Elvino rejects her, the pain she evinces is almost unbearable, her moulding of the phrases which launch the great ensemble, D’un pensiero e d’un accento couched in a legato which is meltingly poignant. In the allegro that follows, she lets out her full voice for the first time, as Amina’s desperation mounts, and caps the act with a ringing Eb in alt.

She has little to do in the opening scene of the last act, which belongs principally to the tenor, but she does much with what little she has, movingly concerned for Elvino even in the depths of her own pain.

It is in the final scene, though, where her gifts as a singing actress of the highest order are paramount. The range of colours she employs in the recitative is wide indeed, but she never destroys the dreamlike mood she has created. Certain phrases stand out in relief, like the pathos in her cry of Ah! Il mio anello and the heart-break in Questa d’un cor che more e l’ultima preghiera. The aria that follows, Ah non credea is a locus classicus of Callas’s art, couched in an almost seamless legato, its phrases spun out to prodigious lengths. The audience sit in rapt silence, totally drawn in and when, at its close, Elvino sings Ah piu non reggo, we too feel we can bear no more. This section worked well for Callas even as late as 1964 when she sang it on French TV. Elegantly coiffed and gowned though she is, and scarcely moving a muscle, she simply becomes the broken-hearted village girl Amina. This is the art that conceals art.

When Amina is awoken and the mood is broken, Callas breaks into the sparkling cabaletta, Ah non giunge with glittering abandon, executing the coloratura flourishes with coruscating brilliance. Some might feel that her singing here is too forceful, but again it is good to be reminded of what happened in Visconti’s production. He brought up all the lights, including La Scala’s huge central chandelier to full brilliance, and had Callas come down to the footlights, singing directly out into the audience, no longer Amina, but the great prima donna acknowledging her public. If there were still any doubt about the matter, this is the night that Callas was unequivocally crowned Regina della Scala.

As for the sound, I only have the old EMI version to hand for comparison, and can state that this Warner transfer is a good deal better than that. There are occasional moments of distortion and overload, but in general it is very listenable. Having listened to it again for the first time in several years, I now find it hard to chose between this one and the Cologne performance of 1957. How lucky we are to have both.

Callas sings Norma at Covent Garden 1952

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This recording captures Callas’s debut before one of her most loyal audiences. She returned the following Coronation season, reprising the role of Norma and adding Aida and Leonora in Il Trovatore. She was back for Norma in 1957, then La Traviata in 1958,  Medea in 1959, and finally the legendary Zeffirelli production of Tosca in 1964 and 1965, her last ever performance on stage.

Callas sang Norma more than any other role, and is particularly associated with it and there are quite a few extant recordings of her singing it.. Aside from the studio recordings of 1954 and 1960, we have live performances from Mexico in 1950, Covent Garden in 1952, Trieste in 1953, Rome and La Scala 1955, Rome in 1958 (the infamous walk out), and also of her final performances in the role in Paris in 1965.

Though this Covent Garden performance is very good, I would have preferred it if Warner had chosen the La Scala performance of 1955 with Simionato and Del Monaco, a performance in which art and voice find their truest equilibrium, and without doubt the greatest performance of the opera I have ever heard. In its Divina incarnation it is also, apart from some radio interference during the opening of Act II, in much clearer sound than this Covent Garden performance. It is the recording  I turn to most often when I want to hear Norma.

That said, it is a long time since I heard this 1952 set, and I certainly enjoyed listening to it. The sound is not too bad, but not great, and a bit boomy in places, though the solo voices come across reasonably well. The chorus sound a bit muffled. I don’t have any other version I can compare it to though, so can’t tell you if it’s any worse or better than others.

To deal with elements other than Callas first, Vittorio Gui has an excellent grasp of the score, and has the merit of not conducting it as if it were Verdi. His tempi are, for the most part, judicially chosen, and he supports his singers admirably, though very occasionally I felt he hurried things along a little too much.  There are one or two lapses between stage and pit, but, in general, the performance is well prepared and executed.

Giacomo Vaghi is a sonorous, firm voiced Oroveso, and Mirto Picchi, who sings Giasone on Callas’s studio recording of Medea a welcome surprise as Pollione. He doesn’t have Del Monaco’s or Corelli’s heroic sound, nor their clarion top Cs, but he is a good deal more stylish than Mario Filippeschi, the Pollione of Callas’s 1954 studio recording.

The Adalgisa is Ebe Stignani, one of the most acclaimed mezzos of her age, who was much praised at the time. She has a voice that is seamless from top to bottom, firm and beautifully produced, but she was twenty years Callas’s senior, and to my ears at least, doesn’t sound in the least the giovinetta Norma refers to. We should remember that, though Adalgisa takes the lower line in the duets, the role was originally created by the soprano Giulia Grisi, who, by all accounts, had a lighter voice than Giuditta Pasta, who created the role of Norma. Also, though reasonably flexible, she doesn’t execute the florid music with quite Callas’s accuracy. In the duets (both sung down a tone) it is only when Callas sings that you can hear when Bellini separates descending scales into duplets. Stignani also ducks some of her high notes. The downward transpositions were presumably made to accommodate her, as they are not used when Simionato plays Adalgisa to Callas’s Norma. Apparently it used to annoy Callas that critics never noticed that Simionato sang them in the right keys.

Clotilde is sung by a young Joan Sutherland, and it is interesting to hear what she had to say about what it was like to appear alongside Callas in these performances.

[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine. It was a bigger sound in those earlier performances, before she lost weight … It was thrilling. I don’t think that anyone who heard Callas after 1955 really heard the Callas voice.

Callas’s voice does indeed sound huge in these performances (“colossal” Sutherland referred to it elsewhere), but, maybe because of that, her Norma here is more the warrior, whereas at La Scala 1955, her singing is more subtle, with more of the woman emerging. What is remarkable is how this large voice gets round the notes, the fastest of coloratura passages holding no terrors for her whatsoever. The top of the voice is also absolutely solid and the top D that ends Act I, held ringingly and freely for several bars, is an absolute stunner.

Her Norma here is vocally stunning, her voice flashing out in anger with scalpel-like attack in the Act I finale, powerful and commanding in her public scenes with the Druids, but in 1955 at La Scala she is infinitely more moving in the private scenes and in the finale. Furthermore in 1955 her voice still had power and security at the top.

This Covent Garden performance is a great memento of her London debut, but it is still the 1955 La Scala performance I will listen to most often. The cast (Simionato, Del Monaco and Zaccaria) is just about as good as you could get at the time. Votto, who conducts, is not Gui’s equal, but he does at least understand the score and knows how to support his singers. I’d say it’s one of those rare occasions in the opera house where everything went right.

 

Callas’s First Recordings

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Recorded 8-10 September 1949, Auditorium RAI, Turin

Producer & Balance Engineer unknown

So finally I come to the end and find myself, after many hours of fantastic listening, at the beginning, Callas’s first commercial recordings and the 78s that introduced the world to the voice of Maria Callas. The recordings followed a radio concert of the same material (plus Aida’s O patria mia) and were obviously intended to showcase Callas’s versatility, a pattern which was to follow in some of her EMI recitals, like Lyric and Coloratura and the first French recital.

Callas was only 25 when these recordings were made, but they display an artistic and vocal maturity far beyond her years. She first sang the role of Isolde under Serafin in 1947 in Venice, literally sight singing the role at her audition. Serafin, who had conducted her in her Italian debut as Gioconda, was suitably impressed and hired her immediately.

The Liebestod is of course sung in Italian, but it is more than just a curiosity. This is a warm, womanly Isolde who rides the orchestra with power to spare. Note too how easily she articulates the little turns towards the end of the aria. Her legato is, as usual, impeccable, and the final note floats out over the postlude without a hint of wobble.

Norma’s Casta diva and Ah bello a me are sung without the opening and linking recitatives, but the long breathed cavatina is quite possibly the most beautiful she ever committed to disc, and the cabaletta, though it lacks some of the light and shade she would later bring to it, is breath taking in its accuracy and sweep.

But what caused the biggest sensation at the time was the Mad Scene from I Puritani. What was considered a canary fancier’s showpiece suddenly took on a tragic power nobody suspected was there. Qui la voce is sung with a deep legato, the long phrases spun out to extraordinary lengths, but with an intensity that never disturbs the vocal line. Vien diletto almost defies belief. No lighter voiced soprano has ever sung the scale passages with such dazzling accuracy, nor invested them with such pathos, emerging, as they do, as the sighs of a wounded soul. And to cap it all, this large lyric-dramatic voice rises with ease to a ringing top Eb in alt. I have played this to doubting vocal students before now, and they have sat in open-mouthed disbelief. I remember one opera producer friend of mine once telling me that listening to it made him profoundly sad. “I know I will never hear live singing of that greatness in my lifetime,” he confided to me. If ever confirmation were needed of the greatness, the genius of Maria Callas, it is here in these, her very first recordings, and especially in this astonishing recording of the Mad Scene from I Puritani.

For my part, I have enjoyed every moment of my journey from those late recordings, where the genius would flash through to offset the evident vocal problems to these earlier ones where the voice had an ease and beauty that deserted her all too soon. Callas is and remains the pre-eminent soprano of the twentieth century. I know of no other singer who has made music live the way she did. A post on Talk Classical recently discussed underrated singers. I’d be tempted to add the name of Maria Callas, because, to my mind, her genius was inestimable. None of the accolades she has received seem eloquent enough, and I certainly can’t add to them.

50 years after she last sang on the operatic stage, she is still causing controversy, and no doubt always will. Her career may have been short, but was it Beverly Sills who once said, “Better 10 years like Callas than 20 like anyone else?”

Callas in I Puritani

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Recorded 24-30 March 1953, Basilica di Sant’Eufemia Milan

Producer: Dino Olivieri, Balance Engineer: Osvaldo Varesca

I Puritani, Callas’s second opera for EMI was the first recorded under the imprimatur of La Scala, an association which would result in eighteen further opera sets over a period of seven years.

No doubt because of the circumstances surrounding her first Elvira (she learned it in 3 days to replace an ailing Margherita Carosio whilst still singing Brunnhilde in Die Walkure) and because of her famed recording of the Mad Scene, one would expect the role to have played a greater part in her career, but in fact after those first performances in Venice in 1949, it figured rarely in her repertoire.

She sang it again in Florence, in  Rome and  in Mexico in 1952, and in her second season in Chicago in 1955, then never again, though the Mad Scene did occasionally appear in her concert programmes, even as late as 1958 at  a Covent Garden Gala. A recording of her rehearsing the scene for her Dallas inaugural concert in 1957 exists, and shows her still singing an easy, secure and full-throated high Eb.

Maybe the reason she sang it so little is that Elvira offers less dramatic meat than Lucia or even Amina. The libretto is something of a muddle and Elvira seems to spend the opera drifting in and out of madness. Of course she gets some wonderful music to sing, and Callas certainly breathes a lot more life into her than most singers are able to do. She also gives us some of her best work on disc, her voice wonderfully limpid and responsive, the top register free and open. No doubt this is the reason it has remained one of the top choices for the opera since its release over 6o years ago.

We first hear her in the offstage prayer in Act I Scene I, and straight away there is that thrill of recognition as her voice dominates the ensemble. Then in the scene with Giorgio, she finds a wide range of colour, a weight of character, that we don’t normally hear. Her voice, laden with sadness for her first utterances, then defiant when she thinks she is to be wed to someone she doesn’t love, is fused with utter joy when she realises that it is Arturo she is going to marry. She skips through the florid writing with lightness and ease, but invests it with a significance that eludes most others. One moment that stood out in relief for me was her cry of Ah padre mio when Arturo arrives, which bespeaks the fullness of heart that is the main characteristic of this Elvira. Son vergin vezzosa is a miracle of lightness and grace, Ah vieni al tempio heartbreakingly real, though her voice does turn a little harsh when she doubles the orchestral line an octave up.

The Mad Scene needs little introduction. It is one of the most well-known examples of her art out there, the cabaletta moulded on a seemingly endless breath; and where have you ever heard such scales in the cabaletta? Like the sighs of a dying soul. The top Eb at its climax is one of the most stunning notes even Callas ever committed to disc, held ringingly and freely without a hint of strain. Words fail me.

She has less to do in the last act, which mostly belongs to the tenor, and this is where I have a problem with the set. Di Stefano is nowhere near stylish enough in a role that was written for the great Rubini, and he lurches at every top note as if his life depended on it. Sometimes the notes sound reasonably free, at others he almost sounds as if he’s holding onto them with his teeth. Mind you, who else was there around to sing it any better at that time? The recording was made too early for Kraus, though Gedda might have been a good idea. After all, he was already singing for EMI by then, and would sing Narciso on Callas’s recording of Il Turco in Italia, which was recorded the following year..

Rossi-Lemeni  is less woolly-toned than I remember him and sings with authority, especially good in the first act duet with Callas; Panerai is a virile presence as Riccardo. Serafin conducts with his usual sense of style, but also invests some drama into the proceedings.

The orchestra and voices sound really good, but the recording of the chorus is a bit muddy. Presumably that was also the case on the original LPs.

I do have a few problems with I Puritani. To my mind the libretto is plain silly, and even Callas’s wonderful singing can’t quite rescue it. That said, as singing qua singing, it’s some of the most amazing work she ever committed to disc, and for that reason it will always be a permanent part of gramophone history. I would never be without it.


 

Callas’s 1954 Studio Norma

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Recorded 23 April & 3 May 1954, Cinema Metropol, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Callas’s greatest role was Norma, the one that she sang more than any other, and one of three operas she recorded twice.

Though I did have this version on LP (when it was reissued in the 1970s), I never had it on CD. The 1960 version was one of the first LP opera sets I ever owned, and, not surprisingly, became one of the first I owned on CD. Later I acquired an Arkadia issue  of the live 1955 La Scala, which I eventually replaced with the Divina Edition one of the same performance. As this was the Norma I most often pulled down off the shelf, I decided I didn’t really need another, so never got round to getting this 1954 recording on CD.

First impression on this set was the sheer presence of the voice. When Callas commandingly sings Sediziose voce she could almost be in the room with you and in fact the sound all round, orchestra and voices, is a lot better than some of the later operas; much less boxy with a real sense of presence. The second (in stereo) is better still of course, but the difference is relatively slight.

So how else does this compare to the second set, which I have already lavished such praise on? Well let’s start with the rest of the cast. Fillipeschi is, let’s face it, second-rate, and nowhere near as good as Corelli, his basic tone is thin and whiney and anything that requires any rapid movement finds him lacking, not that Corelli is much better in this respect, mind you, but there is the clarion compensation of his actual voice. Also I’m afraid I find it hard to join in the general round of praise for Stignani. Though the voice retains its firmness, she sounds too mature by this stage in her career, more like Callas’s mother than the innocent, young priestess she is supposed to be. Considering she was 20 years Callas’s senior at the time, it’s hardly surprising. Nor is her voice anywhere near as responsive as Callas’s, or as accurate, but then whose is? Not Ludwig’s, certainly, but I much prefer her more youthful timbre and her voice blends remarkably well with that of Callas; an unlikely piece of casting that paid off. Rossi-Lemeni’s tone tends to be woolly, but he is an authoritative Oroveso, more so than Zaccaria, whose tones are, however, more buttery.

As for Callas, there is no doubt that she is much more able to encompass the role’s vocal demands in this recording than the later one. I do miss certain more tender moments in the 1960 recording. Her entrance into Mira o Norma (Ah perche, perche), beautifully and touchingly understated is more moving than it is here, and in fact the whole duet works better with Ludwig, but when clarion strength and security are required then this set wins hands down. One might say we get more of the warrior in this one and more of the woman in the second. Given the security and power she evinces here, it seems strange that she does not take the high D at the end of Act I, as she did at previously preserved live performances, and as she would do again the following year in both Rome (also under Serafin) and Milan. It might seem a relief that she doesn’t attempt the note in 1960, but here I missed it.

Both recordings are essential of course. No other Norma in recorded history has come within a mile of her mastery of this role, the most difficult in the repertory according to Lilli Lehmann, and the one she sang more than any other. I am willing to believe that Pasta and Malibran were every bit as great, but I cannot believe they would have been better. I am indebted to John Steane yet again for putting things in a nutshell when he suggested that for Norma with Callas, one should go for the second recording, but for Callas as Norma, the first. Personally I’d want both, as the second, for all its vocal fallibility, searches deeper. I would also add the live 1955 from La Scala, the one in which voice and art find their purest equilibrium, and the one I would no doubt  be clinging to if ever shipwrecked on that proverbial desert island.

Callas at La Scala

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Recorded 9-12 July 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Though recorded in 1955, release of this disc was delayed until 1958. Callas did not approve the arias from La Sonnambula for release and, when the recital was finally issued, it was made up with arias from the complete sets of I Puritani and La Sonnambula. EMI did eventually issue the Sonnambula arias, but not until 1978, on an LP called The Legend which included other unreleased material.

It’s true, there is a slightly studied air about the performances of them (and a chorus would no doubt have done much to enliven the proceedings), but her singing is unfailingly lovely. One misses that stunning cadenza between the two verses of Ah non giunge, with its stupendous ascent to a high Eb, which we get in both the studio and Cologne performances, and both cabalettas are over simplified, completely free of the flights of fancy Bernstein encouraged her to indulge in at La Scala. Serafin had apparently refused to let her do them. Maybe that is the reason she eventually rejected them. I’m glad I’ve heard them, but her Amina is better represented in the various live performances and the complete studio performance.

The Medea and La Vestale arias are more successful. Medea, of course, became one of her greatest stage successes. The opera was almost completely unknown when she first sang it in Florence in 1953 under Gui, but such was her success in the role that La Scala scotched plans for a revival of Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore later that year and replaced it with the Cherubini opera.  Callas’s singing of Dei tuoi figli la madre abounds in contrasts, reminding us that this is an appeal to Giasone. Callas reminds us that it is love, not revenge, that brings Medea to Corinth; notable here the softening of her tone at the repeated pleas of Torna a me, the pain in the cries of Crudel.

The arias from La Vestale are reminders of her one traversal of the role of Giulia at La Scala in 1954, in a stunning production by Visconti, which marked the emergence of the new, slim Callas, and the start of a whole new era, which resulted in the acclaimed Visconti productions of La Traviata, La Sonnambula and Anna Bolena.  Tu che invoco is notable for its long legato line, and the intensity she brings to the turbulent closing section, where her voice rides the orchestra with power to spare. O nume tutelar brings back memories of Ponselle, but Callas in no ways suffers by the comparison, her legato as usual superb, and the aria sung with a classical poise and sure sense of the long line. O caro ogetto has the same virtues.

There exists a complete recording of that La Scala La Vestale, but it is in such wretched sound, that this recital is valuable for Giulia’s arias alone. Her Medea and Amina are better represented elsewhere.

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.

Callas’s 1960 Studio Norma

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Recorded 5-12 September 1960, Teatra alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellineck, Balance Engineer: Robert Gooch

This was actually the first opera set I ever owned, and, so it comes with a host of memories. I was only 18. Why Norma for a first opera, you might ask. Well I had recently discovered Callas, and at that time very little of her recorded repertoire was available. I knew that Norma was considered her greatest role, so I thought it would be a good place to start. Collecting opera was expensive in those days, and my older brother, who was working by this time, bought the set for me for Christmas. I was unbelievably excited, my excitement only slightly tempered by the discovery that no libretto was included, only a synopsis, and that I would have to send off for it, not of course that I waited for its arrival before sampling the set.

It being my one and only opera set for a good few months, I got to know the opera pretty well, and of course Callas’s unique inflections will for ever be part of that knowledge. Since then of course, I have heard a fair amount of other Normas, Sutherland, Caballe, Eaglen, Bartoli (please, never again), Sass live at Covent Garden (disastrous) and plenty more by Callas herself; the live 1952 Covent Garden, the 1954 studio, the 1955 Rome broadcast and, best of all, the live 1955 La Scala, as well as excerpts from many others, right up to her final performances in the role in Paris in 1964.

So how does it hold up? Well, pretty well actually. True, notes above the stave have taken on a metallic edge, and they don’t always fall easily on the ear, but the middle and lower timbres have a new found beauty, and a characterisation that was always complex and multi-faceted has taken on an even greater depth, parts of it voiced more movingly here than anywhere else.

There are other gains too. The cast here is a vast improvement on the earlier studio one, Corelli in particular being a shining presence. Fillipeschi was a liability on the earlier set, but, whilst not quite a paragon, and chary of some of the coloratura in his role (Serafin making a further cut in the great In mia man duet to accommodate his lack of flexibility), Corelli’s is a noble presence, and his clarion voice is ample compensation. Zaccaria may be less authoritative than the woolly voiced Rossi-Lemeni, but his tones are distinctly more buttery. Ludwig is an unexpected piece of casting, but she too is an improvement on Stignani, who, great singer though she was, was beginning to sound a bit over the hill by the time of the first Callas recording (she was 50 to Callas’s 30). Ludwig sounds, as she should, like the younger woman. Her coloratura isn’t always as accurate as one would like, certainly no match for Callas, but she sings most sympathetically in duet with her older colleague, and Mira o Norma is, for me, one of the greatest performances on disc. After Ludwig states the main theme, Callas comes in quietly almost imperceptibly and at a slightly slower tempo with an unbearably moving Ah perche, perche, her voice taking on a disembodied pathetic beauty. When Ludwig joins her for the section in thirds, she perfectly matches Callas’s tone on her first note, before Callas joins her in harmony, a real example of artists listening to each other in a sense of true collaboration.

One should I suppose mention the losses from the earlier recording. Yes, some of Callas’s top notes are shrill, and we lose some of the barnstorming heroics that were a part of Callas’s Norma right up to 1955. This Norma is more feminine, more vulnerable, if you like. How much this had to do with interpretive development, and how much with declining vocal resources is a moot point, but there is no doubt Callas is still a great singer, doing the best she can with what she has. Some sections are more moving here than in any of her other performances. I’ve already singled out Mira o Norma but the earlier duet is its equal, Callas wistfully recalling her own awakening to first love.

The beginning of Act II always brought out the best in her, and here she is sublime. Dormono entrambi is an unusual piece which alternates passages of recitative with arioso, rather like Rigoletto’s Pari siamo. Callas draws on all the colours in her palette to express Norma’s contrasting emotions. You can almost feel the chill that comes over her at un gel me prende e in fronte si solleva il crin followed by the choked emotion of I figli uccidi! The arioso of Teneri figli is couched in a tone of infinite, poignant sadness, but then her tone hardens with her resolve at Di Pollion son figli, before, with a cry she drops the knife (and we can almost hear the precise moment), crying out Ah no, son miei figli! Operatic singing and acting on the highest level.

Serafin’s conducting is much as it was in the first set. He has the virtue of not conducting the opera as if it were Verdi, as so many do. Sometimes I’d like him to get a move on a bit, but his pacing of the final two duets (one in public, one in private) is superb, and he perfectly judges the climaxes in the Grand Finale, one of the greatest in all opera.

I’ve always found it difficult to choose between Callas’s studio recordings of Norma. I wouldn’t want to be without either. Nor would I want to be without her 1955 live La Scala account, with Del Monaco and Simionato, which is where voice and art find their greatest equilibrium. One thing is for sure, Callas remains the quintessential Norma. No singer has yet challenged her hegemony in the role.