Callas sings Puccini Arias

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Recorded 15-18, 20-21 September 1954, Watford Town Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

This is the first recital record I ever owned , and for some time the only recital record I owned. As such it has quite a lot of sentimental value for me. Most of the music was new to me at that time and I played it constantly. I got to know it so well that I can even now listen without libretto and mime the words. However, as I got older, my tastes changed. I got to love the music of Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. I felt Callas’s gifts were wasted on Puccini, and so my first love got rather pushed aside. I tended not to listen to this recital quite so often.

To listen to it again now, in this fantastic new re-mastering from Warner (one almost feels as if Callas were in the room with you), was a moving experience and, from the first note, she had me riveted.

Most Puccini recitals tend to the samey, but Callas presents us with a different voice character in each opera. Of the roles represented here, she had at that time only sung Turandot on stage, though she would go on to sing Butterfly in Chicago in 1955. She also went on to record complete performances of Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, and Manon Lescaut, as well as Turandot (though a little too late in her career.

As usual Callas is the mistress of vocal characterisation. Manon, Butterfly, Mimi, Angelica, Lauretta, Liu and Turandot all emerge as completely different characters, but, even within a single aria, she can reveal some hidden depth within the character. Manon, tenderly regretful in In quelle trine moribide, gives way to passion and despair in Sola perduta abbandonata, a despair already hinted at in her voicing of un freddo che m’agghiaccia in the first aria. Butterfly’s wistful imagining of the return of Pinkerton is brilliantly charted, her death scene almost unbearably intense. Mimi is shy and withdrawn, but the warmth which Callas brings to the Ma quando vien lo sgelo section reveals Mimi’s capacity for selfless love.  Angelica’s resigned sadness gives way to a surprisingly sweet and cajoling Lauretta.

Quite the biggest contrast comes when she sings both Liu and Turandot. Liu’s arias are sung feelingly, but possibly with a bit too much muscle, and the ending of Signore ascolta doesn’t eclipse memories of Caballe or Schwarzkopf in the same piece, but Turandot’s In questa reggia is surely one of the best ever recorded. Callas at this time still had the power and security on top to ride its high-lying phrases; and please note she actually sings the words Gli enigmi sono tre on the phrase that takes her up to a top C. Most sopranos, Eva Turner included, reduce them to a vocalise. Furthermore the aria is filled with little details overlooked by most; the almost mystical way she launches the section beginning Principessa Lou-u- Ling, singing with mounting ardour until she vocally points her finger at Calaf with the phrase Un uomo como te. Almost regretful on the section O principe che a lunghe carovane, she strengthens her resolve again at io vendico su voi till her voice cries out with conviction at quell grido e quella morte. Would that she had recorded her complete Turandot at the same time. This is the greatest prize on the recital.

The one uncomfortable moment I remember from the recital (Angelica’s final floated high A) for some reason sounds far less wobbly here than it ever did before, and the voice in this re-mastering has enormous presence. Serafin, as ever, provides invaluable support.

A classic of the gramophone.

Callas in La Boheme

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Recorded 20-25 August, 3-4 September 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellinek: Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Mimi is a role one would not associate with Callas, and indeed it is one of four roles she learned for the gramophone but never sang on stage. The opera itself makes its effect easily and can withstand even a mediocre performance, the role of Mimi being probably one of the least demanding in the soprano repertoire. Great Normas may always have been thin on the ground; effective Mimis have been, and still are, plentiful. The role’s requirements are slight; sweetness, charm, and a capacity for what the Italians call morbidezza; qualities that come naturally to a De Los Angeles or a Freni, less so, one would have thought, to a Callas.

But of course the miracle of Callas is that she not only scales down her voice and personality to suit the demands of the role, but also finds within it a deeper vein of tragedy one hardly suspected was there, her singing full of little incidental details often overlooked by others. Her first utterances have a weariness that presages her illness, and she fades the voice away most effectively as she faints. The duet with Rodolfo is light and charming, but more of this Mimi’s capacity for love emerges in her aria. Starting shyly, she gradually suffuses her tone with warmth at the section beginning Ma quando vien lo sgelo, not lingering too long on the top As and thereby ruining the shape of the aria, as so many do, and I love the way the last section, from altro di me non saprei narare, is delivered with a slight touch of embarrassment as if Mimi suddenly realises she has revealed too much too soon.

It is in the last two acts, though, that Callas’s Mimi is at its most moving. Never before has Mimi’s despair been so heart-rendingly expressed, but also note how, with a single word (dorme? ) in the duet with Marcello, she conjures up all Mimi’s warmth and tender love for Rodolfo, with the gentlest of upward portamenti. Act IV is almost fail safe, but here too she is wonderfully effective, finding the palest of colours as the pallor of death takes over.

She has a good cast around her; Di Stefano in one of his best roles, Panerai a splendid Marcello, Moffo a sympathetic Musetta, and something of a relief from the sparky soubrettes we so often end up with. Zaccaria and Spatafora are an excellent pair of Bohemians.

Votto doesn’t do anything wrong, but such a cast would have benefited from a stronger hand at the helm. He accompanies well, but it’s a shame, given that Serafin was not an option at the time, Legge couldn’t have persuaded Karajan to stick around after recording Il Trovatore with her.

The sound of this La Boheme has always been good for its period. I owned the original Columbia LPs, which I played to death. These Warner CDs also sound pretty good to me.

There are so many good recordings of La Boheme in the catalogue, that choosing the best one is well-nigh impossible, and choice will no doubt come down to preference for certain singers. However this recording, made 60 years ago now, still holds its place amongst the top recommendations.