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’s Studio La Traviata

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Recorded September 1953, Auditorium RAI, Turin

Producer & Balance Engineer: Unknown

In one sense it’s a shame this Cetra recording of La Traviata was ever made. Had it not been, Callas would have been the Violetta on the Serafin La Scala recording with Di Stefano and Gobbi instead of Stella. Her contract stipulated that she could not re-record the role for 5 years. Legge presumably felt he couldn’t wait any longer to add a recording of such a central Italian classic to his catalogue.

Whatever the reasons, Callas was furious with Legge for engaging Stella and with Serafin for conducting it without her. For a while she and Serafin didn’t speak and he is notably absent from her recording schedule for the following year, 1956.

In retrospect maybe Legge should have waited till Callas was free to record Violetta again in 1958, the year of Callas’s most searchingly complex stage performances in the role (Lisbon and London). Had he done so EMI would no doubt have had the best-selling La Traviata of all time. As it is, the Stella recording was never a big seller, and only received a CD issue, when Testament unearthed it some years ago. Bad call, Walter.

Of all the roles in Callas’s repertoire, it was Violetta that went through the greatest transformation from her debut in the role in 1950, through the famous Visconti production at La Scala in 1955 to those last, movingly poetic performances in 1958 in Lisbon and London. It was the role she sang most often after Norma, and the role she most often considered for a comeback. There were discussions of a recording for EMI even as late as 1969, when, vocally, it would have been out of the question. Callas considered it very much her role, that of the woman who gave up everything for love. Maybe there was a parallel here with her own life. Didn’t she give up everything for love?

This recording of La Traviata was the first one I owned and the first of her Violettas I heard. It wasn’t that easy to get hold of, and my copy was a reissue on Pye Ember. I had no idea of the existence of any of the live recordings, and, had I never heard any of them, I would no doubt have been happy enough with her Violetta, as recorded here, though not necessarily with its surroundings. Compared to her EMI releases, this is a decidedly provincial affair. Santini’s conducting is leaden and neither Albanese as Alfredo nor Savarese as Germont are in the first rank. But at least we have Callas, and, if not as subtle or as heart-rending as she was to become, she is still a great Violetta, and still better than anyone else in the role.

The demands of the first act are more easily encompassed here than they were to become in later performances, though the top Cs in Sempre libera seem slightly tense, as does the concluding Eb. Still it’s freer and more open here than it is in any of the later sets and scale passages are wonderfully fluid. She is tremendously affecting in the duet with Germont, and fails here only in comparison to her later self. Other than this, her traversal of the role is not as complete as it is later to become. There are plenty of affecting moments to be sure, some in the duet with Germont, (the desperation with which she sings Non sapete, for instance) and especially the farewell to Alfredo with the lead up to Amami, Alfredo which seethes with that intensity so peculiar to her. In the second scene the great arching phrase, Che fia? Morir mi sento is too much of an outward sentiment as is Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core, beautifully though they are sung.

Act III has its moments too. Addio del passato ends on a much more secure pianissimo high A than we get at Covent Garden, but how much more moving is that thread of tone with which she ends the aria in London. Parigi o cara is saddled with  Santini’s leaden conducting, but Gran Dio morir si giovane strikes the right note of despair and Prendi quest’e l’immagine is eloquently moving, if not so eloquent as it was to become.

In short, if no other recording of Callas as Violetta existed, this would be my first choice for the opera. But the fact of the matter is that by 1958, she had refined her interpretation so much that this 1953 performance seems unfinished beside it, almost like a rehearsal for the main event.

Furthermore, in both Lisbon and London, she has a better supporting cast and conductors, and the sound, in London at least, is excellent. I was pleased to hear this performance again, and delighted to have it once more in my collection. Callas’s Violetta, in any of its incarnations is a major achievement after all, but I know it is still to Covent Garden that I will most often return.

I might just add that Warner have done wonders with the sound compared to what I remember of my rather muddy Pye Ember LP version.