Callas sings Medea – Dallas, November 1958

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This is another of those Callas performances that has acquired legendary status and so first a few details to set it in context. In the weeks prior to her appearance in Dallas Callas had been in dispute with Bing over the scheduled programme for her next Metropolitan Opera season. Though they had agreed the operas (Macbeth and La Traviata) they had not agreed the schedule and it transpired that Rudolf Bing had programmed the two operas to alternate with each other. Callas argued that this would be too hard on her voice, as the requirements for each were so different, asking that all the performances for one should be over before she embarked on the other. Bing avered that he was giving her ample time to rest inbetween operas and that he wasn’t prepared to change the schedule. His complete lack of understanding of the different needs of the tw roles was further exemplified by his suggestion that they replace La Traviata with Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera even further away from the demands of Macbeth. The wrangling continued for some time until Bing very publicly “fired Callas”, issuing a statement to the press in which he was photographed tearing up her contract. This on the eve of her first performance of Medea in Dallas.

Callas was incensed, granting a press conference to give her side of the story in her dressing room as she prepared for the prima, in which, as can be heard on this recording, she sings with a security and power that had recently eluded her. It was as if she was determined to show Bing and New York just what they were missing. The result is a performance of incredible fire and attack and, along with live performances from Florence and La Scala in 1953, one of her greatest recorded performances of the opera.

Dallas was certainly in a high state of excitement and the audience as heard on this recording can be noisy, applauding the sets at the opening of each act and granting Callas an ovation on her entrance that almost stops the show completely. She had opened the season with a beautiful new production of La Traviata directed by Zeffirelli. For Medea a completely Greek team had been assembled. The opera was to be directed by the eminent theatre director, Alexis Minotis (husband of acclaimed classical actress Katina Paxinou) with designs by Yannis Tsarouchis. Minotis, who was famous for his productions of Greek tragedies, in which he sought to recapture the style of expression and gesture used in the time of Aeschylus, was startled one day in rehearsal to see Callas do a movement he and Paxinou had been discussing for future use. Callas was kneeling in a frenzy, beating the floor to summon the gods. Minotis asked her why she had done it. “I felt it would be the right thing to do for this moment in the drama,” she replied. How she felt this, Minotis could not explain but he felt that certain things just flowed in her blood. Certainly one gets a sense of the sheer physicality of the performance from photographs and snippets of film from this and subsequent productions of the opera Callas did with Minotis in London, Epidaurus and at La Scala.

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Nicola Rescigno, who prepared his own edition of the score, conducts a tautly dramatic performance, less classically inclined than Gui and Serafin, more akin to Bernstein at La Scala, and his cast is arguably the best ever assembled for a Callas Medea. Jon Vickers, who sang Giasone to her Medea not only here in Dallas, but in London, Epidaurus and at La Scala, easily outclasses the tenors in any of her other recordings and one senses the deep rapport that existed between them. Nicola Zaccaria is a firm, sonorous Creon and Elizabeth Carron, with her clear, bright soprano characterises well as Glauce. One also notes the presence of Judith Raskin, the soprano soloist in George Szell’s famous recording of Mahler’s 4th, as the First Handmaiden, making sure the performance gets off to a fine start. As Neris, the young Teresa Berganza (she was only 25 at the time) was making her US debut, singing her aria with a grave beauty. In later years, she related how Callas took her under her wing and how generous she was in making her acknowledge the applause after her aria. So much for the capricious, unreasonable prima donna, sacked by Rudolf Bing.

Callas herself is in blazing form, her entrance carrying with it a threat of menace that makes not only the people of Corinthrecoil in fear , but the listener too. However in her exchanges with Giasone (Ricordi il giorno tu la prima volta quando m’hai veduta?, which was always a special moment in Callas’s performances, wreathed in melting sounds) and in her plaintive singing of Dei tuoi figli we are made aware that it is love, not vengeance that brings Medea to Corinth.

As usual with Callas, her performance is cumulative and she will give  as much attention to a line of recitative as to the evident high spots. As John Steane says in The Grand Tradition,

She will seize the moment, say of noble or tragic decision, summoning all the dramatic force of what has gone before, evoking our knowledge of what the consequences are to be and focusing precisely upon the moment on which all depends.

He was talking generally, but a superb example of this is in the two Act II duets with Creon and Giasone. In the duet with Creon, when she sings Che mai vi posso far, se il duol mi frange il cor? Come mai rifiutar un giorno al mio dolor, un sol dì al mio dolor? you know that she is formulating a plan, and then subsequently the duet with Giasone is a masterstroke of dramatic timing. Having got Giasone to demonstrate his love for his children, she sings the aside Oh gioia! Ei li ama ancor! Or so che far dovrò! with suppressed joy, before she launches into Figli miei, miei tesor in the most beseeching tones imaginable.

The last act is a lesson of contrasts. Momentarily weakening in the scene with her children, her cries of O figli miei, io v’amo tanto lke those of a wounded soul are silenced by the triumphal viciousness of La uccida, o Numi, l’empio giubilo. From there to the end of the opera, she is a cauldron of evil and revenge, the like of which you will never hear from any other singer.

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The only alarming thing about this performance is that it is the last time we hear her sing with such power and confidence. There are still some wonderful performances to come, but nowhere does she display the kind of vocal security she does here, which makes it doubly fortunate that the performance has been preserved in sound.

Callas sings Medea at La Scala 1953

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It is actually somewhat down to happenstance that La Scala staged Medea in December 1953. Callas was originally to have appeared in a new production of Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore but the success of her appearances in Cherubuni’s Medea in Florence at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino made La Scala change their plans and stage the Cherubini opera instead. Nor was Bernstein slated to conduct, but Victor De Sabata, La Scala’s original choice fell ill just before rehearsals started, leaving them without a conductor. As luck would have it Bernstein was winding up a series of concerts in Italy, one of which Callas happened to hear, and she suggested they approach him, and fortunately he was free.

Unlike many of the operas Callas sang, there was absolutely no performing tradition with Cherubini’s Medea, and consequently each conductor she performed it with prepared their own, slightly differing, version, their interpretations of the score often markedly different. Where Vittorio Gui, who conducted the opera in Florence, brought out its classical dimension, Bernstein seems to see it as reaching forward into the Romantic era, his conducting more in line with his fiery interpretations of Beethoven. After the turbulent overture, the opera opens in gentle, pastoral vein, and, though I might wish that Gui (and later Serafin in the studio recording) would get a move on a bit, Bernstein seems too much in a hurry to get to the crux of the drama and his speeds are often so fast the orchestra and chorus can hardly keep up with him. However after the entrance of Medea, he really gets into his stride, and conducts a blisteringly intense realisation of the score, to match Callas’s blisteringly intense singing.

Io, Medea, are her very first words,, and, though the notes look simple enough on the page, the tone she uses carries a threat that completely dispels the pastoral calm of the previous scene.  Ah, quale voce! indeed, as Giasone comments. The crowd disperse in terror, but, left alone with Giasone, Callas is quick to make us realise that it is love alone that brings her to Corinth, particularly when she sings the words, Ricordi il giorno tu, la prima volta quando mai veduta? The aria Dei tuoi figli is sung in melting tones and, though in later years she would find even more insinuating colours, she manages its wide leaps and high tessitura with staggering ease. Unfortunately Bernstein cuts its final Crudel! and robs the aria of its true climax.

That said, his conducting of the ensuing duet is superb, especially when he suddenly slows down what had been a propulsive tempo at the lines O fatal velo d’or, with a reduction in volume from both singers and orchestra, which creates a chilling effect not duplicated in any of her other performances. Elsewhere in the duet, there is a touch too much vehemence from Callas here, and I feel she overplays her hand, as she does later in the duet with Creon, which lacks the play of light and shade found in her performance in Dallas in 1958.

Indeed throughout this performance, we get more of the sorceress and less of the woman, which makes her traversal of the role in Dallas so much more fascinating. Nevertheless, it is very exciting and, by the time of the closing scene, we are confronted with a voice of blackest evil. Bernstein also cuts a large section of the lament for her children, possibly to remove some of Medea’s human dimension in her final inexorable revenge. This solution has a justification of sorts, I suppose, but I prefer the dichotomy of woman and sorceress we get in Dallas, and, to a lesser extent, in Florence, where Gui lets us hear the closing scene in its entirety.

On the plus side, Callas’s voice is in fabulous form at La Scala and she rides the music’s climaxes with ease. The effect is undeniably thrilling, and you can hear from the audience’s reception that they gained a spectacular success.

Barbieri, is, as she was in Florence, an excellent Neris, this time singing her aria with bassoon obligato, rather than the cello substituted in Florence. I prefer Guichandut in Florence to Penno at La Scala, but nether challenges Vickers, who sings the role of Giasone in Dallas in 1958, Covent Garden in 1959, and at La Scala in 1961. Giuseppe Modesti, who also sings the role of Creon on her studio recording of the opera, is fine as Creon, though I slightly prefer Zaccaria in Dallas and Maria Luisa Nache is a sweet-toned Glauce. However it is surely for the contributions of Callas and Bernstein that we are most likely to turn to this recording , and here they are absolutely as one in their conception of the piece.

As far as the actual recording goes, again the source material is not great, so we cannot expect too much. This Warner issue is a lot clearer and cleaner than EMI’s usually shoddy presentation, but I couldn’t hear that much difference between this and the one issued by Ars Vocalis. Eventually I decided on a slight preference for the Warner, but there is not much in it, and either would be a good choice.

Callas’s First Medea – Florence 1953

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Having discussed Callas’s live Macbeth from La Scala a few posts ago, I thought I would start reviewing some of the many live Callas performances that exist. I do not propose to go into which are the best versions of these live recordings, as it can be quite a minefield, but I would just mention that, in any cases where they are available, Divina Records will be your best bet. In September Warner will be issuing a deluxe box set of many of Callas’s live performances, and, until it is, we will not know what the sound will be like. If they just re-hash the EMI versions, which should be avoided, by the way, then the news is not quite as exciting as it might have been. It remains to be seen.

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This Medea was recorded in house from a single microphone at the front of the stage, which means that voices can disappear when at the back. However I found this Instituto Discografico Italiano version not at all bad, and so intense is the performance that it draws you in and the ear readily adjusts.

Unbelievably, considering Callas’s total mastery of the role’s difficulties, this was the first time she ever sang Medea. So successful was her assumption that La Scala ditched plans to stage Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore with her later that year and replaced it with Cherubini’s Medea. Subsequently the opera was revived for her in productions at La Scala (twice), in Venice, Rome, Dallas, London and at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece. So much associated was she with the role, that when she came to make her non singing cinematic debut, it was in the role of Medea in the movie directed by Pasolini.

Cherubini’s Medée is actually a French language opéra comique with spoken dialogue, and was much admired by Beethoven and Schubert. It premiered in Paris in 1797, the first performance in Italian translation being given in Vienna in 1802. In 1855 Franz Lachner prepared a German version, for which he wrote his own recitatives. This Lachner version was first performed, in an Italian translation by Carlo Zangarini, in 1909, and it is essentially this version which Callas sang, though each of the conductors she performed the work with (Gui, Bernstein, Santini, Serafin, Rescigno and Schippers) prepared their own version of the work, making different cuts in the score. Apart from the studio recording with Serafin, we can hear live performances from Florence with Gui, La Scala with Bernstein, Dallas and London with Rescigno and La Scala again with Schippers.

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Gui’s view of the work is essentially Classical, closest in conception to Serafin, who was to conduct the studio recording, though more propulsive in the work’s many exciting climaxes. His cuts are less extensive than the other conductors’, and this is the only time we get to hear Medea’s last scene complete. However, there are times where some judicious snipping might have helped. He leaves in the orchestral bars before Medea’s final Pieta in her aria Dei tuoi figli, which makes the ending of the aria anticlimactic, and leaves the audience uncertain when to applaud. Still, I prefer this to Bernstein’s solution of cutting the final Pieta as well. All the others cut just the orchestral bars, which seems to me the better solution. There are also times, particularly in the scenes before Medea’s first entrance, where Gui’s speeds are just too slow. The overture is dramatic and exciting, but the long first scene which sets the idyllic atmosphere that Medea bursts into, drags on interminably. There are times later on too, notably the duet between Medea and Creon, where his speeds are on the slow side, but the ends of each act and the finale itself are absolutely thrilling.

Callas herself is in superb voice, the top rock solid and gleaming, managing the treacherous demands of the role (it was said that Mme Scio, its creator, died singing it) with consummate ease. She sings with a wide range of colour, though her conception of the role is a deal more subtle by the time she sings it in Dallas in 1958. No complaints about her entrance, though, which is sheer brilliance, the veiled sound of her middle voice carrying with it a threat of menace which gives way to beguilingly feminine pleading in her first aria Dei tuoi figli. The aria itself is magnificently sung, its wide leaps and high tessitura expertly managed, and it provokes a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience, unfortunately cut short when they realise the aria isn’t quite over.

In the ensuing duet with Giasone I feel she slightly overplays her hand, and this scene is not as effective as it was to become in later performances. Nor does the duet with Creon have quite the subtle play of light and shade it will have on the studio recording and in Dallas, but the final scene is mind blowingly, blazingly terrifying, her voice cutting through the orchestra with coruscating force, and there is a great deal to be gained from hearing this scene in its entirety. Gui, too, supports her brilliantly at this point. Not surprisingly the audience go wild.

Barbieri is a superb Neris, Gui making of her aria, that still, calm centre of the score, a beautiful duet between voice and cello, which Gui substitutes for the more usual bassoon. Guichandut, an Argentinian tenor I’ve never heard of before or since, is good, but no match for Vickers, who would sing the role with Callas in all productions from 1958 onwards. Gabriela Tucci is a lovely Glauce, Mario Petri perfectly acceptable as Creon, but the great moments are all with Callas. That she is so much associated with the role (even in this hybrid version of the score, which misrepresents what Cherubini actually wrote) is hardly surprising, for no other singer, before or since has made Cherubini’s score live and breathe as she has done. There have been occasional revivals, both of the Lachner version Callas sang, and the original opera comique, but none have caught the imagination the way that Callas’s performances did, and it seems likely that the opera is again to become the museum piece it once was.

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’s Studio Medea

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Recorded 12-19 September 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Wilma Cozart. Balance Engineer: Robert Fine

This recording of Medea has an unusual history. Medea had become a seminal Callas role, and she desperately wanted to record it. The opera was revived specially for her first in Florence in 1953, and she subsequently sang it in new productions in Milan (under Bernstein), Rome, Dallas, London, Epidaurus in Greece, and again at La Scala for the last time in 1961. Like much of her stage repertoire, Legge had little interest in it and agreed to release her from her contract, when Ricordi, who were launching a new label, approached her about recording it. EMI, no doubt finally realising its importance in the Callas canon, did eventually release it, but it has also been released by Mercury, Everest, and no doubt others.

However she was probably unwise to record it when she did, right after the Edinburgh performances of La Sonnambula when she was in ill health. Her voice isn’t exactly wobbly above the stave here, but it does lack power, a power that she recovers when she sings the role in Dallas the following year.

That said, when I first got to know this opera, and this recording, I had no other point of reference, and it seemed pretty good to me. It was only later, when I heard those barnstorming performances from Florence, La Scala and Dallas, that I found anything lacking, and it is only in comparison with herself that she fails. She is still a good deal better in the part than any other who attempted it, certainly a lot better than Gwyneth Jones and Sylvia Sass, who also made studio recordings of this Italian version. In other hands, Cherubini’s music can seem staid and formulaic. Callas breathes life into it like no other.

The version of Medea that Callas sang is actually a hybrid. Medée was originally an opera-comique in French with spoken dialogue. It was later translated into Italian, then recitatives were written by Franz Lachner for a German production. The version Callas performed was an Italian translation of the Lachner version, premiered at La Scala in 1909, over a hundred years after its first performance and 60 years after Cherubini’s death. Even so, each conductor Callas worked with (Gui, Bernstein, Rescigno, Serafin, Schippers) prepared their own version of the score, and made their own cuts. Consequently no two Callas performances are the same.

Serafin’s conception is essentially Classical, but his conducting varies from the somnolent to the dramatic. After a tautly conceived overture, the first scene up to Medea’s entrance drags on interminably. I understand the necessity to establish a pastoral air of peace and calm, into which the Colchian Medea bursts, but, quite frankly, at this pace it just becomes a bore. On LP I used to miss out the first side completely, and set the needle down part way through the second LP, when Medea makes her entrance.

Without foreknowledge of other performances by Callas, this is still a great performance of a difficult role. We lose some of the power and ferocity, but there are gains too. Ricordi il giorni tu la prima volta quando m’hai veduta? is couched in the most melting tones, her duplicity in the scene with Creon, and the following duet with Jason brilliantly charted, and her scene with the children movingly intense. Vocally, for all that she is not in her best voice, she manages its angular lines and wide leaps with consummate skill, her legato still wondrously intact. Note also how, in this Classical role, her use of portamento is more sparing.

When it comes to the supporting cast, Scotto is less of an advantage than you might expect, Pirazzini rather more (though not quite a match for Barbieri in Florence and at La Scala or Berganza in Dallas). Picchi, who sang Pollione to Callas’s Norma in London in 1952, is rather good, though Vickers is even better in Dallas. Modesti makes a good Creon too, though I would prefer Zaccaria in Dallas.

So, all in all, still probably the best studio Medea you’re likely to hear, and the sound (stereo, but still rather boxy) is a lot better than what you will hear in Florence, Milan or Dallas. Nevertheless all three of those performances are preferable, regardless of sound quality, for the white hot intensity Callas brings to the role.