Callas as Tosca – Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1964

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I’d forgotten that I hadn’t reviewed the final opera in Warner’s Callas Live Remastered, so, rather belatedly, here it is.

This Tosca marked Callas’s triumphant return to the stage after an almost two year hiatus. She had been lured out of semi-retiremet by Zeffirelli who was also to stage Norma for her in Paris, with the two opera houses sharing the two productions, though, in the event, the Paris Norma never made it to London. Paris did however get to see the Covent Garden Tosca. It was also the vehicle for her last ever stage appearance the following year when she agreed to sing, against doctor’s orders, for a Royal Gala. A couple of months before she had collapsed on stage and was unable to complete a performance of Norma.

At this performance, though the voice is not what it was when she made the famous De Sabata recording eleven years earlier , she is in remarkably good form, and her interpretation has deepened even further, no doubt the product of weeks of intensive rehearsal and her deep rapport with Tito Gobbi. John Copley, who was Zeffirelli’s assistant on the production, once told me he had never before or since come across such complete actor/singers. At rehearsals, Callas and Gobbi would improvise their scenes and then discuss what had worked, what hadn’t, before returning to the scene to incorporate any new ideas, just as straight actors do on stage. According to Gobbi, so close was their connection that they were even able to do this during a performance, so that if anything unusual happened, as it did one night when Callas’s hairpiece caught fire in one of the candles, they could incorporate it into their stage business.

The production has gone down in history as one of the greatest opera productions of all time, and those who were alive to see it still talk about it today. Act II has been preserved on film and goes some way to revealing the Callas magic on stage, but why oh why didn’t they record the whole thing? What a missed opportunity. The fame of the Zeffirelli staging, the iconic photos taken from it and the 1953 recording are no doubt the reason Callas is so much associated with the role, though it was not a favourite of hers, and, truth to tell, she rarely sang it after making the recording, and never at La Scala during her glory days there.

The first thing to be said for this release is that Warner have discovered a new sound source for the performance, and it is a lot better than anything we have heard before. There is a good deal of stage noise to be sure, but both voices and orchestra come across very clearly. It almost sounds like stereo, so clear is the acoustic.

The performance largely justifies its reputation, and is absolutely gripping from start to finish. Cioni is its weakest link, the voice a little thin and reedy, and, possibly intimidated by appearing alongside two such dramatic giants, with a tendency for empty overacting. He is certainly no replacement for Di Stefano in the 1953 recording, or Bergonzi in the 1964 studio recording, on which Callas is in less secure voice than she is here. He’s not at all bad, just not outstanding.

As for Callas, the voice lacks the beauty and velvet of her 1953 self, but, histrionically she is more inside the role than ever. Her Tosca is more feminine, more vulnerable, even more volatile, but somehow more endearing, and her singing is peppered throughout with wonderful little details. She is particularly charming (not a word one usually associates with Callas) in the Act III duet with Cavaradossi, girlishly happy in the way she looks forward to her future, which contrasts brilliantly with her utter despair when that future is cruelly snatched away from her.

Gobbi’s voice has also lost some of its velvet since 1953, but he too is wonderfully inside the role, his vocal acting so vivid you can almost taste the words. Actually one of the pleasures of the set is being able to hear the words so clearly, not only from the three principals, but also from all the excellent comprimarii. Cillario conducts an exciting performance, if without the many subtleties and revelations of De Sabata in the studio, which remains a first choice for the opera. That said, this one is highly enjoyable and I would place it above Callas’s second studio performance. It may not be not the essential listening of some of the other operas in Warner’s live box set are, but it is certainly worth hearing, and nicely rounds off the set, which thus covers almost all of her international stage career, from Nabucco in 1949, just two years after her Italian debut in Verona, to this Tosca, recorded the year before she sang for the last time on the operatic stage.

 

 

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 Covent Garden Traviata

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Violetta is one of Callas’s most famous, most exacting characterisations, and a role she sang more than any other except Norma. She first sang it in Florence in January 1951 and finally in Dallas in October 1958 (in a new Zeffirelli production) just a few months after this performance at Covent Garden. In between she had sung it all over Italy, in South America, in Chicago and at the Met, in Lisbon (just a few months before the Covent Garden ones) and of course there was the famous Visconti La Scala production, which changed for all times perceptions of Italian opera production.

Of all the roles in her repertoire, it was Violetta which underwent the greatest refinement, and it is a great shame that her only studio recording of it is the somewhat provincially supported Cetra performance of 1952, made before Visconti’s 1955 production, which substantially changed Callas’s views on performing the role. As you would expect, Callas still makes a profound impression in the set, but from Visconti onwards, her interpretations became ever more subtly inflected, more deeply felt, and her Violetta, especially as heard here at Covent Garden, has never been surpassed, let alone equaled.

It is often said that the role of Violetta requires three different sopranos; a coloratura for Act I, a lyric for Act II and a dramatic for Act III. A soprano comfortable with the demands of Act II and III, will struggle with the coloratura and high tessitura of Sempre libera, and, conversely a soprano happy with Act I’s pyrotechnics, won’t have the necessary weight of voice for the final Act. With Callas, no such provisos needed to be made, and, though earlier in her career, Sempre libera may have had more dash, ease and security on high, she could still, though slightly strained by its demands, sing it with dazzling accuracy in 1958. Furthermore, she invested the scales and runs with a hectic, nervous energy that made them much more than mere display.

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The orchestral prelude of the Covent Garden performance starts with a small piece of operatic history. The microphone manages to pick up Callas quietly singing a couple of notes during the orchestral introduction. No doubt they were inaudible in the auditorium but their presence is one of the ways we Callas fans identify the performance from those first few bars. Indeed Terrence McNally’s play The Lisbon Traviata opens with the character of Mendy listening to the opening bars of this Covent Garden performance, then exploding, “No, no, no! That’s not Lisbon! It’s London 1958!” (I had the same reaction when I saw the play, until I realised it was intentional). Curiously, though, the notes are missing from ICA’s “first official” release. When I contacted ICA about it, they could offer no explanation, and their transfer is, in any case, somewhat muddy, so, for now, I would recommend the Myto transfer pictured above.

Whole tomes could be written about Callas’s interpretive insights in this performance, so inevitably right is her every utterance, so, in the interest of brevity, I will try to restrict myself to a few key points in each Act.

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She starts forthrightly as if trying to convince everyone, including herself, that Violetta is over her recent illness, and her exchanges with Alfredo and the Baron have a delicious playfulness about them. Note in the Brindisi how accurately she executes those little grace notes and turns, usually blurred or ignored by other singers. Valletti, who is for the most part a model of elegance and style, misses them completely.

The brief moment when she almost faints, and then privately acknowledges her frailty is masterfully done, though she quickly regains her composure for the duet with Alfredo. Stunningly accurate is her singing Ah, se cio ver, fuggitemi, the coloratura flourishes invested with a carefree insouciance, that somehow also manages to express that she is already falling for Alfredo.

Left alone, the recitative takes us on a journey of conflicting emotions, until, wistfully and reflectively, she sings Ah fors’ e lui, her voice scarcely rising above a mezzo forte that draws the audience in, her legato as usual impeccable, the top notes floated in a gentle pianissimo that never obtrudes on the mood she has created.  She herself tosses such thoughts aside in the Follie! Follie! section, pouring forth cascades of notes as she tries to convince herself that any ideas of love are pure whimsy.

Admittedly, top notes here and in the following cabaletta Sempre libera are a little tight and tense, but her coloratura is still brilliantly precise, and we note how she can make us hear the difference between simple scale passages and those separated into duple quavers. Alfredo’s interjection momentarily catches her off guard, and she launches into the reprise with even more gusto as she tries to block out his protestations. The unwritten final Eb is not exactly a pretty note (though no worse than Cotrubas’s on the Kleiber studio set), and it always seems a pity to me that she felt constrained to sing it at all, given that so many others, before and since, opt for the lower option. Nevertheless it rounds off an almost perfect rendition of this final scene.

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Callas’s range of tone colour and her ability to express different thoughts and attitudes in a very short space of time are amply demonstrated in the first few exchanges of Act II. The single word Alfredo, when she asks as to his whereabouts is suffused with happiness. This quickly gives way to dignified outrage at Germont’s boorish outburst (Donna son io, signore, ed in mia casa) which in turn quickly softens when she realises that, as Alfredo’s father, the man deserves her respect (Ch’io vi lasci assentite, piu per voi, che per me). Later, when Germont questions her past, she responds with a voice of blazing affirmation, Piu non esiste. Or amo Alfredo, e Dio lo cancello col pentiemento mio. Oh come dolce mi suona il vostro accento is sung with a sweet, sadly misplaced, trust, which is quickly replaced with a touch of panic at Ah no! Tacete! Terribil cosa chiedereste certo. This whole scene, the recitatives and the duets, is a locus classicus of Callas’s art and a perfect example of her ability to invest a seemingly unimportant line, or even just a word, with significance.

Non sapete quale affetto is sung with mounting panic, like a butterfly caught indoors beating desperately against a windowpane,  Gran Dio!, when Germont brutally suggests that she will age and Alfredo will not always remain faithful to her, in a tone of blank, pale despair. However the moment of true resignation, the moment Violetta accepts her fate, is enshrined in the one sustained note that leads into Dite alla giovine. Peter Heyworth saw this performance and reviewed it for The Observer. He describes the moment absolutely perfectly in his review.

But perhaps the most marvellous moment of the evening was the long sustained B flat before Violetta descends to the opening phrase of “Dite alla giovine”. This is the moment of decision on which the whole opera turns. By some miracle, Callas makes that note hang unsuspended in mid air; unadorned and unsupported she fills it with all the conflicting emotions that besiege her. As she descends to the aria, which she opened with a sweet, distant mezza voce of extraordinary poignancy, the die is cast.

One rarely comes across such brilliantly descriptive perception these days, and music criticism is much worse for it.

Imponete is uttered in a tone of total dejection, before the outpouring of emotion in which she begs Germont to embrace her like a daughter, and the scene in which she begs Alfredo to love her whatever happens is palpably, upsettingly real, Amami, Alfredo delivered with an intensity that makes you wonder how Alfredo could have doubted her for one second.

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The scene at Flora’s party finds her almost sleep-walking, as she attempts to hide her heartbreak. When Alfredo forces out of her a confession that she loves the Baron, we can feel what it costs her, and the thread of sound with which she sings Alfredo, Alfredo, di questa core, after Alfredo has denounced her, is heart-wrenchingly moving.

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The last act is almost too much to bear, and even just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. What other Violetta makes us feel so deeply her tragedy, her voice drained of all energy in the exchanges with Anina and the doctor? The tragedy really hits home with E tardi! after the reading of the letter; Addio del passato is delivered in a half tone of wondrous expressivity, its final A evaporating in the air. Rescigno recounts that the note kept cracking, and he would tell her to sing it with a little more power in order to sustain it, but she wouldn’t compromise. A firmer top A might have sounded prettier, but it did not reveal so well Violetta’s emotional and physical collapse.

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The adrenalin rush of Alfredo’s entrance provokes more energetic attack, and she seems momentarily to recover, but the recovery is short-lived and the realisation that not even Alfredo can stop her from dying provokes an outburst of passionate intensity at Ah! Gran Dio morir si giovine. That intensity is short-lived though and the final section of the opera is delivered in a half-voice of ineffably sweet sadness. According to reports, as Callas’s Violetta rose to greet what she thought was new life, she literally became a standing corpse, her eyes staring sightlessly into the audience. We cannot of course see this on the recording, but the way she simply shuts the breath off on her final  O gioia is an aural equivalent.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think though that spontaneity gets lost in the detail. The miracle of Callas is that not only does she achieve her effects with utmost musicality whilst closely adhering to what is in the printed score, but that she also does so as though the notes were coming newly minted from her mouth. Throughout she maintains her superb legato, never forgetting that, in Italian opera especially, it is the arc of the melody that is paramount. This surely is the art that conceals art.

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There are other reasons to treasure this set. Valletti, a Schipa pupil, sings with something of his master’s grace and elegance, though his tone is not as sappy as Di Stefano at La Scala or the young Kraus in Lisbon. Nonetheless he is a worthy partner, as is Mario Zanasi, who is my favourite of all the Germonts Callas sang with. His light baritone might sound a little young, but he is a most sympathetic partner in the long Act II duet, and a welcome relief from the four-square, over loud Germont of Bastianini at La Scala, however magnificent his actual voice.

Rescigno, as so often when accompanying Callas, is inspired to give of his very best, and the opera was cast with strength from the Covent Garden resident team, with Marie Collier as Flora and Forbes Robinson as the Baron.

Were I to be vouchsafed but one recording of La Traviata (I actually own six – four with Callas) on that proverbial desert island, then this would assuredly be it. In a performance such as this one forgets opera is artifice and what we are presented with is real life.