Callas’s Lady Macbeth

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UPDATED NOVEMBER 2017

As I reviewed this performance only recently, I thought I would just re-post with a word or two about the sound of the Warner edition.

Thankfully, Warner seem not to have used the awful EMI version, itself a clone of another release. EMI failed to notice that the version they used had spliced into the Act I finale a few bars of a performance with Gencer, done to cover what was thought a loss of tranmission. This new version, and the Myto detailed below, has found the missing bars and included them, though the sound here is more muffled than elsewhere in the ensemble. Comparing Warner to Myto, I eventually came down in favour of Warner, which sounds a little cleaner to me, though there is not a great deal in it. I haven’t heard the Ars Vocalis version, so can’t comment on it. The main thing to take into account is that both Warner and Myto are a substantial improvement on EMI, which was practically unlistenable.

*****

Having reviewed all Callas’s studio sets, I thought maybe it was time I tackled the live ones, or at least those I have on CD, though I’ve heard quite a few others at one time or another too. I’m starting with Macbeth, as it happens to be the opera I’m listening to at the moment.

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One of the yawning gaps in EMI’s catalogue of Callas recordings has always been a studio recording of Macbeth with Callas and Gobbi as the murderous pair. With Di Stefano as Macduff and Zaccaria as Banquo and Serafin, or even Karajan, at the helm, EMI would no doubt have had a winner, but Walter Legge deemed the opera not popular enough and so Callas got to record Mimi, Manon and Nedda instead, roles which she was never to sing on stage, but no doubt seemed more commercially viable. It is also easy to forget that back in the 1950s, Macbeth didn’t have the same high regard it has now. Ultimately, all Callas got to record of the role were Lady Macbeth’s three great solos for her Verdi Heroines recital of 1958. Nevertheless, so successful are her interpretations that they have become the standard for all Lady Macbeths who followed, and Callas has become indelibly associated with the role, though in fact these La Scala performances were the only occasion she ever sang it.

This performance, which opened the 1952 La Scala season, was certainly a starry affair. It was directed by Carl Ebert, with designs by Nicola Benois, and conducted by Victor De Sabata, and though the rest of the cast were hardly in Callas’s class (who was?) they are all a good deal better than adequate.

As can be heard in Myto’s most recent transfer of the performance, much clearer than any I have heard before (and a good deal better than EMI’s shoddy presentation), De Sabata has a terrific grip on the score, his conception symphonically conceived, and the La Scala orchestra play brilliantly for him, his tempi, with one glaring exception, which I will come to shortly, judiciously chosen. We are vouchsafed all of the ballet music, which is brilliantly played.

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Mascherini’s Macbeth has been criticised for being a relatively muted presence, and he’s certainly no Gobbi, but I think his performance works in context. Macbeth, after all, is a weak character. It is Lady Macbeth who drives the narrative, both in Shakespeare and in Verdi. Sure, Mascherini is not particularly imaginative in his phrasing, but he makes an excellent foil to Callas in the duets, which she dominates, as she should.

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The opera belongs to the protagonists and both tenor and bass roles are relatively minor. Whilst Penno as Macduff and Tajo as Banquo are not in the first rank, neither of them is bad, and both are much better than adequate.

But, certainly in this performance, the opera belongs to Lady Macbeth and Callas is astonishing. So complete is her mastery of the role’s complexities, that one would have thought that she had been singing it for years, whereas this was in fact the first time she was singing it in public. She doesn’t get off to the greatest of starts, with her peculiar voicing of the spoken letter before her first recitative, but once she launches into Ambizioso spirto, she never misses a trick. Her voice was in prime condition at the time, securely gleaming on high, dark and richly powerful down below. No other Lady Macbeth has so acutely observed  Verdi’s meticulous markings; no other Lady Macbeth has sung with such power and force, and yet with such a range of colour and expression; no other Lady Macbeth has executed the fiendishly difficult fioriture with such uncanny accuracy. This is the stuff of genius, no doubt about it, and anyone who has ever doubted Callas’s pre-eminence in the field should listen to the performance, preferably with score in hand.

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As usual with Callas, she is apt to make her mark in a line, a word of recitative, as in one of the big set pieces, and her portrayal, full of incidental details, is all of a piece. Amongst the many revelations, I would mention the way she sings Vergogna, Signor after Macbeth has broken down before the ghost of Banquo in the banquet scene. The peculiar inflection she gives it, somehow suggests the deep love that exists between the couple, for without it, how does one explain why Macbeth is so much in thrall to his wife.

When Callas came to record Lady Macbeth’s three big scenes for her Verdi Heroines recital disc, her voice had lost some of the power and security on top, and consequently, good though they are, both Vieni t’affretta and La luce langue reach their fullest expression in the live La Scala version. However I do have a problem with the very fast speed De Sabata adopts for the Sleepwalking Scene. At so fast a tempo, Callas is less able to make her points, and it has always seemed to me something of a miscalculation. By the end of the scene, he has slowed down a bit, so maybe he thought so too, and we don’t know what happened in subsequent performances.

By contrast, the version on the recital disc is one of the greatest examples on disc of Callas’s deep psychological penetration into the psyche of a character. In interview she retells how she had felt in pretty good voice on the day of the recording, and emerged from the studio feeling quite pleased with herself. However , she was a little taken aback when Legge said she would have to do it again. Once she listened to the playback, though, she knew exactly what he meant. She had done a great piece of singing, but had not done her job as an interpreter. She then goes into a detailed analysis of the scene, of Lady Macbeth’s fluctuating thoughts, her fractured mental state, and how this should be expressed through the voice. Though much of Callas’s art was instinctive, there was evidently much also that was intellectual.

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Callas only sang Lady Macbeth for one series of performances, at La Scala in 1952, but her achievement in the role has never been bettered, and it is a great shame that the role did not remain part of her active repertoire.

Callas’s 1953 Studio Tosca

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Recorded 10-21 August, 1953, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

What can one say about this famous recording of Tosca that hasn’t been said before? It regularly appears in lists of the greatest recordings ever made, and it seems now that its legendary status is confirmed.

Because of it, Tosca has often been considered the quintessential Callas role, but, though she sang it a fair amount in her early career, she pretty much ignored the role after this recording, until it became the vehicle for her operatic comeback in London in 1964. Indeed she never sang it, or any other Puccini role, at La Scala, which was her cultural home at the height of her career. A few months after making this recording she sang the role at a couple of performances in Genoa, then promptly ignored it, except for her two seasons at the Met in 1956 and 1958. In 1964, Zeffirelli managed to get her to choose it as the vehicle for her comeback, but, typically for her, she would only agree if they could do Norma as well, which he staged for her in Paris.

The Zeffirelli production, which was shared by Paris and London, became one of the most famous in operatic history (and in fact Covent Garden only retired it a few years ago). Indeed one could say the photos of Callas in that red velvet dress she wore in Act II have since become iconic, even though Callas herself often voiced her disdain for both the opera and the role.

True, it may not have offered her the vocal challenges of Norma or Medea, of Violetta or Lady Macbeth, but in 1953 her voice was an amazingly limpid and responsive instrument, enabling her to easily encompass its demands, whilst rendering the score with an accuracy the likes of Tebaldi and Milanov could only dream of. Take, for instance, the lightness and grace with which she sings a line like le voce delle cose in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta. Most Toscas are clumsy here, but Callas sings it with elegant ease. Furthermore at this stage in her career, she can swell the tone to a refulgent climax at Arde in Tosca un folle amor, which she can’t quite manage by the time of the second recording, which was recorded around the same time as the London and Paris performances.

Interestingly, though, in terms of interpretation, there are not that many differences between Callas’s Tosca of 1953 and 1964; a few minor details here and there, but for the most part the character of Tosca is as musically finished here as it was to be histrionically in Covent Garden. Though Zeffirelli may have helped her with odd bits of stage business, it seems sure that her conception of the character had changed little in the intervening years. The main differences are vocal, and here she rides the orchestra with power to spare, the top Cs, that emerged as little more than shrieks in 1964, full throated and solid as a rock. Vissi d’arte (which Callas used to say should be cut as it held up the action) is both beautiful and heart-rending. So it is in 1964, but the ending taxes her to the limit there, whereas here it is full throated and easy.

Of course there are other reasons why this set has retained its place as the best of all Tosca recordings. Gobbi is also in fuller, securer voice here than he was in 1964, and his loathsome, reptilian Scarpia is a towering achievement. As usual, he and Callas strike sparks off each other, their confrontations bristling with tension. Di Stefano, who also appears on the first Karajan recording, is here in his best voice, an ardent, youthful and passionate Cavaradossi. Both duets with Callas are erotically charged affairs, as they should be.

Then of course, there is De Sabata on one of his rare excursions to the studio. The La Scala orchestra play superbly for him, and he unerringly paces the score just perfectly, with a sure sense of the work’s inner impetus, his use of rubato  brilliantly controlled. In a performance such as this, the one true winner is Puccini.

Sonically it is surely the best of all Callas’s studio mono sets from La Scala. One hardly notices the lack of stereo; voices are perfectly placed and the orchestra sounds richer and more full-bodied than was often the case. This transfer has also corrected some of the errors that crept into previous CD incarnations, not least the terrible GROC version.

Still the Tosca to have, and blow stereo digital sound.