A clutch of Decca Toscas

For this comparison, I have chosen five different recordings of Tosca, all available from Decca Classics.

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First off I revisited the 1984 Solti Tosca but have to say I got bored before the end of Act I and then just tried various bits in the other two acts. The sound is great. Apart from that the best thing in it is Aragall, though I wouldn’t prefer him to Di Stefano, Domingo, Carreras or Bergonzi, all of whom appear on other more recommendable recordings. Nucci is a dead loss and Te Kanawa out of her depth as Tosca. Solti’s conducting has little to commend it either, too slow in places and too fast in others. It just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole, and considering it was all recorded piecemeal, that’s hardly a surprise. I remember this set was originally issued in a blaze of publicity, but it didn’t sell well and was quickly remaindered. A totally forgettable performance. 

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Where I found the Solti a bit of a bore, this 1966 set is quite interesting, but often for all the wrong reasons. First of all Maazel’s conducting is fussy beyond belief. He can hardly let a phrase go by without pulling around the tempo or trying to bring out some detail in the score. There is no lyrical flow or sweep and ultimately Puccini gets lost on the altar of Maazel’s ego.

Fischer-Dieskau’s Scarpia is, as you would expect, intelligently thought out, but it never sounds idiomatic. He is an artist I admire in the right repertoire but Puccini was not for him. Corelli is, well, Corelli. He is definitely the best of the three principals, but he emphasises the heroic at the expense of the seductive. Nonetheless, as always, there is much to enjoy in the sound of the voice itself.

Then there is Nilsson. Well the top notes are fabulous of course, but this isn’t really a good role for her. She often overdoes the histrionics, as in her first scene with Scarpia where she adds a surfeit of sobs. She can also be a little clumsy in the ligher sections and Non la sospiri la nostra casetta is clumsy and unpolished. Ultimately, like Fischer-Dieskau, she sounds as if she had strayed into the wrong opera.

For all that I found this more enjoyable than the Solti, which is just plain dull. At least all the singers here have a personality.

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So I’ve moved on to the 1978 Rescigno in this mini challenge and there’s little here to detain us. In fact I’d be tempted to place this below the Maazel, which at least has interest value. Rescigno was a favourite of Callas’s, recording many of her recital albums and delivering at least one great performance in the live 1958 Covent Garden Traviata but his conducting here is just plain dull. Like Te Kanawa, Freni is completely out of her depth, the voice just too light even at this stage of her career. I expected Milnes to be more interesting, especially when you think of his Jack Rance, but for some reason his Scarpia just isn’t nasty enough. Which leaves Pavarotti, who sounds out of sorts vocally. The velvet has gone from his voice and he often sounds plain whiney. Not surprisingly his Vittoria! is very small scale when set beside Corelli’s. And small scale is what personifies the whole performance, but that’s not what Tosca needs.

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At last a real Tosca voice! Aside from at the very top of the voice when she can be a bit shrieky, Tebaldi fulfils almost all the demands the role asks of her. I say almost, because she doesn’t quite have Callas’s flexibility and lightness of touch in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta, but then few do. The beauty of the voice is well caught and she is a convincing Tosca. It’s not a particularly subtle performance, from any of the singers, but they do all have splendid voices of the requisite size and weight. Del Monaco is much better than I remembered, though he still bawls from time to time and his arias lack poetry. George London is the best of the Scarpias so far, his voice dark and threatening.

What lets this set down is the routine conducting of Molinari-Pradelli. He is a good accompanist, nothing more. Still, worth hearing for the three lead singers. The 1959 recording sounds good for its age.

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So I’ve come to the end of my mini Decca Tosca challenge and what a difference the conductor makes. This 1962 recording is in an altogether different class from the others and the chief reason for that is Karajan’s elastic conducting, which is incredibly controlled without being rigid. Where Maazel’s conducting draws attention to itself because of the way he fusses with the rhythms, Karajan’s rubato is entirely natural. He has at his disposal a cast as well nigh perfect as any other assembled on disc. Taddei’s Scarpia is the best I’ve heard since Gobbi, sounding equally dangerous but in a completely different way. You feel this man could lash out viciously at any second. Gobbi’s Scarpia would be unlikely to get his own hands dirty, but you feel Taddei’s not ony would but would enjoy doing so. Di Stefano is in slightly fresher voice for De Sabata but he is still an excellent Cavaradossi, and I actually prefer him to both Corelli and Del Monaco. He fulfils all aspects of the character, artist, lover and revolutionary, finding the poetry in his arias and an almost crazed fervour in his cries of Vittoria. He brings more “face” to his character than anyone. Truly this was one of his very best roles.

Which leaves us with Price and here I have a feeling I might be treading on controversial ground. The voice is, of course, absolutely gorgeous, her characterisation sensuous and feminine, and her singing is deeply felt (Vissi d’arte is really lovely). She is a good deal preferable to Nilsson, Freni or Te Kanawa, but I would still place Callas and Tebaldi ahead of her in the Tosca canon. The Callas/De Sabata I know so well that it tends to play in my mind’s ear whenever I hear the opera, but I had also just listened to Tebaldi in the role and she sounds more like a natural for it to me. It’s hard to put my finger on what is missing, but I’d no doubt be perfectly happy with her Tosca if I hadn’t heard Callas and Tebaldi in the role. Nonethless she is one of the best Toscas on record and in very good company.

So now having heard all five of these Decca recordings, my final ordering would be

1. (by a fair margin) Karajan
2. Molinari-Pradelli (the only other really worth hearing, mostly for Tebaldi’s Tosca and London’s Scarpia)
3. Maazel
4. Rescigno
5. Solti

The De Sabata would still be my ultimate first choice, but the Karajan has also stood the test of time and anyone wanting an audio Tosca would be happy with either. If stereo sound is a must, then Karajan is the obvious first choice.

 

Callas’s 1953 Tosca Revisited

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I first reviewed this set when it was reissued by Warner back in 2014 and posted it in my blog shortly after starting it on this platform. You can read that review here and add this review as a sort of codicil.

Though now considered one of the greatest opera recordings ever made, this justly famous recording of Tosca was not universally acclaimed when it was first issued, Alec Robertson comparing Callas’s assumption of the title role unfavourably to Tebaldi’s more dramatic performance. He died in 1982. I wonder if he ever ate his words. Dyneley Hussey made the strange observation that much of Callas’s singing was unrhythmical, which, given Callas’s legendary musical exactitude, now seems entirely incredible.

In all respects (conducting and singing) this Tosca is a more musical performance than the Tebaldi/Erede with which it was being compared, where dramatic effect is applied rather than arising from the music itself.

Despite the excellence of the three principals, the star of the recording for me is Victor De Sabata, who doesn’t so much conduct as mould the score, and consequently the real winner is Puccini, as it should be. Apparently Karajan had John Culshaw play sections of the De Sabata recording to him during sessions for his own equally famous recording of the opera with Leontyne Price. According to Culshaw, “One exceptionally tricky passage for the conductor is the entry of Tosca in act 3, where Puccini’s tempo directions can best be described as elastic. Karajan listened to de Sabata several times over during that passage and then said, ‘No, he’s right but I can’t do that. That’s his secret.'”

Of course De Sabata is immeasurably helped by his cast, who in turn are inspired to give of their best. How Alec Robertson could have thought Campora characterised Cavaradossi better than Di Stefano, who sings not only with his customary face but also with a degree of musical accuracy he didn’t always achieve, is beyond me. Gobbi was, is, and no doubt will always be a touchstone for the role of Scarpia,  a gentleman thug, smoothly reptilian and much more interesting than the conventional villain he is often portrayed. As for Callas, the objections meted out at the time not only seem churlish, but far off the mark. Infinitely feminine and vulnerable, her Tosca is a long way from the cane-touting, flamboyantly capricious character she was usually portrayed in those days, and maybe that was why AR found her less dramatic. She is in her best voice, with scalpel-like attack on the high notes, the voice wonderfully responsive and she brings a welcome bel canto approach to this verismo role.

66 years after it was recorded, it remains the best of all recorded Toscas, a fact brought home to me recently when I compared five of the recordings at present available on Decca. These were Te Kanawa/Solti, Nilsson/Maazel, Freni/Rescigno, Tebaldi/Molinari-Pradelli and Price/Karajan and I will shortly publish my findings. 

The Callas Karajan Lucia di Lammermoor – Berlin 1955

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Moving on through the Live Warner Callas box, we come to the legendary night on which she sang Lucia at the Berlin State Opera.

Callas first sang Lucia in Mexico in 1952 and caused such a sensation that she completely changed people’s attitudes to the role. The following year she sang the role again in Florence, Genoa, Catania, Rome, and it was one of the roles she chose for her American debut at the Chicago Opera House in 1954. Also in 1954 she appeared for the first time in Karajan’s La Scala production, which he subsequently took to Berlin in 1955 and to Vienna in 1956, and all those iconic photos of Callas wearing that long, pleated nightdress are taken from this production.

To understand what a sensation the Callas/Karajan Lucia di Lammermoor wrought, one has to remember that, back then, the opera was considered no more than a silly Italian opera, in which a doll-like light voiced coloratura got to show off her high notes and flexibility. That a conductor of the calibre of Herbert von Karajan, famed for his Beethoven and Brahms, was taking it seriously caused people to reassess their perceptions. There is a charming story of Toti dal Monte, an erstwhile famous Lucia herself, visiting Callas in her La Scala dressing room, tears streaming down her face and confessing she had sung the role for years without ever realising its dramatic potential. Indeed it is pretty safe to say that without Callas’s Lucia, Sutherland’s career might never have taken the trajectory it did.

Apparently, though Callas loved making music with Karajan, she hated his production with its dark, murky projections and backdrops. However Zeffirelli thought that he got it just right. In the mad scene, Karajan lowered all the lights and just put a follow spot on her, which, as Zeffirelli stated, was all you had to do with a Callas. Karajan simply allowed her to become music.

Berlin was in a high state of excitement when Karajan took the La Scala production there in 1955, and, as can be heard on this recording of the event, the audience can hardly contain their enthusiasm. Desmond Shawe Taylor reviewed it for Opera magazine.

I dare say she will never sing better than she does now; there is Greek resin in her voice which will never be quite strained away; she will never charm us with the full round ductile tone of Muzio or [Rosa] Raisa or Ponselle. But she has sudden flights, dramatic outbursts of rocketing virtuosity, of which even those more richly endowed singers were hardly capable

His words now seem prophetic as 1955 could well be seen as the apex of Callas’s career. It was the year of the Visconti La Sonnambula and La Traviata, the Zeffirelli Il Turco in Italia, the Chicago Il Trovatore with Bjoerling, the year she made seminal recordings of Rigoletto with Serafin and Madama Butterfly  with Karajan (not universally well received at the time, but now considered a classic), and she closed the year with what many consider her greatest ever performances of Norma, at La Scala with Simionato and Del Monaco, mercifully preserved in sound and best heard in its Divina Records transfer.

The sound of this Berlin broadcast has always been one of the best of all Callas live performances and this Warner transfer, which is from a different source to the EMI one, is very clear, with very little distortion and only a hint of pre-echo. Furthermore, where EMI were somewhat parsimonious with the applause, Warner have left more of it in, which makes more sense of the encored Sextet. This is certainly one of those cases where the side show is almost as gripping as the show itself.

Callas did of course record the role of Lucia twice in the studio under Serafin. The first, in 1953, was her very first recording for EMI and the second, made in 1959, was the first of the four operas she re-recorded in stereo, a set I have a certain affection for it as it was the recording that introduced me to the opera when I was still in my teens. However, if I want to listen to the opera, it is invariably to this live recording with Karajan at the helm to which I turn.

Callas’s rare collaborations with Karajan always reaped gold, and it is greatly to be regretted that they didn’t work together more often. It was a symbiotic relationship and one can hear in this performance how Karajan appears to breathe with her, giving her ample room to spin out the phrases. However, with two such egos, the relationship was never going to be completely harmonious. Callas was apparently furious with Karajan for granting the Berlin audience an encore of the Sextet, meaning that she had to do twice the work before her Mad Scene; so furious that she turned her back on him during the Mad Scene. Years later, when she met him again, she said to him, “What was it you did when I was so bitchy and turned my back on you in the Mad Scene? I knew you were clever. But the accompaniment was so perfect, I decided you were not only a genius, you were also a witch.” “It was very simple,” Karajan replied, ” I watched your shoulders. When they went up I knew you were breathing in, and that was my cue for attack.” Callas, being something of a witch herself, no doubt knew that was only part of the story.

There is no doubt that Callas’s voice is lighter, more airy, than it was in any of her Lucias up to now. How much this had to do with the shift in repertoire, the weight loss or Karajan’s input is a moot point, but her singing is unfailingly lovely, with phrases drawn out to prodigious lengths, spinning them out the way a master violinist might play their violin.

From the outset Callas presents us with a highly-strung, romantic dreamer, a young girl, who would no doubt have been closeted and protected from the real world. Her first solo is sung with wonderful delicacy, the line deliciously drawn out and beautifully held at Karajan’s expansive tempo. As so often with Callas, there is no artifice to her singing, nor any sense of the routine, the music sounding as if it has sprung newly minted from her lips.

How typical that the first climax of the scene, should not be the aria itself, beautifully though it is sung, but a line of recitative that follows, with Lucia’s simple affirmation of her love for Edgardo (Egli e luce a’ giorni miei) just before she launches into the cabaletta Quando rapito in estasi, which is sung with lovely rhythmic buoyancy.

In the ensuing duet with Edgardo, she is all sweet concern, her phrases pouring balm on Edgardo’s troubled utterances, but we get a glimpse of the slightly unhinged Lucia, when, in a voice peculiarly quivering with intensity, she sings Ah no! rimango nel silenzio sepolto per or l’arcano affetto.

Verrano a te sull’aria is sung with prodigious breath control, the legato line spun out to wondrous effect. Di Stefano is here at his honeyed best, and Karajan provides subtly supple support, a superb example of artists listening to each other and working together.

The second act is the turning point for Lucia. In the face of such cruelty from her brother, this is the moment she starts to lose her reason, and you can hear in Callas’s voicing of the words Ahi!.. La folgore piombo! that the poor girl is at the end of her tether. Soffriva nel pianto is almost unbearably moving, as Callas digs deep into its melancholy.

In the following scene, she seems almost to be sleepwalking, until she falls apart completely when Edgardo suddenly appears and condemns her seeming treachery. The whole of this scene is dramatically thrilling, from the superbly sung (and encored) Sextet through to the knife-edge finale, where Karajan has opened up some of the cuts usually made in previous Callas performances.

The Mad Scene is, as it should be, the apex of Callas’s performance. So supple, so exquisite is her singing, that the voice seems to hover in mid air, and she literally seems to be extemporising on the spot. Certain phrases (Alfin son tua, for instance) are so firmly etched on my consciousness that any other singer seems just to be skimming the surface. The miracle is that she can execute all the vocal tricks of the coloratura soprano with such accuracy and skill, whilst at the same time making musical and dramatic sense of the notes. As ever, Karajan provides impeccable support.

We are lucky that such a superb cast was assembled; Di Stefano is at his considerable, lyrical best as Edgardo, Panerai terrifyingly single minded and relentlessly evil as Enrico, and Zaccaria a mellifluous and sympathetic Raimondo.

Aside from the cuts opened up in the Act II finale, the opera is unfortunately cut in the manner traditional back then. However the recording is nonetheless absolutely essential listening, not only for Callas fans, but for all lovers of Italian opera.

 

 

 

 

Callas sings Gilda in Rigoletto – Mexico 1952

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This is actually the first time I’d heard this performance complete. Previously I’d only heard excerpts in wretched sound, which hadn’t encouraged me to investigate further, especially given the excellence of Callas’s studio recording with Gobbi and Di Stefano and Serafin at the podium.

Well the first thing to say is that the sound is actually quite good, the voices well caught and much clearer than anything I’d heard before. Unfortunately the performance itself, save for Callas’s miraculous Gilda, is something of a mess, and I wonder why Warner decided to include it, especially as they omitted the superb live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera of 1957.

One should also note that the prompter is a palpable presence, shouting rather than whispering the lines to the soloists. Oddly enough he disappears completely at the beginning of Tutte le feste and Callas muffs her first lines.

So let’s get the problems, and there are plenty of them, out of the way first. Umberto Mugnai doesn’t appear to have any control over his resources whatsoever, and frequently coordination between pit and stage falls apart completely. The score is also cut to ribbons, far more than was traditional at the time. It is notable that when things go awry, it is usually Callas, who presumably couldn’t even see the conductor, who brings things back on track. Even in such chaotic surroundings, her innate musicality shines through.

The last act is the biggest mess of all, and all the singers go out of sync with the orchestra in the storm ensemble, despite Callas’s best efforts to bring everything back under control. The quartet isn’t much better, and ends with all the singers, save Callas, out of tune, not that it bothers the audience who give it a rapturous reception. Nor does it concern them that just before that Di Stefano had ended La donna e mobile seriously flat. Forced to encore the aria, his second attempt isn’t much better.

Piero Campolonghi, who plays Rigoletto, has a fine enough voice, but, oh dear, what a ham! He delights in holding onto notes longer than he has to, adding extraneous sobs whilst others are singing and shamelessly playing up to the audience, who, it has to be said, lap it all up with enthusiasm. He has absolutely no idea who or what Rigoletto is. Oh how I missed Gobbi.

Di Stefano does at least have the measure of the Duke. He has charm in abundance, and we can understand why Gilda could be taken in by such a man, but, without a strong hand at the helm, he can be careless of note values and rhythm, and he too plays shamelessly to the gallery. The rest of the cast is decidedly provincial.

That Callas’s Gilda, a role she was singing for the first time, should emerge virtually unscathed from this shambles of a performance is a miracle indeed. She makes a couple of decisions she would later regret, such as transposing down Caro nome a semitone down enabling her to finish it on a secure, but unpoetic top Eb in alt, rather than Verdi’s written rapturous trill on the lower E  (something she does to brilliant effect in the studio recording). She also ends the Quartet on a powerful (and unwritten) top Db (but then, with all the singers belting out their lines, the written quiet ending would have been out of the question).

Aside from these miscalculations, made to appease the Mexican audience’s love for high notes, her Gilda is one of her most exacting characterisations, and it is a great pity that she was never tempted to sing the role on stage again. Had she done so, we might well have completely rethought the role, much as we did that of Lucia.

Her voice is in superb condition, infinitely responsive and wonderfully limpid, the tone wondrously lightened to dispel any associations with Abigaille, Kundry, Elena, Aida and Armida, the roles we have heard her sing so far in this live set. Furthermore her Gilda is a character of real flesh and blood, with a fullness of heart in her duets with her father that prepares us for the sacrifice she makes later; a closeted romantic dreamer suddenly propelled into a world far beyond anything in her experience. Not only is her characterisation of the role a revelation, but her singing qua singing is exquisitely realised, her musical instincts unfailingly right, and ultimately her Gilda rises like a phoenix from the ashes of its crude surroundings.

 

 

 

 

Callas’s Two Recordings of Un Ballo in Maschera

Amelia is a role that should probably have figured more in Callas’s career. She sang excerpts as a student, almost got to sing it at La Scala under Toscanini, but actually didn’t tackle the whole role until the recording she made under Antonino Votto in 1956, and after singing it in a lavish new production at La Scala the following year, never sang it again, though she returned to Amelia’s two big solos in the studio in the mid to late 1960s.

We are fortunate that the La Scala live performance was captured in sound, and, though sonically it is not as clear as that on the studio recording, it is one of the best preserved La Scala broadcasts. Common to both the studio and live sets are the La Scala forces, Eugenia Ratti’s Oscar, Callas and Di Stefano. Everything else is different, so which is best?

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First off we note that Gianandrea Gavazzeni on the live set is a much more positive presence than the somewhat prosaic Anotonino Votto. It is testament to his soloists that the Votto recording remains one of the most recommendable of studio sets 60 odd years after its release, but Gavazzeni’s performance is definitely more alive to the drama, and, from that point of view at least, the live performance is preferable. One should also note that the audience is a palpable (and vocal) presence, which some may find distracting. Personally I find it all part of the fun. Though one of the best of Callas’s La Scala broadcasts, it still tends to overload at climaxes. The studio set is in good mono sound.

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Let’s now take the other differences. What I miss most on the live recording is Gobbi’s Renato. Bastianini on the live set was a fine singer, and probably had what we consider more of a Verdi baritone sound, but he is not nearly as imaginative as Gobbi. Bastianini has the more beautiful voice. Gobbi creates the more interesting character. When Gobbi sings the single word “Amelia” at the moment his wife is revealed to be the Duke’s paramour, he invests it with a wealth of conflicting emotions far beyond the scope of the more forthright Bastianini, so, in this respect at least the studio version is preferable. The conspirators on the studio set are also slightly better at vocal word painting than their live counterparts, but the difference is marginal.

Both the Ulricas are excellent, and if I prefer the magnificent Simionato on the live set, my preference is again only marginal. Barbieri is also excellent on the studio set. Eugenia Ratti is a trifle shrill for my liking on both the studio and live sets.

As for Callas and Di Stefano, I’d find it hard to choose between their performances, as they are both in terrific voice on both sets. Di Stefano is not the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but he has bags of personality. In the live set, he can be guilty of playing to the gallery somewhat, but the audience give him a rapturous reception, so who can blame him?

Callas is in magnificent form on both sets, her singing full of incidental details most singers miss, her command of the role’s difficulties staggering. I often wonder why her voice sounds so much fuller and richer in this role than it does on the studio Aida, which was recorded in 1955, the year before the studio set and two years before the live version. Possibly because Amelia is a transitional role, requiring a full compliment of trills and vocal graces of which Callas was a mistress. However it also requires quite a large voice, which is why the vocal niceties of the role are usually glossed over or ignored. Listen to Callas sing in her first scene the arching phrase Consentimi o signore with a pure legato and refulgent tone, whilst perfectly executing the little turn at the end of the phrase that signifies Amelia’s nervous state. Note also that when Amelia mirrors Oscar’s trills in the Oath Scene, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills. It is moments such as these that make Callas stand out from all others.

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A month after the La Scala prima, she was to sing Norma at the Rome Opera at a gala attended by the Italian president. She was unwell and tried to cancel, but, against her better instincts allowed herself to be persuaded by the management to do the performance, as, incredibly, they had not bothered to engage an understudy. During the performance, she felt her voice slipping away from her, and refused to carry on after Act I. This created one of the biggest scandals of her career. The Rome Opera refused to make any announcement on her behalf, and then compounded the problem by cancelling the rest of her contract, even though she had representations from doctors confirming her illness. The press had a field day, even fabricating footage of her supposedly rehearsing in good voice, though the footage was actually from a radio broadcast in 1955. She eventually sued the Rome Opera, a case that was settled entirely in her favour, but the case dragged on for years, and by the time she won the case, the damage done to her personally was irrevocable.

When she returned to La Scala later that year in a revival of Anna Bolena, the La Scala audience greeted her with icy silence, though, as was her wont, by the end of the first performance, she had scored a personal triumph even greater than at the prima the previous year. Unfortunately, when she returned to her villa with Meneghini, it was to find the walls and gates covered and daubed with dog excrement. Is it any wonder she began to doubt whether devoting her life to her art was really worth the trouble? Is it any wonder that the world of the glitterati, empty though it would turn out to be, should suddenly seem so attractive?

After the live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera, there are of course some stupendous performances to come, the Cologne La Sonnambula, the Dallas Medea, the London and Lisbon La Traviatas for instance, but we rarely hear her sing again with such security, and ease. Pure conjecture on my part of course, but I often wonder if that Rome cancellation, and the fall out from it, was when the pressure of performing, of always having to be the best really started to get to her.

Callas’s 1953 Studio Lucia di Lammermoor

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Recorded 29-30 January, 3, 4 & 6 February 1953, Teatro Comunale, Florence

Producer: Dino Olivieri, Balance Engineer: Osvaldo Varesca

Of all the roles Callas sang, it was probably Lucia which created the biggest furore. Back in the early 1950s, nobody took the opera very seriously. It was considered a silly Italian opera in which a doll-like coloratura soprano ran around the stage showing off her high notes and flexibility. There is a hilarious description of the characters in E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread attending a provincial performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. Here he describes the prima donna’s first entrance.

Lucia began to sing, and there was a moment’s silence. She was stout and ugly; but her voice was still beautiful, and as she sang the theatre murmured like a hive of happy bees. All through the coloratura she was accompanied by sighs, and its top note was drowned in a shout of universal joy.

For anyone who loves opera or Italy, I heartily recommend this self-mocking tale of the English abroad.

But back to Callas, who first sang the role of Lucia on stage in Mexico  in 1952. A few months earlier she had sung the first part of the Mad Scene at a concert in Rome. After Mexico, she would sing it in Florence, Genoa, Catania and in Rome before appearing in Karajan’s legendary production at La Scala at the beginning of 1954, a production that subsequently travelled to Berlin (one of her most famous recorded live performances) and Vienna.  It was also one of the roles she chose for her U.S. debut in 1954 in Chicago and at the Met in 1956. Her last performances of the role were in Dallas in 1959 (in the same Zefirelli production that made Sutherland a star at Covent Garden) and she made two recordings of the opera;  this one in 1953 in Florence, shortly after stage performances there and the second in 1959 in London. After Norma, Violetta and Tosca it is the role she sang most often, so it is hardly surprising that she is so much associated with it.

Back in the 1950s it must have seemed unthinkable that such a large voice could tackle the role, and not only sing it, but sing it with such accuracy and musicality, giving the opera back a tragic intensity that people had forgotten, or didn’t even know,  was there.  There is a touching story of Toti Dal Monte, an erstwhile famous Lucia herself, visiting Callas in her dressing room after a performance, tears streaming down her face, and confessing she had sung the role for years without really understanding its dramatic potential.

From Callas’s very first notes, she presents a highly-strung, nervous character, but sings with impeccable legato, all the scales and fioriture bound into the vocal line, the tone dark, but plangent, expressive but infinitely subtle. Regnava nel silenzio is a model of grace, but she still manages to invest the words di sangue roseggio with a kind of horror, whilst never resorting to glottal stops or other verismo tricks. She understands that with bel canto it is the arc of the melody, of the musical line that is paramount.

And so it continues, with her consolatory Deh ti placa in the duet with Di Stefano’s Edgardo, a duet of musical contrasts, in which Callas’s Lucia is at its most feminine. The duet with Gobbi, their first encounter on disc together, is also full of contrasts, and Gobbi makes a much more interesting villain than Cappuccilli in her second recording, finding a range of insinuating colour that his younger colleague doesn’t even hint at.

The Mad Scene is a miracle of long breathed phrases, with such lines as Alfin son tua heartbreakingly expressed, and of course here there are none of the problems with the top Ebs that we get in the second recording.

Di Stefano is more suited to Edgardo than he would be to Arturo in I Puritani, which was recorded soon after, and he is much to be preferred to the over-the-hill Tagliavini on the second recording. Serafin conducts a tautly dramatic version of the score.

The sound on this Warner issue still tends to distort and crumble in places. I guess that must be on the master, but the voices ring out with a little more truth.

Of course both Callas and Di Stefano can be heard together in the famous 1955 Berlin performances under Karajan, in sound which is not much worse than this, and that recording would still be my first choice amongst Callas’s Lucias, for all that she eschews the first Eb in the Mad Scene. Under Karajan’s baton and in a live situation she sings with effortless spontaneity, almost as if she is extemporising on the spot.

Still this first Callas studio recording is the one that got people talking and the one that quite possibly changed opinions about bel canto for many years to come. As such it has a historical significance which should never be forgotten.

Callas in I Puritani

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Recorded 24-30 March 1953, Basilica di Sant’Eufemia Milan

Producer: Dino Olivieri, Balance Engineer: Osvaldo Varesca

I Puritani, Callas’s second opera for EMI was the first recorded under the imprimatur of La Scala, an association which would result in eighteen further opera sets over a period of seven years.

No doubt because of the circumstances surrounding her first Elvira (she learned it in 3 days to replace an ailing Margherita Carosio whilst still singing Brunnhilde in Die Walkure) and because of her famed recording of the Mad Scene, one would expect the role to have played a greater part in her career, but in fact after those first performances in Venice in 1949, it figured rarely in her repertoire.

She sang it again in Florence, in  Rome and  in Mexico in 1952, and in her second season in Chicago in 1955, then never again, though the Mad Scene did occasionally appear in her concert programmes, even as late as 1958 at  a Covent Garden Gala. A recording of her rehearsing the scene for her Dallas inaugural concert in 1957 exists, and shows her still singing an easy, secure and full-throated high Eb.

Maybe the reason she sang it so little is that Elvira offers less dramatic meat than Lucia or even Amina. The libretto is something of a muddle and Elvira seems to spend the opera drifting in and out of madness. Of course she gets some wonderful music to sing, and Callas certainly breathes a lot more life into her than most singers are able to do. She also gives us some of her best work on disc, her voice wonderfully limpid and responsive, the top register free and open. No doubt this is the reason it has remained one of the top choices for the opera since its release over 6o years ago.

We first hear her in the offstage prayer in Act I Scene I, and straight away there is that thrill of recognition as her voice dominates the ensemble. Then in the scene with Giorgio, she finds a wide range of colour, a weight of character, that we don’t normally hear. Her voice, laden with sadness for her first utterances, then defiant when she thinks she is to be wed to someone she doesn’t love, is fused with utter joy when she realises that it is Arturo she is going to marry. She skips through the florid writing with lightness and ease, but invests it with a significance that eludes most others. One moment that stood out in relief for me was her cry of Ah padre mio when Arturo arrives, which bespeaks the fullness of heart that is the main characteristic of this Elvira. Son vergin vezzosa is a miracle of lightness and grace, Ah vieni al tempio heartbreakingly real, though her voice does turn a little harsh when she doubles the orchestral line an octave up.

The Mad Scene needs little introduction. It is one of the most well-known examples of her art out there, the cabaletta moulded on a seemingly endless breath; and where have you ever heard such scales in the cabaletta? Like the sighs of a dying soul. The top Eb at its climax is one of the most stunning notes even Callas ever committed to disc, held ringingly and freely without a hint of strain. Words fail me.

She has less to do in the last act, which mostly belongs to the tenor, and this is where I have a problem with the set. Di Stefano is nowhere near stylish enough in a role that was written for the great Rubini, and he lurches at every top note as if his life depended on it. Sometimes the notes sound reasonably free, at others he almost sounds as if he’s holding onto them with his teeth. Mind you, who else was there around to sing it any better at that time? The recording was made too early for Kraus, though Gedda might have been a good idea. After all, he was already singing for EMI by then, and would sing Narciso on Callas’s recording of Il Turco in Italia, which was recorded the following year..

Rossi-Lemeni  is less woolly-toned than I remember him and sings with authority, especially good in the first act duet with Callas; Panerai is a virile presence as Riccardo. Serafin conducts with his usual sense of style, but also invests some drama into the proceedings.

The orchestra and voices sound really good, but the recording of the chorus is a bit muddy. Presumably that was also the case on the original LPs.

I do have a few problems with I Puritani. To my mind the libretto is plain silly, and even Callas’s wonderful singing can’t quite rescue it. That said, as singing qua singing, it’s some of the most amazing work she ever committed to disc, and for that reason it will always be a permanent part of gramophone history. I would never be without it.


 

Callas in Cavalleria Rusticana

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Recorded 16-25 June, 3-4 August 1953, Basilica di Sant’ Eufemia, Milan

Producer: Dino Olivieri, Balance Engineer: Osvaldo Varesca

According to the notes accompanying this recording, Callas actually replaced the scheduled singer for it, a famous mezzo who was having trouble with her top notes. Does anyone know who this might have been? Could it have been Stignani? She ducks some of the top notes in Callas’s Norma the following year, and she was getting on a bit by this time, so it’s possible I suppose.

Whoever it was, we should be pleased that Callas was around to fill the breach, because her Santuzza is superb. Unbelievably she had only previously sung the role in her student days, when only 15 and also a couple of times with the Athens Opera, but, apart from this recording, never again, and yet, in fabulous voice, she inhabits the role of poor, hapless Santuzza as no other.

At this stage in her career her voice was as responsive in verismo as it was only a few weeks before, when she was recording Bellini (I Puritani). She uses none of the tricks of the verismo soprano, no glottal stops, no aspirates, no sobs, but sings with a pure musical line. When she sings io piango at the end of Voi lo sapete, she is able to suggest tears without actually sobbing.

Furthermore her characterisation has been thoroughly thought out. This is a young woman at the end of her tether with nothing left to lose. Her very first utterances are full of weariness and hopelessness, that first little dialogue with Mamma Lucia full of despair. Quale spina ho in core, she sings, and her singing of those few words rends the heart, as do her thrice repeated cries of O Signor in the Easter Hymn. Left alone with Mamma Lucia, she pours out her sad story.  Voi lo sapete is not only heartrendingly poignant, but beautifully sung, and we note how economically she uses her chest voice. Intensity is not achieved at the expense of musical line.

Nor is it in the duet with Turiddu, which bristles with contrast and drama. Here it is not just a stock operatic duet, but a full scale Sicilian row between a young couple. Callas pleads, rails, cajoles and, finally, when she can take no more, hurls her curse at Turiddu. Alfio serendipitously turning up at just that moment gives her the opportunity to vent her spleen, but, yet again, her singing is full of subtle little details and the solo that leads into the duet is sung with a sustained, if tragic beauty. Note how skilfully she shades the line at the end when she takes the pressure off the voice, moving from chest to head and ending quietly on lui rapiva a me. The closing section has both Panerai and Callas pulling out all the stops. It is absolutely thrilling.

A few words then about the rest of the cast. Di Stefano  sings with his own brand of slancio and presents a caddish, if ultimately remorseful Turiddu. Panerai is a splendidly virile Alfio, and Anna Maria Canali a sexy, minx-like Lola, superbly bitchy in her short exchange with Callas’s Santuzza. Serafin’s speeds are sometimes a bit slow in the choruses, but he paces the meat of the drama really well.

The recording still overloads occasionally at climaxes, so I assume that is a problem that exists on the master, but otherwise the sound is quite open and Callas’s voice fairly leaps out of the speakers.

Not for nothing has this remained one of the top recommendations for Cavalleria Rusticana for over 50 years, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. For first-rate recorded sound and orchestral splendour one would go to Karajan, for characterful full-throated singing to Serafin.

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.

Callas as Nedda in Pagliacci

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Recorded 12-17 June 1954, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Nedda was the first of four roles Callas recorded in the studio, but never sang on stage, the others being Mimi, Manon and Carmen. Pagliacci is really the tenor’s opera, and one can imagine the role would have held little interest for her on stage, though, as is her wont, she makes a great impression in a role one wouldn’t readily associate with her.

Back in the 50s, Nedda was usually played by a light-voiced soubrette, who, if she provided any characterisation at all, would play her as a two-dimensional heartless little minx, so how like Callas that she should look inside the music and find more facets to Nedda’s personality.

Her very first words Confusa io son strike a note of fear, justified  when she sings of Canio’s temper (brutale com egli’e) and note the accent she gives to the word brutale. She shrugs off her fear, but in her singing of the ensuing aria, with its paean to freedom, it is not difficult to understand that here is a young woman bursting with life but trapped in a loveless marriage with a man prone to violence.

The scene with Tonio, like all Callas’s collaborations with Gobbi, bristles with drama and life. Here it would seem is another man trying to subjugate her to his will, but her relationship with Tonio is different. Here she has the upper hand. At first mockingly dismissive, she taunts him until he responds with violence; but here too she retains the upper hand, lashing out both vocally (Miserabile!) and physically with the whip. Left alone she expresses her distaste with a voice dripping with loathing, only to change in an instant when she lovingly sings the single word Silvio as her lover makes his appearance.

The duet with Silvio is erotically charged, suffused with warmth and passion, then in the ensuing confrontation with Canio, defiant in the face of fear, her voice hardens again.  Is there a suggestion here that this is ground they have been over before?

Also masterful is the way she uses a different, whiter sound for Colombina, and only in the final stages of the opera in her ultimate refusal to submit to Canio does she return to full voice, riding the orchestra with a defiance that goads Canio into his final act of murder. There are parallels here with Callas’s Carmen.

Di Stefano does well as Canio, though I can’t help feeling that such a Nedda really needed a more psychologically complex foil, along the lines of someone like Vickers, or Domingo in his later portrayals, not that either of them were around at the time of the recording of course. Nonetheless, though some might think him a shade light-voiced for the role, Di Stefano is a very effective Canio, singing brilliantly off the words, his diction, as usual, exemplary.

Gobbi, on the other hand is superb as Tonio, as is Panerai as an ardent Silvio, and Monti, much more than a comprimario, makes an excellent Beppe. Serafin is a relatively unassuming presence. He doesn’t do anything wrong, but nowhere is his conducting as revelatory as it often was in Verdi.

Pagliacci probably wouldn’t rank high on any list of essential Callas recordings (certainly not on mine) and I’d have to be honest and admit it’s not one of my favourite operas. Neither the character nor the music really call on Callas’s greater musical gifts, yet, without stage experience,  she creates a rounded character, and, with a superior cast, this recording has held its own for over 50 years now.