Montserrat Caballé & Shirley Verrett sing Great Operatic Duets

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Duets from Semiramide (Rossini), Anna Bolena (Donizetti), Norma (Bellini), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach), Aida (Verdi), Madama Butterfly (Puccini) and La Gioconda (Ponchielli).

The 1960s and 1970s were halcyon days for opera on disc. New recordings of both repertoire and rediscovered works appeared on an almost monthly basis, alongside recital records by major artists. Duet recitals, though not as frequent, were also a feature of this time, and could sometimes provide more variety in the juxtaposition of two different voices.

This 1969 duet recital finds both singers at the height of their vocal powers and provides a feast of great singing. It doesn’t quite get off to the best of starts however, with a performance of Serbami ognor from Rossini’s Semiramide in which Caballé’s scale passages are less than perfect, and which does not erase memories of Sutherland and Horne in the same music.

Vocally the duet from Anna Bolena is much better, and Caballé is here very touching in the section beginning Va, infelice where Anna forgives Giovanna; maybe not as moving as Callas with Simionato, but then, who is? Their voices blend well in the Norma duet too, and the Aida finds both singers alive to the drama.  It is great cause for regret that Verrett never got to record Amneris in a complete recording.

The principal pleasures of both the Barcarolle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann and the Flower Duet from Madama Butterfly are primarily vocal, and it is certainly wonderful to bask in the sheer beauty of two such gloriously rich voices in full bloom. The disc finishes with the great combative duet from La Gioconda, with the two ladies striking points off each other in splendid fashion.

This is a great memento of two singers, recorded before Caballé’s top notes started to harden and before she began to overindulge her penchant for floated pianissimi. This is also, to my mind, the best period for Verrett, when she was definitely a mezzo and before the move to soprano roles started to compromise the glorious individuality of that voice.

 

Cotrubas sings Famous Opera Arias

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Recorded in 1976, when she was already 35, this was Ileana Cotrubas’s first and only recital disc. The playing time of the original disc being somewhat short, Sony have here added excerpts from the excellent complete recording of L’Elisir d’Amore also under Sir John Pritchard, Depuis le jour, from the complete Prêtre recording of Louise and O mio babino caro from Maazel’s Gianni Schicchi.

As Cotrubas herself says in the notes, Leonora’s Pace, pace was somewhat unexpected, a role that Cotrubas was never likely to sing on stage, and it really does need a fuller tone. I’m not sure if she ever sang Liu or Magda, but she could well have done and the other arias are all from her active repertoire.

It opens with a charming performance of Norina’s Quel gaurdo il cavaliere from Don Pasquale, a role she sang at Covent Garden at around the same time. She was a highly successful Susanna at Glyndebourne in 1973 (alongside Te Kanawa’s beautiful Countess and Freredica Von Stade’s radiantly ebullient Cherubino, performances which catapulted all three to stardom) and she is quite delightful in her Deh vieni.

The other side of her personality is captured in a deeply felt Ach ich fühl’s, and the natural morbidezza (an Italian word without any direct translation) which suited her to roles like Mimi and Violetta, is here displayed in her singing of the Puccini arias (Si, mi chiamano Mimi, Liu’s Tu, che di gel sei cinto, and Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta from La Rondine.) Though there is a hint of strain in the upper reaches of Gilda’s Caro nome, the aria also suits her well, and it here emerges as a dreamy reverie rather than the coloratura showpiece it often is.

The L’Elisir d’Amore excerpts are lovely in every way, as is Lauretta’s O mio babino caro, and Depuis le jour well captures Louise’s quiet intensity and mounting rapture.

A lovely memento of a well-loved artist.

Joan Sutherland – Grandi Voci

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On 17 February 1959, Joan Sutherland sang her first Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden. She had first been engaged at Covent Garden in 1952, singing small parts, such as Clotilde to Callas’s Norma. That same year she sang her first leading role there (Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera), but the administration didn’t at first realise her potential and the roles she sang (Agathe, The Countess, Desdemona, Gilda, Eva, Pamina, Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage) gave no real indication of the direction her career would take. She herself had thought she would be a Wagnerian soprano, but Richard Bonynge, who married her in 1954, eventually convinced her otherwise, and in 1959 Covent Garden gave her the honour of a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Tullio Serafin. Sutherland proved a sensation, and, at the age of 35, she became a star, in demand all over the world for dramatic coloratura roles.

This disc adds to her debut recital, made shortly after the Covent Garden Lucia, two arias from one of her most successful sets The Art of the Prima Donna (Casta diva and the I Puritani Mad Scene), recorded in 1960 and Santo di patria, lifted from another set The Age of Bel Canto, recorded in 1963.

Those who know me will know I am not much of a Sutherland fan. The mannerisms (the mushy diction especially, the droopy portamenti, the weak lower register) that crept in as early as the 1960s irritate me so much I find it hard to listen, and the beauty of the voice is no compensation.

It is good to be reminded, then, that it was not always so, and she sounds quite different here, the voice much more forwardly produced, and, even if she rarely uses the words to suddenly bring a phrase into sharp relief, there is nothing much wrong with her diction in these discs. Maybe this has something to do with the conductors she was working with then, all Italians, Nello Santi for the debut recital, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli for The Art of the Prima Donna, Tullio Serafin at Covent Garden. Interestingly Serafin advised her to study the role of Lady Macbeth, but Bonynge obviously thought otherwise.

The main meat of the disc, however, is that first ever recital made with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under Nello Santi. Lucia’s two big solos were an obvious choice, to which are added Merce, dilette amiche from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, Ernani! Ernani involami from Ernani and O luce di quest’anima from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix.

Throughout the technical command is stunning, as is the beauty of voice, the top notes, of which there are many, one of its greatest glories. Nor is she just a technical machine. Though there is little attempt at vocal characterisation (Norma doesn’t sound much different from Lucia), she is not an unfeeling singer. There is command in Norma’s Sediziose voce, poetic feeling in the recitative to the Ernani aria, breezy grace in the aria from I Vespri Siciliani.

Fresh from the success of the Covent Garden performances, the Lucia arias are predictably best of all. Here not only is the execution vocally stunning, but she is the very epitome of the young Romantic heroine, driven mad by despair. Like Callas, she is a far cry from the piping, doll-like sopranos who had made Lucia something of a laughing stock among opera cognoscenti. Unfortunately already by her first complete recording of the opera made in 1961, the tone has become more occluded, the diction less precise, the vowels begin to be rounded and dulled, and the vitality and immediacy heard here starts to droop.

Though vital and alive in the scene from Verdi’s Attila, conducted by Richard Bonynge, the diction is not as clear as it is on that frst recital, though the recording here does give some indication as to the size and fullness of the voice. Even with that small niggle about the diction, this is still a stunning performance, thrilliingly dramatic, and I’ve never heard it better sung. Deutekom on the Philips complete set is pallid by comparison.

This disc, along with The Art of the Prima Donna, is, I would suggest, essential Sutherland, and remain permanent parts of my collection. The rest, personally, I can live without.

José Carreras – My Barcelona

Well this is something of a hotch potch, no doubt explained by its provenance – music included in the 1991 documentary film made after his recovery from leukemia My Barcelona, a celebration of the unique relationship between the man and the city of his birth.

What we get is a mixture of operatic arias, popular song and excerpts from Ramirez’s Navidad Nuestra and Misa Criola, which, surprisingly perhaps, makes for a pleasantly varied disc.

No great revelations, I suppose. Carreras is at his honeyed best in Cavaradossi’s E lucevan le stelle from the 1976 Davis recording of Tosca, a performance of poetic beauty, made before some of the heavier repertoire he essayed took a toll on his essentially lyric tenor, but most of the selections give pleasure. I particularly enjoy his version with piano of Mompou’s haunting Damunt de tu només los flors and the Ramirez pieces are also great fun.

An undemanding but enjoyable disc.

Joseph Calleja – Tenor Arias

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This disc was recorded back in 2003, when Joseph Calleja was a virtually unknown twenty-six year old, and on the threshhold of his career. At that time, the voice was a light lyric tenor with a distinctive fast vibrato, more akin to the sound of tenors like De Lucia and Bonci than what we have become used to since.

Repertoire on the disc is judicially chosen, and I am very surprised to see that in his most recent disc of Verdi arias, he tackles music for Otello, Manrico and Radames (though I don’t think he has sung any of these roles on stage yet). Listening to the performances on this disc, one wouldn’t suspect for a moment that the voice would develop to embrace that repertoire. So far he has taken his career slowly and I do hope he doesn’t push himself too far.

But back to the recital disc in question, and I must say I find it very satisfying. Far from the can belto of so many tenors, there is lighness and grace to his singing, and he refreshingly brings as much attention to recitative as he does to an aria. Take the opening piece, the recitative to Alfredo’s Dei miei bollenti spiriti, which brims with joyful high spirits, softening with a touch of intimacy at Qui presso a lei. The aria itself is sung with a nice buoyancy and affectionate phrasing, switching to a more propulsive manner for the cabeltta.

The Macbeth aria is sung with a deep sense of melancholy, whilst the Duke is all charm and insouciance, though the top D he attempts is a little insecure. Nemorino’s Quanto e bella is delivered with a nice winsome charm, and Edgardo’s final scene is suitably tragic.

I’m not sure the aria from Adrianna Lecouvreur was a good choice for him, as it seems to cry out for a beefier sound. Nevertheless his restraint is most welcome, and it is good to be free of all those sobs and aspirates that used to pass for emotion in some Italian tenors of an earlier generation

In all Riccardo Chailly offers impeccable support, and it is good that scenes are given complete with chorus and interjections from other singers (Linda Easley as Annina and Giovanni Battista Parodi as Raimondo).

All in all a very successful debut recital, and it is good to know that Calleja is still active today, largely fulfilling the promise he showed in this one.

Montserrat Caballé sings Bellini and Donizetti

The lion’s share of this CD is a reissue of what, I believe, was Caballé’s first recital disc for RCA, recorded in 1965 when the voice was at its freshest, and at around the same time as her sensational international debut in Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall, when she was a last minute replacement for Marilyn Horne. Up until then her repertoire had focused on Mozart and Strauss, plus Massenet’s Manon, and in fact she made her Glyndeboure debut later the same year as the Marschallin. However it was as a bel canto specialist that she would eventually become known, and she was one of the sopranos (along with Sutherland and Sills) who spearheaded the bel canto revival, set in motion by the legendary La Scala Visconti production of Anna Bolena with Callas.

The voice itself was rich and velvety, even throughout its range, her breath control exemplary, with the ability to float the most incredible pianissimi, an effect she perhaps overused in later years. There were a few chinks in her armour, especially for a bel canto specialiste; her trills were somewhat ill defined, and though the voice had flexibility and negotiated florid music well, there was the occasional hint of an aspirate, never encountered in the singing of Callas or Sutherland.

The tendency to aspirate, noticeable in the very first phrase of Casta diva, mars the beauty of the performance and the aria is not as mesmerising as it can be, despite the gorgeous sound. But this is nit picking and hers is still one of the most ravishing performances of the piece you will hear. Better I think is the Mad Scene from Il Pirata, which is sung with deep feeling and a true appreciation of the dramatic situation. The cabaletta does not have the lacerating effect of Callas in the same music, but works well within Caballé’s gentler conception.

All three Donizetti roles which follow became Caballé staples in the next few years, and she fulfils all their demands for vocal gandeur and personality. Always evident is the sincerity of her art, but she is not one of the world’s character actors. It has to be admitted that all these Donizetti and Bellini heroines sound much the same, the characters pretty interchangeable. Does that matter? Well I suppose that depends on one’s personal preferences, and mine are well known. That said, I am grateful for what she has, and Caballé is certainly not unfeeling, in fact often most affecting. Where Sutherland’s dazzling performances often leave me cold, I find Caballé’s dramatic commitment, albeit rather generalised, satisfies me more. We would be privileged to hear singing of such beauty and accomplishment now.

RCA have here added a Mira o Norma recorded in 1972 (I assume this is from the complete set with Fiorenza Cossotto, though she is not credited) and the first part of the closing scene from Anna Bolena, recorded in a somewhat boomy acoustic in 1970. Already there is just a very occasional hint of the hardness that would later affict her loud high notes and result in the over-exploitation of those floated high pianissimi, but there is still much that is very beautiful. Befittingly, the disc ends with the quite close to the cavatina from Anna Bolena, the final phrase spun out and floated through the air on a pure thread of glorious sound. It is for moments such as these that the art of Montserrat Caballé will most be remembered.

Jussi Bjørling – A collection of Swedish 78s.

These two CDs gather together most of the 78s the young Bjørling made in his native Sweden between 1933 and 1949, the earliest made when he was a budding tenor of twenty-two.

Most are vocal gems, but one or two (the rather loud and penny plain Je crois entendre encore, and the unpoetic duet from La Boheme with Anna- Lisa Bjørling on the second disc, for instance) are less than great.

The voice itself was a magnificent one, no doubt about it, with a silvery purity throughout its range, the high notes free and easy; just listen to his joyfully ebullient 1938 performance of Offenbach’s Au mont Ida from La belle Hélène, sung in Swedish, but with terrific swagger, the top notes flying out like lasers. From a few years ealier we have a plaintively sensitive performance of Valdimir’s Cavatina from Borodin’s Prince Igor, the legato line beautifully held, his mezza voce finely spun out. Also from 1938 we have a thrilling performance of the Cujus animam from Rossini’s Stabat mater, with a free and easy top D flat at the end, and it is prinicpall for Italian and French opera that Bjørling will be remembered and there are plenty of examples here of his wonderfully musical performances in that genre.

We find him ideal in Verdi, Donizetti and Puccini alike, in Myerbeer, in Massenet and in Gounod (a glorious rendering of Faust’s Salut, demeure). Some regret the absence of a true Italianate tone in the Italian items, but he will never resort to sobs and aspirates to express emotion, and, personally, I find his comparative restraint very attractive. It is true, he is not always imaginative with his phrasing, and nowhere will you get the kind of psychological introspection you would hear in a performance by someone like Vickers, but his singing is always musical, and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the voice itself, which Italianate or not, is a thing of great beauty.

Some of the very best of these 78 recordings are included on Volume 1, stand out items for me being the aforementioned Faust aria, his wonderfully musical and sensitive Ah si, ben mio from Il Ttovatore, and his poetic, but thrilling version of Nessun dorma from Turandot.  There is also plenty to treasure in Volume 2, which includes the Offenbach and Borodin, but also a sensitvely prayerful  Ingemisco from the Verdi Requiem, Des Grieux’s lovely Dream from Manon sung with liquid, honeyed tone (his ardent Ah, fuyez is on the first disc), and his  poetic Cielo e mar, from La Gioconda.

The second disc finishes with a couple of unexpected examples of his work in Lieder, a gorgeously lyrical Beethoven Adelaide, and a beautifully restrained and rapt account of Strauss’s Morgen.

Anyone who loves the tenor voice and gloriously musical and sensitive singing (not always the same thing) should have these recordings in their collections.

Shirley Verrett In Opera

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This is a wonderful recital disc and a great example of the art of Shirley Verrett, dating from 1967, before she ventured into soprano territory.

It starts with a stunningly virtuosic rendering of Orphée’s Amour, viens rendre à mon âme from the Berlioz edition of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Verrett maintains a true appreciation of the classical style, the chest voice used more sparingly than in Verdi, vibrato kept to a minimum. She also gives the piece a properly heroic dimension. Orpheus is after all srengthening his resolve at this point.

The two Donizetti items showcase her facility in bel canto, though with so many French items in the recital, it’s a shame she sings the aria from La Favorite in Italian. The short scene between Giovanna and Enrico from Anna Bolena gives us the chance to hear her engagement with the text in recitative, her legato line in the cavatina and her felxibility in the cabaletta. The aria from La Favorita also goes well, again displaying her deep legato in O mio Fernando, and her thrilling dramatic thrust in the cabaletta.

She is even better in the French items, giving us a beautifully restrained performance of Premiers transports from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, and one of the best versions I have heard of Margeurite’s D’amour l’ardente flamme, one of the composers greatest inspirations. Verrett’s responses to the text are just that bit more vivid than those of Von Stade, whose eary French recital I listened to recently, with a much greater range of colour. Only Callas surpasses her in creating an atmosphere of utter forlorness and longing, though it has to be admitted that by the time she recorded it her actual tone couldl sound somewhat frayed and thin, where Verrett is firm and rich throughout.

She is grandly eloquent in the aria from Sapho, and wonderfully alive to the many changes of emoton in the Letter Scene from Werther, briliantly charting Charlotte’s mounting anxiety. This too is one of the greatest performances you will ever hear of the scene, and it is a great pity she never recorded the complete role.

It is also nothing short of tragic that she never recorded the role of Dalila, one of her greatest stage successes, and her beautiful reading of the famous Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix closes the recital proper. Disappointingly she follows regular performance practice, by splitting the phrase in Ah, réponds à ma tendresse in order to snatch an extra breath. It is so much more effective when sung, as Saint-Saëns indicated, in one long breath, though Callas is one of the only singers to do it that way. Aside from that one slight cavil, her comparative restraint is welcome and all the more seductive for letting the music speak for itself.

The Verdi pieces at the end are taken from complete recordings of the two operas. She is wonderfully vivid as Preziosilla and darkly commanding as Ulrica.

In all Verrett’s superb musicality is evident, and I often wonder why she recorded comparatively little, given the flurry of opera recordings made in the 1970s. That her superb Carmen was never committed to disc is little short of criminal.

Agnes Baltsa – Famous Opera Arias

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Good to be reminded of Baltsa’s pre-eminence as a lyric/dramatic mezzo at the beginning of the 1980s, when this recital was recorded.

The recital shows off to advantage her keen dramatic instinct, a tangily individual timbre, and a voice that was, at this time at least, absolutely seamless from top to bottom. Though she had already recorded Eboli and Amneris for Karajan, this recital concentrates for the most part on her work in the field of bel canto.

Baltsa was an exciting stage performer, as I can attest, having seen her live on many occasions and a great deal of that excitement comes through on disc, the climaxes of the arias from La Favorita and Il Giuamento being particularly thrilling. She has a strong vocal personality, which comes across stunningly on disc, and she realises the different demands of classical, Romantic and verismo music. If there is a limitation, it is that she rarely colours or weights the voice to suit the character she is playing, something more noticeable in a recital disc than it would be in a complete performance.

Stand out tracks for me were the aria from La Donna del Lago, where she gently caresses the opening cavatina, and the aforementioned arias from Il Giuramento and La Favorita. Indeed, on this showing it is a great pity that nobody thought to make a complete recording of the Donizetti opera with her, though preferably in the original French rather than Italian as it is here.

To sum up, this is a great memento of an important singer recorded when the voice was at its peak. I seem to remember that it was issued in the UK originally on EMI, but the recording was made by Orfeo, and it is that issue I have.

Callas in Anna Bolena- La Scala, Milan April 14 1957

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This live recording captures a great moment in operatic history, a moment when bel canto opera was finally taken seriously. As Montserrat Caballé once stated,

She opened a new door for us, for all the singers in the world, a door that had been closed. Behind it was sleeping not only great music but great ideas of interpretation. She has given us the chance, those who follow her, to do things that were hardly possible before her.

Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, Gencer, Scotto, even today’s DiDonato and Radvanovsky should all give thanks to Callas, for without this one production, their careers might have taken very different paths. True, Callas had by this time made people re-evaluate operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula, and she had had an enormous personal success as Rossini’s Armida in Florence in 1952, but it was La Scala’s spectacular production of this one opera, Anna Bolena which paved the way for the bel canto revival, and for the next few decades, long forgotten operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini would be revived all over the world.

Such was the anticipation and excitement surrounding the production that it was covered in the international press, the UK’s Opera Magazine dedicating seven pages of its June 1957 issue to Desmond Shawe Taylor’s review.

There is no doubt that La Scala wanted to make a splash, and there is ample photographic evidence of Nicola Benois’ stunning sets, and the superb costumes. It was also the apogee of Callas’s collaboration with Visconti, though unfortunately, after the production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, which followed they never worked together again. Visconti recalls.

It was rather beautiful, if I do say so myself. But not sublime as everyone else has said. It had atmosphere. Benois and I used only black, white and grey – like the grey of London – for the sets. The castle interiors, such as the broad staircase down which Callas made her entrance, were filled with enormous portraits. The colours of the costumes – Jane Seymour, the king’s new love, wore red, for example, and the guards scarlet and yellow – played off these sombre sets. But for Anna Bolena, you need more than sets and costumes. You need Callas. Each day I went with her to the tailor to watch over every detail of her gowns, which were in all shades and nuances of blue. Her jewels were huge. They had to be to go with everything about her – her eyes, head features, her stature. And believe me, onstage, Callas had stature.

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The opera was heavily cut, so if you are looking for some ur-text version, you would have to go to studio recordings featuring Sutherland, Sills, Souliotis or Gruberova, but you would be missing out on the greatest Anna on disc, who, according to Richard Fairman in Opera on Record III,  “alone, of latter-day artists, has the power to grasp the emotional crux of every line and put it across.”

First off I should mention that this Divina Records transfer is in a different world of clarity from the murky EMI version, which unfortunately is also the source for the recent Warner transfer. Available as a download, I recommend it unreservedly.

Callas’s conception of the character of Anna is absolutely right from the word go. When asked by Rescigno, who conducted her in several concert performances of the final scene, why she phrased something in a certain way, she replied simply, “Because she is a Queen,” and it is this simple statement of fact that informs and shapes her portrayal. Callas’s Anna, though she suffers like any other woman, never forgets that she is a queen. In Callas’s own words.

Now history has its Anna Bolena, which is quite different from Donizetti’s. Donizetti made her a sublime woman, a victim of circumstance, nearly a heroine. I couldn’t bother with history’s story; it really ruined my insight. I had to go by the music, by the libretto. The music itself justifies it, so the main thing is not the libretto, though I give enormous attention to the words. I try to find truth in the music.

Contemporary reviews (and photographs) attest to the nobility of Callas’s bearing, and her first entrance vocally reflects that. Her first words have a natural authority and regal reserve, which gives way to deep private melancholy in the aria Come innocente giovane, which she sings in a gentle, perfectly focused half voice, her command of line and legato as usual superb. In the cabaletta, which is addressed to the court, she uses more voice, but the voice remains supple and she never loses for a moment that sense of regal composure.

In the following scene, where she unexpectedly meets Percy for the first time, she publicly retains her composure, though the conflicting emotions running through her heart are exposed in the many asides, and she starts the ensemble Io seniti sulla mia mano in a movingly intimate tone of infinite sadness.

These first scenes have introduced us to the character of Anna, regal, melancholy, troubled and noble, but the next scene is the one that will seal her fate and the one in which Anna will show her mettle. Alternately tender, then anxious, then truly terrified with Percy (who, it has to be said, behaves like a lovesick schoolboy throughout the opera), she is found in compromising circumstances by Enrico. Overcome with emotion she faints, but wakes to plead in melting tones her innocence in the superb ensemble In quegli sguardi impresso. Deaf to her pleas, Enrico asserts that the judges will decide her fate, and this is where Callas’s Anna really rises to her full stature, bringing to bear her queenly outrage in the words Giudice ad Anna! Guidice ad Anna! Ad Anna! Guidice! before launching the final stretta with an intensity that has to be heard to be believed. Singing with all the force at her command, she caps the ensemble with a free and secure high D, held ringingly for several bars. Anna_6

The first scene of Act II (or Act III in this performance) contains the magnificent duet for Anna and Giovanna, prototype for so many of those female voice duets that pepper the operas of Donizetti and Bellini. In it Giovanna confesses her guilt, is at first repulsed by Anna, and then magnanimously forgiven. No doubt Bellini had this duet in mind when he penned the first duet for Norma and Adalgisa in Norma. Simionato, superb throughout the opera, is a worthy foil here, but Callas again transcends the music. Her interjections into Giovanna’s confession run the gamut of emotions from shock and revulsion to resignation and acceptance, until, in one of the most moving moments in the opera, she forgives Giovanna in a voice quivering with emotion. Always notable is the way Callas achieves her effects without once disturbing the musical line. She recognises that in bel canto opera it is the arc of the melody which carries the emotional impact, her sense of line and rubato always instinctively right.

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The final scene in the tower is one she programmed into recitals on several occasions and recorded (in its entirety) for EMI on what is arguably her most successful recital disc Mad Scenes. Many have since recorded it, so it has become relatively familiar, but one should remember that it was practically unknown at the time of this performance. In Al dolce guidami Callas’s voice takes on an unearthly, eerie beauty, the music seeming to emerge from the very depths of her soul. Though closely adhering to the score, she sounds almost as if she is extemporising on the spot, and the audience listens in rapt silence, hanging on her every note, until it erupts in a corporate outpouring of applause and cheers at its quiet close. Her delivery of the recitatives in the scene is again a lesson in how to weight and measure the proportions of each line. The final Coppia iniqua is sung with massive force, the famous rising set of trills, either ignored or sketchily sung by others, sung with both accuracy and intensity, her voice rising with power to the top Cs. This is Callas at her best.

She is ably, and brilliantly, supported by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who gives her ample rein to play with the music in the quiet, reflective moments and urges the ensemble to absolutely thrilling heights in the big finales. Rossi-Lemeni’s Enrico is authoritative but woolly-toned and Raimondi’s Percy pleasingly Italianate without being particularly individual. Simionato, inspired to give of her very best, is the only other singer who comes close to Callas’s achievement, singing with glorious tone and dramatic involvement, but even she is less specific, more generalised, in her responses than Callas.

Anyone who has any interest in bel canto opera has to hear this set, which puts you in the stalls on one of the greatest nights in Callas’s career. At the end of his review Desmond Shawe-Taylor, asked if Anna Bolena could enter the international repertory.

With Callas, yes; without her, or some comparable soprano of whom as yet there is no sign, no. Many people think it a flaw in these old operas that they depend on the availability of great singer; but what would be the fate of the standard violin and piano concertos if there were scarcely a player who could get his fingers round the notes, let alone fill them with a lulling charm or a passionate intensity?

Well, eventually other sopranos did take it on, with varying degrees of success, and the opera is still performed occasionally today, but none of these other sopranos has quite matched the genius of Maria Callas, who was, without any doubt, not only a great singer and actress, but also one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.

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