Recorded 19-21, 24 September 1958, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Harold Davidson
If Mad Scenes is my favourite Callas recital disc, this one comes a very close second. Never before (or since, let me add) have Lady Macbeth’s arias been sung with such ferocity, such verbal acuity, such a wealth of understanding and psychological penetration, except perhaps by Callas herself when she sang the role on stage at La Scala in 1952. Listening to these three arias, text in hand, is to come face to face with Lady Macbeth the way Verdi had no doubt intended her to be. Furthermore Callas’s realisation of the score and Verdi’s detailed instructions sounds utterly spontaneous. This is truly Dramma per musica. That Walter Legge never had the foresight to record the complete opera with Callas as Lady Macbeth and Gobbi as her husband remains one of the greatest causes for regret in recording history.
Callas herself recalls that when she came to record the Sleepwalking Scene, she felt quite pleased with herself when she stepped down to listen to the playback. “That was, I think, some good singing,” she said to Walter Legge. “Oh extraordinary,” he said, “but now you will hear it and understand that you have to do it again.” She was a bit taken aback, but listened of course, and immediately knew exactly what he had meant. “It was perfect vocally, but the main idea of this Sleepwalking Scene was not underlined. In other words, she is in a nightmare-sleepwalking state. She has to convey all these odd thoughts which go through her head – evil, fearsome terrifying. So I had done a masterpiece of vocal singing, but I had not done my job as an interpreter. Immediately, as soon as I heard it, I said, ‘Well you are right, now I understand,’ and I went in and performed it. Her detailed analysis of the scene is reproduced in John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald’s superb book, Callas, and makes edifying reading.
This Warner pressing seems to me the best I’ve heard since the original LP, which I had in a French voix de son maitre pressing. There is a lot more space round the voice, top notes less apt to glare. This is particularly noticeable in the scene from Nabucco, where even the final recalcitrant top C sounds less unpleasant than in its last outing on CD. The Bellinian cantilena of Anch’io dischiuso finds Callas spinning out its long lines to heavenly lengths, before, all thoughts of love cast aside, she strengthens her resolve in the fiery cabaletta. Prepared to flinch before the top Cs, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in this new pressing, they fall far more easily on the ear. The final top C is still an unlovely note, but it sounds far less like a shriek. That said, this performance is no match for the blazingly intense, diamond-bright accuracy of her singing in Naples in 1949.
She never sang in Ernani on stage, but Elvira’s Ernani involami figured fairly regularly in her concert programmes. As usual, she brings a wealth of colour to the recitative (just listen to the change of colour from Questo odiato veglio to col favellar d’amore to how lovingly she caresses Ernani’s name in the opening strains of the aria). Her top register is no more pleasant here than elsewhere, but she moulds the phrases beautifully, singing with grace and style, managing perfectly the aria’s wide intervals. She once told a student she would learn much from listening to Ponselle sing the aria. Ponselle does of course sing the aria very beautifully, but the student would learn a great deal more from Callas’s elegance and suavity.
She only once sang Elisabetta on stage (at La Scala in 1954), but her Tu che le vanita is a justly famous interpretation, and one that she sang in concert on many occasions.“A performance of the utmost delicacy and beauty” Lord Harewood calls it in Opera on Record, which indeed it is, though we also get the baleful sounds of Callas’s unique chest voice in la pace dell’ avel; note also how wistfully she longs for her homeland in the Francia section.
My one regret is that Legge didn’t see fit to add the contributions of chorus and comprimarii as he does on the Mad Scenes disc. A chorus would no doubt have enlivened the Nabucco and Ernani arias, and one misses the contributions of the doctor and lady-in-waiting in the Macbeth Sleepwalking Scene. I also wonder why the original sleeve, here reproduced by Warner, used a picture of Callas as Violetta, which, though one of Callas’s most famous roles, is not represented here. The French edition more fittingly used a photo of Callas as Lady Macbeth, as shown below.
No matter, listening to this great record has been a moving experience. I must have heard dozens of different performances of the arias on this disc, all with their own merits, but none have ever affected me so deeply. Callas’s gift was and remains unique.