Callas in Armida – Florence 1952

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With this set, I was able to make a direct comparison between the new Warner transfer and that by Divina Records, and have to say I prefer Divina. Neither version can eliminate the overloading and distortion at tutti climaxes, but to my ears the voices are much more clearly captured in the Divina version. The Warner isn’t bad, but possibly in an attempt to provide a more comfortable listening experience, they have removed some of the presence of the voices. Other ears and other equipment may have a different reaction of course, but I quickly abandoned Warner and continued listening on Divina. Furthermore Divina includes about 12 minutes of music, omitted by Warner, where you can hear a speaking male voice overlaid onto the music. Though admittedly irritating, it means we lose some of Callas’s singing. Divina also includes fuller notes, fuller documentation, photos and a libretto. I suppose you might see it as the luxury compliment to Warner’s cheaper offering. Personally I prefer Divina’s warts and all approach. Divina is of course more expensive, and others may have different priorities, so choice will reside with the individual listener.

But choice must be made, for this has to be some of the most astonishing dramatic coloratura singing ever committed to disc, and it is a great shame that Callas never sang the role again, nor felt able to take on any more of the roles written specifically with Isabella Colbran in mind.

In 1952 Callas undertook a punishing schedule. In January she sang her final performance of Elena in I Vespri Siciliani in Milan, followed it with I Puritani in Florence, then her first Normas at La Scala. February saw more performances of Norma at La Scala, with a few concerts sandwiched between. In March she gave three performances of Violetta in Catania, whilst rehearsing for a new production of Il Ratto del Seraglio (the first ever at La Scala). This opened at the beginning of April, and this production of Armida on April 26th after a further performance of Norma at La Scala. Incredibly, though you’d never guess it from her confident delivery, she learned the role of Armida in 5 days!

Astonishing though the vocal pyrotechnics are, Callas not only sings the role with consummate ease, but makes musical sense of its difficulties, so it becomes much more than a vocal showcase. She is by turns, imperious, commanding, sensuous, elegant and powerful, cascading up and down two-octave chromatic scales with fluent ease. A critic of the Giornale delle Due Sicilie described Colbran’s singing of the aria D’amore al dolce impero thus.

She proves herself superior to any other singer in some variations in which she embellishes a delightful tune of Rossini’s with all the graces of the art of song, now running through chains of triplets of extraordinary and …insuperable difficulty, now giving a vocal imitation of the most difficult arpeggios of stringed instruments, and finally, with superb nonchalance, executing a formidable ascending and descending scale of two octaves.

The critic might well be talking of Callas’s performance, which is absolutely electrifying, as it is throughout the opera.

Unfortunately, none of the other singers is anywhere near her achievement and Serafin heavily cuts the opera, presumably to accommodate their deficiencies. All of the tenors have trouble with the florid writing, aspirating the runs in what’s left of it, and their singing is clumsy and effortful. I’d love to hear it sung by the likes of Juan Diego Florez or Michael Spyres.

Essential listening, none the less, for Callas’s superbly commanding singing of the title role. There are of course more modern recordings out there, more textually accurate and more complete, but nowhere else will you hear such a thrilling portrayal of the title role, nor one so brilliantly sung. The cumulative power of the finale is simply staggering, where, with a voice of massive power, Callas peals forth vengeful coloratura flourishes with insouciant ease, capping it with a top Eb of huge proportions. You have to hear it to believe it, indeed, were it not for recorded evidence, you would not believe it possible.

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Callas in I Vespri Siciliani – Florence 1951

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Florence and the Maggio Musicale, Fiorentino played a great part in Callas’s early career. It was at Florence’s Teatro Comunale that she debuted Norma, Violetta and Medea all of which were to become quintessential Callas roles. Other roles she sang there were Elvira in I PuritaniArmida (in which she had a spectacular success, though she never sang the role again), Lucia di Lammermoor (around the time of her first complete recording, which also used Florence resources),  and her first Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, under Erich Kleiber. That year she also undertook the role of Euridice in Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice (its first ever performance, given at the tiny Teatro della Pergola, also under Kleieber).

The success of this production of I Vespri Siciliani finally made Antonio Ghiringhelli, the Sovrintendete of La Scala, Milan, who had for some reason taken an instant dislike to Callas, offer her her first season at La Scala. Later that year she would open the La Scala season in the same opera, I Vespri Siciliani, though this time under the baton of Victor De Sabata. For that same season she was also engaged for Norma and the role of Costanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, its first ever performance at La Scala. The opera was sung in Italian, and this was to be the only Mozart opera Callas ever sang. La Scala became her artistic, and geographical, home for the next seven years, and it became a period of extrordinary artistic achievement, allowing Callas to work with directors like Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Margarita Wallmann, Carl Ebert and Herbert Graf; conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Victor De Sabata and Carlo Maria Giulini. Most of her recordings were also made under the imprimatur of La Scala too, and she is to this day indelibly associated with the theatre.

No recording exists of the La Scala I Vespri Siciliani, so we are fortunate indeed that we have this recording from Florence. Like most of her live recordings from Florence, the sound has never been good, though in 2007 Testament issued a clearer transfer from tapes made for Walter Legge, who was using them to audition Callas. This Warner issue would appear to be a clone of the Testament transfer, with the overture, which wasn’t recorded for Legge, tacked on from another source. As such, I found it no better nor worse than the Testament issue, but, though the sound distorts and overloads quite a bit, it is worth persevering for Callas is in superb voice, in a wide-ranging role that takes her from a low F# in Arrigo, ah parli a un core to a top E in the Siciliana in Act V.

Lord Harewood was in the audience for one of the rehearsals of the Florence production  and recalls precisely the effect of her entrance aria,

Act I of Vespri begins slowly; rival parties of occupying French and downtrodden Sicilians take up their positions on either side of the stage and glare at each other. The French have been boasting for some time of the privileges which belong by right to an army of occupation, when a female figure – the Sicilian Duchess Elena – is seen slowly crossing the square. Doubtless the music and the production helped to spotlight Elena, but, though Callas had not yet sung and was not even wearing her costume, one was straight away impressed by the natural dignity of her carriage, the air of quiet, innate authority which went with every movement. The French order her to sing for their entertainment, and mezza voce she starts a song, a slow cantabile melody; there is as complete control over the music as there had been over the stage. The song is a ballad, but it ends with the words “Il vostro fato è in vostra man” (Your fate is in your hand), delivered with concentrated meaning. The phrase is repeated with even more intensity, and suddenly the music becomes a cabaletta of electrifying force, the singer peals forth arpeggios and top notes and the French only wake up to the fact that they have permitted a patriotic demonstration under their very noses once it is under way. It was a completely convincing operatic moment, and Callas held the listeners in the palm of her hand to produce a tension that was almost unbearable until exhilaratingly released in the cabaletta.

Though we cannot see the impression she made, her very first words, Si canteró exude calm authority, with an undercurrent that suggests that, though she has agreed to sing, the French will not necessarily like what they hear. She starts almost mystically, gradually as Harewood describes, suffusing her tone with more pointed meaning at the words Il vostro fato è in vostro man. She then launches the cabaletta, Coraggio, su coraggio, almost sotto voce, building the tension as she starts to sing out with more force, her command of the wide leaps and coloratura staggering in its ease, the top of her voice gleaming and powerful. It is, as Lord Harewood suggests, a masterclass in how to use music to dramatic ends.

There is a good deal more to her Elena than that, though. She can be meltingly lyrical in the love music, such as in the beautiful mini aria Arrigo, ah parli a un core (though she only touches the low F# in its cadenza) and blithely suave and elegent in the Act V Siciliana, Merce, dilette amiche, notable for its light, breezy runs and an interpolated high E at its close. Few singers before or since can have so easily encompassed its vocal demands, whilst creating a character both sympathetic and imposing. There is never any doubt, from first note to last, that this Elena is an aristocrat; there are parallels here with Callas’s superb Leonora in Il Trovatore.

Of the supporting cast, Christoff, who also played the role at La Scala is a vocally resplendent and authoratative Procida, Mascherini a not particularly interesting Monforte. Giorgio Kokolios-Bardi, who sings the role of Arrigo, was a Greek tenor, whom Callas no doubt knew from her Athens Opera days. Occasionaly he phrases with a real sense of line, but just as often his singing lacks distinction. He was replaced by Eugene Conley at La Scala.

Erich Kleiber makes quite a few cuts in the sprawling score, but has a sure sense of its dramatic shape. There is a story that, at one point in rehearsals, he shouted out to Callas, “Maria, watch me,” to which she replied, “No, maestro, your eye sight is better than mine. You watch me.” Whatever the truth of this, they seem entirely at one in the performance, though I did wonder if Kleiber took the aforementioned Arrigo, ah parli a un core a tad to fast.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, I didn’t detect much improvement in the sound from the Testament issue of the performance, which in turn was quite a bit better than any heard before it was released. Nevertheless, this is essential Callas, and I wouldn’t want to be without it.

 

 

Callas’s First Medea – Florence 1953

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Having discussed Callas’s live Macbeth from La Scala a few posts ago, I thought I would start reviewing some of the many live Callas performances that exist. I do not propose to go into which are the best versions of these live recordings, as it can be quite a minefield, but I would just mention that, in any cases where they are available, Divina Records will be your best bet. In September Warner will be issuing a deluxe box set of many of Callas’s live performances, and, until it is, we will not know what the sound will be like. If they just re-hash the EMI versions, which should be avoided, by the way, then the news is not quite as exciting as it might have been. It remains to be seen.

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This Medea was recorded in house from a single microphone at the front of the stage, which means that voices can disappear when at the back. However I found this Ars Vocalis transfer from Cetra LPs not at all bad, and so intense is the performance that it draws you in and the ear readily adjusts.

Unbelievably, considering Callas’s total mastery of the role’s difficulties, this was the first time she ever sang Medea. So successful was her assumption that La Scala ditched plans to stage Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore with her later that year and replaced it with Cherubini’s Medea. Subsequently the opera was revived for her in productions at La Scala (twice), in Venice, Rome, Dallas, London and at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece. So much associated was she with the role, that when she came to make her non singing cinematic debut, it was in the role of Medea in the movie directed by Pasolini.

Cherubini’s Medée is actually a French language opéra comique with spoken dialogue, and was much admired by Beethoven and Schubert. It premiered in Paris in 1797, the first performance in Italian translation being given in Vienna in 1802. In 1855 Franz Lachner prepared a German version, for which he wrote his own recitatives. This Lachner version was first performed, in an Italian translation by Carlo Zangarini, in 1909, and it is essentially this version which Callas sang, though each of the conductors she performed the work with (Gui, Bernstein, Santini, Serafin, Rescigno and Schippers) prepared their own version of the work, making different cuts in the score. Apart from the studio recording with Serafin, we can hear live performances from Florence with Gui, La Scala with Bernstein, Dallas and London with Rescigno and La Scala again with Schippers.

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Gui’s view of the work is essentially Classical, closest in conception to Serafin, who was to conduct the studio recording, though more propulsive in the work’s many exciting climaxes. His cuts are less extensive than the other conductors’, and this is the only time we get to hear Medea’s last scene complete. However, there are times where some judicious snipping might have helped. He leaves in the orchestral bars before Medea’s final Pieta in her aria Dei tuoi figli, which makes the ending of the aria anticlimactic, and leaves the audience uncertain when to applaud. Still, I prefer this to Bernstein’s solution of cutting the final Pieta as well. All the others cut just the orchestral bars, which seems to me the better solution. There are also times, particularly in the scenes before Medea’s first entrance, where Gui’s speeds are just too slow. The overture is dramatic and exciting, but the long first scene which sets the idyllic atmosphere that Medea bursts into, drags on interminably. There are times later on too, notably the duet between Medea and Creon, where his speeds are on the slow side, but the ends of each act and the finale itself are absolutely thrilling.

Callas herself is in superb voice, the top rock solid and gleaming, managing the treacherous demands of the role (it was said that Mme Scio, its creator, died singing it) with consummate ease. She sings with a wide range of colour, though her conception of the role is a deal more subtle by the time she sings it in Dallas in 1958. No complaints about her entrance, though, which is sheer brilliance, the veiled sound of her middle voice carrying with it a threat of menace which gives way to beguilingly feminine pleading in her first aria Dei tuoi figli. The aria itself is magnificently sung, its wide leaps and high tessitura expertly managed, and it provokes a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience, unfortunately cut short when they realise the aria isn’t quite over.

In the ensuing duet with Giasone I feel she slightly overplays her hand, and this scene is not as effective as it was to become in later performances. Nor does the duet with Creon have quite the subtle play of light and shade it will have on the studio recording and in Dallas, but the final scene is mind blowingly, blazingly terrifying, her voice cutting through the orchestra with coruscating force, and there is a great deal to be gained from hearing this scene in its entirety. Gui, too, supports her brilliantly at this point. Not surprisingly the audience go wild.

Barbieri is a superb Neris, Gui making of her aria, that still, calm centre of the score, a beautiful duet between voice and cello, which Gui substitutes for the more usual bassoon. Guichandut, an Argentinian tenor I’ve never heard of before or since, is good, but no match for Vickers, who would sing the role with Callas in all productions from 1958 onwards. Gabriela Tucci is a lovely Glauce, though she is a little taxed by Gui’s slow tempo in the ensemble before Medea’s entrance and gets a slittle shireky in the upper reaches. Mario Petri is perfectly acceptable as Creon, but the great moments are all with Callas. That she is so much associated with the role (even in this hybrid version of the score, which misrepresents what Cherubini actually wrote) is hardly surprising, for no other singer, before or since has made Cherubini’s score live and breathe as she has done. There have been occasional revivals, both of the Lachner version Callas sang, and the original opera comique, but none have caught the imagination the way that Callas’s performances did, and it seems likely that the opera is again to become the museum piece it once was.

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.