The Callas Karajan Madama Butterfly

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Recorded 1-6 August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Well I’m a mess! To quote John Steane in his Gramophone review of the first CD issue of this set,

Still feeling the impact of that devastating final chord in the opera, I believe devoutly that Madama Butterfly is the most moving of all works for the stage, that this is the best recording of it, and that it is Callas’s greatest achievement on records. 

I may not go quite that far, but it does remind me how many times I think exactly that after listening to almost every one of Callas’s complete opera sets, so completely does she identify with each role that she sings.

Callas recorded the role of Butterfly a few months before her only stage appearances in the role in Chicago, in November 1955. It was also the occasion of one of the first major scandals of her career, when a process server tried to stuff a court summons into the belt of her kimono just after she exited the stage. Callas exploded, cameramen just happened to be there to record the exact moment she lost her temper, and the rest is history.

This recording also marked one of the three occasions on which Callas worked with Karajan, a powerful combination which also produced those famous La Scala Lucias, which were repeated in Berlin and Vienna, and the studio recording of Il Trovatore.

Now if you’re idea of a perfect Madama Butterfly  is one in which some gorgeous voices sing some beautiful tunes, bathed in lush orchestral sounds, which incidentally happen to accompany  the sad little story of a Japanese girl who ends up committing hari kari, then this recording is probably not for you. There have certainly been more beautifully sung Butterflies, but few that elevate it to the level of real tragedy on a par with those of Shakespeare and Euripides. Here we are treated to a cautionary tale, a moral tale if you like, of how even nice people can do terrible things unthinkingly, and how one thoughtless act can set in motion a whole chain of tragic events. It doesn’t always make for comfortable listening, but who said great art was meant to be comfortable?

Callas’s portrayal is full of miraculous detail, phrases, even single words given a significance you won’t hear in other performances. Take, for instance, the way she manages to suggest all Butterfly’s trust in Pinkerton at Ieri son salita, the final Amore mio sung with a conviction that makes it easy to understand her utter faith in his return. In the love duet she is all shyness until gradually her voice is flooded with warmth and passion, as she succumbs to Pinkerton’s ardour. Here, maybe, I should add a word about Gedda’s Pinkerton, which some have found too uncaddish. But surely that is to miss the point. That nice people can, and do, perpetrate unkind things is surely the crux of the plot. Gedda sounds like his music; a nice, charming young man, who gives no thought to the consequences of his actions. His remorse in the last act is entirely believable, though it also exposes his weakness.

But back to Callas, who finds in Butterfly “not the frailty of childhood, but its strength”. According to John Steane in the Gramophone review quoted above,

The keynote is firmness of mind; a simple factuality which sees right and wrong with the clarity of that miraculously rinsed and lightened voice.

She sings Un bel di not as some big soprano show piece, but integrates it into the drama, a simple reiteration of Butterfly’s faith, the details of Pinkerton’s return sung in wistful fashion as something she has gone over and over again in her mind. Che tua madre, with its cries of Morta! Morta!, is almost unbearably intense, Sotto il gran ponte dal cielo unbearably moving. Only in the final scene, when left alone, does she let her full voice out, and the effect is overwhelming, Puccini’s final chords shatteringly played by the orchestra under Karajan, who conducts a tautly dramatic performance of the opera, less inclined to wallow than in his later recording.

Danieli is excellent as Suzuki, Borriello a sympathetic Sharpless, but this, of all Puccini operas, is all about the heroine; even Pinkerton is a supporting role, and Callas, with Karajan’s help, makes sure that all our attention is concentrated on Butterfly.

The sound is a trifle boxy but sounds a lot better here than it did in the 1997 Callas Edition. Still it mystifies me that it is not up to the quality of the Tosca that was recorded two years earlier.

No the real problem with this recording is that it brings us face to face with real life in all its raw pain and tragedy. Listening to it is a deeply unsettling experience, and one I can’t subject myself to too often.

Essential nevertheless, for Callas, for Karajan, and for all those who think Puccini’s opera is more than a sentimental pot boiler.

 

The Callas Carmen

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Recorded July 1964, Salle Wagram, Paris

Producer: Michel Glotz, Recording Engineer: Paul Vavaseur

And so, still moving chronologically backwards through this set, we come to the last of the four roles Callas recorded without ever singing them on stage. This Carmen has always been controversial, the most controversial element being Callas herself, so, let me deal with the rest first.

The edition used wouldn’t bear scrutiny. We are of course back in the days of the old Guiraud recitatives, but there’s no point complaining about that. This is how everyone was doing Carmen back then. The sound is excellent early 1960s stereo and sounds better than ever in this new re-master.

This is a very French Carmen. Aside from Callas and Gedda, everyone else involved is French, and Gedda was, in any case, the best “French” tenor around in those days. Pretre’s conducting is swift, sometimes maybe too much so, and deliciously light in places, but his speeds make dramatic sense and it works very well. The orchestra and chorus, again French, sound idiomatically right to me. The Escamillo of Robert Massard sounds authentic too, if not so characterful as someone like Jose Van Dam. Andrea Guiot’s Micaela I like a lot. She does not display the creamy beauty of a Te Kanawa or a Sutherland, but she is much more convincing than them at playing the plucky, no-nonsense village girl. We must not think of Micaela as a wilting violet; she is actually quite a strong character. Not only is she able to hold her own with the soldiers in the first act, she has the strength to confront Carmen and the gypsies in the third act. Her voice is firm, clear and very French. She sounds just right to me.

Gedda of course had already recorded the role under Beecham with De Los Angeles. He does not have the heroic sound of a Domingo, a Vickers or a Corelli  but, as always he sounds totally at home in French opera. In any case, is a big heroic voice what is required? Don Jose is basically a nice young man, somewhat repressed, who gets caught up with the wrong woman. A young man, who, once his passions are aroused, does not know how to control them.  Gedda is superb at charting Jose’s gradual disintegration. He sings a beautifully judged Flower Song, with a lovely piano top Bb, is gently caring in his duet with Micaela, and suitably shamed when he meets her again. In the last act he is a man at the end of his tether, dangerous because he has nothing left to lose. As a performance I think it has been seriously underestimated. I find him entirely convincing, much more so than, say, Corelli, with his execrable French, in Karajan’s first recording of the opera.

And so we come to Callas. Many of the objections when the set first came out were not so much about her singing as about her characterisation, one critic opining that she was closer to Merimee than Meilhac and Halevy. But that’s an objection that makes no sense at all. Meilhac and Halevy may have watered down Carmen’s indiscretions with other men while still with Jose, but they still make it clear she is a free spirit, not to be tied down. In the 1960s, women were still fighting for equality (they still are). Much of the debate about the contraceptive pill in the 1960s centred around the fact that it would encourage promiscuity. People, especially men, were not comfortable with the idea of a sexually promiscuous woman, so Carmen’s character was often played down. The De Los Angeles recording with Beecham had been highly praised, but, love De Los Angeles though I do, can anyone really imagine her Carmen pulling a knife on a fellow worker in a cat fight? She is altogether to ladylike to even think of such a thing. But Callas is exactly what she is described in the text, dangereuse et belle, in Micaela’s words. This is a true free spirit. As she tells Jose in the last act, Libre elle est nee et libre elle moura! When she admits to her friends Je suis amoureuse, Callas gives the line an ironic twist, even more so on the following amoureuse a perdre l’esprit. We know absolutely, as her friends do, that this is the whim of the moment; the mood of the day, and that there will be others. Earlier her seduction of Jose is brilliantly charted too. Ou me conduirez-vous? she asks Jose, as he is about to take her to prison, and the little girl lost tone she uses is just what’s needed to draw him in. Later on when Jose comes to the inn and they end up arguing, some have found her rage too over the top, but there is justification for this too. When Jose tells her he has to go back to the barracks, that could be the moment she realises that maybe she is not in love with this milksop after all. Have a row, send him packing. That’s the best way to get rid of him. Only things don’t quite work out that way; her cry of Au diable le jaloux! is quite matter of fact. Finally she realises she is saddled with him, but is quite pragmatic. In fact, now that I think of it, the whole plot only works if you accept that Carmen was never in love with Jose in the first place; that he was first a challenge, then a convenience. Escamillo is much more up her street (for a while anyway); when he comes looking for her and Micaela comes looking for Jose, this is just the way out she is looking for. Unfortunately, Jose turns out to be even more unhinged than she had imagined, but defiant to the last, she refuses to give in to him, and staring death in the face, asserts her freedom from all men. No doubt this is what commentators found so disturbing. Some no doubt still do. It doesn’t make for comfortable listening.

Apart from a few squally top notes in the ensembles (which she didn’t need to sing anyway), her voice was absolutely right for the role at this stage in her career and the performance is full of miraculous detail. I notice something different in it each time I hear it.

When it was reissued, Richard Osborne in Gramophone wrote, “Her Carmen is one of those rare experiences, like Piaf singing La vie en rose, or Dietrich in The Blue Angel, which is inimitable, unforgettable, and on no account to be missed.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.