Tito Schipa – Opera Arias

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This EMI disc collects together recordings from Tito Schipa’s first recording sessions in 1913, recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s and one (Werther’s O, nature) recorded in 1942, when Schipa was 54.

The name of Schipa is most associated with style, elegance and grace (not for him the over-emotional sobbing excesses of Gigli), though the first aria included on the disc (Che faro from Orfeo ed Euridice) is hardly a model in that respect. The unstylish playing of the orchestra is certainly no help, but Schipa too has some lapses in style, with occasional aspiarates marring his legato.

The 1913 recordings tell a different story and reveal a surprising amount of power and squillo, not qualities one normally associates with the singing of Tito Schipa. They also offer so much more in the elegance of the phrasing, the firm line and his wonderful legato, as well as a proper appreciation of character and the dramatic situation. The prizes here are the Duke’s Ella mi fu rapita…Parmi veder le lagrime, from Rigoletto, Tu che a dio spiegasti l’ali from Lucia di Lammermoor and the Siciliana from Cavalleria Rusticana.

There are treasures too amongst some of the later recordings, even the 1942 Werther aria, which is wonderfully poetic, but the 1934 aria from Manon is also superb.

However I think I derived the most pleasure from the duets. WIth Toti Dal Monti we get a lovely Prendi l’anel to dono from La Sonnambula, and, even better, a gorgeous Tornami a dir from Don Pasquale, which is just about ideal in every way, the two singers blending thier voices and playing with the musical line in perfect synchronicity. Then, probably best of all is the famous Cherry Duet from Mascagani’s L’Amico Fritz, with the charming Mafalda Favero. Throughout he caresses and moulds the line and there is a moment of pure magic when he sings the words sei pur bella on a delciate thread of sound which perfectly expresses Fritz’s shy awakening to love. It is moments such as these which make us turn to these old recordings.

David Daniels – Serenade

Quite aside from David Daniels’s pre-eminence as a Handel singer, he could also be credited with treading where few countertenors dare to go. In this mixed recital he adds to the more usual countertenor repertoire of seventeenth and eighteenth century song, Lieder by Beethoven and Schubert, French chanson by Gounod and Poulenc and English song by Vaughan Williams. Other recitals will see him venturing out into American song and Broadway, and he even made a recording of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Eté. He has never been one to cofine himself to the usual areas of countertenor repertory.

To all he brings great beauty of voice, a superb legato and a fullness of tone rare in countertenors, and an innate musicality. This fullness of tone is not a mere fabrication of the gramophone as I saw him live on many occasions and can attest that the voice rang out freely in all the venues I heard him. In addition he has a winning personality with a rare gift of communication, which comes across in all his discs.

Many of the songs here are concerned with night (the disc, after all is called Serenade) and the pervading atmosphere is therefore one of quiet reflection, but gaiety puts in an appearance too, and we note the singers facility in fast moving music, without a hint of an aspirate. We also note how the singer’s expression changes from one song to another, making us feel we can see as well as hear.

We start with a group of Lieder framed by Beethoven’s and Schubert’s setting of Adelaide, both beautifully sung. He gives the girl’s voice a suitable urgency and death a darker more consolatory tone in Der Tod und das Mädchen, but the prize of this group is his wonderful performance of Nacht und Träume, his legato impeccable , the long line firmly held. This is beautifully ccomplished singing and absolutely no allowances need to be made for the limitations of the countertenor voice.

From here we move to a group of songs by Caldara, Gluck, Cesti and Lotti, the more usual repertoire for this type of voice. Caldara’s Selve amiche soothes the soul, whilst Lotti’s Pur dicesti, o bocca bella is irresistibly light and charming. The Gounod and Poulenc items are all superb, the Vaughan Williams beautifully characterised, finishing with a movingly heartfelt Hands, eyes and heart.

The final items bring us back to more familiar countertenor territory, with joyful performances of Sweeter than roses and I’ll sail upon the Dog Star, followed by an eloquently comforting Evening Hymn, which brings to a close an eminently satisfying recital. Martin Katz is throughout a worthy partner.

As I said earlier, I saw Daniels live on many occasion, and this recital replicates to perfection what it was like to hear him in the concert hall. There was never any difficulty hearing him and he had the rare ability of drawing the audience in, of making each person feel he was singing just for them.

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.

Callas in Ifigenia in Tauride – La Scala 1957

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After the spectacular success of Anna Bolena, Callas and Visconti plunged straight into rehearsals for her next new production at La Scala, that of Ifigenia in Tauride, an Italian translation of Gluck’s French opera. Though they didn’t know it at the time, this was the last time they were to work together, and they never really agreed about the production at all. Visconti wanted the opera to look like a Tiepolo fresco brought to life, but Callas just couldn’t understand the concept. She would ask him why he was doing it like that, averring that it was a Greek story, that she was a Greek woman and that she wanted to look Greek on stage. Whether she liked the concept or not, there is no doubt she looked magnificent in the costumes designed for her, but the production was at best a succès d’estime and was never seen again after the four performances given that season.

Visconti was to have worked with her on her return to La Scala in Poliuto in 1960, but, shortly before rehearsals began, a play he had staged (L’Aroldo) was censured by the government, and he withdrew in protest, refusing to work in any state-supported theatre. After that he would occasionally suggest projects, but she would always find reasons not to do them. She couldn’t dance like a gypsy for Carmen, she didn’t want to disrobe as Salome, or she didn’t feel sufficiently Viennese for the Marschallin, though, to be honest, I can’t really imagine Callas in Strauss.

As a whole, the La Scala performance of Ifigenia is somewhat lacklustre, which might explain why it was never revived. Sanzogno conducts in respectful, soupy, lugubrious fashion (you only have to listen to conductors like Gardiner and Minkowski to hear how much more vital the music can be), and the supporting cast, save for Cossotto’s Diana, makes very little impression at all.

Callas, however, commands attention from her very first utterance. It’s worth quoting here Visconti’s recollection of the impression she made at her first entrance.

Maria did exactly what I asked. As the curtains lifted, a storm was raging and she had to pace frantically across the stage. She wore a majestic gown with many folds of rich silk brocade and an enormous train, over which she had a large cloak of deep red. Her hair was crowned with huge pearls, and loops of pearls hung from her neck, encompassing her bosom. At a certain moment she ascended a high stair, then raced down the steep steps, her cloak flying wildly in the wind. Every night she hit her high note on the eighth step, so extraordinarily coordinated was her music and movement. She was like a circus horse, conditioned to pull off any theatrical stunt she was taught. Whatever Maria may have thought of our Ifigenia, in my opinion it was the most beautiful production we did together. After this I staged many operas without her – in Spoleto, London, Rome Vienna. But what I did with Maria was always something apart, existing unto itself, created for her alone.

She is in fine voice for this performance, riding the orchestra in that first entrance with power to spare, infinitely expressive in the more reflective moments, like Oh, sventurata Ifigenia. Later in the opera, when she recognises her brother, she somehow manages to impart four simultaneous emotions to the single word fratello; sister-love, sadness at their being parted so long, happiness to have found him and fear for his imminent, sacrificial death. Neither Montague on the Gardiner studio version, nor Delunsch in the Minlowski comes within a mile of her range and specificity of expression.

The sound on this Warner version is similar to the EMI I owned before, Act I enjoying rather better sound than Act II.

Maybe not an essential set, but Callas once again demonstrates her proficiency in Gluck even in less than ideal circumstances. One can only imagine how her performance would have been transformed with some of today’s conductors at the helm, and with a supporting cast more attuned to the needs of the composer.

Callas in Alceste – La Scala 1954

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First a word of warning about the sound on this recording. This has always been one of the worst Callas La Scala broadcasts, and Warner can’t do much about that. It overloads and distorts badly in orchestral tutti and in the choruses, though solo voices fare slightly better. I was hoping for a marked improvement, but I guess there is not a lot one can do with such severely compromised source material.

It is a great pity, as I feel sure that if this recording had enjoyed better sound, then Callas’s Alceste would be a lot better known. By April 1954 she had considerably slimmed down, but her voice is still firm and powerful.

As with Orphée et Eurydice, Gluck considerably revised Alceste for Paris in 1776, and it is this version, translated into Italian and in an edition by Giulini, that was performed at La Scala in 1954. It was, as were most of her appearances at La Scala, a new production, directed by Margherita Wallmann with designs by Piero Zuffi and conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Surprisingly this was also La Scala’s first ever production of the opera.

It is a great shame Callas didn’t sing the role of Alceste again for she is, in Max Loppert’s words,

a Gluck soprano of the highest order…. (who) answers every demand the role has to make

She will return to Alceste’s great apostrophe to the Gods, Divinités du Styx, on her French recital of 1961, but, though infinitely subtle as a performance, it will lack the clarion security of her top Bs here. In a sense she sculpts the music, portamenti much more chastely applied than they are when she sings operas of the bel canto. Though neither she nor Giulini add appoggiaturas, her sense of the classic style is spot on.

Every musical phrase, word and gesture was developed with the logic indicated in Gluck’s score,

according to Giulini, who thought Callas a musical genius.

There are many extant photos from the production, and you can see that the new svelte figure has given Callas a new found confidence in movement. For those who think that her amazing weight loss resulted in the loss of her voice, Giulini had this to say,

She became another woman and a new world of expression opened to her. Potentials held in the shadows emerged. In every sense, she had been transformed.

Giulini is a major asset in the pit, and it is a great pity that the recording obscures so much of the orchestral detail.

None of the male singers is in Callas’s class, and, as a representation of the opera, one would really have to look elsewhere, probably to John Eliot Gardiner with Anne Sofie von Otter, who conducts a vital, dramatic version of the score, with von Otter a wonderfully committed and sensitive Alceste, but even she can’t quite match Callas’s range of colour and intensity. On the other hand, the present recording is essential in expanding our knowledge and appreciation of Callas’s art, and, if you can get past the vagaries of the actual sound, and the inadequacy of most of the other singers, patience will definitely be rewarded.

 

Callas a Paris

Callas never sang a role in French on stage, and only one complete role (Carmen) on record, but as can be heard on these two discs, she had a natural affinity for the language. She spoke it fluently (though tellingly refused the role of Carmen in the Beecham recording, “because my French isn’t good enough yet”) and of course made Paris her home in her last years. Previously she had sung only Ophelia’s Mad Scene in French on the Mad Scenes recital disc and Louise’s Depuis le jour in recital in 1954.

Two years separate the recording of these two discs, and it is alarming to hear the marked deterioration in Callas’s voice in such a short period of time, a voice that was already showing signs of stress in the first recital recorded in 1961. These were also the last records of hers to be produced by Walter Legge.

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Recorded May 1963, Salle Wagram, Paris

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Francis Dillnutt

Despite her vocal problems, and despite the fact that she is evidently having to tread carefully, there are, however, still treasures on the second disc. Leila’s Comme autrefois doesn’t really come off, nor does Manon’s Je marche sur tous les chemins, which, without the ensuing gavotte, ends somewhat inconclusively. Manon’s Adieu, notre petite table, though, is a different matter; maybe a tad too serious, but, as always her phrasing is exemplary, and she makes the aria work supremely well out of its context. She sounds strained to the limits by the Gluck, and it can make for uncomfortable listening. Even so her grasp of the classic style and her command of legato never falters.

For the rest, we are vouchsafed three great performances. Gounod’s Margeurite comes as a total surprise, Callas finding here a lightness of touch that one might have thought was beyond her by this time. In the Ballade she meticulously differentiates between Marguerite’s thoughts and the strophic song she sings, carefully placing Marguerite’s simplicity before us. Her innocent rapture when she opens the casket of jewels is brilliantly caught. There is charm here (a trait which often eluded her in the past) and femininity, the text clearly enunciated, the runs deftly executed. She is defeated only by a watery top B at the end, which detracts from, rather than caps, what had been a beautiful performance.

Berlioz’s Margeurite is superb. Alongside Janet Baker’s performance on the Pretre recording and one by Shirley Verrett (on a rare recital record), this is one of the greatest performances of the piece put down on record. At the beginning of the aria, Callas perfectly mirrors the tone of the cor anglais with her first words, then beautifully lightens her tone, putting a smile in the voice for Sa marche que j’admire (and note how we hear the separation of the duple quavers in de sa main, de sa main la caresse, without once disturbing her impeccable legato). Her mounting rapture at Je suis a ma fenetre find its release in a cathartic O caresses de flamme, which she achieves again without once upsetting the long musical line. “Who would not wither in the flame of her genius?” asked the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns. Who indeed? I can only imagine what she might have done with the roles of Cassandre and Didon, and why not Les Nuits d’Ete too? Can you not imagine Callas singing the words O grands desirs inapaisees?

And finally to Charlotte’s great Letter Scene, arguably the most dramatic piece on the album, which brings out the best in her. How brilliantly she differentiates between Charlotte’s thoughts and Werther’s own words, particularly noticeable when she repeats the phrase Ne m’accuse moi, pleure moi, as their significance dawns on her. Unerringly, she captures Charlotte’s mounting panic as she reads the letters. So vividly does she bring this scene to life, that I can now just read through the text, and Callas’s voice and inflections come to my mind’s ear. Like many of her performances, it spoils me for all others.

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Recorded March & April 1961, Salle Wagram, Paris

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Francis Dillnutt

Though there are still a few wild and insecure notes, the first disc is one of the classic recital discs of all time, and one I would never be without. Whole tomes could be written about Callas’s psychological insights, her realisation of the composer’s intentions; every aria is like a new discovery. There isn’t a single dud on the recital, though the rather empty coloratura of Philine’s Je suis Titania would hardly seem worth her effort. She manages it remarkably well, the filigree beautifully executed, with a lovely lightness of touch, magically lightening her tone. She sounds a different singer from the Carmen and Dalila, which precede it, but it’s still my least favourite piece on the disc.

Everything else is pure Callas Gold. The Gluck arias sung with passion, but retaining their classic contours, Orphee’s J’ai perdu mon Eurydice emerging as a true lament. Note the appeal in the voice at the words C’est ton epoux, ton epoux fidele, the blank, despairing tone at Mortel silence and the suffering that truly tears at the heart (dechire mon coeur). Alceste’s great entreaty to the gods is hardly less affecting. Though the top notes are driven here, they are not intrusive, and Callas again finds a wealth of colour for each intercession, for each recurring statement of Divinites du Styx, with a lovely softening of her tone at Mourir pur ce qu’on aime.

Carmen’s arias are best seen as a preparation for the complete set, but the Habanera is seductive and playful, and the Segeudille full of humour, lightly and playfully sung. Dallila’s arias are even better. In Printemps qui commence she sounds “like a young tigress, flexing her claws in the sun.” I wish I could claim that simile for my own, but I’m pretty sure I read it somewhere else. Try as I might, though, I can’t find the original source.The danger lurking under that seductive surface is unleashed in Amour viens aider ma faiblesse, and then she gives us a real siren, when she sings the famous Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. Incidentally, always a stickler for the composer’s intentions, Callas here sings exactly what Saint-Saens wrote, which is that Ah reponds a ma tendresse should be sung in one breath. Most singers add an extra Reponds, which gives them a chance to snatch an extra one. In the second statement, she does indeed take a (perfectly justifiable) breath at Verse moi, verse moi l’ivresse (there is a comma here after all), but this might have been the reason why she refused to allow the aria to be released when the record first came out. It wasn’t issued until the disc was reissued after her death. In any case I doubt any of these arias has ever been done better, and they are enough for Alan Blyth to name Callas as Dalila in his dream cast for Samson et Dalila in his comparative review in Opera on Record.

Juliette’s Waltz Song is a miracle of lightness and elegance. Though the tone is mature, Callas suggests better than anyone the joy of the young girl, but note too the change of colour, when a veil of sadness comes over her voice at Loin de l’hiver morose. Callas gets more meaning out of this seemingly innocent tune than any other singer I know. Chimene’s glorious Pleurez, mes yeux has a dark, tragic beauty, her chest tones uniquely telling, her legato superbly eloquent.

Finally we come to Louise’s apostrophe to love and life. There are some alarming flaps on high notes here, and we note that even in 1954 the aria never quite worked for her in toto, but the quiet intensity of her intent is never in doubt. Has any other singer, before or since, captured quite so unerringly Louise’s mounting rapture, or sung quite so erotically the words je tremble delicieusement? So her voice doesn’t always do quite what she asks of it. Who cares, when she realises the fundamental truth at the root of this aria, which is actually about a young girl’s sexual awakening? When this recital was first reissued, Richard Osborne wrote, “Records like this change people’s lives.” It certainly changed mine