Callas sings Norma at Covent Garden 1952

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This recording captures Callas’s debut before one of her most loyal audiences. She returned the following Coronation season, reprising the role of Norma and adding Aida and Leonora in Il Trovatore. She was back for Norma in 1957, then La Traviata in 1958,  Medea in 1959, and finally the legendary Zeffirelli production of Tosca in 1964 and 1965, her last ever performance on stage.

Callas sang Norma more than any other role, and is particularly associated with it and there are quite a few extant recordings of her singing it.. Aside from the studio recordings of 1954 and 1960, we have live performances from Mexico in 1950, Covent Garden in 1952, Trieste in 1953, Rome and La Scala 1955, Rome in 1958 (the infamous walk out), and also of her final performances in the role in Paris in 1965.

Though this Covent Garden performance is very good, I would have preferred it if Warner had chosen the La Scala performance of 1955 with Simionato and Del Monaco, a performance in which art and voice find their truest equilibrium, and without doubt the greatest performance of the opera I have ever heard. In its Divina incarnation it is also, apart from some radio interference during the opening of Act II, in much clearer sound than this Covent Garden performance. It is the recording  I turn to most often when I want to hear Norma.

That said, it is a long time since I heard this 1952 set, and I certainly enjoyed listening to it. The sound is not too bad, but not great, and a bit boomy in places, though the solo voices come across reasonably well. The chorus sound a bit muffled. I don’t have any other version I can compare it to though, so can’t tell you if it’s any worse or better than others.

To deal with elements other than Callas first, Vittorio Gui has an excellent grasp of the score, and has the merit of not conducting it as if it were Verdi. His tempi are, for the most part, judicially chosen, and he supports his singers admirably, though very occasionally I felt he hurried things along a little too much.  There are one or two lapses between stage and pit, but, in general, the performance is well prepared and executed.

Giacomo Vaghi is a sonorous, firm voiced Oroveso, and Mirto Picchi, who sings Giasone on Callas’s studio recording of Medea a welcome surprise as Pollione. He doesn’t have Del Monaco’s or Corelli’s heroic sound, nor their clarion top Cs, but he is a good deal more stylish than Mario Filippeschi, the Pollione of Callas’s 1954 studio recording.

The Adalgisa is Ebe Stignani, one of the most acclaimed mezzos of her age, who was much praised at the time. She has a voice that is seamless from top to bottom, firm and beautifully produced, but she was twenty years Callas’s senior, and to my ears at least, doesn’t sound in the least the giovinetta Norma refers to. We should remember that, though Adalgisa takes the lower line in the duets, the role was originally created by the soprano Giulia Grisi, who, by all accounts, had a lighter voice than Giuditta Pasta, who created the role of Norma. Also, though reasonably flexible, she doesn’t execute the florid music with quite Callas’s accuracy. In the duets (both sung down a tone) it is only when Callas sings that you can hear when Bellini separates descending scales into duplets. Stignani also ducks some of her high notes. The downward transpositions were presumably made to accommodate her, as they are not used when Simionato plays Adalgisa to Callas’s Norma. Apparently it used to annoy Callas that critics never noticed that Simionato sang them in the right keys.

Clotilde is sung by a young Joan Sutherland, and it is interesting to hear what she had to say about what it was like to appear alongside Callas in these performances.

[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine. It was a bigger sound in those earlier performances, before she lost weight … It was thrilling. I don’t think that anyone who heard Callas after 1955 really heard the Callas voice.

Callas’s voice does indeed sound huge in these performances (“colossal” Sutherland referred to it elsewhere), but, maybe because of that, her Norma here is more the warrior, whereas at La Scala 1955, her singing is more subtle, with more of the woman emerging. What is remarkable is how this large voice gets round the notes, the fastest of coloratura passages holding no terrors for her whatsoever. The top of the voice is also absolutely solid and the top D that ends Act I, held ringingly and freely for several bars, is an absolute stunner.

Her Norma here is vocally stunning, her voice flashing out in anger with scalpel-like attack in the Act I finale, powerful and commanding in her public scenes with the Druids, but in 1955 at La Scala she is infinitely more moving in the private scenes and in the finale. Furthermore in 1955 her voice still had power and security at the top.

This Covent Garden performance is a great memento of her London debut, but it is still the 1955 La Scala performance I will listen to most often. The cast (Simionato, Del Monaco and Zaccaria) is just about as good as you could get at the time. Votto, who conducts, is not Gui’s equal, but he does at least understand the score and knows how to support his singers. I’d say it’s one of those rare occasions in the opera house where everything went right.

 

Callas in Parsifal – Rome 1950

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Chronologically the second recording in the Warner box set is Parsifal, which many no doubt will find an oddity. However one should remember that in the early part f her career, Callas sang quite a bit of Wagner. The next role after her Italian debut, was Isolde, which she sang in Venice, and then the following year in Genoa (with Max Lorenz as Tristan), and in Rome in 1950. She added the Walküre Brünnhilde in 1949, singing the role in Venice (when she famously deputised for an ailing Marherita Carosio in I Puritani, learning the role of Elvira whilst still singing Brünnhilde). She first sang the role of Kundry in 1949 in Rome, but this RAI concert performance heralded her farewell to Wagner, though she was supposed to sing Kundry again at La Scala in 1956 under Erich Kleiber, a project that was abandoned when the maestro died. It was rather surprisingly replaced by Fedora. Like all Italian Wagner productions in those days, the opera was sung in Italian.

Wagnerites will no doubt be put off by the language. They will no doubt be further bothered by the poor recording of the orchestra, though the singers are well caught. I can’t in all honesty say  that this Warner issue is a marked improvement on the Verona transfer I had before, and, though there are some fine singers amongst the cast (Boris Christoff, no less, as Gurnemanz, Rolando Panerai as Amfortas), I found enjoyment of much of the opera seriously compromised by the dim orchestral sound.

However, it is wonderful to have this one example of Callas in a complete Wagner role, and Act II, where Kundry has the lion’s share of her music, had me gripped. Admittedly it is strange to hear the libretto in Italian, but the language does enable Callas to sing a more sensuously silken line than we often hear in the role and her Kundry is a true siren. She uses her superb legato to display the music’s beauty, a million miles from the barking Sprechgesang we often hear.

Despite the cuts to the score, Gui displays a firm understanding of the score, and, aside from Callas, has some excellent singers at his disposal; Boris Christoff as Gurnemanz, Rolando Panerai as Amfortas and Giuseppe Modesti as Klingsor. We even get Lina Pagliughi as the First Flower Maiden. Africo Baldelli’s Parsifal is adequate, no more no less.

The dimly recorded orchestral sound is a problem, especially in Wagner, and this recording could never be considered a contender for that reason. However it is much more than a curiosity, and Callas’s superbly sung Kundry certainly deserves to be heard.

Callas in Nabucco – Naples 1949

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One might think Abigaille a Callas role par excellence, but in fact she only ever sang the role at this series of performance in Naples in 1949, though she often programmed Anch’io dischiuso into her concert programmes. She is on record as calling the role a voice wrecker and advised Caballé against singing it. “It would be like putting a precious Baccarat glass in a box and shaking it. It would shatter,” she told her. Caballé heeded the advice and never sang the role. Callas’s words may seem a surprising statement, given Callas’s astounding assurance and brilliant execution of the role’s difficulties, but maybe she was right. After all, Giusppina Strepponi, the role’s creator and eventually Verdi’s second wife, retired practically voiceless at the age of 31, only a couple of years after she had such a success in it. Elena Souliotis forged her career in the role and had burned herself out in less than five years.

In terms of sound, this is one of the worst extant Callas broadcasts, and no amount of tweaking by the engineers is going to disguise that. It is at its worst in the last act, but, as Abigaille has so little to do in the last act, this affects Callas the least. That said, the Warner issue is clearer than any I’d heard before, though I’m told the one on Ars Vocalis is even better, if you can get your hands on it.

It is worth persevering with the sound, though, for this is the most thrilling performance of the role of Abigaille you are ever likely to hear. The young Callas ( she was 26 at the time) is in full command of the role’s many difficulties, tossing off the coloratura with demonic force as if it were the easiest thing in the world, the top of her voice rock solid and gleaming. She even exacerbates the role’s difficulties by interpolating a free and ringing high Eb in the Act III duet with Nabucco.

However there is much more than just power and ferocity to Callas’s Abigaille, and it is full of lovely details often overlooked by other singers. Note, after her barnstorming entrance, the way she softens her tone at the words Io t’amava, with a suggestion that she loves Ismaele still. The recitative Ben io t’invenni is thrillingly powerful, but she spins out the ensuing aria Anch’io dischiuso with Bellinian grace, tracing its filigree to heavenly lengths. In the duet with Nabucco she is exultantly triumphant, but this gives way to her most meltingly moving tones in the death scene, which unfortunately loses some of its effect due to the crackly recording. All in all, Callas’s Abigaille is a considerable achievement, and it is incredible that she can sing with such power, but with such needle fine accuracy in the coloratura.

Vittorio Gui conducts a tautly dramatic performance, but something strange happens during the chorus Va, pensiero, the end of which is drowned out by a cacophony of boos. He reprises the chorus and this time the audience go berserk cheering. This is presumably what going to the opera in Italy in those days was like.

Gino Bechi, a well-known baritone at the time, is an effective Nabucco, but not in Callas’s class, and no match for such as Gobbi, who recorded the role for Decca late in his career. The rest of the cast is perfectly adequate without being outstanding, but the recording, dreadful sound or not, is a must for Callas’s superb, vocally resplendent Abigaille.

 

 

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.