Karajan’s Studio Don Carlo

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This is an infuriating set. Infuriating because the performance is so good but let down by the ridiculously wide dynamic of the recording. The balances are all over the place too, with the brass thrust relentlessly into the foreground. One particularly bad example is at the beginning of the garden scene (Act II, scene i in this version). Carreras is placed so far away from the microphone at his entrance that you can hardly hear him. The natural reaction is to turn up the sound, only to be blasted out of your seat at the next orchestral tutti. With the sound at a reasonably comfortable volume for the rest of the scene the brass reiteration of the friendship theme at the end is absolutely deafening. It might be ok if you live in the middle of nowhere, but if, like me, you live in a small flat in the heart of London, it makes listening a very nerve-racking experience, as you have to be prepared to adjust the volume all the time. It’s no better with headphones either, as, with the sound turned up high enough for the quieter sections, you risk severe ear damage every time the full orchestra let fly.

Aside from the problems of the sound, though, the set has much to commend it. I regret the absence of the Fontainebleau act, as Karajan conducts here Verdi’s 1884 revision, which excised the first act and moved Carlo’s Io la vidi to the monastery scene, which now became Act I. This was the version usually adopted until Giulini included the Fontainebleau act in the famous Visconti/Covent Garden production of 1958. Since then the opera has been performed in a bewildering variety of different versions, but the four act version is rarely given these days, though, as far as I’m aware, Karajan always stuck to it.

Editions aside, this one has an excellent cast. Freni is captured at the beginning of her progress into more dramatic music. In 1977 she had been a superb Amelia in the Abbado/Strehler production of Simon Boccanegra, and the role of Elisabetta suits her very well. She doesn’t quite command the beauty of tone of Caballé on the Giulini recording and she occasionally sounds a little cautious, but she makes a most sympathetic heroine, and articulates the text beautifully. Carreras is caught at his absolute best. Some might feel that, as with Freni, a larger, more heroic voice is what is required, but I’m not sure I’d agree. Carlo is one of Verdi’s most complex tenor roles, a weak character stunted by his father’s indifference to him, constantly in the shadow of his noble friend, Posa and Carreras brilliantly captures both his instability and his desperation. He might just be my favourite Carlo on disc. Cappuccilli is not so interesting a Posa as Gobbi or Milnes, nor is he quite as impressive here as he was in the Abbado Simon Boccanegra, but it is still an excellent performance, his breath control and legato very impressive. Ghiaurov is now sounding a little grey of voice, but that is not inapt for Filippo, and he too presents a believably complex character. I prefer a blacker voice than Raimondi’s for the Inquisitor (like Foiani on the Giulini recording) and consequently the great scene between him and Filippo loses a little in tension.

Crowning the cast is Agnes Baltsa as Eboli in one of her best recorded roles. The voice is at its absolute peak, the lower voice rich and powerful, the top notes gleamingly firm. Her O don fatale is absolutely thrilling, as it was when I saw her in the role at Covent Garden, when she pretty much stopped the show. This luxury casting continues into the smaller roles with José Van Dam as the Monk, Edita Gruberova as Tebaldo and Barbara Hendricks as The Voice from Heaven.

Karajan’s tempi are sometimes a little too measured, but he has the virtue of never letting the tempo sag. If only the sound were more maneagable, I might listen to it more often. As it is, Giulini remains my yardstick for the opera.

The Callas Karajan Lucia di Lammermoor – Berlin 1955

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Moving on through the Live Warner Callas box, we come to the legendary night on which she sang Lucia at the Berlin State Opera.

Callas first sang Lucia in Mexico in 1952 and caused such a sensation that she completely changed people’s attitudes to the role. The following year she sang the role again in Florence, Genoa, Catania, Rome, and it was one of the roles she chose for her American debut at the Chicago Opera House in 1954. Also in 1954 she appeared for the first time in Karajan’s La Scala production, which he subsequently took to Berlin in 1955 and to Vienna in 1956, and all those iconic photos of Callas wearing that long, pleated nightdress are taken from this production.

To understand what a sensation the Callas/Karajan Lucia di Lammermoor wrought, one has to remember that, back then, the opera was considered no more than a silly Italian opera, in which a doll-like light voiced coloratura got to show off her high notes and flexibility. That a conductor of the calibre of Herbert von Karajan, famed for his Beethoven and Brahms, was taking it seriously caused people to reassess their perceptions. There is a charming story of Toti dal Monte, an erstwhile famous Lucia herself, visiting Callas in her La Scala dressing room, tears streaming down her face and confessing she had sung the role for years without ever realising its dramatic potential. Indeed it is pretty safe to say that without Callas’s Lucia, Sutherland’s career might never have taken the trajectory it did.

Apparently, though Callas loved making music with Karajan, she hated his production with its dark, murky projections and backdrops. However Zeffirelli thought that he got it just right. In the mad scene, Karajan lowered all the lights and just put a follow spot on her, which, as Zeffirelli stated, was all you had to do with a Callas. Karajan simply allowed her to become music.

Berlin was in a high state of excitement when Karajan took the La Scala production there in 1955, and, as can be heard on this recording of the event, the audience can hardly contain their enthusiasm. Desmond Shawe Taylor reviewed it for Opera magazine.

I dare say she will never sing better than she does now; there is Greek resin in her voice which will never be quite strained away; she will never charm us with the full round ductile tone of Muzio or [Rosa] Raisa or Ponselle. But she has sudden flights, dramatic outbursts of rocketing virtuosity, of which even those more richly endowed singers were hardly capable

His words now seem prophetic as 1955 could well be seen as the apex of Callas’s career. It was the year of the Visconti La Sonnambula and La Traviata, the Zeffirelli Il Turco in Italia, the Chicago Il Trovatore with Bjoerling, the year she made seminal recordings of Rigoletto with Serafin and Madama Butterfly  with Karajan (not universally well received at the time, but now considered a classic), and she closed the year with what many consider her greatest ever performances of Norma, at La Scala with Simionato and Del Monaco, mercifully preserved in sound and best heard in its Divina Records transfer.

The sound of this Berlin broadcast has always been one of the best of all Callas live performances and this Warner transfer, which is from a different source to the EMI one, is very clear, with very little distortion and only a hint of pre-echo. Furthermore, where EMI were somewhat parsimonious with the applause, Warner have left more of it in, which makes more sense of the encored Sextet. This is certainly one of those cases where the side show is almost as gripping as the show itself.

Callas did of course record the role of Lucia twice in the studio under Serafin. The first, in 1953, was her very first recording for EMI and the second, made in 1959, was the first of the four operas she re-recorded in stereo, a set I have a certain affection for it as it was the recording that introduced me to the opera when I was still in my teens. However, if I want to listen to the opera, it is invariably to this live recording with Karajan at the helm to which I turn.

Callas’s rare collaborations with Karajan always reaped gold, and it is greatly to be regretted that they didn’t work together more often. It was a symbiotic relationship and one can hear in this performance how Karajan appears to breathe with her, giving her ample room to spin out the phrases. However, with two such egos, the relationship was never going to be completely harmonious. Callas was apparently furious with Karajan for granting the Berlin audience an encore of the Sextet, meaning that she had to do twice the work before her Mad Scene; so furious that she turned her back on him during the Mad Scene. Years later, when she met him again, she said to him, “What was it you did when I was so bitchy and turned my back on you in the Mad Scene? I knew you were clever. But the accompaniment was so perfect, I decided you were not only a genius, you were also a witch.” “It was very simple,” Karajan replied, ” I watched your shoulders. When they went up I knew you were breathing in, and that was my cue for attack.” Callas, being something of a witch herself, no doubt knew that was only part of the story.

There is no doubt that Callas’s voice is lighter, more airy, than it was in any of her Lucias up to now. How much this had to do with the shift in repertoire, the weight loss or Karajan’s input is a moot point, but her singing is unfailingly lovely, with phrases drawn out to prodigious lengths, spinning them out the way a master violinist might play their violin.

From the outset Callas presents us with a highly-strung, romantic dreamer, a young girl, who would no doubt have been closeted and protected from the real world. Her first solo is sung with wonderful delicacy, the line deliciously drawn out and beautifully held at Karajan’s expansive tempo. As so often with Callas, there is no artifice to her singing, nor any sense of the routine, the music sounding as if it has sprung newly minted from her lips.

How typical that the first climax of the scene, should not be the aria itself, beautifully though it is sung, but a line of recitative that follows, with Lucia’s simple affirmation of her love for Edgardo (Egli e luce a’ giorni miei) just before she launches into the cabaletta Quando rapito in estasi, which is sung with lovely rhythmic buoyancy.

In the ensuing duet with Edgardo, she is all sweet concern, her phrases pouring balm on Edgardo’s troubled utterances, but we get a glimpse of the slightly unhinged Lucia, when, in a voice peculiarly quivering with intensity, she sings Ah no! rimango nel silenzio sepolto per or l’arcano affetto.

Verrano a te sull’aria is sung with prodigious breath control, the legato line spun out to wondrous effect. Di Stefano is here at his honeyed best, and Karajan provides subtly supple support, a superb example of artists listening to each other and working together.

The second act is the turning point for Lucia. In the face of such cruelty from her brother, this is the moment she starts to lose her reason, and you can hear in Callas’s voicing of the words Ahi!.. La folgore piombo! that the poor girl is at the end of her tether. Soffriva nel pianto is almost unbearably moving, as Callas digs deep into its melancholy.

In the following scene, she seems almost to be sleepwalking, until she falls apart completely when Edgardo suddenly appears and condemns her seeming treachery. The whole of this scene is dramatically thrilling, from the superbly sung (and encored) Sextet through to the knife-edge finale, where Karajan has opened up some of the cuts usually made in previous Callas performances.

The Mad Scene is, as it should be, the apex of Callas’s performance. So supple, so exquisite is her singing, that the voice seems to hover in mid air, and she literally seems to be extemporising on the spot. Certain phrases (Alfin son tua, for instance) are so firmly etched on my consciousness that any other singer seems just to be skimming the surface. The miracle is that she can execute all the vocal tricks of the coloratura soprano with such accuracy and skill, whilst at the same time making musical and dramatic sense of the notes. As ever, Karajan provides impeccable support.

We are lucky that such a superb cast was assembled; Di Stefano is at his considerable, lyrical best as Edgardo, Panerai terrifyingly single minded and relentlessly evil as Enrico, and Zaccaria a mellifluous and sympathetic Raimondo.

Aside from the cuts opened up in the Act II finale, the opera is unfortunately cut in the manner traditional back then. However the recording is nonetheless absolutely essential listening, not only for Callas fans, but for all lovers of Italian opera.

 

 

 

 

Verdi’s Don Carlos – a comparison of three different recordings

Don Carlo, or more properly Don Carlos, to use its French title, that great, sprawling, flawed masterpiece, is one of my favourite Verdi operas, maybe even my favourite. Admittedly it doesn’t have the coherence of Aida or Otello, or even Rigoletto, but enshrined in it is some of Verdi’s greatest music, and I believe that Act IV, Scene i is one of the greatest scenes in all Verdi. Starting with that mournful cello introduction to Philip’s despairing Elle ne m’aime pas, through the magnificent duet (more a duel )between the two bass voices of Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, on to the superb quartet for Philip, Rodrigue, Elisabeth and Eboli, to Eboli’s thrilling O don fatal, Verdi doesn’t put a foot wrong. As pure theatre and drama, it can hardly be bettered. It also enjoys some of the most complex characterisation in all Verdi. The tenor Carlos, is really an anti-hero, a rather pathetic character, desperate for the recognition of a cold, distant father, who wishes his son were more like his friend and confidant Rodrigue, the only really noble character in the opera. Philippe is also a weak character. He strives to be a strong leader, but mistakes intransigence for strength, and, ultimately, is putty in the hands of the church. He does not think for one moment about the effect of his decision to marry Elisabeth himself instead of Carlos, an act of pure selfishness. Elisabeth, disappointed in love, treated appallingly by Philippe, is both regal and compassionate, and Eboli is flighty, hot tempered, and ultimately remorseful.

Over the years I’ve seen the opera a few times and acquired three recordings, though what I actually have is recordings of three different operas. Giulini in 1971 goes for the five act version, in Italian translation, which restored the Fontainebleau Act, and puts Carlo’s Io la vidi back where it belongs in the Fontainebleau act; Karajan in 1979 chooses Verdi’s four Act version (also in Italian, in which Verdi deleted the whole of the first act, transferring Carlo’s Io la vidi to the Monastery Scene, which now becomes Act I, Scene i; Abbado in 1983 conducts the original five act version in French, and adds an appendix of music cut from the first performance, excised from the 1882-83 four act version, or recomposed in that revision. Yes, I know. Complicated, isn’t it?

Don Carlo(s) is a long opera, and I listened to my three recordings over a period of several days, starting with the Giulini, going on to Karajan and finishing with Abbado.

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The Giulini has acquired something of a classic status, and though probably not quite on the level as the same conductor’s Don Giovanni, it does a great deal to justify its high regard. First of all, Giulini has just about the best cast that could have been assembled at the time. That said, Domingo is not yet the artist he was to become. His singing is never less than musical, and he sings with commitment, but there is something slightly generalised about his performance, with nothing much to distinguish Carlo from any other Verdi tenor hero. Milnes sings a noble, forthright Rodrigo, my favourite of the three on these recordings. Raimondi is a little light voiced as Fillipo, a role that really cries out for the dark, buttery tones of a Pinza or a Christoff, but he is suitably tortured and his voice contrasts well with the black voiced Inquisitor of Giovanni Foiani.

Caballé’s voice was at its most beautiful at this time, and, though she too can be a little generalised, she is never less than involved and involving. Her soft singing, as you might expect, is exquisite.

Verrett is, quite simply, magnificent, and without doubt one of the best Ebolis on disc. Recorded before she started moving up to the soprano repertoire, her voice is in thrillingly exciting shape.

Giulini had of course conducted the opera a few years previously at Covent Garden, in a production by Visconti which went a long way to restoring the opera to its rightful place in the Verdi canon, It starred Jon Vickers, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Gré Brouwenstijn and Fedora Barbieri, and it served Covent Garden very well over the years. I even saw Christoff myself in the opera in one of his last operatic appearances. Giulini’s credentials as a Verdian are never in doubt. His tempi can be on the spacious side, but he has a sure sense of the work’s structure. The 1971 analogue recording is wonderfully natural, the voices beautifully caught, and still sounds good on CD.

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The first thing that strikes me, and annoys me, about the Karajan recording is the sound. In an acoustic that is impossibly wide ranging, the voices, lighter and more lyrical than was often the case, are so far recessed that it is often difficult to hear them. One of the worst instances of this is the beginning of the scene in the Queen’s Garden at night. With the sound turned up to a comfortable level for Karajan’s beautiful evocation of a heady summer night, Carreras is all but inaudible at his first entry. I turn up the sound in order to hear him better, only to be blasted out of my seat at the next orchestral tutti. This is but one example, but it happens all the time, and is, in my opinion, a serious blot on what is actually a rather good performance.

Karajan, who also had a great deal of experience in this opera, is also spacious, but the performance still bristles with drama. I just wish he didn’t constantly push the orchestra forward at the expense of the singers, who are often submerged in the orchestral textures.

I liked Carreras’s Carlo very much. His legato isn’t as good as Domingo’s, but he is better at suggesting the character’s unhinged nature. Cappuccilli is good, without being distinctive. He has a good legato, and superb breath control, but he is a little anonymous, and this performance is not generally at the same high standard of his Boccanegra and Macbeth for Abbado. Ghiaurov is Filippo, but his voice was already showing signs of wear by this time, and I find him less interesting than Raimondi in the same role, who is now the Inquisitor, and a mite too light of voice for that role.

This was Freni’s first excursion into heavier repertoire, and she makes a very appealing Elisabeth. As always her singing is unfailingly musical, but lacks the grandeur Caballé brings to Tu che le vanita. Baltsa is just as exciting as Verrett, her voice, at this time in her career, seamless from top to bottom. I saw her in the role at Covent Garden a few years after this recording was made and she brought the house down, generating the kind of excitement that is all too rare in the opera house today. I really couldn’t choose between her and Verrett. Both are fantastic.

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And so on to Abbado, which I find operates on an altogether lower voltage.

Having taken the decision to perform the opera in French, it would seem somewhat perverse to use singers who have little or no (Domingo excepted) proficiency in the language, and it is Domingo who is the standout performance in this set. Paradoxically, ten years after making the Giulini recording, the top of his voice sounds much more free, and he is much more inside the character than he was  before, a highly strung and nervous portrayal.

Nucci is a four-square, dry old stick of a Rodrigue. Raimondi is back to playing Philippe, but his voice has lost some of its bloom, and Ghiaurov is sounding increasingly grey voiced as the Inquisitor.

Ricciarelli I have equivocal feelings about. She is the definitely the most affecting of the three Elisabeths, but also the most fallible vocally. However it’s a performance I’ve come to admire more over the years. Valentini-Terrani is much too light voiced for Eboli, and O don fatal taxes her to, and beyond, her limits. She is definitely no match for either Verrett or Baltsa.

Though it is the newest, and digitally recorded, the sound is unaccountably murky, nowhere near as clear, or as natural, as the Giulini, and Abbado’s conducting lacks energy and authority. He doesn’t have the same structural control he evinces in his recordings of both Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth.

My conclusion is, then, that Giulini retains its place at the top of the field, though I will on occasion want to listen to Karajan and Abbado, for some of the individually excellent performances.

As a codicil to this, I would mention that my introduction to the opera was Callas’s magnificent recording of Tu che le vanita, an aria she obviously had a great deal of affection for, as she regularly programmed it into her concert repertoire. Callas only sang the role of Elisabeth once, at La Scala in 1954, and unfortunately none of the performances were recorded, but she makes more of the scene than anyone. It is grandly voiced, her breath control prodigious, but she effectively binds together its disparate elements. It is, in Lord Harewood’s words, a performance of utmost delicacy and beauty and I would recommend it to anyone who loves this opera.

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Verdi’s Aida – a comparative review of 5 different recordings

I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up with five different recordings of Verdi’s Aida. It’s not my favourite Verdi opera by a long chalk. Though it has magnificent music, the characters always seem more like human archetypes than flesh and blood people and I admire it rather than love it. Three of my recordings feature Callas, and, though I never think of Aida as a Callas role, she brings more meaning to it than most. Two of the Callas recordings (the ones that find her in the best voice) are live, but the sound on both is, at best tolerable, so the studio one is also a necessity, though the 1955 mono sound on that can’t hope to compare with the fabulous sound accorded the new Pappano set that was recorded in 2015.

Aida is of course the quintessential grand opera, famed throughout the world for extravagant stagings at the Arena di Verona, but actually, aside from the great Triumphal Scene, many of its scenes are played out in private, behind closed doors.

I started my journey with the famous live 1951 performance from Mexico, with Callas, Del Monaco, Dominguez and Taddei, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis.

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Well let’s get over the caveats. The sound is pretty atrocious; it crumbles and distorts and the balances are all over the place. The voices come through reasonably well, but you do have to listen through the sound, as it were. But what a performance! And a memento of what was undoubtedly a thrilling evening in the theatre.

Callas is in superb voice throughout, and makes more of the somewhat placid character of Aida than any other singer I have come across. The power she was able to summon at this point in her career has to be heard to be believed, a power that goes right up to that unwritten, but absolutely stunning top Eb in alt in the Triumphal Scene, a phenomenal sound, that excites the Mexicans so much you can almost hear them rip the seats apart. Ritorna vincitor is absolutely thrilling, the duet with Dominguez’s Amneris also superb, but, as always with Callas, it is the Nile Scene that provokes her most moving singing.

O patria mia is not her best moment. She seems momentarily preoccupied with the exposed top C at the end, a solid if not exactly dolce as marked note, but once past the aria, she is on more congenial ground, and, with Taddei a worthy partner, alternately stentorian, implacable, insinuating and relentless, runs the gamut of emotions in an exciting Nile Scene. In the ensuing duet with Radames, she finds a wealth of colour as she seduces and cajoles him.

Del Monaco, as usual, is not particularly subtle, but there is the clarion compensation of the voice itself, and, like all the Radames Callas sings with in the three recordings, makes a better hero than lover.

Dominguez is very impressive. This was her debut in the role, and occasionally she overplays her hand, but her singing is very exciting and the Mexicans give her a rousing reception.

De Fabritiis conducts a dramatic, but not particularly subtle, version of the score. Nowhere does he find the delicacy of Karajan or Pappano, or even Serafin, but subtlety is not really what this performance is about.

I next moved onto another live Callas performance; this one from Covent Garden in 1953, with Kurt Baum, Giulietta Simionato and Jess Walters, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.

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Unfortunately Barbirolli turned out to be something of a disappointment. More subtle than De Fabritiis in Mexico admittedly, the performance lacks excitement and many of his tempi are unaccountably slow. Maybe his approach was more suited to the reserved Londoners than the excitable Mexicans, but the latter has a thrilling vitality completely missing in London.

There is no thrilling Eb in the Triumphal Scene, but Callas is still in superb voice. However Barbirolli’s slow tempi vitiate against some of her more dramatic moments. The I sacri numi section of Ritorna vincitor lacks the bite Callas usually brings to it, though she is able to spin out the final Numi pieta to even more heavenly lengths at Barbirolli’s slower tempo.

Baum is not quite as bad as his reputation, but he hardly ever phrases with distinction and he sobs and aspirates in what he evidently thought was the Italian manner. He also has a tendency to hold on to every top note as if his life depended on it, so that his duets, both with Callas and Simionato, become somewhat combative. That Callas manages to sing the final duet with the grace and delicacy she does is little short of miraculous, given Baum’s determination to bawl his way to his death.

Simionato, a more experienced Amneris than Dominguez, is magnificent and Barbirolli does finally wake up for her final scene, though you sense Simionato propelling the music forward and they almost become unstuck. Am I being picky, though, when I wonder if a little too much of Azucena creeps into Simionato’s interpretation? Amneris is after all a young princess, but more on that subject later.

Somewhat disappointed with Barbirolli, I moved on to the second Karajan recording, recorded in Vienna with Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa and Piero Cappuccilli.

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Karajan’s speeds in this, his second recording, of the opera are also spacious but much more vital. I’ve always found his first effort, with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, a little too self-consciously beautiful. This one is far more alive to the drama. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play superbly and the sound is excellent analogue stereo, though the voices are a little too recessed for my liking, and are often submerged by the orchestra. Given that Karajan uses lighter, more lyrical voices than we have become used to, this does seem a somewhat perverse decision.

If singers of  Radames tend to break down into the heroic and poetic, Carreras is more in the latter camp. His voice is doubtless a notch too small for the part, but it was still a beautiful instrument at that time, and his is the most attractive Celeste Aida we have heard so far, though he doesn’t manage the pianissimo top B at the end. He is at his best in the final duet, his piano singing a welcome relief from the overloud Del Monaco and Baum.

Freni is very attractive, if a little lacking in personality. Her voice might also be considered a little light for the role, but she never forces and sings within her means, phrasing sensitively and singing cleanly off the text. She does nothing wrong, but set next to Callas, she just isn’t that interesting.

The best of the soloists is, without doubt, Agnes Baltsa. Here at last we have a believably young, spoiled princess, a plausible rival for Aida. Seductively sexy and driven to distraction by jealousy, she is convincingly remorseful at the end of the opera, nor does she sound like an Azucena in disguise. She is superbly effective in her duets with Radames and Aida, and gorgeous in the first scene of Act II. She is my favourite of all the Amnerises.

Cappuccilli I find efficient rather than inspired. He doesn’t stamp his authority on the role of Amonasro the way Taddei and Gobbi do, though, as usual, his breath control is exemplary. In a star studded cast, both Ramfis and the King (Ruggero Raimondi and Jose Van Dam) are excellent and we even get the silken voiced Katia Ricciarelli in the role of the Priestess.

From Karajan I turned to the latest addition to the Aida discography. Recorded in the studio, a rarity for opera recordings these days, it is conducted by Antonio Pappano, and stars Anya Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk and Ludovic Tezier with Orchestra and Chorus of the Saint Cecilia Academy.

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As one might expect, the sound in this new digital recording is superb, much more naturally balanced than the Karajan, with the voices coming through beautifully. Pappano exerts a superb grip on the opera, and his might just be the best conducted version of the lot, in the best lyric Italian tradition of conductors like Serafin, more of whom below.

Best of the soloists is definitely Jonas Kaufmann, who might just be the best Radames ever to be recorded. He has both the heroics and the poetry (a deliciously ppp close to Celeste Aida) and is vocally the equal of all that Verdi throws at him. Throughout he phrases with sensitivity and imagination, and achieves miracles of grace in the final duet, with some genuine dolce singing. This is a great performance.

Harteros is in the Freni mould, vocally not quite as secure, but a little more interesting. She goes for a dolce top C in O patria mia, but it is a little shaky. She does not erase memories of Caballe (on the Muti recording) in the same music, but hers is nevertheless an attractive performance.

Semenchuk I don’t like at all. She has a typically vibrant Eastern European voice, with a tendency to be squally. She reminded me most of Elena Obrasztsova and sounds a good deal older than she looks in the photographs accompanying the recording. All the other Amnerises under consideration bring something more specific to the role, where she is more generalised, and consequently the big Act IV scene lacks tension.

If not quite in the Gobbi or Taddei class, when it comes to verbal acuity, Ludovic Tezier is a fine Amonasro and together he and Harteros, with Pappano’s inestimable help, deliver a fine Nile Duet. The basses are not quite in the same class as those on Karajan and Serafin.

Which brings me to Serafin and Callas’s studio recording of the opera.

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By the time this recording was made in 1955, Callas had given up the role of Aida, singing her last performances in Verona just a few months after the 1953 Covent Garden performances under Barbirolli.

Callas’s voice has thinned out quite a bit, and she sings a much more refined performance of the role, perhaps more in line with conventional interpretations, except of course that Callas can never be conventional. When Tebaldi sings Numi pieta at the end of Ritorna vincitor, she sings a pure lyrical line and it’s very pretty, but Callas reminds us that she is asking the Gods to take pity on her suffering. Time and time again she will illuminate a phrase here, a word there. The duet with Amneris abounds with contrast as the two women play off against each other, but it is the duet with Amonasro in the Nile Scene that holds the heart of this performance, the scene where Aida must choose country before love. Gobbi is at his incisive best as Amonasro, and I doubt I will ever hear this duet done better. Note too how eloquently Serafin makes the strings weep when Aida finally gives in, first with the climbing phrase on the cellos and then in the way he accentuates those stabbing violin figures, when Callas sings O patria, patria quanto mi costi. This is the real stuff of drama.

Tucker isn’t in Callas and Gobbi’s class I’m afraid. He has the right sound for the role, virile and forthright, but for every phrase delivered with just the right degree of slancio, there is another ruined by his tendency to aspirate and sob.

Barbieri is very fine, in the Simionato mould, and, with Serafin letting go a veritable storm in the orchestra, produces a thrillingly dramatic Act IV scena.

Both basses (Giuseppe Modesti as Ramfis, and especially Nicola Zaccaria as the King) are splendid, and Serafin, as you might have gathered, conducts a wonderfully dramatic version of the score, in the best Italian tradition.

So conclusions then. No doubt there will be some wondering why I didn’t include Solti and Muti. Well, Solti I’ve never taken to. I just can’t stand his bombastic, un-Italianate, unlyrical conducting, good though his cast is (though I’ve never quite joined in the general enthusiasm for Gorr’s Amneris). I know the Muti but don’t own it. Until Pappano came along I usually used to recommend it as the safest bet, and Caballe gives one of her finest performances as Aida, and it is still, if memory serves me correctly, worth considering.

From the five under consideration then, I’d say De Fabritiis in Mexico is essential listening, if only as a memento of a historical occasion and a truly thrilling evening in the theatre. It could never be a library version though because of the intransigent sound. From the point of view of a library choice, then the new Pappano would probably be the safest bet, even though it has the weakest Amneris. Forced to choose but one recording, though, I’d go for Serafin, with a rather regretful glance over my shoulder towards Baltsa’s Amneris. The mono sound is sometimes a bit boxy and not a patch on either Karajan or Pappano, but its studio acoustic is a good deal better than either De Fabritiis or Barbirolli, who, in any case, surprisingly trails in last place in this survey, despite the presence of both Callas and Simionato.

Callas’s vocal splendour is best caught in Mexico in 1951, but, the sound is a problem, so it’s Serafin for me, if only for the Amonasro/Aida Nile duet, the most thrilling on all these sets.

 

 

 

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 Karajan Il Trovatore

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Recorded 3-4, 6-9 August 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Though Callas, even in her early days, often courted controversy, there was very little disagreement about her Leonora, which seems to have been universally acclaimed from day one. Schwarzkopf called it “a miracle”, Bjoerling “perfection” and Lauri- Volpi “glorious”. Il Trovatore was of course a staple of the repertoire, but years of lazy singing by less technically accomplished sopranos had removed much of Leonora’s filigree. When Callas sang the role, critics said it was as if an old master had lovingly been restored to its original glory. Writing of her performance of the role in London in 1953, Cecil Smith in Opera wrote,

For once we heard the trills fully executed the scales and arpeggios tonally full-bodied but rhythmically bouncing and alert, the portamentos and long-breathed phrases fully supported and exquisitely inflected.

Used to enlisting Serafin’s support with a new role, she had had to prepare it alone for her first Leonoras in Mexico,  as she would be singing it under a different conductor (Guido Picco). A recording of that performance in 1950 shows that most of Callas’s ideas on the role were her own, and her singing is wonderfully accomplished, though she would eschew some of the interpolated high notes in later performances of the opera. She subsequently sang the role in Naples (under Serafin), at La Scala, in London, in Verona, in Rome and in Chicago (with Bjoerling), and finally for this recording in 1956.

By 1956 Callas’s voice is not what it was even in 1953, when she sang the role at La Scala, and high notes can be strident, but her voice in the middle and lower registers still has a dark beauty absolutely apt for the role. Her breath control is prodigious, her legato superb and throughout she phrases like a violinist rather than a vocalist.  Not only are the trills, scales and arpeggios fully executed, as Cecil Smith points out, but they are bound into the vocal line, becoming expression marks rather than just trills or scales. Even with a great singer, like Ponselle, the cadenza at the end of D’amor sul’ali rosee can seem as if it is just tacked on. With Callas, it becomes the natural conclusion of the aria, a musical expression of Leonora’s voice flying out to Manrico. In this recording we are also vouchsafed the cabaletta after the Miserere, (Tu vedrai) which was usually cut before then, presumably because most lyric-dramatic sopranos would find it beyond their capabilities. Callas is magnificent. Musically, I have no doubt that Leonora was one of her greatest achievements.

The rest of the cast are probably as good as could be assembled at the time. Di Stefano almost convinces his voice is right for the role, though, truth to tell, it’s a notch too small. He doesn’t really have the heroics for Di quella pira, but he is always alive to the drama, always sings off the words. Barbieri is a terrific Azucena, Panerai an intensely obsessive Di Luna, and Zaccaria a sonorous Ferrando.

But if Callas is the star vocalist, then Karajan is the second star of the recording. I’d even go so far as to say this is one of his very best opera recordings. His conducting is thrilling and one is constantly amazed at the many felicities he brings out in the orchestral colour, like the sighing two note violin phrases in Condotta ell’era in ceppi, or the beautifully elegant string tune that underscores Ferrando’s questioning of Azucena in Act III, cleverly noting its kinship with Condotta ell’era in ceppi. His pacing is brilliant, rhythms always alert and beautifully sprung, but suitably spacious and long-breathed in Leonora’s glorious arias. Nor does he shy away from the score’s occasional rude vigour. It is a considerable achievement.

My LP pressing was in the fake stereo re-issue, and I had the 1997 Callas Edition on CD. This Warner re-mastering sounds a good deal better than both, with plenty of space round the voices and plenty of detail coming through from the orchestra.

A classic Il Trovatore then, which has stood the test of time, and has held its place amongst the best. In all but recorded sound, I would prefer it to both the Mehta with Leontyne Price and Domingo and the Giulini with Plowright and Domingo again, though Giulini does have possibly the most interesting Azucena of them all in Brigitte Fassbaender. Callas and Karajan, on those rare occasions they worked together, are a hard act to follow.