First issued in 1980 by EMI, this performance was once considered the holy grail of Callas performances. Rumours always persisted about its existence, but, until its EMI release, nobody had been able to track it down. Terrence McNally even wrote a play called The Lisbon Traviata, in which it symbolises the unattainable and the quest to find it.
So how does it stand up to all the other Callas recorded performances of La Traviata? Well, I’d say it’s one of the best, if not quite the best, an epithet I would reserve for the Covent Garden performance of just a few months later and which I reviewed a few months back.
Callas’s Covent Garden Traviata
She is in marginally fresher voice in Lisbon, but the Covent Garden performance has a veracity and insight that is absolutely overwhelming, and I rather wish Warner had chosen that performance instead.
Presumably, given that Warner now own all EMI’s back catalogue, it was simpler to just go for Lisbon and unfortunately this seems to be a remaster of the awful 1997 Callas edition version, which renders the voices harsh and wiry. I have the 1987 remaster, done, I believe, by Keith Hardwicke, which is much warmer, so I won’t be throwing it away. As it was originally a full price issue, it also comes with full notes, texts and translations, although that reminds me that EMI’s mid-price Callas issues also came with notes, texts and translations. Warner are to be admonished for not even including them on a separate CD, as they did for the studio recordings. Some of the material in the Live box set is quite obscure and it can be difficult to find libretti elsewhere.
But back to the virtues of this Lisbon performance, and they are many. Of all the roles in Callas’s repertoire, it was Violetta which went through the greatest transformation, from those early, vocally resplendent performances in the early 1950s, through the famous La Scala/Visconti/Giulini production of 1955 to the Covent Garden performances of 1958, her penultimate performances of the opera before Zeffirelli’s Dallas production also in 1958, which marked her farewell to the role, though she still entertained thoughts of singing it again as late as 1969.
As I said, Callas is in marginally fresher voice here than in London a few months later, though the top Eb at the end of Sempre libera, a note she could easily and justifiably have omitted, is no more secure here than it was there. On the other hand the scale passages and duple descending quavers are wonderfully supple, and note how she differentiates between the two. As always, the singing is full of tiny details, overlooked by most singers, and yet there is never anything fussy about it. She always ensures that a lyrical line is maintained, and, though a great deal of thought and preparation has gone into her portrayal, it always sounds spontaneous, not in the least studied.
Much of her singing is similar to that in Covent Garden, of which I made a far more detailed assessment, when I reviewed it last year. If I continue to prefer that performance, it is mostly because Rescigno, inspired to give of his best, conducts a more flowingly lyrical version of the score than the sometimes pedestrian Ghione. Kraus’s Alfredo is a bonus in Lisbon, but the Schipa taught Valletti in London is at least his equal, and Zanasi slightly preferable to Sereni in Lisbon, good though he is.
Everyone should have at least one Callas Traviata in their collection, and it is a great shame that Legge didn’t wait a year or two for Callas to be free of her contractual obligations to Cetra, before recording it for his La Scala collection. Stella proved to be a poor substitute, and the recording never sold.
I have four Callas recordings in my collection, top of the list being the 1958 Covent Garden performance, recorded on one of those rare nights where everything comes together to create something very special. Second on my list would be the 1955 La Scala/Giulini performance, one of Callas’s greatest nights in the theatre, and one which changed for ever attitudes to Italian opera. The Lisbon performance comes in third for me, with the Cetra studio recording, in which her voice is at its freshest, coming in fourth.
Whichever recording you go for, I have no hesitation in crowning Callas the greatest Violetta we have on disc.