Callas’s 1953 Tosca Revisited

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I first reviewed this set when it was first reissued by Warner back in 2014 and posted it in my blog shortly after starting it on this platform. You can read that review here and add this review as a sort of codicil.

Though now considered one of the greatest opera recordings ever made, this justly famous recording of Tosca was not universally acclaimed when it was first issued, Alec Robertson comparing Callas’s assumption of the title role unfavourably to Tebaldi’s more dramatic performance. He died in 1982. I wonder if he ever ate his words. Dyneley Hussey made the strange observation that much of Callas’s singing was unrhythmical, which, given Callas’s legendary musical exactitude, now seems entirely incredible.

In all respects (conducting and singing) this Tosca is a more musical performance than the Tebaldi/Erede with which it was being compared, where dramatic effect is applied rather than arising from the music itself.

Despite the excellence of the three principals, the star of the recording for me is Victor De Sabata, who doesn’t so much conduct as mould the score, and consequently the real winner is Puccini, as it should be. Apparently Karajan had John Culshaw play sections of the De Sabata recording to him during sessions for his own equally famous recording of the opera with Leontyne Price. According to Culshaw, “One exceptionally tricky passage for the conductor is the entry of Tosca in act 3, where Puccini’s tempo directions can best be described as elastic. Karajan listened to de Sabata several times over during that passage and then said, ‘No, he’s right but I can’t do that. That’s his secret.'”

Of course De Sabata is immeasurably helped by his cast, who in turn are inspired to give of their best. How Alec Robertson could have thought Campora characterised Cavaradossi better than Di Stefano, who sings not only with his customary face but also with a degree of musical accuracy he didn’t always achieve, is beyond me. Gobbi was, is, and no doubt will always be a touchstone for the role of Scarpia,  a gentleman thug, smoothly reptilian and much more interesting than the conventional villain he is often portrayed. As for Callas, the objections meted out at the time not only seem churlish, but far off the mark. Infinitely feminine and vulnerable, her Tosca is a long way from the cane-touting, flamboyantly capricious character she was usually portrayed in those days, and maybe that was why AR found her less dramatic. She is in her best voice, with scalpel-like attack on the high notes, the voice wonderfully responsive and she brings a welcome bel canto approach to this verismo role.

66 years after it was recorded, it remains the best of all recorded Toscas, a fact brought home to me recently when I compared five of the recordings at present available on Decca. These were Te Kanawa/Solti, Nilsson/Maazel, Freni/Rescigno, Tebaldi/Molinari-Pradelli and Price/Karajan and I will shortly publish my findings. 

Callas’s Norma – 7 December 1955

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1955 had been a spectacular year for Callas, though its beginning was inauspicious. She had been scheduled to start the year singing one of her speciality roles, Leonora in Il Trovatore, at La Scala, but Del Monaco, who was to have sung Manrico pleaded indisposition, though oddly he felt well enough to sing Andrea Chénier (who knows the vicissitudes of tenors), so La Scala made a substitution. Callas could have stepped down, but learned the role of Maddalena in a few days. The opera, a La Scala favourite, had a big success, but the role was hardly one in which her rarified gifts could shine, and is omething of a curiosity in the Callas cannon. Thereafter she went from one major success to another. She sang Medea in Rome and followed it with three productions at La Scala, which have entered the realms of legend, the Visconti productions of La Sonnambula and La Traviata, and, by way of contrast, Zeffirelli’s production of Il Turco in Italia. During the summer she recorded Aida, Madama Butterfly and Rigoletto then in September she had a massive success in Karajan’s La Scala production of Lucia di Lammermoor, when the opera toured to Berlin. The autumn saw her back in Chicago for her second season, where she sang Elvira in I Puritani, Leonora in Il Trovatore (perfection according to her co-star Jussi Bjoerling) and her only stage performances of Madama Butterfly. Truly 1955 had been her anus mirabilis and she closed it with what, by common consent, is the greatest recorded performance of her signature role, Norma.

First a word about the differences between this Divina transfer and most others you will hear. Divina’s remaster is from a first generation master tape and the sound is very good, certainly the best I’ve heard. As the first fifteen minutes were not recorded, like other companies Divina have included music from another performance, but whereas other labels do not credit it, Divina tells us they used a 1965 performance under Gavazzeni for the overture and Oroveso’s first aria, and the Rome broadcast of 1955 under Serafin for part of the recitative before Pollione’s Act I aria. There was some radio interference in Norma’s long solo at the beginning of Act II, and most issues substituted the same scene from the Rome broadcast of the same year, but Divina have left it as it stands to retain the integrity of the La Scala performance, and so as not to lose some of Callas’s most moving singing. It lasts only a few seconds and is easy to live with.

The La Scala season starts every year on December 7th, and for the fourth time in five years, Callas had been given the honour of a new production to open the season. The last time she had sung Norma there was in 1952, the year she first became a permanent member of the La Scala company. The La Scala years saw a period of incredible artistic achievement and there is no doubt that by this time Callas had become the reigning queen of La Scala. The new production was by Margherita Wallman, with designs by Nicola Benois and the starry cast included Mario Del Monaco as Pollione, Giulietta Simionato as Adalgisa and Nicola Zaccaria as Oroveso.

Callas is in fabulous form from the outset, stamping her authority on the performance, and the Druids, in her opening recitatives, her voice taking on a veiled, mysterious quality when she sings about reading the secret books of heaven, before singing a mesmeric Casta diva. The repeated As up to B harden slightly in the first verse, but that hardness has dissipated by the second verse and therafter the voice seems to be responding to her every whim. The linking recitative between cavatina and cabaletta was always a high point of her performances, with that wondrous change of colour at Ma punirlo il cor non sa, leading her into the cabaletta. It’s a jaunty tune with plenty of opportunity for display, but Callas somehow invests it with a private melancholy available to few others. I find it impossible to think of the words Ah riedi ancora, qual eri allora without hearing Callas’s peculiarly plaintive voice in my mind’s ear.

The duets with Simionato are also high points of the performance. The two singers first appeared together in Mexico in 1950 and became life long friends. Before these La Scala performances, they had sung together in the opera in Mexico, Catania, London (in 1953) and Chicago. Though the pairing of Callas with Stignani had become a famous one, Simionato was a better fit for the role than Stignani, who both looked and sounded too mature, and no downward transpositions had to be made to accomodate her. Furthermore their voices blended well, and you can sense the deep rapport that existed between them after so many performances together. It is great cause for regret that Simionato was contracted to Decca and therefore never appeared on any of Callas’s studio recordings.

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There are so many things to cherish in this first duet, particularly the wistful way Callas’s Norma recollects the dawning of her love for Pollione and then the fullness of heart with which she consoles Adalgisa at Ah tergi il pianto. However the most arresting moment is in the cabaletta to the duet when she hits a top C forte, then makes a diminuendo on the note before cascading down a perfect ‘string of pearls’ scale, eliciting audible gasps of disbelief from the audience.

Having been all warmth in the duet, her voice flashes out in anger in the trio, the coloratura flourishes hurled out with terrific force, the top Cs like scalpel attacks. The act comes to an exciting end as Callas takes a thrilling, rock solid top D, which she holds ringingly for several bars.

The opening of Act II, a mixture of recitative and arioso akin in some ways to Rigoletto’s Pari siamo, always provoked some of Callas’s most moving singing. What other singer matches her range of tone colour in this scene? I’m thinking of the hard tone at schiavi d’una matrigna when she contemplates the fate of her children at the hands of a stepmother, and the way she drains the tone of colour at un gel mi prende e in fronte mi si solleva il crin so that it becomes a literal expression of her hair standing up on end. This leads to wonderfully tender singing as she looks at her sleeping children, and of course ultimately she cannot bring herself to kill them, her voice drenched with maternal love at son i miei figli.

The following duet, one of the most famous in the bel canto repertoire is, even more than the Act I duet, a perfect example of two artists at one with each other, their voices intertwining and their timing perfect. Not unsurprisingly it provokes rapturous applause from the audience.

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Callas’s performances were always cumulative and the final scene is almost unbearably moving as Callas takes us through the gamut of emotions, from the almost youthful joy with which she sings Ei tornera spinning out the melisma on come del primo amor ai di felici, through suppressed anger and barely contained rage to ultimate peace and magnanimity, heart-wringinly moving in her final plea for her children. But what we should always remember is how musically her effects are made, her phrasing and the way she shapes the musical line, her sense of rubato unparalleled. Another moment that has entered the history books is her singing of the words son io when Norma confesses her guilt. Apparently she would simply take the wreath from her head and you can almost hear the moment she does it. The audience respond with a sort of corporate moan. Was Ponselle ever as moving as this? Was Pasta? We will never know, but at least with Callas we have recorded evidence. So much is Callas’s way with the role imprinted on my subconscious that inevitably I find all others wanting. Her Norma is so complete, so all enveloping that it remains unchallenged to this day and we are fortunate indeed that this performance, which captures that moment in her career when art and technique reached their truest equilibrium, was captured in sound.

For the rest, Simionato is arguably the best Adalgisa Callas ever sang with and is in terrific form here. Zaccaria is a sympathetic and sonorous Oroveso. Del Monaco makes up for his lack of coloratura with a voice of heroic, clarion splendour and Votto, though he pales next to Serafin, is the perfect accompanist, which, with such a cast, is perhaps all he needed to be.

Great Normas have always been thin on the ground, though all sorts of unsuitable singers appear to be attempting it these days, but let no one think they have truly heard the opera until they have heard a performance with a great protagonist. The studio recordings have their value in enjoying better sound, but I have no hesitation giving this one the prize as the best of all Callas’s recorded Normas.

 

 

Callas and Corelli in Poliuto _ La Scala, Milan 1960

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Paolina in Donizetti’s Poliuto was Callas’s final new role. The opera opened the 1960/1961 season at La Scala, an honour granted to Callas five times since her official debut in I Vespri Siciliani in 1951. It also marked her return to the house since her last performances of Imogene in Il Pirata in 1958. The opera was to have been directed by Luchino Visconti, but he had withdrawn from the project in protest after his film Rocco e suoi fratelli had been censored by the Italian authorities. The sumptuous designs were by Nicola Benois, and Herbert Graf took over from Visconti as director.

The opening gala was attended by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the Begum Aga Khan, Onassis and what one might call the worldwide glitterati, all of whom had come not for Donizetti, but to see the most famous woman in opera, Maria Callas. Callas herself had had only two other engagements in 1960, singing Norma at the ancient amphitheatre in Epidaurus in Greece (the first time opera had ever been staged there) and making her second recording of the same opera for EMI. Nor did these performances signal a return to her erstwhile busy schedule. Her 1961 schedule was not much busier. She made her first disc of French arias, sang some arias with Sir Malcolm Sargent at the piano at a concert at St James’s Palace in London, and appeared in a new productions of Medea in Epidaurus and at La Scala. After a couple more performances of Medea at La Scala in 1962, she didn’t return to the stage until 1964 for the Covent Garden Tosca and the Paris Norma.

Paolina may seem a strange choice for Callas, considering that she is something of a secondary character to that of her husband, Poliuto, but publicity accompanying her every move was now at such a feverish level, that she no doubt thought it would take some of the pressure off her comeback at La Scala. An example of the hysteria which now surrounded her every move is the prolonged ovation which greets her first entrance, so loud and long that Votto has to stop the introduction to her aria and re-start after the hullabaloo has died down.

The reason I mention all this is that it helps place this performance in context, giving us an insight into Callas’s state of mind and the condition of her voice, and there is no doubting she seems nervous and uncharacteristically tentative at her first entrance. It is evident she is treading with caution, though, characteristically, her phrasing is as eloquent as ever. In Act II she appears to have gained in confidence, and the duet with Severo goes quite well. However she is still cautious in the upper reaches and an attempt at a top D at the end of the act is soon abandoned.

Her most eloquent singing comes in the Act III duet with Poliuto, and though the top of the voice is no more secure here than elsewhere, her singing is reminiscent of some of her best work. I remember a recording of this duet sung by Montserrat Caballé and her husband Bernabé Marti, but, though Caballé’s tone may be more ingratiating, her handling of the music is clumsy in comparison to Callas’s, nor does she make anything of the descending scale passages in Un fulgido lume, which Callas imbues with such significance.

Corelli is a splendid Poliuto, his voice burnished and golden, and less likely to indulge in those annoying sobs he often introduces into his singing of verismo, and the opera is cast from strength, with superb performances from Bastianini and Zaccaria. Votto, though he makes some swathing cuts to the score, is a reliable, if not particularly inspired, leader.

Being from 1960, the sound on this recording has always been quite good, and this new Warner master would appear to be a new transfer of the EMI one, which was also reasonably acceptable. A qualified success then. Not Callas at her best certainly, but definitely worth a listen.

 

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 as Anna Bolena (Warner transfer) – La Scala 1957

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One of Callas’s greatest nights in the theatre is also, unfortunately, one of Warner’s worst transfers. This sounds very much like the old EMI, which was transferred from a very poor source. The sound is muddy and apt to wander in pitch. You just have to listen to Divina’s wonderfully clear, clean and crisp version to hear the difference.

I reviewed the performance in its Divina transfer back in June last year, and, rather than just repeating myself, would enjoin you to read my review by clicking on the following link  https://tsaraslondon.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/anna-bolena-la-scala-milan-april-14-1957/

 

The Callas Bernstein La Sonnambula – La Scala 1955

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Having got Andrea Chenier out of the way, and after singing four performances of Medea in Rome, Callas started work on what might have seemed a surprising role for her, that of the sweet ingénue Amina in La Sonnambula; surprising, that is, until one recalls that Bellini wrote the opera for the very same singer who created Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Bellini’s favourite Amina was evidently Maria Malibran, who was also a great Norma, but where Norma had become the property of large voiced, dramatic sopranos, who often couldn’t cope with the florid demands of the role, Amina had gone to light voiced, bird-like soubrettes, who rarely brought any depth to the character. Like Donizetti’s Lucia di LammemoorLa Sonnambula had become a vehicle for vocal display, nothing else, though this is clearly not what Bellini or his librettist, Romani, had in mind.

According to Romani,

The role of Amina, even though at first glance it may seem very easy to interpret, is perhaps more difficult than many others which are deemed more important. It requires an actress who is playful, ingenuous and innocent, and at the same time passionate, sensitive and amorous; who has a cry for joy and also a cry for sorrow, an accent for reproach and another for entreaty… This was the role created by Bellini’s intellect.

Used to the doll-like pipings of so many light voiced sopranos, Callas’s performances no doubt came as a revelation. She performed the role 22 times, always in the same La Scala Visconti production, which was revived in 1957, the same year she made her commercial recording of the opera, and travelled to Cologne and Edinburgh that same year too, though, by that time, Votto had replaced Bernstein as conductor and Nicola Monti had taken over from Cesare Valletti. Live recordings exist of both Cologne and Edinburgh, and my personal favourite has always been Cologne, where Callas, with slightly more limited resources, sings a more poetic, a gentler Amina; a portrait in pastels rather than oil.

However, I would never want to be without this thrilling La Scala recording, and to appreciate it fully, maybe a little background on the production would be helpful. Visconti, with his designer Piero Tosi, had sought to create a picture-book, dreamlike depiction of a nineteenth century village that never existed, the villagers dressed like ladies and gentlemen, the women in shades of pink, pearl and grey, and the men in black and white. Visconti’s vision of Amina was no village girl, but the evocation of a bejewelled nineteenth-century prima donna performing the role. She was costumed to look like the nineteenth century ballerina Maria Taglioni, and PIero Tosi recalls that when she made her entrance in the first sleepwalking scene, the impression she created was of “a sylphide tripping on the moonlight.”

Though one can see what Visconti was driving at, Callas’s genius ensures that at no point does she seem to be performing the role, so completely does she inhabit the character of sweet, trusting Amina, but it does explain some of the intricate variations Bernstein created for her, flung out to the Milanese audience with insouciant ease. Later performances under Votto would find some of the vocal display trimmed away. Bernstein also opens up some of the cuts reinstated by Votto, possibly because he had a tenor, Cesare Valletti, more capable of singing the music. Valletti is, in every way, far superior to Nicola Monti, who appears on the commercial recording and in the Cologne and Edinburgh performances.

Visconti undoubtedly built the production around Callas dramatically, just as Bernstein does musically. A trifle impatient with the choruses, he is wonderfully expansive in Amina’s solos, giving Callas time to shape and mould the phrases, their musical rapport absolutely as one.

From her first entry, Callas’s voice has a pearly softness, Come per me sereno exuding an inner happiness and fullness of heart that is at the core of her conception of Amina. For the cabaletta, Bernstein has given her some supremely ambitious embellishments, which she executes with staggering ease and agility, and the audience unsurprisingly give her a rousing reception.

But, as always with Callas, it is not just in the big set pieces that she excels. She is as inclined to make her mark in a word or line of recitative. I am thinking here of the way she imbues the words Il cor soltanto, when the Notary asks what she is bringing as dowry, with such love and trust and warmth. One should also note that Valletti is a worthy and distinguished partner, and, though he eschews some of the high notes written for the great Rubini, he proves himself to have been the perfect choice for the role. He makes a wonderfully sympathetic partner for Callas in the duet that ends the scene. A simple soul, his duping by the scheming Lisa becomes entirely believable,

Note also how Callas adopts a more veiled tone for the scenes in which she is sleepwalking, her confusion and terror when she wakes in the count’s bedroom palpably real. When Elvino rejects her, the pain she evinces is almost unbearable, her moulding of the phrases which launch the great ensemble, D’un pensiero e d’un accento couched in a legato which is meltingly poignant. In the allegro that follows, she lets out her full voice for the first time, as Amina’s desperation mounts, and caps the act with a ringing Eb in alt.

She has little to do in the opening scene of the last act, which belongs principally to the tenor, but she does much with what little she has, movingly concerned for Elvino even in the depths of her own pain.

It is in the final scene, though, where her gifts as a singing actress of the highest order are paramount. The range of colours she employs in the recitative is wide indeed, but she never destroys the dreamlike mood she has created. Certain phrases stand out in relief, like the pathos in her cry of Ah! Il mio anello and the heart-break in Questa d’un cor che more e l’ultima preghiera. The aria that follows, Ah non credea is a locus classicus of Callas’s art, couched in an almost seamless legato, its phrases spun out to prodigious lengths. The audience sit in rapt silence, totally drawn in and when, at its close, Elvino sings Ah piu non reggo, we too feel we can bear no more. This section worked well for Callas even as late as 1964 when she sang it on French TV. Elegantly coiffed and gowned though she is, and scarcely moving a muscle, she simply becomes the broken-hearted village girl Amina. This is the art that conceals art.

When Amina is awoken and the mood is broken, Callas breaks into the sparkling cabaletta, Ah non giunge with glittering abandon, executing the coloratura flourishes with coruscating brilliance. Some might feel that her singing here is too forceful, but again it is good to be reminded of what happened in Visconti’s production. He brought up all the lights, including La Scala’s huge central chandelier to full brilliance, and had Callas come down to the footlights, singing directly out into the audience, no longer Amina, but the great prima donna acknowledging her public. If there were still any doubt about the matter, this is the night that Callas was unequivocally crowned Regina della Scala.

As for the sound, I only have the old EMI version to hand for comparison, and can state that this Warner transfer is a good deal better than that. There are occasional moments of distortion and overload, but in general it is very listenable. Having listened to it again for the first time in several years, I now find it hard to chose between this one and the Cologne performance of 1957. How lucky we are to have both.

Callas sings Maddalena in Andrea Chenier – La Scala 1955

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Andrea Chénier is an oddity in Callas’s career. The opera belongs to the tenor, Maddalena’s being a somewhat muted presence, confined to one aria and a couple of duets, both of which are led by the tenor. Of course she shouldn’t have been singing it at all, as the opera she was scheduled to sing at La Scala after the season’s opening La Vestale was to have been Il Trovatore, an opera much more conducive to her gifts. The story goes that the tenor, Mario Del Monaco pleaded indisposition. He did, however, feel well enough to sing Chénier rather than Manrico, and La Scala made the substitution. Who knows the vicissitudes of tenors? Maybe he feared being up against Callas in one of her greatest roles (Leonora), maybe he expected her to step down, as, not knowing the opera, she would have been perfectly within her rights to do. As it is, Callas accepted the challenge of learning the role in just a few days, though one wonders why she bothered. Maddalena was very much a Tebaldi role and a large portion of the house was against her from the outset. After these six performances she never sang the role again, and her appearance in the opera was soon forgotten, especially after the spectacular success of the next three productions she appeared in at the house.

Warner don’t appear to have found a new sound source for this performance, and this transfer sounds very much like the old EMI, regardless of claims of improvements in pitch. I guess you can’t do much with a sow’s ear.

Aside from the Aida she sang before her official debut, and Il Trovatore in 1953, this was the first time Callas was singing in a regular repertory opera at La Scala, and despite her intelligent and sensitive reading of the score, a portion of the audience were against her from the outset, no doubt more used to a much more forthright “can belto” style of singing verismo, . There were even rumours being bandied about that it was she who had demanded the substitution in order to steal away one of Tebaldi’s most successful roles. (Considering Callas never even sang Tosca at La Scala, this is a ridiculous assumption, not born out by the facts.) It is rather ironic, though, that it is Callas’s rendition of the aria La mamma morta, which achieved popular success after it was featured in the movie Philadelphia.

So how does the performance itself stand up after all this time, with all its attendant scandal consigned to the history books? Well, pretty well actually. It was a La Scala stalwart and the audience respond enthusiastically throughout, even giving the comprimaria, Lucia Danieli’s short solo as Madelon in Act III a rousing reception.

Protti, not usually the most subtle or imaginative of singers, makes a powerful Gérard and all the smaller roles, of which there are many, are cast from strength, with Votto much more at home in this opera than he sometimes is in bel canto. Del Monaco shows precious little sign of any indisposition and has a rousing success in a role that he was particularly well known for.

So, what of Callas? Whether it can be attributed to the weight loss or the shift in her repertoire, it cannot be denied that the voice is not as rich as it was when she sang Kundry, for instance, back in 1950, and those who prefer to hear the fuler tones of a Tebaldi, a Milanov or, in more recent times, a Caballé, will no doubt find her wanting. However she digs as deeply into the character as the music will allow her to go, and gives us a more psychologically complex character than is usually the case. As usual a mere line, a word of recitative speaks volumes, such as her whispered Perdonatemi to Chénier, when she realises she has offended him. There is no doubt that this Maddalena realises exactly what Chenier is talking about in his Improviso.

The girlishness in her voice has completely dissipated in Act II, and in Act III she delivers a scorching La mamma morta, though the climactic top B goes a little awry, causing a faction of the La Scala audience to voice its disapproval. Note however how the tone colour she uses at the beginning of the aria mirrors the cello solo introduction. As ever Callas’s musical sensibilities are sans pareil.

Both she and Del Monaco sing the final duet with mounting ardour and fulsome tone, and one wonders why they decided to make downward transposition at the end of the duet.

Still, however musically satisfying her Maddalena, it is a side issue in the Callas career, and one wonders why she bothered with it at all. Her greatest genius was revealed in operas of an earlier period, and she had ahead of her in that same season some of her greatest successes at La Scala, first the Visconti/Bernstein La Sonnambula (next up in the Warner box set), a Zeffirelli Il Turco in Italia, and, finally that season, the production that changed for ever people’s perceptions of Italian opera production, the renowned and controversially successful Visconti/Giulini La Traviata.

 

Callas in La Vestale – La Scala 1954

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7 December, the feast of St Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, is the official opening date of the La Scala season, and for the third time in four years, Callas was granted the privilege of opening the new season with a new production. This was also the first time she worked with Luchino Visconti, who was lured into directing opera by the prospect of working with Callas. He had first fallen under her spell when he saw her as Kundry in Rome in 1949; from that day onwards he tried to catch as many of her performances as he could . Between 1954 and 1957 he directed Callas in some of La Scala’s most iconic productions, La SonnambulaLa TraviataAnna Bolena and Ifigenia in Tauride. He was also to have directed her return to the theatre in 1960 in Poliuto, but he withdrew in protest after his film Rocco e suoi fratelli was censored by the Italian authorities.

This was Callas’s first appearance in Italy after the spectacular success of her first season in Chicago, which was her US debut. Her hair was now blonde (a short lived effect) and the transformation from everyone’s idea of an overweight prima donna to a svelte, elegant picture of glamour was complete.

With designs by Pietro Zuffi and sets by Nicola Benois, the production certainly looked stunning, and was cast from strength, with Franco Corelli as Licinio, Ebe Stignani as La Gran Vestale and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Il Sommo Sacerdote, but, for all the splendour of the staging and the excellence of the singing the opera failed to ignite the imagination the way Medea (even more unknown) had the previous year, and there the fault must lie with Spontini. whose music resists even Callas’s attempts to bring it to life. Though the opera is often dubbed a “junior” Norma, the character of Giulia has none of Norma’s inner turmoil or ultimate sacrifice, her sentiments, whether mooning over Licinio or gazing upward to Vesta, all too similar.

Callas does what she can, filling the music with her customary passion and wide palette of tone colour, and she moulds the phrases beautifully, her legato in such sections as O nume tutelar well nigh impeccable. Thrilling too is her propulsive singing of the cabaletta to Tu che invoco, but Spontini’s music never allows her to make the impression she does as Norma or Medea, or even Alceste.

The cause of the opera is not helped by Votto’s stodgy, soggy conducting. Maybe it needs a John Eliot Gardiner to bring it to life, as it rather resists even Riccardo Muti’s efforts in his recording.

For the rest, we have Corelli, compensating for some less than stylish singing with the clarion brilliance of his voice, Stignani a matronly Gran Vestale, which is apt enough for the character, I suppose, and Rossi-Lemeni dramatically committed, if woolly toned.

The sound here is no better nor worse than any of the other transfers I’ve heard, and distortion and overloading is, as it was in Alceste, pretty bad. I am happy that we have this document of a key production in Callas’s career, but, truth to tell, it is not an opera I turn to often, finding that the best of Giulia is to be heard in the three arias Callas later recorded in the studio with Serafin for the Callas at La Scala recital disc.

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 sings Medea at La Scala 1953

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It is actually somewhat down to happenstance that La Scala staged Medea in December 1953. Callas was originally to have appeared in a new production of Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore but the success of her appearances in Cherubuni’s Medea in Florence at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino made La Scala change their plans and stage the Cherubini opera instead. Nor was Bernstein slated to conduct, but Victor De Sabata, La Scala’s original choice fell ill just before rehearsals started, leaving them without a conductor. As luck would have it Bernstein was winding up a series of concerts in Italy, one of which Callas happened to hear, and she suggested they approach him, and fortunately he was free.

Unlike many of the operas Callas sang, there was absolutely no performing tradition with Cherubini’s Medea, and consequently each conductor she performed it with prepared their own, slightly differing, version, their interpretations of the score often markedly different. Where Vittorio Gui, who conducted the opera in Florence, brought out its classical dimension, Bernstein seems to see it as reaching forward into the Romantic era, his conducting more in line with his fiery interpretations of Beethoven. After the turbulent overture, the opera opens in gentle, pastoral vein, and, though I might wish that Gui (and later Serafin in the studio recording) would get a move on a bit, Bernstein seems too much in a hurry to get to the crux of the drama and his speeds are often so fast the orchestra and chorus can hardly keep up with him. However after the entrance of Medea, he really gets into his stride, and conducts a blisteringly intense realisation of the score, to match Callas’s blisteringly intense singing.

Io, Medea, are her very first words,, and, though the notes look simple enough on the page, the tone she uses carries a threat that completely dispels the pastoral calm of the previous scene.  Ah, quale voce! indeed, as Giasone comments. The crowd disperse in terror, but, left alone with Giasone, Callas is quick to make us realise that it is love alone that brings her to Corinth, particularly when she sings the words, Ricordi il giorno tu, la prima volta quando mai veduta? The aria Dei tuoi figli is sung in melting tones and, though in later years she would find even more insinuating colours, she manages its wide leaps and high tessitura with staggering ease. Unfortunately Bernstein cuts its final Crudel! and robs the aria of its true climax.

That said, his conducting of the ensuing duet is superb, especially when he suddenly slows down what had been a propulsive tempo at the lines O fatal velo d’or, with a reduction in volume from both singers and orchestra, which creates a chilling effect not duplicated in any of her other performances. Elsewhere in the duet, there is a touch too much vehemence from Callas here, and I feel she overplays her hand, as she does later in the duet with Creon, which lacks the play of light and shade found in her performance in Dallas in 1958.

Indeed throughout this performance, we get more of the sorceress and less of the woman, which makes her traversal of the role in Dallas so much more fascinating. Nevertheless, it is very exciting and, by the time of the closing scene, we are confronted with a voice of blackest evil. Bernstein also cuts a large section of the lament for her children, possibly to remove some of Medea’s human dimension in her final inexorable revenge. This solution has a justification of sorts, I suppose, but I prefer the dichotomy of woman and sorceress we get in Dallas, and, to a lesser extent, in Florence, where Gui lets us hear the closing scene in its entirety.

On the plus side, Callas’s voice is in fabulous form at La Scala and she rides the music’s climaxes with ease. The effect is undeniably thrilling, and you can hear from the audience’s reception that they gained a spectacular success.

Barbieri, is, as she was in Florence, an excellent Neris, this time singing her aria with bassoon obligato, rather than the cello substituted in Florence. I prefer Guichandut in Florence to Penno at La Scala, but nether challenges Vickers, who sings the role of Giasone in Dallas in 1958, Covent Garden in 1959, and at La Scala in 1961. Giuseppe Modesti, who also sings the role of Creon on her studio recording of the opera, is fine as Creon, though I slightly prefer Zaccaria in Dallas and Maria Luisa Nache is a sweet-toned Glauce. However it is surely for the contributions of Callas and Bernstein that we are most likely to turn to this recording , and here they are absolutely as one in their conception of the piece.

As far as the actual recording goes, again the source material is not great, so we cannot expect too much. This Warner issue is a lot clearer and cleaner than EMI’s usually shoddy presentation, but I couldn’t hear that much difference between this and the one issued by Ars Vocalis. Eventually I decided on a slight preference for the Warner, but there is not much in it, and either would be a good choice.