Callas in Anna Bolena- La Scala, Milan April 14 1957

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This live recording captures a great moment in operatic history, a moment when bel canto opera was finally taken seriously. As Montserrat Caballé once stated,

She opened a new door for us, for all the singers in the world, a door that had been closed. Behind it was sleeping not only great music but great ideas of interpretation. She has given us the chance, those who follow her, to do things that were hardly possible before her.

Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, Gencer, Scotto, even today’s DiDonato and Radvanovsky should all give thanks to Callas, for without this one production, their careers might have taken very different paths. True, Callas had by this time made people re-evaluate operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula, and she had had an enormous personal success as Rossini’s Armida in Florence in 1952, but it was La Scala’s spectacular production of this one opera, Anna Bolena which paved the way for the bel canto revival, and for the next few decades, long forgotten operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini would be revived all over the world.

Such was the anticipation and excitement surrounding the production that it was covered in the international press, the UK’s Opera Magazine dedicating seven pages of its June 1957 issue to Desmond Shawe Taylor’s review.

There is no doubt that La Scala wanted to make a splash, and there is ample photographic evidence of Nicola Benois’ stunning sets, and the superb costumes. It was also the apogee of Callas’s collaboration with Visconti, though unfortunately, after the production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, which followed they never worked together again. Visconti recalls.

It was rather beautiful, if I do say so myself. But not sublime as everyone else has said. It had atmosphere. Benois and I used only black, white and grey – like the grey of London – for the sets. The castle interiors, such as the broad staircase down which Callas made her entrance, were filled with enormous portraits. The colours of the costumes – Jane Seymour, the king’s new love, wore red, for example, and the guards scarlet and yellow – played off these sombre sets. But for Anna Bolena, you need more than sets and costumes. You need Callas. Each day I went with her to the tailor to watch over every detail of her gowns, which were in all shades and nuances of blue. Her jewels were huge. They had to be to go with everything about her – her eyes, head features, her stature. And believe me, onstage, Callas had stature.

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The opera was heavily cut, so if you are looking for some ur-text version, you would have to go to studio recordings featuring Sutherland, Sills, Souliotis or Gruberova, but you would be missing out on the greatest Anna on disc, who, according to Richard Fairman in Opera on Record III,  “alone, of latter-day artists, has the power to grasp the emotional crux of every line and put it across.”

First off I should mention that this Divina Records transfer is in a different world of clarity from the murky EMI version, which unfortunately is also the source for the recent Warner transfer. Available as a download, I recommend it unreservedly.

Callas’s conception of the character of Anna is absolutely right from the word go. When asked by Rescigno, who conducted her in several concert performances of the final scene, why she phrased something in a certain way, she replied simply, “Because she is a Queen,” and it is this simple statement of fact that informs and shapes her portrayal. Callas’s Anna, though she suffers like any other woman, never forgets that she is a queen. In Callas’s own words.

Now history has its Anna Bolena, which is quite different from Donizetti’s. Donizetti made her a sublime woman, a victim of circumstance, nearly a heroine. I couldn’t bother with history’s story; it really ruined my insight. I had to go by the music, by the libretto. The music itself justifies it, so the main thing is not the libretto, though I give enormous attention to the words. I try to find truth in the music.

Contemporary reviews (and photographs) attest to the nobility of Callas’s bearing, and her first entrance vocally reflects that. Her first words have a natural authority and regal reserve, which gives way to deep private melancholy in the aria Come innocente giovane, which she sings in a gentle, perfectly focused half voice, her command of line and legato as usual superb. In the cabaletta, which is addressed to the court, she uses more voice, but the voice remains supple and she never loses for a moment that sense of regal composure.

In the following scene, where she unexpectedly meets Percy for the first time, she publicly retains her composure, though the conflicting emotions running through her heart are exposed in the many asides, and she starts the ensemble Io seniti sulla mia mano in a movingly intimate tone of infinite sadness.

These first scenes have introduced us to the character of Anna, regal, melancholy, troubled and noble, but the next scene is the one that will seal her fate and the one in which Anna will show her mettle. Alternately tender, then anxious, then truly terrified with Percy (who, it has to be said, behaves like a lovesick schoolboy throughout the opera), she is found in compromising circumstances by Enrico. Overcome with emotion she faints, but wakes to plead in melting tones her innocence in the superb ensemble In quegli sguardi impresso. Deaf to her pleas, Enrico asserts that the judges will decide her fate, and this is where Callas’s Anna really rises to her full stature, bringing to bear her queenly outrage in the words Giudice ad Anna! Guidice ad Anna! Ad Anna! Guidice! before launching the final stretta with an intensity that has to be heard to be believed. Singing with all the force at her command, she caps the ensemble with a free and secure high D, held ringingly for several bars. Anna_6

The first scene of Act II (or Act III in this performance) contains the magnificent duet for Anna and Giovanna, prototype for so many of those female voice duets that pepper the operas of Donizetti and Bellini. In it Giovanna confesses her guilt, is at first repulsed by Anna, and then magnanimously forgiven. No doubt Bellini had this duet in mind when he penned the first duet for Norma and Adalgisa in Norma. Simionato, superb throughout the opera, is a worthy foil here, but Callas again transcends the music. Her interjections into Giovanna’s confession run the gamut of emotions from shock and revulsion to resignation and acceptance, until, in one of the most moving moments in the opera, she forgives Giovanna in a voice quivering with emotion. Always notable is the way Callas achieves her effects without once disturbing the musical line. She recognises that in bel canto opera it is the arc of the melody which carries the emotional impact, her sense of line and rubato always instinctively right.

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The final scene in the tower is one she programmed into recitals on several occasions and recorded (in its entirety) for EMI on what is arguably her most successful recital disc Mad Scenes. Many have since recorded it, so it has become relatively familiar, but one should remember that it was practically unknown at the time of this performance. In Al dolce guidami Callas’s voice takes on an unearthly, eerie beauty, the music seeming to emerge from the very depths of her soul. Though closely adhering to the score, she sounds almost as if she is extemporising on the spot, and the audience listens in rapt silence, hanging on her every note, until it erupts in a corporate outpouring of applause and cheers at its quiet close. Her delivery of the recitatives in the scene is again a lesson in how to weight and measure the proportions of each line. The final Coppia iniqua is sung with massive force, the famous rising set of trills, either ignored or sketchily sung by others, sung with both accuracy and intensity, her voice rising with power to the top Cs. This is Callas at her best.

She is ably, and brilliantly, supported by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who gives her ample rein to play with the music in the quiet, reflective moments and urges the ensemble to absolutely thrilling heights in the big finales. Rossi-Lemeni’s Enrico is authoritative but woolly-toned and Raimondi’s Percy pleasingly Italianate without being particularly individual. Simionato, inspired to give of her very best, is the only other singer who comes close to Callas’s achievement, singing with glorious tone and dramatic involvement, but even she is less specific, more generalised, in her responses than Callas.

Anyone who has any interest in bel canto opera has to hear this set, which puts you in the stalls on one of the greatest nights in Callas’s career. At the end of his review Desmond Shawe-Taylor, asked if Anna Bolena could enter the international repertory.

With Callas, yes; without her, or some comparable soprano of whom as yet there is no sign, no. Many people think it a flaw in these old operas that they depend on the availability of great singer; but what would be the fate of the standard violin and piano concertos if there were scarcely a player who could get his fingers round the notes, let alone fill them with a lulling charm or a passionate intensity?

Well, eventually other sopranos did take it on, with varying degrees of success, and the opera is still performed occasionally today, but none of these other sopranos has quite matched the genius of Maria Callas, who was, without any doubt, not only a great singer and actress, but also one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.

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Callas’s Lady Macbeth

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UPDATED NOVEMBER 2017

As I reviewed this performance only recently, I thought I would just re-post with a word or two about the sound of the Warner edition.

Thankfully, Warner seem not to have used the awful EMI version, itself a clone of another release. EMI failed to notice that the version they used had spliced into the Act I finale a few bars of a performance with Gencer, done to cover what was thought a loss of tranmission. This new version, and the Myto detailed below, has found the missing bars and included them, though the sound here is more muffled than elsewhere in the ensemble. Comparing Warner to Myto, I eventually came down in favour of Warner, which sounds a little cleaner to me, though there is not a great deal in it. I haven’t heard the Ars Vocalis version, so can’t comment on it. The main thing to take into account is that both Warner and Myto are a substantial improvement on EMI, which was practically unlistenable.

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Having reviewed all Callas’s studio sets, I thought maybe it was time I tackled the live ones, or at least those I have on CD, though I’ve heard quite a few others at one time or another too. I’m starting with Macbeth, as it happens to be the opera I’m listening to at the moment.

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One of the yawning gaps in EMI’s catalogue of Callas recordings has always been a studio recording of Macbeth with Callas and Gobbi as the murderous pair. With Di Stefano as Macduff and Zaccaria as Banquo and Serafin, or even Karajan, at the helm, EMI would no doubt have had a winner, but Walter Legge deemed the opera not popular enough and so Callas got to record Mimi, Manon and Nedda instead, roles which she was never to sing on stage, but no doubt seemed more commercially viable. It is also easy to forget that back in the 1950s, Macbeth didn’t have the same high regard it has now. Ultimately, all Callas got to record of the role were Lady Macbeth’s three great solos for her Verdi Heroines recital of 1958. Nevertheless, so successful are her interpretations that they have become the standard for all Lady Macbeths who followed, and Callas has become indelibly associated with the role, though in fact these La Scala performances were the only occasion she ever sang it.

This performance, which opened the 1952 La Scala season, was certainly a starry affair. It was directed by Carl Ebert, with designs by Nicola Benois, and conducted by Victor De Sabata, and though the rest of the cast were hardly in Callas’s class (who was?) they are all a good deal better than adequate.

As can be heard in Myto’s most recent transfer of the performance, much clearer than any I have heard before (and a good deal better than EMI’s shoddy presentation), De Sabata has a terrific grip on the score, his conception symphonically conceived, and the La Scala orchestra play brilliantly for him, his tempi, with one glaring exception, which I will come to shortly, judiciously chosen. We are vouchsafed all of the ballet music, which is brilliantly played.

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Mascherini’s Macbeth has been criticised for being a relatively muted presence, and he’s certainly no Gobbi, but I think his performance works in context. Macbeth, after all, is a weak character. It is Lady Macbeth who drives the narrative, both in Shakespeare and in Verdi. Sure, Mascherini is not particularly imaginative in his phrasing, but he makes an excellent foil to Callas in the duets, which she dominates, as she should.

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The opera belongs to the protagonists and both tenor and bass roles are relatively minor. Whilst Penno as Macduff and Tajo as Banquo are not in the first rank, neither of them is bad, and both are much better than adequate.

But, certainly in this performance, the opera belongs to Lady Macbeth and Callas is astonishing. So complete is her mastery of the role’s complexities, that one would have thought that she had been singing it for years, whereas this was in fact the first time she was singing it in public. She doesn’t get off to the greatest of starts, with her peculiar voicing of the spoken letter before her first recitative, but once she launches into Ambizioso spirto, she never misses a trick. Her voice was in prime condition at the time, securely gleaming on high, dark and richly powerful down below. No other Lady Macbeth has so acutely observed  Verdi’s meticulous markings; no other Lady Macbeth has sung with such power and force, and yet with such a range of colour and expression; no other Lady Macbeth has executed the fiendishly difficult fioriture with such uncanny accuracy. This is the stuff of genius, no doubt about it, and anyone who has ever doubted Callas’s pre-eminence in the field should listen to the performance, preferably with score in hand.

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As usual with Callas, she is apt to make her mark in a line, a word of recitative, as in one of the big set pieces, and her portrayal, full of incidental details, is all of a piece. Amongst the many revelations, I would mention the way she sings Vergogna, Signor after Macbeth has broken down before the ghost of Banquo in the banquet scene. The peculiar inflection she gives it, somehow suggests the deep love that exists between the couple, for without it, how does one explain why Macbeth is so much in thrall to his wife.

When Callas came to record Lady Macbeth’s three big scenes for her Verdi Heroines recital disc, her voice had lost some of the power and security on top, and consequently, good though they are, both Vieni t’affretta and La luce langue reach their fullest expression in the live La Scala version. However I do have a problem with the very fast speed De Sabata adopts for the Sleepwalking Scene. At so fast a tempo, Callas is less able to make her points, and it has always seemed to me something of a miscalculation. By the end of the scene, he has slowed down a bit, so maybe he thought so too, and we don’t know what happened in subsequent performances.

By contrast, the version on the recital disc is one of the greatest examples on disc of Callas’s deep psychological penetration into the psyche of a character. In interview she retells how she had felt in pretty good voice on the day of the recording, and emerged from the studio feeling quite pleased with herself. However , she was a little taken aback when Legge said she would have to do it again. Once she listened to the playback, though, she knew exactly what he meant. She had done a great piece of singing, but had not done her job as an interpreter. She then goes into a detailed analysis of the scene, of Lady Macbeth’s fluctuating thoughts, her fractured mental state, and how this should be expressed through the voice. Though much of Callas’s art was instinctive, there was evidently much also that was intellectual.

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Callas only sang Lady Macbeth for one series of performances, at La Scala in 1952, but her achievement in the role has never been bettered, and it is a great shame that the role did not remain part of her active repertoire.

Callas’s Two Recordings of Un Ballo in Maschera

Amelia is a role that should probably have figured more in Callas’s career. She sang excerpts as a student, almost got to sing it at La Scala under Toscanini, but actually didn’t tackle the whole role until the recording she made under Antonino Votto in 1956, and after singing it in a lavish new production at La Scala the following year, never sang it again, though she returned to Amelia’s two big solos in the studio in the mid to late 1960s.

We are fortunate that the La Scala live performance was captured in sound, and, though sonically it is not as clear as that on the studio recording, it is one of the best preserved La Scala broadcasts. Common to both the studio and live sets are the La Scala forces, Eugenia Ratti’s Oscar, Callas and Di Stefano. Everything else is different, so which is best?

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First off we note that Gianandrea Gavazzeni on the live set is a much more positive presence than the somewhat prosaic Anotonino Votto. It is testament to his soloists that the Votto recording remains one of the most recommendable of studio sets 60 odd years after its release, but Gavazzeni’s performance is definitely more alive to the drama, and, from that point of view at least, the live performance is preferable. One should also note that the audience is a palpable (and vocal) presence, which some may find distracting. Personally I find it all part of the fun. Though one of the best of Callas’s La Scala broadcasts, it still tends to overload at climaxes. The studio set is in good mono sound.

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Let’s now take the other differences. What I miss most on the live recording is Gobbi’s Renato. Bastianini on the live set was a fine singer, and probably had what we consider more of a Verdi baritone sound, but he is not nearly as imaginative as Gobbi. Bastianini has the more beautiful voice. Gobbi creates the more interesting character. When Gobbi sings the single word “Amelia” at the moment his wife is revealed to be the Duke’s paramour, he invests it with a wealth of conflicting emotions far beyond the scope of the more forthright Bastianini, so, in this respect at least the studio version is preferable. The conspirators on the studio set are also slightly better at vocal word painting than their live counterparts, but the difference is marginal.

Both the Ulricas are excellent, and if I prefer the magnificent Simionato on the live set, my preference is again only marginal. Barbieri is also excellent on the studio set. Eugenia Ratti is a trifle shrill for my liking on both the studio and live sets.

As for Callas and Di Stefano, I’d find it hard to choose between their performances, as they are both in terrific voice on both sets. Di Stefano is not the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but he has bags of personality. In the live set, he can be guilty of playing to the gallery somewhat, but the audience give him a rapturous reception, so who can blame him?

Callas is in magnificent form on both sets, her singing full of incidental details most singers miss, her command of the role’s difficulties staggering. I often wonder why her voice sounds so much fuller and richer in this role than it does on the studio Aida, which was recorded in 1955, the year before the studio set and two years before the live version. Possibly because Amelia is a transitional role, requiring a full compliment of trills and vocal graces of which Callas was a mistress. However it also requires quite a large voice, which is why the vocal niceties of the role are usually glossed over or ignored. Listen to Callas sing in her first scene the arching phrase Consentimi o signore with a pure legato and refulgent tone, whilst perfectly executing the little turn at the end of the phrase that signifies Amelia’s nervous state. Note also that when Amelia mirrors Oscar’s trills in the Oath Scene, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills. It is moments such as these that make Callas stand out from all others.

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A month after the La Scala prima, she was to sing Norma at the Rome Opera at a gala attended by the Italian president. She was unwell and tried to cancel, but, against her better instincts allowed herself to be persuaded by the management to do the performance, as, incredibly, they had not bothered to engage an understudy. During the performance, she felt her voice slipping away from her, and refused to carry on after Act I. This created one of the biggest scandals of her career. The Rome Opera refused to make any announcement on her behalf, and then compounded the problem by cancelling the rest of her contract, even though she had representations from doctors confirming her illness. The press had a field day, even fabricating footage of her supposedly rehearsing in good voice, though the footage was actually from a radio broadcast in 1955. She eventually sued the Rome Opera, a case that was settled entirely in her favour, but the case dragged on for years, and by the time she won the case, the damage done to her personally was irrevocable.

When she returned to La Scala later that year in a revival of Anna Bolena, the La Scala audience greeted her with icy silence, though, as was her wont, by the end of the first performance, she had scored a personal triumph even greater than at the prima the previous year. Unfortunately, when she returned to her villa with Meneghini, it was to find the walls and gates covered and daubed with dog excrement. Is it any wonder she began to doubt whether devoting her life to her art was really worth the trouble? Is it any wonder that the world of the glitterati, empty though it would turn out to be, should suddenly seem so attractive?

After the live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera, there are of course some stupendous performances to come, the Cologne La Sonnambula, the Dallas Medea, the London and Lisbon La Traviatas for instance, but we rarely hear her sing again with such security, and ease. Pure conjecture on my part of course, but I often wonder if that Rome cancellation, and the fall out from it, was when the pressure of performing, of always having to be the best really started to get to her.

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.

 

 

 

Callas in I Puritani

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Recorded 24-30 March 1953, Basilica di Sant’Eufemia Milan

Producer: Dino Olivieri, Balance Engineer: Osvaldo Varesca

I Puritani, Callas’s second opera for EMI was the first recorded under the imprimatur of La Scala, an association which would result in eighteen further opera sets over a period of seven years.

No doubt because of the circumstances surrounding her first Elvira (she learned it in 3 days to replace an ailing Margherita Carosio whilst still singing Brunnhilde in Die Walkure) and because of her famed recording of the Mad Scene, one would expect the role to have played a greater part in her career, but in fact after those first performances in Venice in 1949, it figured rarely in her repertoire.

She sang it again in Florence, in  Rome and  in Mexico in 1952, and in her second season in Chicago in 1955, then never again, though the Mad Scene did occasionally appear in her concert programmes, even as late as 1958 at  a Covent Garden Gala. A recording of her rehearsing the scene for her Dallas inaugural concert in 1957 exists, and shows her still singing an easy, secure and full-throated high Eb.

Maybe the reason she sang it so little is that Elvira offers less dramatic meat than Lucia or even Amina. The libretto is something of a muddle and Elvira seems to spend the opera drifting in and out of madness. Of course she gets some wonderful music to sing, and Callas certainly breathes a lot more life into her than most singers are able to do. She also gives us some of her best work on disc, her voice wonderfully limpid and responsive, the top register free and open. No doubt this is the reason it has remained one of the top choices for the opera since its release over 6o years ago.

We first hear her in the offstage prayer in Act I Scene I, and straight away there is that thrill of recognition as her voice dominates the ensemble. Then in the scene with Giorgio, she finds a wide range of colour, a weight of character, that we don’t normally hear. Her voice, laden with sadness for her first utterances, then defiant when she thinks she is to be wed to someone she doesn’t love, is fused with utter joy when she realises that it is Arturo she is going to marry. She skips through the florid writing with lightness and ease, but invests it with a significance that eludes most others. One moment that stood out in relief for me was her cry of Ah padre mio when Arturo arrives, which bespeaks the fullness of heart that is the main characteristic of this Elvira. Son vergin vezzosa is a miracle of lightness and grace, Ah vieni al tempio heartbreakingly real, though her voice does turn a little harsh when she doubles the orchestral line an octave up.

The Mad Scene needs little introduction. It is one of the most well-known examples of her art out there, the cabaletta moulded on a seemingly endless breath; and where have you ever heard such scales in the cabaletta? Like the sighs of a dying soul. The top Eb at its climax is one of the most stunning notes even Callas ever committed to disc, held ringingly and freely without a hint of strain. Words fail me.

She has less to do in the last act, which mostly belongs to the tenor, and this is where I have a problem with the set. Di Stefano is nowhere near stylish enough in a role that was written for the great Rubini, and he lurches at every top note as if his life depended on it. Sometimes the notes sound reasonably free, at others he almost sounds as if he’s holding onto them with his teeth. Mind you, who else was there around to sing it any better at that time? The recording was made too early for Kraus, though Gedda might have been a good idea. After all, he was already singing for EMI by then, and would sing Narciso on Callas’s recording of Il Turco in Italia, which was recorded the following year..

Rossi-Lemeni  is less woolly-toned than I remember him and sings with authority, especially good in the first act duet with Callas; Panerai is a virile presence as Riccardo. Serafin conducts with his usual sense of style, but also invests some drama into the proceedings.

The orchestra and voices sound really good, but the recording of the chorus is a bit muddy. Presumably that was also the case on the original LPs.

I do have a few problems with I Puritani. To my mind the libretto is plain silly, and even Callas’s wonderful singing can’t quite rescue it. That said, as singing qua singing, it’s some of the most amazing work she ever committed to disc, and for that reason it will always be a permanent part of gramophone history. I would never be without it.


 

Callas in Cavalleria Rusticana

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Recorded 16-25 June, 3-4 August 1953, Basilica di Sant’ Eufemia, Milan

Producer: Dino Olivieri, Balance Engineer: Osvaldo Varesca

According to the notes accompanying this recording, Callas actually replaced the scheduled singer for it, a famous mezzo who was having trouble with her top notes. Does anyone know who this might have been? Could it have been Stignani? She ducks some of the top notes in Callas’s Norma the following year, and she was getting on a bit by this time, so it’s possible I suppose.

Whoever it was, we should be pleased that Callas was around to fill the breach, because her Santuzza is superb. Unbelievably she had only previously sung the role in her student days, when only 15 and also a couple of times with the Athens Opera, but, apart from this recording, never again, and yet, in fabulous voice, she inhabits the role of poor, hapless Santuzza as no other.

At this stage in her career her voice was as responsive in verismo as it was only a few weeks before, when she was recording Bellini (I Puritani). She uses none of the tricks of the verismo soprano, no glottal stops, no aspirates, no sobs, but sings with a pure musical line. When she sings io piango at the end of Voi lo sapete, she is able to suggest tears without actually sobbing.

Furthermore her characterisation has been thoroughly thought out. This is a young woman at the end of her tether with nothing left to lose. Her very first utterances are full of weariness and hopelessness, that first little dialogue with Mamma Lucia full of despair. Quale spina ho in core, she sings, and her singing of those few words rends the heart, as do her thrice repeated cries of O Signor in the Easter Hymn. Left alone with Mamma Lucia, she pours out her sad story.  Voi lo sapete is not only heartrendingly poignant, but beautifully sung, and we note how economically she uses her chest voice. Intensity is not achieved at the expense of musical line.

Nor is it in the duet with Turiddu, which bristles with contrast and drama. Here it is not just a stock operatic duet, but a full scale Sicilian row between a young couple. Callas pleads, rails, cajoles and, finally, when she can take no more, hurls her curse at Turiddu. Alfio serendipitously turning up at just that moment gives her the opportunity to vent her spleen, but, yet again, her singing is full of subtle little details and the solo that leads into the duet is sung with a sustained, if tragic beauty. Note how skilfully she shades the line at the end when she takes the pressure off the voice, moving from chest to head and ending quietly on lui rapiva a me. The closing section has both Panerai and Callas pulling out all the stops. It is absolutely thrilling.

A few words then about the rest of the cast. Di Stefano  sings with his own brand of slancio and presents a caddish, if ultimately remorseful Turiddu. Panerai is a splendidly virile Alfio, and Anna Maria Canali a sexy, minx-like Lola, superbly bitchy in her short exchange with Callas’s Santuzza. Serafin’s speeds are sometimes a bit slow in the choruses, but he paces the meat of the drama really well.

The recording still overloads occasionally at climaxes, so I assume that is a problem that exists on the master, but otherwise the sound is quite open and Callas’s voice fairly leaps out of the speakers.

Not for nothing has this remained one of the top recommendations for Cavalleria Rusticana for over 50 years, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. For first-rate recorded sound and orchestral splendour one would go to Karajan, for characterful full-throated singing to Serafin.

Callas’s 1953 Studio Tosca

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Recorded 10-21 August, 1953, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

What can one say about this famous recording of Tosca that hasn’t been said before? It regularly appears in lists of the greatest recordings ever made, and it seems now that its legendary status is confirmed.

Because of it, Tosca has often been considered the quintessential Callas role, but, though she sang it a fair amount in her early career, she pretty much ignored the role after this recording, until it became the vehicle for her operatic comeback in London in 1964. Indeed she never sang it, or any other Puccini role, at La Scala, which was her cultural home at the height of her career. A few months after making this recording she sang the role at a couple of performances in Genoa, then promptly ignored it, except for her two seasons at the Met in 1956 and 1958. In 1964, Zeffirelli managed to get her to choose it as the vehicle for her comeback, but, typically for her, she would only agree if they could do Norma as well, which he staged for her in Paris.

The Zeffirelli production, which was shared by Paris and London, became one of the most famous in operatic history (and in fact Covent Garden only retired it a few years ago). Indeed one could say the photos of Callas in that red velvet dress she wore in Act II have since become iconic, even though Callas herself often voiced her disdain for both the opera and the role.

True, it may not have offered her the vocal challenges of Norma or Medea, of Violetta or Lady Macbeth, but in 1953 her voice was an amazingly limpid and responsive instrument, enabling her to easily encompass its demands, whilst rendering the score with an accuracy the likes of Tebaldi and Milanov could only dream of. Take, for instance, the lightness and grace with which she sings a line like le voce delle cose in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta. Most Toscas are clumsy here, but Callas sings it with elegant ease. Furthermore at this stage in her career, she can swell the tone to a refulgent climax at Arde in Tosca un folle amor, which she can’t quite manage by the time of the second recording, which was recorded around the same time as the London and Paris performances.

Interestingly, though, in terms of interpretation, there are not that many differences between Callas’s Tosca of 1953 and 1964; a few minor details here and there, but for the most part the character of Tosca is as musically finished here as it was to be histrionically in Covent Garden. Though Zeffirelli may have helped her with odd bits of stage business, it seems sure that her conception of the character had changed little in the intervening years. The main differences are vocal, and here she rides the orchestra with power to spare, the top Cs, that emerged as little more than shrieks in 1964, full throated and solid as a rock. Vissi d’arte (which Callas used to say should be cut as it held up the action) is both beautiful and heart-rending. So it is in 1964, but the ending taxes her to the limit there, whereas here it is full throated and easy.

Of course there are other reasons why this set has retained its place as the best of all Tosca recordings. Gobbi is also in fuller, securer voice here than he was in 1964, and his loathsome, reptilian Scarpia is a towering achievement. As usual, he and Callas strike sparks off each other, their confrontations bristling with tension. Di Stefano, who also appears on the first Karajan recording, is here in his best voice, an ardent, youthful and passionate Cavaradossi. Both duets with Callas are erotically charged affairs, as they should be.

Then of course, there is De Sabata on one of his rare excursions to the studio. The La Scala orchestra play superbly for him, and he unerringly paces the score just perfectly, with a sure sense of the work’s inner impetus, his use of rubato  brilliantly controlled. In a performance such as this, the one true winner is Puccini.

Sonically it is surely the best of all Callas’s studio mono sets from La Scala. One hardly notices the lack of stereo; voices are perfectly placed and the orchestra sounds richer and more full-bodied than was often the case. This transfer has also corrected some of the errors that crept into previous CD incarnations, not least the terrible GROC version.

Still the Tosca to have, and blow stereo digital sound.

Callas’s 1954 Studio Norma

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Recorded 23 April & 3 May 1954, Cinema Metropol, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Callas’s greatest role was Norma, the one that she sang more than any other, and one of three operas she recorded twice.

Though I did have this version on LP (when it was reissued in the 1970s), I never had it on CD. The 1960 version was one of the first LP opera sets I ever owned, and, not surprisingly, became one of the first I owned on CD. Later I acquired an Arkadia issue  of the live 1955 La Scala, which I eventually replaced with the Divina Edition one of the same performance. As this was the Norma I most often pulled down off the shelf, I decided I didn’t really need another, so never got round to getting this 1954 recording on CD.

First impression on this set was the sheer presence of the voice. When Callas commandingly sings Sediziose voce she could almost be in the room with you and in fact the sound all round, orchestra and voices, is a lot better than some of the later operas; much less boxy with a real sense of presence. The second (in stereo) is better still of course, but the difference is relatively slight.

So how else does this compare to the second set, which I have already lavished such praise on? Well let’s start with the rest of the cast. Fillipeschi is, let’s face it, second-rate, and nowhere near as good as Corelli, his basic tone is thin and whiney and anything that requires any rapid movement finds him lacking, not that Corelli is much better in this respect, mind you, but there is the clarion compensation of his actual voice. Also I’m afraid I find it hard to join in the general round of praise for Stignani. Though the voice retains its firmness, she sounds too mature by this stage in her career, more like Callas’s mother than the innocent, young priestess she is supposed to be. Considering she was 20 years Callas’s senior at the time, it’s hardly surprising. Nor is her voice anywhere near as responsive as Callas’s, or as accurate, but then whose is? Not Ludwig’s, certainly, but I much prefer her more youthful timbre and her voice blends remarkably well with that of Callas; an unlikely piece of casting that paid off. Rossi-Lemeni’s tone tends to be woolly, but he is an authoritative Oroveso, more so than Zaccaria, whose tones are, however, more buttery.

As for Callas, there is no doubt that she is much more able to encompass the role’s vocal demands in this recording than the later one. I do miss certain more tender moments in the 1960 recording. Her entrance into Mira o Norma (Ah perche, perche), beautifully and touchingly understated is more moving than it is here, and in fact the whole duet works better with Ludwig, but when clarion strength and security are required then this set wins hands down. One might say we get more of the warrior in this one and more of the woman in the second. Given the security and power she evinces here, it seems strange that she does not take the high D at the end of Act I, as she did at previously preserved live performances, and as she would do again the following year in both Rome (also under Serafin) and Milan. It might seem a relief that she doesn’t attempt the note in 1960, but here I missed it.

Both recordings are essential of course. No other Norma in recorded history has come within a mile of her mastery of this role, the most difficult in the repertory according to Lilli Lehmann, and the one she sang more than any other. I am willing to believe that Pasta and Malibran were every bit as great, but I cannot believe they would have been better. I am indebted to John Steane yet again for putting things in a nutshell when he suggested that for Norma with Callas, one should go for the second recording, but for Callas as Norma, the first. Personally I’d want both, as the second, for all its vocal fallibility, searches deeper. I would also add the live 1955 from La Scala, the one in which voice and art find their purest equilibrium, and the one I would no doubt  be clinging to if ever shipwrecked on that proverbial desert island.

Callas as Nedda in Pagliacci

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Recorded 12-17 June 1954, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Nedda was the first of four roles Callas recorded in the studio, but never sang on stage, the others being Mimi, Manon and Carmen. Pagliacci is really the tenor’s opera, and one can imagine the role would have held little interest for her on stage, though, as is her wont, she makes a great impression in a role one wouldn’t readily associate with her.

Back in the 50s, Nedda was usually played by a light-voiced soubrette, who, if she provided any characterisation at all, would play her as a two-dimensional heartless little minx, so how like Callas that she should look inside the music and find more facets to Nedda’s personality.

Her very first words Confusa io son strike a note of fear, justified  when she sings of Canio’s temper (brutale com egli’e) and note the accent she gives to the word brutale. She shrugs off her fear, but in her singing of the ensuing aria, with its paean to freedom, it is not difficult to understand that here is a young woman bursting with life but trapped in a loveless marriage with a man prone to violence.

The scene with Tonio, like all Callas’s collaborations with Gobbi, bristles with drama and life. Here it would seem is another man trying to subjugate her to his will, but her relationship with Tonio is different. Here she has the upper hand. At first mockingly dismissive, she taunts him until he responds with violence; but here too she retains the upper hand, lashing out both vocally (Miserabile!) and physically with the whip. Left alone she expresses her distaste with a voice dripping with loathing, only to change in an instant when she lovingly sings the single word Silvio as her lover makes his appearance.

The duet with Silvio is erotically charged, suffused with warmth and passion, then in the ensuing confrontation with Canio, defiant in the face of fear, her voice hardens again.  Is there a suggestion here that this is ground they have been over before?

Also masterful is the way she uses a different, whiter sound for Colombina, and only in the final stages of the opera in her ultimate refusal to submit to Canio does she return to full voice, riding the orchestra with a defiance that goads Canio into his final act of murder. There are parallels here with Callas’s Carmen.

Di Stefano does well as Canio, though I can’t help feeling that such a Nedda really needed a more psychologically complex foil, along the lines of someone like Vickers, or Domingo in his later portrayals, not that either of them were around at the time of the recording of course. Nonetheless, though some might think him a shade light-voiced for the role, Di Stefano is a very effective Canio, singing brilliantly off the words, his diction, as usual, exemplary.

Gobbi, on the other hand is superb as Tonio, as is Panerai as an ardent Silvio, and Monti, much more than a comprimario, makes an excellent Beppe. Serafin is a relatively unassuming presence. He doesn’t do anything wrong, but nowhere is his conducting as revelatory as it often was in Verdi.

Pagliacci probably wouldn’t rank high on any list of essential Callas recordings (certainly not on mine) and I’d have to be honest and admit it’s not one of my favourite operas. Neither the character nor the music really call on Callas’s greater musical gifts, yet, without stage experience,  she creates a rounded character, and, with a superior cast, this recording has held its own for over 50 years now.

Callas in La Forza del Destino

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Recorded 19-21, 23-25, 27 August 1954, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Oh my, oh my, oh my! Having spent an afternoon with this recording, I emerged thinking it was the greatest, most moving of Verdi’s operas, that this was its greatest recording, and that Leonora was Callas’s greatest Verdi role, to paraphrase the late John Steane’s review of the Callas Madama Butterfly.

Having now slightly recovered from its emotional impact, I am of course reminded of Callas’s Violetta, the Trovatore Leonora and Amelia, but, I would still place this recording very high in the Callas canon.

Leonora was actually Callas’s first Verdi role. She sang it in 1948 in Trieste, then in Ravenna in 1954 a few months before making this recording, but no more after that.

Verdi’s two Leonoras have some marked similarities and a singer who is successful in one will often be successful in the other (Leontyne Price springs to mind). On the other hand, the Forza role lies quite a bit lower, which is no doubt why Tebaldi is more comfortable in it than she is in Il Trovatore, which she never sang on stage, only on record. If the Trovatore Leonora’s bel canto roots are often glossed over, they are usually completely ignored in La Forza Del Destino, particularly in Act I, which requires a lot more vocal dexterity than it usually gets.

Listen to the aria Me pellegrina ed orfana and note how Callas marks the semi-quaver rests at Ti lascia ahime whilst still maintaining her impeccable legato, observing the downward portamento on the word sorte, the whole phrase sung in a single sweep. As usual the music is rendered with uncanny accuracy, as it is when she brilliantly articulates dotted notes in the cabaletta of the following duet with Alvaro (only too noticeable when Tucker comes galumphing after her, aspirating and puffing in an attempt to keep up).

But, as usual with Callas, she goes beyond accurate observation of the score to reveal the meaning behind the notes. Her very first words (oh angosica) tell us of the conflict in Leonora’s heart, her voice suffused with melancholy. Other sopranos may have given us a more beautifully poised sustained pianissimo top Bb in Pace pace, or drawn a firmer line in La vergine degli angeli, and those for whom such vocal niceties are paramount should probably look elsewhere, but that would be a pity for they would miss, according to Lord Harewood in Opera on Record,

an unparalleled musical sensibility and imagination, subtle changes of tonal weight through the wonderfully shaped set-pieces, and a grasp of the musico-dramatic picture which is unique.

Central to the role, and the opera, is the monastery scene, starting with the glorious Madre, pietosa vergine and finishing with La vergine degli angeli. This whole section, with Rossi-Lemeni a wonderfully sympathetic, if woolly-voiced Padre Guardiano, is a locus classicus of Callas’s art, her voice responsive to every conflicting emotion in Leonora’s heart, her darkly plangent tone absolutely perfect for the character. I doubt you will ever hear it more movingly or truthfully conveyed.

For the rest, Tucker is a strong, virile presence, but often mars his singing with unstylish aspirates and sobs, as if he is trying to do an impression of an Italian tenor. Tagliabue was in his late 50s and sounds it, but Capecchi makes an excellent Melitone and Clabassi a firm voiced (far firmer than Rossi-Lemeni) Calatrava. Elena Nicolai makes little of the somewhat thankless character of Preziosilla, but she is at least more than adequate.

And Serafin is at his very best, dramatically incisive (just listen to those stabbing chords when Leonora is mortally wounded in the last act) and sweepingly lyrical in the best Italian tradition.

The Warner reissue sounds very good to me, and gains on my previous version in containing the whole of Acts I and II on the first disc, which means there is no break in Leonora’s great Act II scena, leaving Act III and IV with a disc each.

A superb set, and one of Callas’s greatest recordings. Too bad she never sang the role again.