Callas in Il Turco in Italia

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Recorded 31 August – 8 September 1954, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Francis Dillnutt

Given Legge’s musical conservatism, it always surprises me Il Turco in Italia was recorded at all; after all, it was not one of Rossini’s better known works. We should be grateful that it was, though, for this set is pure joy from beginning to end. It might not take any prizes for textual accuracy now, and cuts abound, but objections fade away in a performance of such sparkle and wit.

Callas had sung the role of Fiorilla in a production at the tiny Teatro Elisea in Rome in 1950 and would go on to sing it again in Milan in 1955 in a new production by Zeffirelli. Gavazzeni was in the pit on every occasion.

Callas’s only other excursion into comedy was the role of Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and, though the studio recording made in London was an outstanding success, her appearance in the role at La Scala was, by all accounts, one of the few low points in her career. No such caveats attach themselves to her Fiorilla, which seems to have been a success from day one. According to the critic Bebeducci, who was there at the opening night of the Rome production, it was “extremely difficult to believe that she can be the perfect interpreter of both Turandot and Isolde,” which was the reputation she had at that time. However, these performances could be seen to be a turning point in her career.

After singing Kundry in concert the following month, she never again sang a Wagner role. The opera also introduced her to Luchino Visconti, who, with his friends of the Anfiparnasso intellectual circle, mounted the production, and who was to become a seminal influence on her in the years to come.

Unlike so many of the operas she sang, and like most of Rossini’s comedies, Il Turco in Italia is an ensemble piece, and Callas is very much part of that ensemble. She has only one aria, Non si da follia maggiore which she sings with masterful ease, and a wonderful sense of the ironic, almost a vocal equivalent of an arched eyebrow. Indeed throughout so vivid is her verbal painting that you feel you can see every fleeting facial expression.

One of the high points is her duet with her husband Geronio, sung with quite the right hangdog tones by Franco Calabrese. At first haughty, then contrite as she attempts to assuage his indignation (No mia vita), then angrily rounding on him, her voice lashing out on Ed osate minacciarmi like a verbal slap, she is the mistress of every comedic turn.

She is surrounded by an excellent cast;  the aforementioned Calabrese, the veteran Stabile, dry voiced but full of personality as the Poet, Rossi-Lemeni an ever vascillating Turk, Gedda a lyrical Narciso, and Gardino as Zaida, the gypsy girl with claws only a mite less sharp than Callas’s; but it has to be said that only Callas has the dexterity, the flexibility and the ease in coloratura to do full justice to Rossini’s florid writing.

Gavazzeni conducts a sparkling version of the score. To get the opera in something like its original text you will have to turn to the Chailly recording with Bartoli. A deeper authenticity, however, lies in this version with Callas. One senses the performers had as much fun making it as we do listening.

Callas at La Scala

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Recorded 9-12 July 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Though recorded in 1955, release of this disc was delayed until 1958. Callas did not approve the arias from La Sonnambula for release and, when the recital was finally issued, it was made up with arias from the complete sets of I Puritani and La Sonnambula. EMI did eventually issue the Sonnambula arias, but not until 1978, on an LP called The Legend which included other unreleased material.

It’s true, there is a slightly studied air about the performances of them (and a chorus would no doubt have done much to enliven the proceedings), but her singing is unfailingly lovely. One misses that stunning cadenza between the two verses of Ah non giunge, with its stupendous ascent to a high Eb, which we get in both the studio and Cologne performances, and both cabalettas are over simplified, completely free of the flights of fancy Bernstein encouraged her to indulge in at La Scala. Serafin had apparently refused to let her do them. Maybe that is the reason she eventually rejected them. I’m glad I’ve heard them, but her Amina is better represented in the various live performances and the complete studio performance.

The Medea and La Vestale arias are more successful. Medea, of course, became one of her greatest stage successes. The opera was almost completely unknown when she first sang it in Florence in 1953 under Gui, but such was her success in the role that La Scala scotched plans for a revival of Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore later that year and replaced it with the Cherubini opera.  Callas’s singing of Dei tuoi figli la madre abounds in contrasts, reminding us that this is an appeal to Giasone. Callas reminds us that it is love, not revenge, that brings Medea to Corinth; notable here the softening of her tone at the repeated pleas of Torna a me, the pain in the cries of Crudel.

The arias from La Vestale are reminders of her one traversal of the role of Giulia at La Scala in 1954, in a stunning production by Visconti, which marked the emergence of the new, slim Callas, and the start of a whole new era, which resulted in the acclaimed Visconti productions of La Traviata, La Sonnambula and Anna Bolena.  Tu che invoco is notable for its long legato line, and the intensity she brings to the turbulent closing section, where her voice rides the orchestra with power to spare. O nume tutelar brings back memories of Ponselle, but Callas in no ways suffers by the comparison, her legato as usual superb, and the aria sung with a classical poise and sure sense of the long line. O caro ogetto has the same virtues.

There exists a complete recording of that La Scala La Vestale, but it is in such wretched sound, that this recital is valuable for Giulia’s arias alone. Her Medea and Amina are better represented elsewhere.

The Callas Karajan Madama Butterfly

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Recorded 1-6 August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Well I’m a mess! To quote John Steane in his Gramophone review of the first CD issue of this set,

Still feeling the impact of that devastating final chord in the opera, I believe devoutly that Madama Butterfly is the most moving of all works for the stage, that this is the best recording of it, and that it is Callas’s greatest achievement on records. 

I may not go quite that far, but it does remind me how many times I think exactly that after listening to almost every one of Callas’s complete opera sets, so completely does she identify with each role that she sings.

Callas recorded the role of Butterfly a few months before her only stage appearances in the role in Chicago, in November 1955. It was also the occasion of one of the first major scandals of her career, when a process server tried to stuff a court summons into the belt of her kimono just after she exited the stage. Callas exploded, cameramen just happened to be there to record the exact moment she lost her temper, and the rest is history.

This recording also marked one of the three occasions on which Callas worked with Karajan, a powerful combination which also produced those famous La Scala Lucias, which were repeated in Berlin and Vienna, and the studio recording of Il Trovatore.

Now if you’re idea of a perfect Madama Butterfly  is one in which some gorgeous voices sing some beautiful tunes, bathed in lush orchestral sounds, which incidentally happen to accompany  the sad little story of a Japanese girl who ends up committing hari kari, then this recording is probably not for you. There have certainly been more beautifully sung Butterflies, but few that elevate it to the level of real tragedy on a par with those of Shakespeare and Euripides. Here we are treated to a cautionary tale, a moral tale if you like, of how even nice people can do terrible things unthinkingly, and how one thoughtless act can set in motion a whole chain of tragic events. It doesn’t always make for comfortable listening, but who said great art was meant to be comfortable?

Callas’s portrayal is full of miraculous detail, phrases, even single words given a significance you won’t hear in other performances. Take, for instance, the way she manages to suggest all Butterfly’s trust in Pinkerton at Ieri son salita, the final Amore mio sung with a conviction that makes it easy to understand her utter faith in his return. In the love duet she is all shyness until gradually her voice is flooded with warmth and passion, as she succumbs to Pinkerton’s ardour. Here, maybe, I should add a word about Gedda’s Pinkerton, which some have found too uncaddish. But surely that is to miss the point. That nice people can, and do, perpetrate unkind things is surely the crux of the plot. Gedda sounds like his music; a nice, charming young man, who gives no thought to the consequences of his actions. His remorse in the last act is entirely believable, though it also exposes his weakness.

But back to Callas, who finds in Butterfly “not the frailty of childhood, but its strength”. According to John Steane in the Gramophone review quoted above,

The keynote is firmness of mind; a simple factuality which sees right and wrong with the clarity of that miraculously rinsed and lightened voice.

She sings Un bel di not as some big soprano show piece, but integrates it into the drama, a simple reiteration of Butterfly’s faith, the details of Pinkerton’s return sung in wistful fashion as something she has gone over and over again in her mind. Che tua madre, with its cries of Morta! Morta!, is almost unbearably intense, Sotto il gran ponte dal cielo unbearably moving. Only in the final scene, when left alone, does she let her full voice out, and the effect is overwhelming, Puccini’s final chords shatteringly played by the orchestra under Karajan, who conducts a tautly dramatic performance of the opera, less inclined to wallow than in his later recording.

Danieli is excellent as Suzuki, Borriello a sympathetic Sharpless, but this, of all Puccini operas, is all about the heroine; even Pinkerton is a supporting role, and Callas, with Karajan’s help, makes sure that all our attention is concentrated on Butterfly.

The sound is a trifle boxy but sounds a lot better here than it did in the 1997 Callas Edition. Still it mystifies me that it is not up to the quality of the Tosca that was recorded two years earlier.

No the real problem with this recording is that it brings us face to face with real life in all its raw pain and tragedy. Listening to it is a deeply unsettling experience, and one I can’t subject myself to too often.

Essential nevertheless, for Callas, for Karajan, and for all those who think Puccini’s opera is more than a sentimental pot boiler.

 

Callas’s Studio Aida

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Recorded 10-12, 16-20, 23-24 August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

I’m going to make a confession. Aida is not my favourite Verdi opera. I find it hard to identify with any of the characters, and they usually emerge as representatives rather than real people. It is full of great music, but I have to admit I admire it rather than love it. Nor would the role of Aida be considered a natural for Callas, though she sang it, with a great deal of success, quite often between her debut in the role in 1948 and her last stage appearances in it in 1953, this 1955 recording being the last time she would ever sing the complete role, though she returned to the aria Ritorna vincitor and the Nile duet with Radames (with Corelli) late in her career in the mid 1960s. Interestingly enough, though one doesn’t think of Aida as a Callas role, when the now defunct International Opera Collector magazine conducted a poll of its readers to assemble the ideal Aida cast, Callas was one of the favourites, alongside such famous Aidas as Ponselle and Leontyne Price.

The reason for this can only be that she brings the rather placid character of Aida to life like no other. Though she may not have the sweetness of timbre one might ideally want from an Aida, there are plenty of other rewards. She takes a little while to settle down in the first trio, but Ritorna vincitor is alive with meaning and contrast. Just listen to the way she spits out her hatred for del egizii coorti, the power with which she exhorts her compatriots to destroy the legions, with particular emphasis on the word struggete, the complete change of colour at Ah! Sventurata che dissi, the tenderness with which she sings of her love for Radames and the pain and desperation in her voice at Da piu crudeli angosce un core affranto; the last imprecation to the Gods sung with her tone drenched in sorrow, her legato as usual impeccable. Aida’s cruel predicament is set before us in this one aria with a psychological penetration second to none.

There are wondrous little details in the ensuing duet with Amneris too, like the touch of pride that enters her tone at Mia rivale! Ebben sia pure, quickly withdrawn when she realises she could easily give away her true identity.

But it is the Nile Scene that makes the greatest impression in this set. It starts with Aida’s O patria mia, which some commentators have found to be the weak link in her portrayal, but she yearns most wistfully, floating the tone wonderfully at O freschi valli. She always had problems with the ascent to top C, but it is a lot more solid here than she is often given credit for. It may not be dolce as marked by Verdi, but I don’t hear the wobble that so many commentators claim to have problems with. The following duet is magnificent music and magnificently sung by both Callas and Gobbi, and the finest realisation of it on disc. I doubt any singers have come close to them in the way they create drama in sound, and Serafin is at his very best in this scene too. I found it impossible to hold back the tears as Callas launched into that glorious tune at O patria, patria, quanto mi costi, and how brilliantly Serafin makes the violins weep with her.

The duet with Radames is hardly less fine, though Tucker can be a bit graceless at times. Yet again, Callas brings out a wealth of detail, like the insinuating way she sings Pur, se tu m’ami with that slight portamento on the word m’ami. She plays Radames brilliantly here, wonderfully seductive when she sings La tra foreste vergini. This is operatic singing on the highest level. In the last act too, she has something to offer, singing with grace and accuracy the difficult fioriture of Vedi? Di morte l’angelo.

As already mentioned Gobbi is superb as the implacable Amonasro, masculine and forthright of tone,  though still able to inject some tenderness into his duet with Aida. Tucker has the right heroic timbre for the role of Radames, but he can be a bit lachrymose, and tends to aspirate and sob, as if mimicking the mannerisms of a true Italian tenor. Barbieri is more subtle than I remember her, and provides a barnstorming Amneris, though I have come to prefer Baltsa on Karajan’s second recording, who reminds us that Amneris is a young princess and a valid rival for Aida.

Serafin is on top form, conducting in the best Italian tradition, lyrical and dramatic in equal measure. There may not be any great surprises or revelations, but his deep understanding of the music and its style is its own reward.

All in all, it was a great surprise to re-discover this set, to enjoy the opera more than I thought I would, and to find myself appreciating Callas’s very individual take on the role

Callas and Gobbi in Rigoletto

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Recorded 3-16 September, 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Gilda is another role one would not readily associate with Callas. She did sing it on stage for two performances in Mexico in 1952, but, unhappy with her performance, never sang it again except for this recording made in 1955. The Mexico performances are a bit of a mess and sound under-rehearsed, but Callas is superb, and one notes how it is often she who keeps the ensemble together, even though she was so blind on stage she could never see the conductor. It is actually something of a tragedy that she didn’t sing the role more often. If she had, then people may have rethought the role of Gilda, as they did that of Lucia. It is usually sung by a light voiced lyric coloratura, who manages Caro nome well enough, but can’t really muster the power to dominate the ensembles in the last two acts, as she should. It’s something I’ve noticed myself. Not so long ago I saw the opera at Covent Garden with Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda. She looked ideal, convincingly acted the ingénue, sang a wonderful Caro nome, but tended to be drowned out in the final act, especially in the storm scene.

No problem there for Callas of course, but the miracle is that she doesn’t simply sing out with the voice of Norma or Aida, when she needs a bit more power, but continues to think upwards. The voice takes on a little more weight after the seduction, but it is still the voice of Gilda, a voice miraculously rinsed and lightened, the tone forwardly produced.

I often think it odd that when people talk about Verdi sopranos, it is the voices of Tebaldi and Leontyne Price they have in mind, but could either of those sopranos have sung Gilda, or Lady Macbeth, or any of Verdi’s early roles? Tebaldi may have sung Violetta, but it wasn’t a natural for her, the coloratura in Sempre libera smudged (and transposed down in live performances). Nor did Tebaldi sing the Trovatore Leonora on stage, as the role lay too high for her. Price did of course, and she was an appreciable Leonora, though she doesn’t sing with the same degree of accuracy as Callas. Callas, on the other hand, sang with equal success Gilda and Lady Macbeth, Abigaille and Elisabeth de Valois, Elena and Aida, both Leonoras, Amelia and Violetta, all on stage not just in the studio, and one regrets that she didn’t get the chance to sing more of Verdi’s early operas. What a superb Luisa Miller she might have made, or Odabella in Attila, Griselda in I Lobardi, or virtually any of those early Verdi heroines. Maybe, after all, it is Callas who is the ideal Verdi soprano.

But back to this Rigoletto, in which Callas yet again completely inhabits an uncharacteristic role. In the first two acts, she presents a shy, innocent young girl, with a touch of wilfulness that explains her disobedience to her father. In the duet with Rigoletto, we feel the warmth of her love for him, and in the one with the Duke, the shy young girl awakening to passion. You can almost see her blushes when the Duke first appears to her. She was asked once why the single word uscitene resounded with such a strange colour. “Because Gilda says go, but wants to say stay,” was her simple answer. Actors might be used to such psychoogical distinctions but it is rare indeed to find it in singers. Caro nome is not just a coloratura showpiece, but a dreamy reverie, and ends on a perfect rapturous trill as she exits the stage. In Act III her voice takes on more colour (Ah, l’onta, padre mio) and it is Tutte le feste that becomes the focal point of her performance, her voice rising with power to the climax (nell’ansia piu crudel) as  she describes the horror of what happened, and note how at the opening she matches her tone to that of the cor anglais introduction. She has the power to ride the orchestra in the storm scene in the last act, and the final duet with Gobbi is unbelievably touching. As usual her legato is superb, phrases prodigious in length, shaped and spun out like a master violinist. It is a great pity she didn’t sing Gilda more often, for it is a considerable achievement.

There are other reasons to treasure this performance of course, chief among them being Gobbi’s superbly characterful, endlessly fascinating and heartrending performance of the title role. Gobbi and Callas always had a striking empathy, and the three duets for father and daughter in this opera, gave that relationship full rein. Some have remarked that Gobbi’s voice was not a true Verdi baritone (whatever that means), but, like Callas, he was successful in a range of different Verdi baritone roles, his most famous probably being Rigoletto. Who has ever matched Gobbi in tonal variety and vocal colour, and psychological complexity? None that I can think of. Pari siamo is superbly introspective and then in Cortigiani! he lashes out like a wounded animal, before breaking down in accents that are pathetically heartrending. To those who say he could not sing with beauty of tone, I would say there are plenty of moments in the score which refute that assertion,  the Piangi section of the Act II duet, where he spins out a pure legato which is both musical and shatteringly moving, being a case in point.

Di Stefano may not be quite in their class, and there are certainly more elegant Dukes on record, but he sings with enormous face and charm. One can imagine why Gilda would be captivated by this Duke. He can be musically inexact (some of the tricky rhythms in Act I go a bit awry), but his voice is in fine shape, and he sounds both charming and sexy, which is as it should be. Nor does he play down the casual cruelty that lies at the heart of his character. I’d say it’s one of his best recordings.

Serafin’s conducting is in the best Italian tradition, both lyrical and dramatically incisive. He is totally at one with Callas and Gobbi in the duets, giving them ample time to make their dramatic points, but whips up quite a storm in the finale to Act II.

The sound is truthful and clear, the voices wonderfully present, and, as in all the Warner sets so far, sounds excellent on my system.

Years ago I remember an acquaintance, not really a voice fan (or a major opera fan, for that matter), asking me which recording of Rigoletto I recommended. He had the Giulini, and quite enjoyed it, but thought there was something missing. I warned him that some were allergic to Callas’s voice, but lent him my set anyway. A couple of days later he excitedly returned it to me, having ordered the recording for himself. “Fantastic,” he said, “Exactly what I was looking for. Suddenly the whole opera came to life.” Well you can’t ask for much more than that.

The Callas Karajan Il Trovatore

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

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Callas in La Boheme

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Recorded 20-25 August, 3-4 September 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellinek: Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Mimi is a role one would not associate with Callas, and indeed it is one of four roles she learned for the gramophone but never sang on stage. The opera itself makes its effect easily and can withstand even a mediocre performance, the role of Mimi being probably one of the least demanding in the soprano repertoire. Great Normas may always have been thin on the ground; effective Mimis have been, and still are, plentiful. The role’s requirements are slight; sweetness, charm, and a capacity for what the Italians call morbidezza; qualities that come naturally to a De Los Angeles or a Freni, less so, one would have thought, to a Callas.

But of course the miracle of Callas is that she not only scales down her voice and personality to suit the demands of the role, but also finds within it a deeper vein of tragedy one hardly suspected was there, her singing full of little incidental details often overlooked by others. Her first utterances have a weariness that presages her illness, and she fades the voice away most effectively as she faints. The duet with Rodolfo is light and charming, but more of this Mimi’s capacity for love emerges in her aria. Starting shyly, she gradually suffuses her tone with warmth at the section beginning Ma quando vien lo sgelo, not lingering too long on the top As and thereby ruining the shape of the aria, as so many do, and I love the way the last section, from altro di me non saprei narare, is delivered with a slight touch of embarrassment as if Mimi suddenly realises she has revealed too much too soon.

It is in the last two acts, though, that Callas’s Mimi is at its most moving. Never before has Mimi’s despair been so heart-rendingly expressed, but also note how, with a single word (dorme? ) in the duet with Marcello, she conjures up all Mimi’s warmth and tender love for Rodolfo, with the gentlest of upward portamenti. Act IV is almost fail safe, but here too she is wonderfully effective, finding the palest of colours as the pallor of death takes over.

She has a good cast around her; Di Stefano in one of his best roles, Panerai a splendid Marcello, Moffo a sympathetic Musetta, and something of a relief from the sparky soubrettes we so often end up with. Zaccaria and Spatafora are an excellent pair of Bohemians.

Votto doesn’t do anything wrong, but such a cast would have benefited from a stronger hand at the helm. He accompanies well, but it’s a shame, given that Serafin was not an option at the time, Legge couldn’t have persuaded Karajan to stick around after recording Il Trovatore with her.

The sound of this La Boheme has always been good for its period. I owned the original Columbia LPs, which I played to death. These Warner CDs also sound pretty good to me.

There are so many good recordings of La Boheme in the catalogue, that choosing the best one is well-nigh impossible, and choice will no doubt come down to preference for certain singers. However this recording, made 60 years ago now, still holds its place amongst the top recommendations.

Callas’s Studio Un Ballo in Maschera

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Recorded 4-9 September, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

It may come as a surprise to find that this 1956 recording of Un Ballo in Maschera was the first time Callas was singing the role of Amelia complete, and that she would not sing it on stage until the following year at La Scala in a lavish new production by Margarita Wallman, her only stage performances of the role. As is her wont, she completely inhabits the role and so deep is her identification with it that one would assume she had been singing it for years.

Amelia is a transitional role in Verdi’s canon, looking forward to Verdi’s later style, but still with a requirement for many of the vocal graces one expects from a bel canto singer, most of them glossed over or ignored by technically less accomplished sopranos. Callas’s voice and technique were well suited to it, her dark timbre uniquely telling, filling out its phrases with true spinto tone. Amelia’s very first phrases are sung with breadth and a deep legato, and yet she executes the little turns Verdi adds to indicate Amelia’s nervous state of mind nimbly and with accuracy, and how beautifully she spins out the arch of the great melody at Consentimi, o Signore.

Act II finds her at her very best, first in the great scena that opens the act, including a secure top C at its close. But note how she phrases onwards and through the top note, so that the final cadenza and its quiet close become the focal point of the aria. Note also how she observes the sforzando markings at Deh mi reggi, whilst at the same time maintaining her impeccable legato. The ensuing duet with Riccardo (one of Verdi’s greatest inspirations) has an erotic charge not heard in any other version, save possibly the live one from the following year; who but Callas can invest the line Ebben si t’amo with so many conflicting emotions? Throughout this recording her voice, rich and dark hued, is more responsive than that of Eugenia’s Ratti’s light voiced soubrette. In the ensemble at the end of the first scene of Act III, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills, and hear in the Oath Quartet just before, how she whips through a series of triplets which take her from a sustained top Bb to D and Eb at the bottom of the stave with dazzling accuracy. This is Callas at her best, both vocally and dramatically.

The rest of the cast could hardly be bettered. Di Stefano may not be the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but it is still one of his best roles, sung with his own brand of slancio and lashings of charm. Gobbi is superb as Renato. Others may better him in the cantabile of Alla vita che t’arride, but few have expressed so eloquently the anguish and conflicts at the heart of Eri tu. Barbieri is a formidable Ulrica, and Ratti a pert, if occasionally too bright-voiced, Oscar. We also get a nicely ironic pair of conspirators in Maionica and Zaccaria.

Votto is, well, a good accompanist, and nowhere near as propulsive as Gavazzeni at La Scala the following year. Serafin would have been the better conductor for the job, but Callas was in a funk with him for agreeing to record La Traviata with Stella instead of her.

This was one of the few La Scala recordings not produced by Walter Legge, though the La Boheme which preceded it was. I have no idea why this should have been the case.  I originally owned the first UK reissue of the set on LP, and later the 1987 EMI Angel CD issue. Callas always sounded well on this set, but it is Ratti who sounds less shrill on the Warner than she did on the previous CD incarnation. Either that or my ears have become more forgiving.

I would never want to be without the live Un Ballo in Maschera from the following year, possibly the last time we hear Callas singing with such power and freedom, but this recording remains one of the most recommendable studio sets around, despite its mono sound. The opera was recently the subject of Radio3’s Building a Library programme. Final choice was eventually narrowed down to Muti with Domingo and Arroyo and this Callas set. If Roger Parker eventually plumped for Muti, that was because of the better, more modern sound and the greater refinement of Domingo’s Riccardo. However he comforted himself by making the Callas recording his historical choice, leaving him the best of both worlds.

Callas’s Studio La Sonnambula

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Recorded 3-9 March 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

The role of Amina probably seemed a curious one for Callas until it was remembered that Bellini wrote it for the very same singer for whom he wrote Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Where Norma was eventually taken over by big voiced dramatic sopranos, who mostly couldn’t do justice to its coloratura demands, Amina became the province of light, soubrettish high coloratura sopranos, intent on showing off their high notes and flexibility. Callas returned a human dimension to the role that nobody had suspected was there.

She first sang the role at La Scala in 1955 in performances that were a total revelation. Visconti reproduced a picture-book village, a Romantic vision of a time that never was, Callas costumed to look like a reincarnation of the nineteenth century ballerina Maria Taglioni. At the end of the opera, when Callas sang Ah non giunge, the lights on the stage and in the auditorium rose to full intensity, whilst Callas, no longer Amina but the reigning queen of La Scala, came to the front of the stage singing directly into the audience. In a live recording that exists of the night, the audience go mad with applause before the music has even finished. With Leonard Bernstein in the pit and Cesare Valletti as a stylish Elvino, the production was a massive success.

However this recording is more a reflection of the revival in 1957, and was made at the same time. La Scala subsequently took the production, with substantially the same cast, to Cologne and Edinburgh. Votto is now the conductor, Nicola Monti the Elvino and Zaccaria replaces Modesti as Rodolfo.

When considering the role of Amina, it might be wise to take a look at the advice of its librettist Felice 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.

And this is exactly what we get from Callas. Her first lines of recitative, and the aria that follows, Come per me sereno, are imbued with a deep happiness that radiates from within, her voice taking on a pearly softness. In a single phrase, Il cor soltanto, when the notary asks her what she brings as dowry, she expresses Amina’s deep love and trust in Elvino. In the first sleepwalking scene, her voice seems to come from somewhere inside her, an aural depiction of Amina’s dreamlike state; her confusion when she wakes, and subsequent distress when Elvino rejects her palpably real. I doubt I will ever hear a more moving account of Amina’s Oh se un volta sola and the aria that follows, Ah non credea, than we get from Callas. Here we truly hear the cry for sorrow; Callas’s singing goes beyond the notes to create the stuff of real-life tragedy, with a depth that nobody had even suspected was there when the role was sung by light pale-voiced soubrettes.

Technically her singing is brilliant, her command of line, trills, gruppetti, scale passages peerless. At one point, in the cadenza between the two verses of Ah non giunge, she sweeps up to a fortissimo Eb in alt. Unbelievably she effects a diminuendo on this stratospheric note before cascading down a perfect two octave scale, phrasing onward in one breath through an upwardly rising chain of notes to cap the cadenza. This is no trick of the gramophone, because she does exactly the same thing when she sings the role live in Cologne a few weeks later.

As for the rest, Valletti is a sad loss from the earlier performances. Monti is taxed by the higher reaches of the role, and many cuts are made to accommodate him. He’s also on Sutherland’s first recording, which followed in five years. Presumably light lyric tenors were in short supply in the mid 1950s. I often wonder why Gedda, who sang Pinkerton to Callas’s Butterfly a couple of years before was not engaged. Zaccaria’s mellifluous bass gives us a worthy Cari luoghi. Ratti is a bitchy, minx-like Lisa. Cossotto sings beautifully as Teresa, but sounds too young (which of course she was).

Votto’s conducting, which comes alive in Cologne, is often dull and routine here, particularly in the choruses, which lack energy (compare Bernstein in 1955). When Callas is before the microphone, you feel that it is she who leads, her sense of line, rubato and pace absolutely spot on.

The sound in this Warner issue is admirably open, with plenty of space around Callas’s voice, which, as I mentioned earlier, has a pearly radiance absolutely right for the role of Amina. I may on occasion prefer to listen to the 1955 La Scala performance with Bernstein, a truly thrilling and exciting evening in the theatre, but I feel that by 1957, both here and in Cologne, Callas has captured more of the poetry of Bellini and Romani’s heroine. Her Amina is an achievement to set beside that of her Norma, as, according to contemporary commentators, was that of the creator of the two roles, Giuditta Pasta. There can be no higher praise

Callas as Turandot

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Recorded 9-13, 15 July 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge and Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

1957 started well for Callas. She made two of her best recordings (Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Sonnambula) and had a huge success as Anna in Anna Bolena at La Scala. The Iphigenie en Taurdie which followed may have been more of a succès d’estime but, though her colleagues were decidedly under par, she was superb and in good voice, as she was when La Scala took their production of La Sonnambula to Cologne in Germany.

She then records two operas far less suited to her gifts (Turandot and Manon Lescaut), goes on to sing a concert in Athens, when she is decidedly not in her best voice, sings Amina again with the La Scala company in Edinburgh, where she sounds thoroughly exhausted, and then  compounds the problem by recording Medea. The cracks are definitely beginning to show. After a few week’s rest, she is back on form for a Dallas Opera Inaugural concert (or appears to be on a recording of the rehearsal), and finishes the year well with a stupendous performance of Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera at La Scala.

Turandot figured quite heavily in Callas’s early career. In 1948 and 1949 she sang it in Venice, Rome Caracalla, Genoa, Verona, Naples and Buenos Aires. She once said in interview that she dropped it as soon as she could, “because it’s not really good for the voice, you know.” All that exists from any of these performances are a couple of short extracts from the Buenos Aires performance, in which her voice is massive and free-wheeling, as far as one can tell through the execrable sound. By 1957 her voice has considerably pared down, and one might wish that she had recorded the role even a few years earlier when she sings a vocally secure and thoroughly commanding version of In questa reggia on the Puccini recital of 1954.

That said, I find the voice less wobbly and ill-supported than I do in the Manon Lescaut, which followed, on which, to my ears, she sounds exhausted, for all her customary musical imagination and insights. She is more secure in this Turandot but she doesn’t really disguise the effort it costs her. Where Nilsson and Sutherland, and Eva Turner before them, soar, Callas is more earth bound. That said, she makes a psychologically more complex heroine than any of them, her singing more subtly layered than we have come to expect from a Turandot. Hear how she vocally points the finger at Calaf in In questa reggia when she sings Un uomo come te, the almost mystical recounting of the story of Lou-u-ling. The first signs of Turandot’s vulnerability come in the Riddle Scene, anxiety creeping into her voice at Si la speranza che delude sempre, and her pleading to her father is almost in the voice of Butterfly, suddenly a daughter trying to get round her father. There are signs of her vulnerability too in the brief scene with Liu, when she asks,  Che posa tanta forza nel tuo core, mirroring Liu’s response with her repetition of the word L’amore. Even the last scene is less of an anti-climax than it usually is. When she sings Che e mai di me? Perduta, we know that she is conquered, and her final aria Del primo pianto is sung with a wealth of detail. For all the evident strain the role makes on her resources, it is a great performance, and she is far less stressed by its demands than Ricciarelli is on Karajan’s recording.

The rest of the cast is interesting. Many have opined that Schwarzkopf sounds as if she had wandered in from the wrong opera, but I like her finely nuanced and beautifully shaded Liu. She is particularly impressive in her exchanges with Turandot and in the mini aria Tanto amore, effecting a wonderful diminuendo on the line Ah come offerta suprema del mio amore. What a pity this is the only time the two most intelligent sopranos of the post war period ever sang together. Fernandi, a strange choice considering he was very little known at the time, and hardly at all since, is rather better than his lack of reputation suggests. Not as exciting as a Corelli (why on earth was he not engaged?) he nevertheless sings a valid Calaf, often phrasing with distinction. Not the best Calaf on record certainly, but not the worst either. Zaccaria is a sympathetic presence as Timur, Ping, Pang and Pong all characterful. There is also a connection with the first ever performance as Nessi, who sings the Emperor, created the role of Pang.

Serafin’s conducting is excellent, urgent and well-paced. What a pity that he doesn’t have the benefit of modern stereo sound, which this of all operas really cries out for. The sound here is, to my ears anyway, less boxy than the sound for Manon Lescaut, though it is not as open as, say, the De Sabata Tosca, which was recorded four years earlier. This Warner pressing sounds a good deal better than my 1997 Callas Edition, with Callas’s voice far less shrill in the upper reaches. It may never be anyone’s library choice for the opera, but I would not want to be without the insights Callas brings to the role. It is, in many respects, a more thoughtful rendering of the score than we often hear.