Callas in Manon Lescaut

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Recorded 18-27 July 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Manon Lescaut has never been a favourite opera of mine, and to my mind pales in comparison to Massenet’s work, which is a truer representation of L’Abbe Prevost’s novel, for all that he ends the opera in Le Havre rather than America; nor does this recording rank particularly high in my roll call of Callas recordings. Though recorded in 1957, it waited 3 years before it was released, so presumably Legge and Callas had their doubts too.

For much of the first two acts, the recording itself has a curiously flat sound to it, and though we hear a fair amount of orchestral detail, both strings and voices sound undernourished. I don’t know whether it was me becoming more involved, but things do seem to improve in the last two acts, where Callas also sounds more comfortable vocally.

To my ears, she has always sounded utterly exhausted in this set. It was recorded shortly after Turandot, which she really ought not to have been singing at that stage in her career anyway. She manages Turandot surprisingly well, but the effort it must have cost her shows in the parlous state of her top in much of this Manon Lescaut. She is actually in much better voice in the later complete recordings of La Gioconda, Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma, even the Medea, which followed it, but then in all those she was singing repertoire more suited to her gifts. I’m not sure it was ever the right voice for Puccini, for all her success in the role of Tosca. Not long after this, she sang Amina in Edinburgh and made the studio recording of Medea, neither of which find her in her best form, and it is not until the Dallas Inaugural Recital in November that she recovers form. She is also in stupendous voice for the live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera in December, so presumably she had benefited from some rest. Even in the middle and lower registers here, much of the velvet is missing from the voice, and even in quieter passages she doesn’t seem to have sufficient energy to support the voice.

Of course, there are, as always, musical compensations aplenty. In the first act, Callas sings with a lightness and purity that mirrors Puccini’s con semplicita markings. Later, her In quelle trine morbide is even more finely nuanced than on the recital disc of 1954, sung more as a reflection to herself than to Lescaut; and the trills and grace notes in L’ora o Tirsi are sung with a lightness and accuracy that eludes most singers of the role; the duet with Des Grieux is full of restrained passion. In Act III she has less to do, but her few exchanges have a weariness and dull despair that is most affecting. However it is in the often anti-climactic final act, where vocally and dramatically she is at her best, with a harrowing Sola perduta and a chillingly moving death scene.

Di Stefano’s singing is variable, occasionally disturbingly tight on top and at other times admirably free, but he does bring personality and face to his singing. Full of youthful joie de vivre in Act I, he becomes a man consumed with love and literally at the end of his tether for Guardate, pazzo son. It’s an appreciable performance, if not the best sung Des Grieux you’ll ever here.

No complaints about the rest of the cast. Fioravanti I have never come across before or since, but he makes an excellent Lescaut and we also get a nice cameo from Fiorenza Cossotto as the madrigal singer.

Serafin, as so often, gets the pacing just right. So much about his conducting is just so unobtrusively right, and in Act III he builds the ensemble leading up to Des Grieux’s outpouring at Guardate, pazzo son in masterly fashion.

Not an opera or a recording that I want to listen to that often, (why oh why didn’t Legge record her in more of the repertoire for which she became famous?) but it certainly has its moments.

Callas’s Studio Medea

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Recorded 12-19 September 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Wilma Cozart. Balance Engineer: Robert Fine

This recording of Medea has an unusual history. Medea had become a seminal Callas role, and she desperately wanted to record it. The opera was revived specially for her first in Florence in 1953, and she subsequently sang it in new productions in Milan (under Bernstein), Rome, Dallas, London, Epidaurus in Greece, and again at La Scala for the last time in 1961. Like much of her stage repertoire, Legge had little interest in it and agreed to release her from her contract, when Ricordi, who were launching a new label, approached her about recording it. EMI, no doubt finally realising its importance in the Callas canon, did eventually release it, but it has also been released by Mercury, Everest, and no doubt others.

However she was probably unwise to record it when she did, right after the Edinburgh performances of La Sonnambula when she was in ill health. Her voice isn’t exactly wobbly above the stave here, but it does lack power, a power that she recovers when she sings the role in Dallas the following year.

That said, when I first got to know this opera, and this recording, I had no other point of reference, and it seemed pretty good to me. It was only later, when I heard those barnstorming performances from Florence, La Scala and Dallas, that I found anything lacking, and it is only in comparison with herself that she fails. She is still a good deal better in the part than any other who attempted it, certainly a lot better than Gwyneth Jones and Sylvia Sass, who also made studio recordings of this Italian version. In other hands, Cherubini’s music can seem staid and formulaic. Callas breathes life into it like no other.

The version of Medea that Callas sang is actually a hybrid. Medée was originally an opera-comique in French with spoken dialogue. It was later translated into Italian, then recitatives were written by Franz Lachner for a German production. The version Callas performed was an Italian translation of the Lachner version, premiered at La Scala in 1909, over a hundred years after its first performance and 60 years after Cherubini’s death. Even so, each conductor Callas worked with (Gui, Bernstein, Rescigno, Serafin, Schippers) prepared their own version of the score, and made their own cuts. Consequently no two Callas performances are the same.

Serafin’s conception is essentially Classical, but his conducting varies from the somnolent to the dramatic. After a tautly conceived overture, the first scene up to Medea’s entrance drags on interminably. I understand the necessity to establish a pastoral air of peace and calm, into which the Colchian Medea bursts, but, quite frankly, at this pace it just becomes a bore. On LP I used to miss out the first side completely, and set the needle down part way through the second LP, when Medea makes her entrance.

Without foreknowledge of other performances by Callas, this is still a great performance of a difficult role. We lose some of the power and ferocity, but there are gains too. Ricordi il giorni tu la prima volta quando m’hai veduta? is couched in the most melting tones, her duplicity in the scene with Creon, and the following duet with Jason brilliantly charted, and her scene with the children movingly intense. Vocally, for all that she is not in her best voice, she manages its angular lines and wide leaps with consummate skill, her legato still wondrously intact. Note also how, in this Classical role, her use of portamento is more sparing.

When it comes to the supporting cast, Scotto is less of an advantage than you might expect, Pirazzini rather more (though not quite a match for Barbieri in Florence and at La Scala or Berganza in Dallas). Picchi, who sang Pollione to Callas’s Norma in London in 1952, is rather good, though Vickers is even better in Dallas. Modesti makes a good Creon too, though I would prefer Zaccaria in Dallas.

So, all in all, still probably the best studio Medea you’re likely to hear, and the sound (stereo, but still rather boxy) is a lot better than what you will hear in Florence, Milan or Dallas. Nevertheless all three of those performances are preferable, regardless of sound quality, for the white hot intensity Callas brings to the role.