Maria Callas- Soprano Assoluta

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This is a superb compendium of recordings taken from live concerts given by Callas between 1949 and 1959. It is being offered as a FREE download (yes, you read that right, free) from Divina Records, so surely there can be no reason not to snap it up while you still can. The sound, while hardly state of the art, is not bad for the period, all of the performances having been taken from radio broadcasts. Taken from BJR LPs, transfers are up to Divina’s usual high standards and the download comes with an excellent pdf of the booklet which accompanied the original release.

The first track is actually her first 78 recording, made for Cetra in 1949, a beautiful performance of Casta diva and Ah bello a me ritorna, though without the opening and linking recitatives in which Callas always excelled. The aria is ideally floated, the scales and coloratura in the cabaletta stunning in their accuracy. We next turn to a radio concert recorded for Turin radio in 1952, with Oliviero de Fabritiis conducting. Callas was obviously out to demonstrate her versatility, and was also trying out for size a couple of roles she would sing later that year, Lady Macbeth and Lucia. To Lady Macbeth’s Letter Scene and the first part of Lucia’s Mad Scene, she adds Abigaille’s Ben io t’invenne from Nabucco and the Bell Song from Lakmé. She is in stupendous voice in all, the high E in the Bell Song ringing out here much more freely than it does in the 1954 recording. Not only is the singing technically stunning, but the contrasts she affords as she switches from the powerfully ambtious Lady Macbeth, to the sweet and maidenly Lucia, from the demonically triumphal Abigaille to the improvisatory story-telling of Lakmé are simply out of this world. You really don’t hear singing like this nowadays.

Next we move to a 1954 Milan concert, starting with her justly famous and technically brilliant recording of Constanze’s Martern aller Arten from Die Entführung aus dem Serail (sung here in Italian as Tutte le torture), her one Mozart stage role. Not only does she execute the difficulties with ease, she sounds properly defiant. It is a thrilling performance. Louise’s Depuis le jour (sung in French) suits her less well, and the performance is marred by occasional unsteadiness. Nonetheless it is hard to resist the quiet intensity of her intent. Armida’s D’amore al dolce impero from Rossini’s opera is, like the Mozart, stunningly accomplished, even if some of the more daring variations from the Florence complete performances have been trimmed down. The bravura of the singing is still unparalleled. The last item from this concert is Ombra leggiera from Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, a rather empty piece, which is hardy worth her trouble, though it improves on the studio recording with the addition of the opening recitative and the contribution of a chorus. Her singing is wonderfully accomplished, the echo effects brilliantly done, but it is not a piece I enjoy.

Another Milan concert, this time from 1956, brings us her best ever performance of Bel raggio lusinghier from Semiramide, though she adds little in the way of embellishment and the effect is less thrilling than her singing of the Armida aria. We get her first version of Ophélie’s Mad Scene from Hamlet (sung here in Italian rather than the original French of the studio recording), which is superb, it’s disparate elements brilliantly bound together. We also have a beautiful performance of Giulia’s Tu che invoco from La Vestale, which seques into a rousing performance of the cabaletta, and she revisits the role of Elvira in I Puritani with a lovely performance, with chorus and soloists, of Vieni al tempio.

From Athens in 1957, there is a dramatically exciting performance of Leonora’s Pace, Pace from La Forza del Destino, in which she manages the pitfalls of the piano top B on invan la pace better than you would expect for post diet Callas. Her performance of Isolde’s Liebestod (again in Italian) is very similar to the Cetra recording, warm and feminine, passionately yearning.

From the 1958 Paris Gala we have her minxish Una voce poco fa from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with its explosive ma, as Rosina warns us she is not to be messed with. She sings in the mezzo key with added higher embellishments. This is followed by a couple of lesser known performances from a UK TV special, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Mimi’s Si mi chiamano Mimi is similar to the performance on the complete recording, charming and disarming, whilst Margarita’s L’altra notte from Mefistofele is a touch more vivid, a little less subtle than the studio recording.

Just one item from the 1957 rehearsal for the Dallas Opera inaugural concert, the Mad Scene from I Puritani. Though, by this time, Callas’s voice had been showing signs of deterioration, Bellini’s music still suits her admirably, and she sounds in easy, secure voice here up to a ringing top Eb at its close. The scale work is as supple as ever, and she executes its intricacies with ease even when singing at half voice.

To finish off we have the Mad Scene from the 1959 Carnegie Hall concert performance of Il Pirata. It had been a variable evening, with Callas’s colleagues hardly in her class, but here, left alone on the stage, Callas responds to the challenges of the final scene superbly, the cavatina, in which she spins out the cantilena to incredible lengths, becomes a moving lament to her son, and the dramatic cabaletta is then thrillingly flung out into the auditorium. The audience unsurprisingly go berserk.

How lucky we are to have these wonderful live performances preserved in sound, and how grateful we are to Divina Records for offering them to us free of charge. Nobody need hesitate.

 

 

Callas in Armida – Florence 1952

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With this set, I was able to make a direct comparison between the new Warner transfer and that by Divina Records, and have to say I prefer Divina. Neither version can eliminate the overloading and distortion at tutti climaxes, but to my ears the voices are much more clearly captured in the Divina version. The Warner isn’t bad, but possibly in an attempt to provide a more comfortable listening experience, they have removed some of the presence of the voices. Other ears and other equipment may have a different reaction of course, but I quickly abandoned Warner and continued listening on Divina. Furthermore Divina includes about 12 minutes of music, omitted by Warner, where you can hear a speaking male voice overlaid onto the music. Though admittedly irritating, it means we lose some of Callas’s singing. Divina also includes fuller notes, fuller documentation, photos and a libretto. I suppose you might see it as the luxury compliment to Warner’s cheaper offering. Personally I prefer Divina’s warts and all approach. Divina is of course more expensive, and others may have different priorities, so choice will reside with the individual listener.

But choice must be made, for this has to be some of the most astonishing dramatic coloratura singing ever committed to disc, and it is a great shame that Callas never sang the role again, nor felt able to take on any more of the roles written specifically with Isabella Colbran in mind.

In 1952 Callas undertook a punishing schedule. In January she sang her final performance of Elena in I Vespri Siciliani in Milan, followed it with I Puritani in Florence, then her first Normas at La Scala. February saw more performances of Norma at La Scala, with a few concerts sandwiched between. In March she gave three performances of Violetta in Catania, whilst rehearsing for a new production of Il Ratto del Seraglio (the first ever at La Scala). This opened at the beginning of April, and this production of Armida on April 26th after a further performance of Norma at La Scala. Incredibly, though you’d never guess it from her confident delivery, she learned the role of Armida in 5 days!

Astonishing though the vocal pyrotechnics are, Callas not only sings the role with consummate ease, but makes musical sense of its difficulties, so it becomes much more than a vocal showcase. She is by turns, imperious, commanding, sensuous, elegant and powerful, cascading up and down two-octave chromatic scales with fluent ease. A critic of the Giornale delle Due Sicilie described Colbran’s singing of the aria D’amore al dolce impero thus.

She proves herself superior to any other singer in some variations in which she embellishes a delightful tune of Rossini’s with all the graces of the art of song, now running through chains of triplets of extraordinary and …insuperable difficulty, now giving a vocal imitation of the most difficult arpeggios of stringed instruments, and finally, with superb nonchalance, executing a formidable ascending and descending scale of two octaves.

The critic might well be talking of Callas’s performance, which is absolutely electrifying, as it is throughout the opera.

Unfortunately, none of the other singers is anywhere near her achievement and Serafin heavily cuts the opera, presumably to accommodate their deficiencies. All of the tenors have trouble with the florid writing, aspirating the runs in what’s left of it, and their singing is clumsy and effortful. I’d love to hear it sung by the likes of Juan Diego Florez or Michael Spyres.

Essential listening, none the less, for Callas’s superbly commanding singing of the title role. There are of course more modern recordings out there, more textually accurate and more complete, but nowhere else will you hear such a thrilling portrayal of the title role, nor one so brilliantly sung. The cumulative power of the finale is simply staggering, where, with a voice of massive power, Callas peals forth vengeful coloratura flourishes with insouciant ease, capping it with a top Eb of huge proportions. You have to hear it to believe it, indeed, were it not for recorded evidence, you would not believe it possible.

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Maria Callas Live

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Most Callas fans have known of the existence of these live recordings for some times, and they have proliferated on many different labels over the years, with variable results. On the one hand there are companies like Divina Records and Ars Vocalis meticulously transferring these recordings in the best possible sound, and others with a more slapdash approach. Regrettably EMI generally adopted the latter approach, often just copying what were bad sources in the first place, in their attempt to cash in on the pirate market.

So how does the new Warner set measure up? I have yet to hear the whole set, but it would at least seem that they have adopted a more serious approach. Though they have not always found the best sources (there will often be more than one source tape for a single performance), they have at least done what they could with often intransigent sound. Though these transfers may ultimately not turn out to be the last word in Callas Live, at the price they are good value, and, with this release, Warner is at least making some amazing performances available to a wider audience. That said, the set should come with a warning for first timers that most of these recordings are not even up to the standard of reasonable mono studio recordings of the time. Perseverance is rewarded, though you do have to learn to listen through the sound, as it were. If you can , you will discover some truly remarkable singing.

In many ways this set gives a truer reflection of Callas’s stage career than the studio set, which includes operas she never sang on stage, as well as some that were only peripheral to her success. Of the operas represented here, twelve of them (NabuccoParsifalI Vespri SicilianiArmidaMacbethAlcesteLa VestaleAndrea ChenierAnna BolenaIfigenia in TaurideIl Pirata and Poliuto) were never recorded in the studio. Of these Andrea Chenier is an oddity. Callas sang the role of Maddalena only once at La Scala in 1955. She had been scheduled to sing Leonora in Il Trovatore, one of her greatest roles, but Del Monaco, who was to be the Manrico, suddenly professed himself not well enough to sing the role and offered Andrea Chenier instead! Maybe, as Callas didn’t know the role, he expected her to stand down, but, typically for her, she learned the role in a couple of days and was a very effective Maddalena. It’s very much the tenor’s opera though, and one wonders why she bothered. The production followed Visconti’s superb production of La Vestale, which opened the La Scala season, and she would go on to have spectacular successes at the house that same season in Visconti’s  La Sonnambula and La Traviata and in a Zeffirelli production of Il Turco in Italia. The role of Maddalena hardly offered her the kind of challenge she was used to.

One might think Parsifal (sung in Italian as all Wagner was in Italy in those days) an oddity too, but we forget that Callas sang a good deal of Wagner in her early days. Aside from Kundry, she also sang Isolde and the Walküre Brünhilde, famously deputising for an ailing Margherita Carosio in I Puritani whilst still performing the role, a feat that dramatically changed the direction of her career. Her Kundry is much more than a curiosity, her singing sensuously beautiful as it should be, though the orchestra is muddily recorded in this 1950 broadcast.

I have a few gripes about some of the performances chosen. Rather than Covent Garden 1952, I’d have gone for the La Scala Norma of 1955, with Simionato and Del Monaco, arguably the greatest of all her recorded Normas, recorded on a night when her voice was responding to her every whim. For me it is the one where voice and art find their greatest equilibrium. It also sounds pretty good, at least in Divina Records’ transfer. For Medea I tend to turn to Florence 1953 or Dallas 1958, though it’s a close run thing, and for La Sonnambula I prefer the 1957 Cologne performance, which also enjoys better sound. The Lisbon Traviata is also a justly renowned performance, but Covent Garden from the same year is even better, and also in better sound.

I wonder about the inclusion of the Mexico Rigoletto, which is a bit of a mess of a performance, especially when the studio recording with Gobbi remains one of the greatest in the catalogue. Why not the 1957 La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera under Gavazzeni, which is a superb performance, in much better sound? On the other hand the inclusion of the Covent Garden Tosca, despite the existence of the classic De Sabata studio performance, is warranted by its fame and it being the last of her great successes.

Warner have also included BluRay discs of all the concert material, including the complete Act II of Tosca from Covent Garden, though I haven’t yet sampled these to find if they are any better than the DVD copies I already own.

Presentation is, mostly, exemplary, each opera enclosed in a hard cardboard gatefold sleeve, the cover graced with a photo from the production (though it should be noted that the photo on the cover of the Lisbon Traviata is actually from Covent Garden the same year). Inside the cover is a note on the recording itself, though Warner doesn’t go into much detail about sources or methods of transfer, the booklet that comes with each opera, restricts itself to a track listing, opera synopsis and essay on the opera in English, French, German and Italian.

The accompanying book would have benefited from a hard cover. I have a feeling its thin paper cover will become tattered in all too short a time. The book itself includes an essay on each performance and its history, and I was very pleased to see the name of the late John Steane amongst the contributors. However I regret the absence of a CD-Rom with libretti and translations, such as was offered with the Warner Studio set.

I intend to review each opera individually later in my blog, when I will discuss both sound and performance.