Joan Sutherland – Grandi Voci

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On 17 February 1959, Joan Sutherland sang her first Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden. She had first been engaged at Covent Garden in 1952, singing small parts, such as Clotilde to Callas’s Norma. That same year she sang her first leading role there (Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera), but the administration didn’t at first realise her potential and the roles she sang (Agathe, The Countess, Desdemona, Gilda, Eva, Pamina, Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage) gave no real indication of the direction her career would take. She herself had thought she would be a Wagnerian soprano, but Richard Bonynge, who married her in 1954, eventually convinced her otherwise, and in 1959 Covent Garden gave her the honour of a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Tullio Serafin. Sutherland proved a sensation, and, at the age of 35, she became a star, in demand all over the world for dramatic coloratura roles.

This disc adds to her debut recital, made shortly after the Covent Garden Lucia, two arias from one of her most successful sets The Art of the Prima Donna (Casta diva and the I Puritani Mad Scene), recorded in 1960 and Santo di patria, lifted from another set The Age of Bel Canto, recorded in 1963.

Those who know me will know I am not much of a Sutherland fan. The mannerisms (the mushy diction especially, the droopy portamenti, the weak lower register) that crept in as early as the 1960s irritate me so much I find it hard to listen, and the beauty of the voice is no compensation.

It is good to be reminded, then, that it was not always so, and she sounds quite different here, the voice much more forwardly produced, and, even if she rarely uses the words to suddenly bring a phrase into sharp relief, there is nothing much wrong with her diction in these discs. Maybe this has something to do with the conductors she was working with then, all Italians, Nello Santi for the debut recital, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli for The Art of the Prima Donna, Tullio Serafin at Covent Garden. Interestingly Serafin advised her to study the role of Lady Macbeth, but Bonynge obviously thought otherwise.

The main meat of the disc, however, is that first ever recital made with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under Nello Santi. Lucia’s two big solos were an obvious choice, to which are added Merce, dilette amiche from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, Ernani! Ernani involami from Ernani and O luce di quest’anima from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix.

Throughout the technical command is stunning, as is the beauty of voice, the top notes, of which there are many, one of its greatest glories. Nor is she just a technical machine. Though there is little attempt at vocal characterisation (Norma doesn’t sound much different from Lucia), she is not an unfeeling singer. There is command in Norma’s Sediziose voce, poetic feeling in the recitative to the Ernani aria, breezy grace in the aria from I Vespri Siciliani.

Fresh from the success of the Covent Garden performances, the Lucia arias are predictably best of all. Here not only is the execution vocally stunning, but she is the very epitome of the young Romantic heroine, driven mad by despair. Like Callas, she is a far cry from the piping, doll-like sopranos who had made Lucia something of a laughing stock among opera cognoscenti. Unfortunately already by her first complete recording of the opera made in 1961, the tone has become more occluded, the diction less precise, the vowels begin to be rounded and dulled, and the vitality and immediacy heard here starts to droop.

Though vital and alive in the scene from Verdi’s Attila, conducted by Richard Bonynge, the diction is not as clear as it is on that frst recital, though the recording here does give some indication as to the size and fullness of the voice. Even with that small niggle about the diction, this is still a stunning performance, thrilliingly dramatic, and I’ve never heard it better sung. Deutekom on the Philips complete set is pallid by comparison.

This disc, along with The Art of the Prima Donna are, I would suggest, essential Sutherland, and remain permanent parts of my collection. The rest, personally, I can live without.

The Callas Karajan Lucia di Lammermoor – Berlin 1955

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Moving on through the Live Warner Callas box, we come to the legendary night on which she sang Lucia at the Berlin State Opera.

Callas first sang Lucia in Mexico in 1952 and caused such a sensation that she completely changed people’s attitudes to the role. The following year she sang the role again in Florence, Genoa, Catania, Rome, and it was one of the roles she chose for her American debut at the Chicago Opera House in 1954. Also in 1954 she appeared for the first time in Karajan’s La Scala production, which he subsequently took to Berlin in 1955 and to Vienna in 1956, and all those iconic photos of Callas wearing that long, pleated nightdress are taken from this production.

To understand what a sensation the Callas/Karajan Lucia di Lammermoor wrought, one has to remember that, back then, the opera was considered no more than a silly Italian opera, in which a doll-like light voiced coloratura got to show off her high notes and flexibility. That a conductor of the calibre of Herbert von Karajan, famed for his Beethoven and Brahms, was taking it seriously caused people to reassess their perceptions. There is a charming story of Toti dal Monte, an erstwhile famous Lucia herself, visiting Callas in her La Scala dressing room, tears streaming down her face and confessing she had sung the role for years without ever realising its dramatic potential. Indeed it is pretty safe to say that without Callas’s Lucia, Sutherland’s career might never have taken the trajectory it did.

Apparently, though Callas loved making music with Karajan, she hated his production with its dark, murky projections and backdrops. However Zeffirelli thought that he got it just right. In the mad scene, Karajan lowered all the lights and just put a follow spot on her, which, as Zeffirelli stated, was all you had to do with a Callas. Karajan simply allowed her to become music.

Berlin was in a high state of excitement when Karajan took the La Scala production there in 1955, and, as can be heard on this recording of the event, the audience can hardly contain their enthusiasm. Desmond Shawe Taylor reviewed it for Opera magazine.

I dare say she will never sing better than she does now; there is Greek resin in her voice which will never be quite strained away; she will never charm us with the full round ductile tone of Muzio or [Rosa] Raisa or Ponselle. But she has sudden flights, dramatic outbursts of rocketing virtuosity, of which even those more richly endowed singers were hardly capable

His words now seem prophetic as 1955 could well be seen as the apex of Callas’s career. It was the year of the Visconti La Sonnambula and La Traviata, the Zeffirelli Il Turco in Italia, the Chicago Il Trovatore with Bjoerling, the year she made seminal recordings of Rigoletto with Serafin and Madama Butterfly  with Karajan (not universally well received at the time, but now considered a classic), and she closed the year with what many consider her greatest ever performances of Norma, at La Scala with Simionato and Del Monaco, mercifully preserved in sound and best heard in its Divina Records transfer.

The sound of this Berlin broadcast has always been one of the best of all Callas live performances and this Warner transfer, which is from a different source to the EMI one, is very clear, with very little distortion and only a hint of pre-echo. Furthermore, where EMI were somewhat parsimonious with the applause, Warner have left more of it in, which makes more sense of the encored Sextet. This is certainly one of those cases where the side show is almost as gripping as the show itself.

Callas did of course record the role of Lucia twice in the studio under Serafin. The first, in 1953, was her very first recording for EMI and the second, made in 1959, was the first of the four operas she re-recorded in stereo, a set I have a certain affection for it as it was the recording that introduced me to the opera when I was still in my teens. However, if I want to listen to the opera, it is invariably to this live recording with Karajan at the helm to which I turn.

Callas’s rare collaborations with Karajan always reaped gold, and it is greatly to be regretted that they didn’t work together more often. It was a symbiotic relationship and one can hear in this performance how Karajan appears to breathe with her, giving her ample room to spin out the phrases. However, with two such egos, the relationship was never going to be completely harmonious. Callas was apparently furious with Karajan for granting the Berlin audience an encore of the Sextet, meaning that she had to do twice the work before her Mad Scene; so furious that she turned her back on him during the Mad Scene. Years later, when she met him again, she said to him, “What was it you did when I was so bitchy and turned my back on you in the Mad Scene? I knew you were clever. But the accompaniment was so perfect, I decided you were not only a genius, you were also a witch.” “It was very simple,” Karajan replied, ” I watched your shoulders. When they went up I knew you were breathing in, and that was my cue for attack.” Callas, being something of a witch herself, no doubt knew that was only part of the story.

There is no doubt that Callas’s voice is lighter, more airy, than it was in any of her Lucias up to now. How much this had to do with the shift in repertoire, the weight loss or Karajan’s input is a moot point, but her singing is unfailingly lovely, with phrases drawn out to prodigious lengths, spinning them out the way a master violinist might play their violin.

From the outset Callas presents us with a highly-strung, romantic dreamer, a young girl, who would no doubt have been closeted and protected from the real world. Her first solo is sung with wonderful delicacy, the line deliciously drawn out and beautifully held at Karajan’s expansive tempo. As so often with Callas, there is no artifice to her singing, nor any sense of the routine, the music sounding as if it has sprung newly minted from her lips.

How typical that the first climax of the scene, should not be the aria itself, beautifully though it is sung, but a line of recitative that follows, with Lucia’s simple affirmation of her love for Edgardo (Egli e luce a’ giorni miei) just before she launches into the cabaletta Quando rapito in estasi, which is sung with lovely rhythmic buoyancy.

In the ensuing duet with Edgardo, she is all sweet concern, her phrases pouring balm on Edgardo’s troubled utterances, but we get a glimpse of the slightly unhinged Lucia, when, in a voice peculiarly quivering with intensity, she sings Ah no! rimango nel silenzio sepolto per or l’arcano affetto.

Verrano a te sull’aria is sung with prodigious breath control, the legato line spun out to wondrous effect. Di Stefano is here at his honeyed best, and Karajan provides subtly supple support, a superb example of artists listening to each other and working together.

The second act is the turning point for Lucia. In the face of such cruelty from her brother, this is the moment she starts to lose her reason, and you can hear in Callas’s voicing of the words Ahi!.. La folgore piombo! that the poor girl is at the end of her tether. Soffriva nel pianto is almost unbearably moving, as Callas digs deep into its melancholy.

In the following scene, she seems almost to be sleepwalking, until she falls apart completely when Edgardo suddenly appears and condemns her seeming treachery. The whole of this scene is dramatically thrilling, from the superbly sung (and encored) Sextet through to the knife-edge finale, where Karajan has opened up some of the cuts usually made in previous Callas performances.

The Mad Scene is, as it should be, the apex of Callas’s performance. So supple, so exquisite is her singing, that the voice seems to hover in mid air, and she literally seems to be extemporising on the spot. Certain phrases (Alfin son tua, for instance) are so firmly etched on my consciousness that any other singer seems just to be skimming the surface. The miracle is that she can execute all the vocal tricks of the coloratura soprano with such accuracy and skill, whilst at the same time making musical and dramatic sense of the notes. As ever, Karajan provides impeccable support.

We are lucky that such a superb cast was assembled; Di Stefano is at his considerable, lyrical best as Edgardo, Panerai terrifyingly single minded and relentlessly evil as Enrico, and Zaccaria a mellifluous and sympathetic Raimondo.

Aside from the cuts opened up in the Act II finale, the opera is unfortunately cut in the manner traditional back then. However the recording is nonetheless absolutely essential listening, not only for Callas fans, but for all lovers of Italian opera.

 

 

 

 

Callas’s 1959 Studio Lucia di Lammermoor

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Recorded 16-21 March 1959, Kingsway Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Christopher Parker

Popular opinion holds that Callas’s Lucia is best represented by her earlier commercial recording made in 1953, and by the live Karajan performance from Berlin.

So why would anyone bother with this remake, made in 1959? Surely, apart from much better sound, it can’t have much to commend it, given the problems Callas was beginning to have with her voice, especially in the upper register, in the late 1950s. In addition the other soloists on both the 1953 studio and live Karajan are much better than the ones we get here. Cappuccilli is nowhere near as menacing as either Gobbi or Panerai, and consequently there is a loss of drama in the first act and in his confrontation with Lucia. Tagliavini may have seemed like a good idea at the time, a lyric tenor in the old style, but by 1959 he was in his late 50s, and, quite honestly, he sounds it. One misses Di Stefano’s youthful ardour, even if Tagliavini is more stylish. As for Bernard Ladysz, just why? As far as I’m aware, the only other recording he made was of Penderecki’s  The Devils of Loudon. Who on earth thought he might be any good in Donizetti? He is no match for either Arie on the earlier recording or Zaccaria in Berlin.You might therefore think that this set is  only for the die-hards, only I’m not so sure it’s that simple.

Listening to it again for the first time in a few years, I was actually astonished at just how good she sounds, and it reminded me that in fact I first really got to know Callas’s voice from post weight- loss records.  This set was my first exposure to Lucia di Lammermoor, and I don’t remember the state of Callas’s voice bothering me too much back then. I was just overwhelmed by the truth of the interpretation, and the beauty, yes beauty, of much of her singing. Ok, the top Ebs are not exactly things of beauty, and she shortens the cadenza in the Mad Scene substantially, but the filigree of the role is stunningly executed. If she is strained by its upper reaches, then it seems a pity the bel canto revival hadn’t moved on enough for her to be able to record the version Caballe recorded, in generally higher keys, but without the stratospheric top notes. It might well have suited the Callas of 1959 a lot better.

There is no doubt this Warner re-master is a vast improvement on the Callas Edition CDs. Most of the shrillness on high seems to have faded away. In some ways, and though she sounds no more secure, the voice in general falls far more easily on the ear, and she has peered even deeper now into Lucia’s psyche. From the word go, this Lucia is highly strung, a romantically inclined dreamer, completely lost in the cruelty of a man’s world. There is desperation in her Ah, no…rimanga nel silenzio sepolto per or l’arcano affetto. Already she sounds slightly unhinged. It is not difficult to understand that it would take very little to tip her over the edge. Later in the scene with Enrico, Ahi. La folgore piombo pierces one’s very soul, and the ensuing Soffriva nel panto is sung with heart-wrenching sorrow.

In the Wedding Scene, she sounds almost in a trance, and even in the few solo lines she has, she manages to convey Lucia’s utter despair. As an assault on women, Lucia di Lammermoor must be one of the cruellest operas in the repertory. As for her singing, her legato line is as usual superb, the coloratura has a lovely finish and in the Mad Scene, her singing has almost an improvisatory air about it. This is surely the art that conceals art.

I have a fondness for it. It was not recorded at La Scala, but at Kingsway Hall with the superb Philharmonia orchestra, and the sound is very good indeed. The 1955 Berlin performance would still be my desert island choice, the sound much better than most of her live recordings, but both studio recordings also have a lot to commend them, and, as I’ve already pointed out, this one does enjoy much improved sound.