Callas’s Lady Macbeth

IuVTSA1

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.

*****

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.

b820427bc82e3229a55b7d8d85128144

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.

719v-j8siyl-_sl1417_

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.

14e042b

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.

2v9oxnk

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.

mariacallas-lesheroinesdeverdi2

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 Verdi Heroines

81hy7szp5vl-_sl1500_

Recorded 19-21, 24 September 1958, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Harold Davidson

If Mad Scenes is my favourite Callas recital disc, this one comes a very close second. Never before (or since, let me add) have Lady Macbeth’s arias been sung with such ferocity, such verbal acuity, such a wealth of understanding and psychological penetration, except perhaps by Callas herself when she sang the role on stage at La Scala in 1952. Listening to these three arias, text in hand, is to come face to face with Lady Macbeth the way Verdi had no doubt intended her to be. Furthermore Callas’s realisation of the score and Verdi’s detailed instructions sounds utterly spontaneous. This is truly Dramma per musica. That Walter Legge never had the foresight to record the complete opera with Callas as Lady Macbeth and Gobbi as her husband remains one of the greatest causes for regret in recording history.

Callas herself recalls that when she came to record the Sleepwalking Scene, she felt quite pleased with herself when she stepped down to listen to the playback. “That was, I think, some good singing,” she said to Walter Legge. “Oh extraordinary,” he said, “but now you will hear it and understand that you have to do it again.” She was a bit taken aback, but listened of course, and immediately knew exactly what he had meant. “It was perfect vocally, but the main idea of this Sleepwalking Scene was not underlined. In other words, she is in a nightmare-sleepwalking state. She has to convey all these odd thoughts which go through her head – evil, fearsome terrifying.  So I had done a masterpiece of vocal singing, but I had not done my job as an interpreter. Immediately, as soon as I heard it, I said, ‘Well you are right, now I understand,’ and I went in and performed it. Her detailed analysis of the scene is reproduced in John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald’s superb book, Callas, and makes edifying reading.

This Warner pressing seems to me the best I’ve heard since the original LP, which I had in a French voix de son maitre pressing. There is a lot more space round the voice, top notes less apt to glare. This is particularly noticeable in the scene from Nabucco, where even the final recalcitrant top C sounds less unpleasant than in its last outing on CD. The Bellinian cantilena of Anch’io dischiuso finds Callas spinning out its long lines to heavenly lengths, before, all thoughts of love cast aside, she strengthens her resolve in the fiery cabaletta. Prepared to flinch before the top Cs, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in this new pressing, they fall far more easily on the ear. The final top C is still an unlovely note, but it sounds far less like a shriek. That said, this performance is no match for the blazingly intense, diamond-bright accuracy of her singing in Naples in 1949.

She never sang in Ernani on stage, but Elvira’s Ernani involami figured fairly regularly in her concert programmes. As usual, she brings a wealth of colour to the recitative (just listen to the change of colour from Questo odiato veglio to col favellar d’amore to how lovingly she caresses Ernani’s name in the opening strains of the aria). Her top register is no more pleasant here than elsewhere, but she moulds the phrases beautifully, singing with grace and style, managing perfectly the aria’s wide intervals. She once told a student she would learn much from listening to Ponselle sing the aria. Ponselle does of course sing the aria very beautifully, but the student would learn a great deal more from Callas’s elegance and suavity.

She only once sang Elisabetta on stage (at La Scala in 1954), but her Tu che le vanita is a justly famous interpretation, and one that she sang in concert on many occasions.“A performance of the utmost delicacy and beauty” Lord Harewood calls it in Opera on Record, which indeed it is, though we also get the baleful sounds of Callas’s unique chest voice in la pace dell’ avel; note also how wistfully she longs for her homeland in the Francia section.

My one regret is that Legge didn’t see fit to add the contributions of chorus and comprimarii as he does on the Mad Scenes disc. A chorus would no doubt have enlivened the Nabucco and Ernani arias, and one misses the contributions of the doctor and lady-in-waiting in the Macbeth Sleepwalking Scene. I also wonder why the original sleeve, here reproduced by Warner, used a picture of Callas as Violetta, which, though one of Callas’s most famous roles, is not represented here. The French edition more fittingly used a photo of Callas as Lady Macbeth, as shown below.

r-4861045-1377783197-9534.jpeg

No matter, listening to this great record has been a moving experience. I must have heard dozens of different performances of the arias on this disc, all with their own merits, but none have ever affected me so deeply. Callas’s gift was and remains unique.