Callas sings Gilda in Rigoletto – Mexico 1952

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This is actually the first time I’d heard this performance complete. Previously I’d only heard excerpts in wretched sound, which hadn’t encouraged me to investigate further, especially given the excellence of Callas’s studio recording with Gobbi and Di Stefano and Serafin at the podium.

Well the first thing to say is that the sound is actually quite good, the voices well caught and much clearer than anything I’d heard before. Unfortunately the performance itself, save for Callas’s miraculous Gilda, is something of a mess, and I wonder why Warner decided to include it, especially as they omitted the superb live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera of 1957.

One should also note that the prompter is a palpable presence, shouting rather than whispering the lines to the soloists. Oddly enough he disappears completely at the beginning of Tutte le feste and Callas muffs her first lines.

So let’s get the problems, and there are plenty of them, out of the way first. Umberto Mugnai doesn’t appear to have any control over his resources whatsoever, and frequently coordination between pit and stage falls apart completely. The score is also cut to ribbons, far more than was traditional at the time. It is notable that when things go awry, it is usually Callas, who presumably couldn’t even see the conductor, who brings things back on track. Even in such chaotic surroundings, her innate musicality shines through.

The last act is the biggest mess of all, and all the singers go out of sync with the orchestra in the storm ensemble, despite Callas’s best efforts to bring everything back under control. The quartet isn’t much better, and ends with all the singers, save Callas, out of tune, not that it bothers the audience who give it a rapturous reception. Nor does it concern them that just before that Di Stefano had ended La donna e mobile seriously flat. Forced to encore the aria, his second attempt isn’t much better.

Piero Campolonghi, who plays Rigoletto, has a fine enough voice, but, oh dear, what a ham! He delights in holding onto notes longer than he has to, adding extraneous sobs whilst others are singing and shamelessly playing up to the audience, who, it has to be said, lap it all up with enthusiasm. He has absolutely no idea who or what Rigoletto is. Oh how I missed Gobbi.

Di Stefano does at least have the measure of the Duke. He has charm in abundance, and we can understand why Gilda could be taken in by such a man, but, without a strong hand at the helm, he can be careless of note values and rhythm, and he too plays shamelessly to the gallery. The rest of the cast is decidedly provincial.

That Callas’s Gilda, a role she was singing for the first time, should emerge virtually unscathed from this shambles of a performance is a miracle indeed. She makes a couple of decisions she would later regret, such as transposing down Caro nome a semitone down enabling her to finish it on a secure, but unpoetic top Eb in alt, rather than Verdi’s written rapturous trill on the lower E  (something she does to brilliant effect in the studio recording). She also ends the Quartet on a powerful (and unwritten) top Db (but then, with all the singers belting out their lines, the written quiet ending would have been out of the question).

Aside from these miscalculations, made to appease the Mexican audience’s love for high notes, her Gilda is one of her most exacting characterisations, and it is a great pity that she was never tempted to sing the role on stage again. Had she done so, we might well have completely rethought the role, much as we did that of Lucia.

Her voice is in superb condition, infinitely responsive and wonderfully limpid, the tone wondrously lightened to dispel any associations with Abigaille, Kundry, Elena, Aida and Armida, the roles we have heard her sing so far in this live set. Furthermore her Gilda is a character of real flesh and blood, with a fullness of heart in her duets with her father that prepares us for the sacrifice she makes later; a closeted romantic dreamer suddenly propelled into a world far beyond anything in her experience. Not only is her characterisation of the role a revelation, but her singing qua singing is exquisitely realised, her musical instincts unfailingly right, and ultimately her Gilda rises like a phoenix from the ashes of its crude surroundings.

 

 

 

 

Callas in Aida – Mexico City 1951

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A few months ago, I reviewed this performance HERE as part of a comparative review of five different Aida recordings, so I don’t propose to go into too much detail, as you can read that review by clicking on the above link.

As for the sound, this Warner re-master is a good deal better than the old Virtuoso version I owned before, which was almost unlistenable, but, yet again, in conversation with other Callas fans on the net, I am told that there are better versions than Warner out there, not least Ars Vocalis. The problem with this is that these can be difficult to come by (only available for a short time on ebay) and the Warners are readily and cheaply available from Amazon and the like. As such, this Warner re-master is not at all bad, and easily more listenable than what I had before, the voices coming through much more clearly.

To reiterate what I said back in March, this is a performance in primary colours, which befits its surroundings. The audience is a palpable presence, and when Callas hurls out that magnificent top Eb in the Triumphal Scene, they almost tear the place apart. Subtlety, from any of the singers, is not to be expected, though Callas of course sings with her customary musical intelligence. She is in superb voice throughout, though the top C climax to O patria mia, a firm but not exactly dolce note, is not ideal. She recovers quickly to sing a seethingly dramatic Nile Scene with Giuseppe Taddei’s excellent, implacable and forceful Amonasro. My yardstick for this duet has always been the Callas/Gobbi confrontation on the studio set, but this one is almost its equal. What it lacks is Serafin’s superbly sympathetic conducting (I know of no other conductor who makes the violins weep the way he does in those repeated figures as Aida sings about how much her country costs her). In any case, no other soprano digs as deeply into the words as she does at O patria, patria, quanto mi costi. On this occasion, unusually for her, she adds some extraneous sobs, which she will eschew in both the performance under Barbirolli at Covent Garden in 1953, and for the studio recording of 1955 (the last time she sang the role).

Del Monaco tends to sing everything forte, but the voice itself is in spendid shape. The local girl, Oralia Dominguez, in her role debut, and Giuseppe Taddei both display voices in full bloom and are thoroughly involved in the drama. All in all it isn’t the most subtle of performances you will hear but it is full of thrills and undenyably exciting and I can only imagine what it would have been like in the audience.

Back in March, when I reviewed this alongside the live Barbirolli from Covent Garden, the studio recording, Karajan’s second recording of the opera and the latest one from Pappano, I ultimately came down in favour if the 1955 Callas studio recording, and, though in somewhat leaner voice, there are still moments I prefer the greater subtlety she brings to her performance there. However, by 1955 Aida was no longer in her repertoire. This one gives us a better idea of how thrilling her Aida must have been in the theatre. A character who can sometimes seem no more than a cypher, the archetype of the woman torn between love and duty, becomes a real, passionate flesh and blood woman. Even taking into consideration the distinctly lo-fi sound, this would be my favourite performance of the opera.

 

Verdi’s Aida – a comparative review of 5 different recordings

I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up with five different recordings of Verdi’s Aida. It’s not my favourite Verdi opera by a long chalk. Though it has magnificent music, the characters always seem more like human archetypes than flesh and blood people and I admire it rather than love it. Three of my recordings feature Callas, and, though I never think of Aida as a Callas role, she brings more meaning to it than most. Two of the Callas recordings (the ones that find her in the best voice) are live, but the sound on both is, at best tolerable, so the studio one is also a necessity, though the 1955 mono sound on that can’t hope to compare with the fabulous sound accorded the new Pappano set that was recorded in 2015.

Aida is of course the quintessential grand opera, famed throughout the world for extravagant stagings at the Arena di Verona, but actually, aside from the great Triumphal Scene, many of its scenes are played out in private, behind closed doors.

I started my journey with the famous live 1951 performance from Mexico, with Callas, Del Monaco, Dominguez and Taddei, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis.

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Well let’s get over the caveats. The sound is pretty atrocious; it crumbles and distorts and the balances are all over the place. The voices come through reasonably well, but you do have to listen through the sound, as it were. But what a performance! And a memento of what was undoubtedly a thrilling evening in the theatre.

Callas is in superb voice throughout, and makes more of the somewhat placid character of Aida than any other singer I have come across. The power she was able to summon at this point in her career has to be heard to be believed, a power that goes right up to that unwritten, but absolutely stunning top Eb in alt in the Triumphal Scene, a phenomenal sound, that excites the Mexicans so much you can almost hear them rip the seats apart. Ritorna vincitor is absolutely thrilling, the duet with Dominguez’s Amneris also superb, but, as always with Callas, it is the Nile Scene that provokes her most moving singing.

O patria mia is not her best moment. She seems momentarily preoccupied with the exposed top C at the end, a solid if not exactly dolce as marked note, but once past the aria, she is on more congenial ground, and, with Taddei a worthy partner, alternately stentorian, implacable, insinuating and relentless, runs the gamut of emotions in an exciting Nile Scene. In the ensuing duet with Radames, she finds a wealth of colour as she seduces and cajoles him.

Del Monaco, as usual, is not particularly subtle, but there is the clarion compensation of the voice itself, and, like all the Radames Callas sings with in the three recordings, makes a better hero than lover.

Dominguez is very impressive. This was her debut in the role, and occasionally she overplays her hand, but her singing is very exciting and the Mexicans give her a rousing reception.

De Fabritiis conducts a dramatic, but not particularly subtle, version of the score. Nowhere does he find the delicacy of Karajan or Pappano, or even Serafin, but subtlety is not really what this performance is about.

I next moved onto another live Callas performance; this one from Covent Garden in 1953, with Kurt Baum, Giulietta Simionato and Jess Walters, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.

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Unfortunately Barbirolli turned out to be something of a disappointment. More subtle than De Fabritiis in Mexico admittedly, the performance lacks excitement and many of his tempi are unaccountably slow. Maybe his approach was more suited to the reserved Londoners than the excitable Mexicans, but the latter has a thrilling vitality completely missing in London.

There is no thrilling Eb in the Triumphal Scene, but Callas is still in superb voice. However Barbirolli’s slow tempi vitiate against some of her more dramatic moments. The I sacri numi section of Ritorna vincitor lacks the bite Callas usually brings to it, though she is able to spin out the final Numi pieta to even more heavenly lengths at Barbirolli’s slower tempo.

Baum is not quite as bad as his reputation, but he hardly ever phrases with distinction and he sobs and aspirates in what he evidently thought was the Italian manner. He also has a tendency to hold on to every top note as if his life depended on it, so that his duets, both with Callas and Simionato, become somewhat combative. That Callas manages to sing the final duet with the grace and delicacy she does is little short of miraculous, given Baum’s determination to bawl his way to his death.

Simionato, a more experienced Amneris than Dominguez, is magnificent and Barbirolli does finally wake up for her final scene, though you sense Simionato propelling the music forward and they almost become unstuck. Am I being picky, though, when I wonder if a little too much of Azucena creeps into Simionato’s interpretation? Amneris is after all a young princess, but more on that subject later.

Somewhat disappointed with Barbirolli, I moved on to the second Karajan recording, recorded in Vienna with Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa and Piero Cappuccilli.

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Karajan’s speeds in this, his second recording, of the opera are also spacious but much more vital. I’ve always found his first effort, with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, a little too self-consciously beautiful. This one is far more alive to the drama. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play superbly and the sound is excellent analogue stereo, though the voices are a little too recessed for my liking, and are often submerged by the orchestra. Given that Karajan uses lighter, more lyrical voices than we have become used to, this does seem a somewhat perverse decision.

If singers of  Radames tend to break down into the heroic and poetic, Carreras is more in the latter camp. His voice is doubtless a notch too small for the part, but it was still a beautiful instrument at that time, and his is the most attractive Celeste Aida we have heard so far, though he doesn’t manage the pianissimo top B at the end. He is at his best in the final duet, his piano singing a welcome relief from the overloud Del Monaco and Baum.

Freni is very attractive, if a little lacking in personality. Her voice might also be considered a little light for the role, but she never forces and sings within her means, phrasing sensitively and singing cleanly off the text. She does nothing wrong, but set next to Callas, she just isn’t that interesting.

The best of the soloists is, without doubt, Agnes Baltsa. Here at last we have a believably young, spoiled princess, a plausible rival for Aida. Seductively sexy and driven to distraction by jealousy, she is convincingly remorseful at the end of the opera, nor does she sound like an Azucena in disguise. She is superbly effective in her duets with Radames and Aida, and gorgeous in the first scene of Act II. She is my favourite of all the Amnerises.

Cappuccilli I find efficient rather than inspired. He doesn’t stamp his authority on the role of Amonasro the way Taddei and Gobbi do, though, as usual, his breath control is exemplary. In a star studded cast, both Ramfis and the King (Ruggero Raimondi and Jose Van Dam) are excellent and we even get the silken voiced Katia Ricciarelli in the role of the Priestess.

From Karajan I turned to the latest addition to the Aida discography. Recorded in the studio, a rarity for opera recordings these days, it is conducted by Antonio Pappano, and stars Anya Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk and Ludovic Tezier with Orchestra and Chorus of the Saint Cecilia Academy.

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As one might expect, the sound in this new digital recording is superb, much more naturally balanced than the Karajan, with the voices coming through beautifully. Pappano exerts a superb grip on the opera, and his might just be the best conducted version of the lot, in the best lyric Italian tradition of conductors like Serafin, more of whom below.

Best of the soloists is definitely Jonas Kaufmann, who might just be the best Radames ever to be recorded. He has both the heroics and the poetry (a deliciously ppp close to Celeste Aida) and is vocally the equal of all that Verdi throws at him. Throughout he phrases with sensitivity and imagination, and achieves miracles of grace in the final duet, with some genuine dolce singing. This is a great performance.

Harteros is in the Freni mould, vocally not quite as secure, but a little more interesting. She goes for a dolce top C in O patria mia, but it is a little shaky. She does not erase memories of Caballe (on the Muti recording) in the same music, but hers is nevertheless an attractive performance.

Semenchuk I don’t like at all. She has a typically vibrant Eastern European voice, with a tendency to be squally. She reminded me most of Elena Obrasztsova and sounds a good deal older than she looks in the photographs accompanying the recording. All the other Amnerises under consideration bring something more specific to the role, where she is more generalised, and consequently the big Act IV scene lacks tension.

If not quite in the Gobbi or Taddei class, when it comes to verbal acuity, Ludovic Tezier is a fine Amonasro and together he and Harteros, with Pappano’s inestimable help, deliver a fine Nile Duet. The basses are not quite in the same class as those on Karajan and Serafin.

Which brings me to Serafin and Callas’s studio recording of the opera.

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By the time this recording was made in 1955, Callas had given up the role of Aida, singing her last performances in Verona just a few months after the 1953 Covent Garden performances under Barbirolli.

Callas’s voice has thinned out quite a bit, and she sings a much more refined performance of the role, perhaps more in line with conventional interpretations, except of course that Callas can never be conventional. When Tebaldi sings Numi pieta at the end of Ritorna vincitor, she sings a pure lyrical line and it’s very pretty, but Callas reminds us that she is asking the Gods to take pity on her suffering. Time and time again she will illuminate a phrase here, a word there. The duet with Amneris abounds with contrast as the two women play off against each other, but it is the duet with Amonasro in the Nile Scene that holds the heart of this performance, the scene where Aida must choose country before love. Gobbi is at his incisive best as Amonasro, and I doubt I will ever hear this duet done better. Note too how eloquently Serafin makes the strings weep when Aida finally gives in, first with the climbing phrase on the cellos and then in the way he accentuates those stabbing violin figures, when Callas sings O patria, patria quanto mi costi. This is the real stuff of drama.

Tucker isn’t in Callas and Gobbi’s class I’m afraid. He has the right sound for the role, virile and forthright, but for every phrase delivered with just the right degree of slancio, there is another ruined by his tendency to aspirate and sob.

Barbieri is very fine, in the Simionato mould, and, with Serafin letting go a veritable storm in the orchestra, produces a thrillingly dramatic Act IV scena.

Both basses (Giuseppe Modesti as Ramfis, and especially Nicola Zaccaria as the King) are splendid, and Serafin, as you might have gathered, conducts a wonderfully dramatic version of the score, in the best Italian tradition.

So conclusions then. No doubt there will be some wondering why I didn’t include Solti and Muti. Well, Solti I’ve never taken to. I just can’t stand his bombastic, un-Italianate, unlyrical conducting, good though his cast is (though I’ve never quite joined in the general enthusiasm for Gorr’s Amneris). I know the Muti but don’t own it. Until Pappano came along I usually used to recommend it as the safest bet, and Caballe gives one of her finest performances as Aida, and it is still, if memory serves me correctly, worth considering.

From the five under consideration then, I’d say De Fabritiis in Mexico is essential listening, if only as a memento of a historical occasion and a truly thrilling evening in the theatre. It could never be a library version though because of the intransigent sound. From the point of view of a library choice, then the new Pappano would probably be the safest bet, even though it has the weakest Amneris. Forced to choose but one recording, though, I’d go for Serafin, with a rather regretful glance over my shoulder towards Baltsa’s Amneris. The mono sound is sometimes a bit boxy and not a patch on either Karajan or Pappano, but its studio acoustic is a good deal better than either De Fabritiis or Barbirolli, who, in any case, surprisingly trails in last place in this survey, despite the presence of both Callas and Simionato.

Callas’s vocal splendour is best caught in Mexico in 1951, but, the sound is a problem, so it’s Serafin for me, if only for the Amonasro/Aida Nile duet, the most thrilling on all these sets.