Renata Scotto sings Verdi

 

When this recital first appeared in 1975, Scotto had been absent from the catalogues for some time. She was principally known on record for her Butterfly under Barbirolli (recorded for EMI in 1966) and for Mimi, Violetta, Gilda and Lucia (all recorded in the early 1960s for DG).

Butterfly was her calling card for many years, and the recording has remained one of the most recommendable (though, save for Liu in the Molinari-Pradelli Turandot, recorded in 1961, she appears not to have made any further complete opera recordings for EMI until she recorded Abigaille under Muti in 1977).

She first made her mark deputising as Amina in Edinburgh for Callas, who, in poor vocal health at the time, had refused to sing an extra uncontracted performance that La Scala had tried to thurst upon her. That was in 1957 and it would appear that, though she had considerable success on stage, recording companies were not so quick on the uptake. She herself has admitted that she could be a bit prima donna-ish in a “my way or no way” sort of manner, until she met her husband, Lorenzo Anselmi, who, according to Scotto, helped her to become more professional, and think more about the music.

She was at first known as a coloratura, but even in the early 1960s, John Steane notes that her high notes did not seem to come easily and could have a hard and pinched quality. She also had a great success as Butterfly, the role in which she had made her Met debut, but it soon became clear that this was the only repertoire Bing would call on her for. He refused to offer her anything else so she was absent from their schedules for a long time, returning in 1974 to sing Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, under Levine who became her champion. For many years, she was the Met’s house soprano, singing a completely new repertoire, which included Verdi roles like Leonora in Il Trovatore, Desdemona, Luisa Miller and Lady Macbeth.

This Verdi recital also marked the beginning of a new, fairly intensive recording schedule for her. In the ten years since her recording of Madama Butterfly the hardness on top has become more noticeable, and many of the louder notes above the stave are quite strident. There are however compensations in her musicality, her dramatic awareness, her deep legato and the firmness of the line. Then there is the added attraction of her attention to detail and her intelligent use of the words, though occasionally there is a lack of spontaneity. Art does not always conceal art.

There is a good mixture here of the familiar and the not so well known. In the former camp would be Lida’s aria and cabaletta from La Battaglia di Legnano, a fairly conventional piece whose cabaletta is nonetheless energetically exciting, and which Scotto attacks head on. There is a slight suspicion that the voice is a little small for the other early works here (Nabucco and I Lombardi), but she has an innate feeling for Verdian style and the cavatinas of both are beautifully moulded, the cabalettas propulsive and exciting. The voice takes on a lovely melancholy tinta for Elena’s Arrigo, ah parli a un core, which lies mostly in the middle register, though she eschews the written low F# in the cadenza, taking a higher alternative, and sings a bright and breezy Merce, dilette amiche. Best of all, probably because neither takes he much above the stave, are Violetta’s Addio, del passato, the reading of the letter absolutely heart-wrenching, and Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria, which is alive to every dramatic contrast, her singing full of anxious foreboding. Soon after this she would make a most touching Desdemona both on stage at the Met and on record in Domingo’s first recording.

Some may prefer a richer voice for this music, but few who are more vocally endowed sing with such specificity, such attention to the meaning of the text, such musicality and appreciation of Verdian style. Where other sopranos, like Souliotis and Sass, can be accused of being copycat Callases, Scotto can be said to have absorbed the lessons of Callas without losing her own individuality. This is a very good recital.

Callas in Nabucco – Naples 1949

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One might think Abigaille a Callas role par excellence, but in fact she only ever sang the role at this series of performance in Naples in 1949, though she often programmed Anch’io dischiuso into her concert programmes. She is on record as calling the role a voice wrecker and advised Caballé against singing it. “It would be like putting a precious Baccarat glass in a box and shaking it. It would shatter,” she told her. Caballé heeded the advice and never sang the role. Callas’s words may seem a surprising statement, given Callas’s astounding assurance and brilliant execution of the role’s difficulties, but maybe she was right. After all, Giusppina Strepponi, the role’s creator and eventually Verdi’s second wife, retired practically voiceless at the age of 31, only a couple of years after she had such a success in it. Elena Souliotis forged her career in the role and had burned herself out in less than five years.

In terms of sound, this is one of the worst extant Callas broadcasts, and no amount of tweaking by the engineers is going to disguise that. It is at its worst in the last act, but, as Abigaille has so little to do in the last act, this affects Callas the least. That said, the Warner issue is clearer than any I’d heard before, though I’m told the one on Ars Vocalis is even better, if you can get your hands on it.

It is worth persevering with the sound, though, for this is the most thrilling performance of the role of Abigaille you are ever likely to hear. The young Callas ( she was 26 at the time) is in full command of the role’s many difficulties, tossing off the coloratura with demonic force as if it were the easiest thing in the world, the top of her voice rock solid and gleaming. She even exacerbates the role’s difficulties by interpolating a free and ringing high Eb in the Act III duet with Nabucco.

However there is much more than just power and ferocity to Callas’s Abigaille, and it is full of lovely details often overlooked by other singers. Note, after her barnstorming entrance, the way she softens her tone at the words Io t’amava, with a suggestion that she loves Ismaele still. The recitative Ben io t’invenni is thrillingly powerful, but she spins out the ensuing aria Anch’io dischiuso with Bellinian grace, tracing its filigree to heavenly lengths. In the duet with Nabucco she is exultantly triumphant, but this gives way to her most meltingly moving tones in the death scene, which unfortunately loses some of its effect due to the crackly recording. All in all, Callas’s Abigaille is a considerable achievement, and it is incredible that she can sing with such power, but with such needle fine accuracy in the coloratura.

Vittorio Gui conducts a tautly dramatic performance, but something strange happens during the chorus Va, pensiero, the end of which is drowned out by a cacophony of boos. He reprises the chorus and this time the audience go berserk cheering. This is presumably what going to the opera in Italy in those days was like.

Gino Bechi, a well-known baritone at the time, is an effective Nabucco, but not in Callas’s class, and no match for such as Gobbi, who recorded the role for Decca late in his career. The rest of the cast is perfectly adequate without being outstanding, but the recording, dreadful sound or not, is a must for Callas’s superb, vocally resplendent Abigaille.

 

 

Callas Verdi Heroines

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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.

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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.