Karajan’s Ariadne auf Naxos

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My first encounter with Ariadne auf Naxos was a scenically splendid Glyndebourne Touring Opera production, which I saw in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1971. I’d never heard a note of the music before, but enjoyed it immensely.

However it was quite some time before I bought a recording, and this classic brilliantly cast 1954 recording was my choice. The years haven’t dimmed its lustre and I simply cannot imagine a better all round performance.

Has there ever been a more impetuously ardent Composer than Seefried? I doubt it; and it’s good to hear a soprano in the role, as Strauss indicated. Schwarzkopf’s Ariadne is not only gloriously sung, but, as always with this artist, with due attention to the words, and she does a fine parody of herself in the prologue. Streich’s adorable Zerbinetta manages to be both sparkily flirtatious and sympathetic, and the accuracy of her coloratura is stunning. Rudolf Schock’s dryish tenor might not offer quite the same sensual delights, but he also sings with intelligence and attention to the text.

The supporting roles are all superb too, especially Karl Dönch’s Musicmaster, Hugues Cuénod’s Dancing Master and the young Hermann Prey’s Harlequin. One should also mention Alfred Neugebauer’s laconic Major-Domo.

Karajan has the full measure of the score and the Philharmonia play brilliantly for him. Mono of course, but wonderfully well balanced recording. I’ve never felt the need to look elsewhere.

A Merry Widow for all time

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Oh what bliss! From the first moment of the orchestral introduction, which captures brilliantly that sense of expectation when sitting in a darkened theatre before the curtain rises, this famous recording is pure joy. Brilliantly cast and produced, it has a real whiff of the theatre, and yet you would be hard pressed to ever hear a performance of such class there. Principal among its delights is Schwarzkopf’s gloriously sung Hanna Glawari, singing with the same sort of care she lavishes on Mozart and Strauss. Indeed the moment she realises that Danilo is still in love with her (Allein liebt er mich, nur allein! ) in the finale of the second act is sung with such gloriously refulgent tone that it would hardly sound out of place in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

This was Schwarzkopf’s second recording of the opera, and, as in the first, Legge chooses a baritone for Danilo, rather than the usual tenor. However Wächter’s high baritone has no problems with the higher lying passages that Kunz (on the first recording) had to transpose down. Furthermore he sounds younger and more dashing. Gedda and Steffek make an excellent pair of lovers, the Pavillion duet in the second act a properly erotic affair, and the rest of the cast could hardly be bettererd with excellent contributions from Josef Knapp and Kurt Equiluz. Fabulous playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Lovro von Matacic.

Yes, there are fuller versions of the score around, but, frankly I couldn’t care less. I doubt this wonderfully stylish, fun packed recording will ever be bettered.

Karajan’s 1955 Die Fledermaus

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Oddly enough, my previous post referred to an opera (Massenet’s Cendrillon) where a female breeches role was given to a tenor and the same thing happens here, though not quite to such detrimental effect. Where Gedda’s Prince Charming sounds all wrong, Rudolf Christ’s languidly effete Orlovsky almost reconciles me to the change and this  is my only slight quibble about a superb, classic recording, which I happen to prefer to Karajan’s later effort for Decca.

Though recorded in London with the Philharmonia, cast and conductor bring an echt Viennese quality to the whole enterprise, the judicially edited dialogue delivered in sparkling fashion. You don’t really need to speak German to understand what’s going on.

Schwarzkopf is a superb Rosalinde, none better, singing her Czardas with appropriate dash and swagger, the voice gloriously rich and firm; Streich a delightfully pert and flirtatious Adele; Gedda a properly tenor Eisenstein, with a fine line in comedy, especially when impersonating Blind in the final scene; Kunz a genially scheming Falke. Excellent contributions also from Krebs as Alfred, Dönch as Frank and Majkut as Blind. This really is a fabulous cast and Legge’s superb production ensures that the recording sounds like a real performance.

Karajan’s conducting is perhaps on the swift side, but the whole performance fizzes and pops like the very best brut champagne that the operetta celebrates and is guaranteed to lift the spirits.

The famous Giulini Don Giovanni

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Like the Karajan Der Rosenkavalier, Warner’s luxury presentation of this latest re-mastering of the famed Giulini Don Giovanni just adds a little more lustre to one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.

It seems incredible to think that Giulini was actually a last minute replacement for Otto Klemperer, who was originally scheduled to record the opera with this cast but fell ill just as sessions started. We can be thankful now that he was available, for I can’t imagine that Klemperer could have produced the kind of quicksilver, thrillingly exciting performance we get here. The Philharmonia Orchestra were at that time at the top of their game and the orchestral playing is beyond praise. One of the main attractions of the set is the execution of the recitatives, which are brim full of drama and character, no doubt a result  of Walter Legge’s excellent production, and the whole recording feels like a real performance, with the singers brilliantly interacting with each other.

The cast is, without exception, superb; Sutherland, in her first major recording, a beautiful and technically assured Anna; Schwarzkopf, who adopted, in her words, “a sharp, unfriendly tone” to offset Sutherland’s creaminess, a real firebrand of an Elvira; Sciutti a delectably seduceable Zerlina. The men are hardly less brilliant, with Wächter’s dangerously sexy Don almost the equivalent of a swashbuckling Douglas Fairbank Jnr character and Taddei’s manipulative Leporello nicely complementing him. Cappuccilli is a real bully of a Masetto and Frick a commanding and ultimately terrifying Commendatore. If Alva makes slightly less of an impression, that has more to do with the rather passive character of Ottavio than his singing of Ottavio’s lovely arias.

One of the all time classics, beautifully re-furbished in this new re-master.

Böhm’s classic Così fan tutte

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Così fan tutte is a difficult opera for me these days. The music is sublime, but I find it hard to take the evident misogyny. Consequently I find the best way to listen to it is to ignore as much as possible the plot and listen instead to the emotions the plot provokes, and this is where Mozart’s genius lifts the opera above his subject matter, especially in a great performance such as this one.

Schwarzkopf and Ludwig are a wonderfully contrasted pair of sisters, the latter capturing Dorabella’s more flighty, open hearted nature to perfection. Schwarzkopf is superb as her more haughty, serious sister, imperious in Come scoglio, truly troubled and emotionally shattered in Per pieta, a performance both beautiful and heart-breaking.  Between them, she and Alfredo Kraus make their duet Fra gli’amplessi into a thing of quivering sighs and eroticism. In no other version does that moment of capitulation make quite the effect it does here. Hanny Steffek is just right as Depina, not too sparkily soubrettish, and enjoys herself enormously with Walter Berry’s genially scheming Don Alfonso.

The male lovers are also wonderfully cast, Kraus ardent and poised as the more romantic Ferrando and Taddei a mercurial and vibrant Guglielmo.

Böhm’s experience shines through in every bar and the Philharmonia play sublimely.

I’ve had this recording (originally on LP) in my collection now for almost 50 years now and, though I’ve acquired and heard others since, as a total performance, this one remains my first choice.

Callas sings Puccini Arias

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Recorded 15-18, 20-21 September 1954, Watford Town Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

This is the first recital record I ever owned , and for some time the only recital record I owned. As such it has quite a lot of sentimental value for me. Most of the music was new to me at that time and I played it constantly. I got to know it so well that I can even now listen without libretto and mime the words. However, as I got older, my tastes changed. I got to love the music of Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. I felt Callas’s gifts were wasted on Puccini, and so my first love got rather pushed aside. I tended not to listen to this recital quite so often.

To listen to it again now, in this fantastic new re-mastering from Warner (one almost feels as if Callas were in the room with you), was a moving experience and, from the first note, she had me riveted.

Most Puccini recitals tend to the samey, but Callas presents us with a different voice character in each opera. Of the roles represented here, she had at that time only sung Turandot on stage, though she would go on to sing Butterfly in Chicago in 1955. She also went on to record complete performances of Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, and Manon Lescaut, as well as Turandot (though a little too late in her career.

As usual Callas is the mistress of vocal characterisation. Manon, Butterfly, Mimi, Angelica, Lauretta, Liu and Turandot all emerge as completely different characters, but, even within a single aria, she can reveal some hidden depth within the character. Manon, tenderly regretful in In quelle trine moribide, gives way to passion and despair in Sola perduta abbandonata, a despair already hinted at in her voicing of un freddo che m’agghiaccia in the first aria. Butterfly’s wistful imagining of the return of Pinkerton is brilliantly charted, her death scene almost unbearably intense. Mimi is shy and withdrawn, but the warmth which Callas brings to the Ma quando vien lo sgelo section reveals Mimi’s capacity for selfless love.  Angelica’s resigned sadness gives way to a surprisingly sweet and cajoling Lauretta.

Quite the biggest contrast comes when she sings both Liu and Turandot. Liu’s arias are sung feelingly, but possibly with a bit too much muscle, and the ending of Signore ascolta doesn’t eclipse memories of Caballe or Schwarzkopf in the same piece, but Turandot’s In questa reggia is surely one of the best ever recorded. Callas at this time still had the power and security on top to ride its high-lying phrases; and please note she actually sings the words Gli enigmi sono tre on the phrase that takes her up to a top C. Most sopranos, Eva Turner included, reduce them to a vocalise. Furthermore the aria is filled with little details overlooked by most; the almost mystical way she launches the section beginning Principessa Lou-u- Ling, singing with mounting ardour until she vocally points her finger at Calaf with the phrase Un uomo como te. Almost regretful on the section O principe che a lunghe carovane, she strengthens her resolve again at io vendico su voi till her voice cries out with conviction at quell grido e quella morte. Would that she had recorded her complete Turandot at the same time. This is the greatest prize on the recital.

The one uncomfortable moment I remember from the recital (Angelica’s final floated high A) for some reason sounds far less wobbly here than it ever did before, and the voice in this re-mastering has enormous presence. Serafin, as ever, provides invaluable support.

A classic of the gramophone.

Maria Meneghini Callas Sings Operatic Arias

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Recorded 17-18, 20-21 September 1954, Watford Town Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

This recital, the second Callas recorded for EMI, was designed to show off her versatility, so we get one side of verismo, and one of coloratura, with Boito’s L’altra notte from Mefistofele bridging the gap. It caused quite a stir at the time. The coloratura side was of material more associated with singers like Galli-Curci and Pagliughi; the verismo items more likely to be the preserve of Ponselle and Muzio, or Callas’s contemporary, Tebaldi. There is no doubt that Tebaldi could not have attempted any of the coloratura items on the disc and the gauntlet was effectively laid down. The range too is phenomenal, and takes her up to a high E natural (in the Vespri aria, and the Bell Song), a note unthinkable from a soprano who could bring the power she does to an aria like La mamma morta.

Of the operas represented, Callas had only sung Mefistofele and I Vespri Siciliani on stage at that time, though she would go on to sing Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (and make a very successful studio recording) and Maddalena in Andrea Chenier. But, as is her wont, even in isolation, Callas is able to enter fully into the character and sound world of each character that she is singing.

She starts with two of Adrianna’s solos from Adrianna Lecouvreur, a role that would no doubt have suited her dramatic gifts down to the ground, though, truth to tell, the opera is pretty tawdry stuff. I have the recording with Scotto and Domingo, who make the very best case for it, but I still have little time for it. That said, Callas is brilliant at conveying Adrianna’s humility in the first aria, her pain and sadness in the second. Her recording of La mamma morta is well known, and became quite a hit after it was featured in the Tom Hanks Oscar winning movie Philadelphia. Notable is the way Callas’s tone colour matches that of the cello in the opening bars, and the way she carefully charts its mounting rapture. Some may prefer a richer, fuller sound. None have sung it with such intensity.

Ebben ne andro lontana, a glorious performances, is full of aching loneliness, its climax solid as a rock, but the prize of this first side is without doubt the crepuscular beauty of Margherita’s L’altra notte from Boito’s Mefistofele, a sort of mini mad scene, which Callas fills with a wealth of colour and imagination. One notes the blank, colourless tone at L’aura e fredda, even more drained and hopeless on its repeat, the baleful sound of her chest voice on E la mesta anima mia; and does any other singer so accurately encompass those coloratura flights of fancy as her soul takes wing on Vola, vola? This is the stuff of genius.

The second side also has its attractions. Rosina’s Una voce poco fa is a mite slower than it was to become in the studio set, but Callas’s ideas on the character are perfectly formed, and she already uses that explosive Ma to underline Rosina’s less than docile temperament. Her runs, scales and fioriture are as elastic as ever, and the little turns on the final faro giocar have to be heard to be believed.

The Dinorah aria is a rather empty piece and I sometimes wonder why she even bothered with it. There are some magical echo effects and her singing is wonderfully fleet and accurate, but it’s not a favourite of mine. I’m not a big fan of the Bell Song either, to be honest. Callas lavishes possibly more attention on it than it’s worth, but in so doing at least makes it a little more interesting than the birdlike warblings we usually get. The opening has a mesmeric , almost improvisational air about it, and the bell imitations are clear and true. I remember once playing this track at a friend’s place one summer evening, the window open, while a bird (I have no idea what it was) sang for all its worth on a branch just outside.  It was as if the bird was singing in response. The high E she sings at its climax is clean as a whistle, but it does sound like the very extreme of her range. Best of all the coloratura items is her breezy, elegantly sung Merce, dilette amiche from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, which is lovely in every way and ends on another epic high E.

Callas’s Studio Il Barbiere di Siviglia

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Recorded 7-14 February 1957, Kingsway Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Gooch

Callas only once sang Rosina on stage, in 1956 in an antiquated production at La Scala, which was, by all accounts, the one big flop of her career. People opined that comedy was obviously not her metier, though they must have had short memories and forgotten all about her success in the Zefirelli production of Il Turco in Italia the previous year, an opera she had originally sung back in 1950 and also recorded.

Giulini, who conducted the La Scala production, recalls the production as the worst memory of his life in the theatre.

I don’t feel it was a fiasco for Maria alone, but for all of us concerned with the performance. It was an artistic mistake, utterly routine, thrown together, with nothing given deep study or preparation.

It was also the last time Giulini ever conducted an opera at La Scala, and in fact he rarely conducted opera at all after that.

Whatever the problems at La Scala, though, the studio recording made the following year in London, with Gobbi and Alva joining Callas from the La Scala cast, is a joyous affair, and still one of the most recommendable recordings of Il Barbiere di Siviglia in the catalogue. The edition used wouldn’t bear scrutiny today, but at least Callas sings in the mezzo keys, though she does sing upward derivatives when the line takes her too low, interpolating a secure top D at the end of her duet with Figaro.

I am reminded that when an opera producer friend of mine was asked to produce the opera in Russia, he acquired a modern recording of the opera, no doubt in some urtext edition, but found the whole thing completely dispiriting. Having very little enthusiasm for his task, he was about to cancel, when he decided he would have a listen to the Callas recording. His ideas were absolutely transformed. Swept away by the sheer exuberance of the recording, he set about his assignment with renewed enthusiasm.

Callas’s Rosina is a mettlesome minx, defiant with Bartolo, flirtatious and seductive with Almaviva, and playfully scheming with Figaro. The whole character is laid out for us in her singing of Una voce poco fa, sweet docile and gentle, but (and just listen to the explosive way she sings that one word ma) a little devil when crossed. Some find her Rosina lacks charm. Well maybe she misses a touch of the coquettish, but, one thing’s for sure, this Rosina would be a lot of fun. Her technical proficiency in the role’s florid writing is little short of staggering, her voice infinitely responsive.

However Callas is no prima donna in this opera, and is very much part of a team, and one of the delights of this recording is in the many duets and ensembles with which the score abounds. You sense that this team of singers really enjoyed working together; there is a real sense of ensemble about it. Individually, they are an excellent bunch, led by Gobbi’s jovial Figaro. Alva is on more than one recording of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and he too works wonderfully well in duet with Gobbi, and also sings with some of the grace one associates with singers of an earlier generation. Zaccaria and Ollendorff are also well in the picture, and don’t overdo the slapstick. The Buona sera ensemble had me chuckling out loud. Gabriella Carturan contributes a nice cameo as Berta too. Alceo Galliera is an unexpected choice of conductor. Known mostly for his role as an accompanist, he conducts a sprightly, fleet and sparkling version of the score.

For all its textual inaccuracies, this Barbiere has held its place as one of the best recordings around, its sense of fun and ensemble almost unrivalled. A joyfully theatrical set, so full of character, that one hardly needs visual aid, so vivid is its storytelling, it fizzes and sparkles like a good champagne.

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.