Montserrat Caballé & Shirley Verrett sing Great Operatic Duets

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Duets from Semiramide (Rossini), Anna Bolena (Donizetti), Norma (Bellini), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach), Aida (Verdi), Madama Butterfly (Puccini) and La Gioconda (Ponchielli).

The 1960s and 1970s were halcyon days for opera on disc. New recordings of both repertoire and rediscovered works appeared on an almost monthly basis, alongside recital records by major artists. Duet recitals, though not as frequent, were also a feature of this time, and could sometimes provide more variety in the juxtaposition of two different voices.

This 1969 duet recital finds both singers at the height of their vocal powers and provides a feast of great singing. It doesn’t quite get off to the best of starts however, with a performance of Serbami ognor from Rossini’s Semiramide in which Caballé’s scale passages are less than perfect, and which does not erase memories of Sutherland and Horne in the same music.

Vocally the duet from Anna Bolena is much better, and Caballé is here very touching in the section beginning Va, infelice where Anna forgives Giovanna; maybe not as moving as Callas with Simionato, but then, who is? Their voices blend well in the Norma duet too, and the Aida finds both singers alive to the drama.  It is great cause for regret that Verrett never got to record Amneris in a complete recording.

The principal pleasures of both the Barcarolle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann and the Flower Duet from Madama Butterfly are primarily vocal, and it is certainly wonderful to bask in the sheer beauty of two such gloriously rich voices in full bloom. The disc finishes with the great combative duet from La Gioconda, with the two ladies striking points off each other in splendid fashion.

This is a great memento of two singers, recorded before Caballé’s top notes started to harden and before she began to overindulge her penchant for floated pianissimi. This is also, to my mind, the best period for Verrett, when she was definitely a mezzo and before the move to soprano roles started to compromise the glorious individuality of that voice.

 

Jon Vickers – Italian Opera Arias

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Now this is great singing.

In the 1993 notes that accompany this re-issue of the one recital record Jon Vickers ever made, Vickers says,

At the time of the Italian Arias recording the field of opera was a totally different world than today. One sought to prove oneself worthy of association with the opera houses, general administartors, conductors, producers and singers one admired – even was in awe of. There was a humbling consciousness of the great history of places like the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala, Bayreuth, Vienna and Salzburg. Emphasis was upon delving as deeply as possible into the psychological depths of the text illuminated by the genius of the composer’s music. To dare to indulge any particular personal ability was to invite derision from colleagues and thunderous disapproval by public and press alike as being in bad taste and imposing of oneself upon a great work of art.

To be honest, I’ve listened to plenty of live performances from those days when bad taste and personal indulgence brings the house down, but his statement does give you a snapshot into the way the man worked, of his seriousness and dedication to his art.

This recital disc was recorded at the same time as his first recording of Otello under Tullio Serafin, when his ony Wagnerian role was Siegmund, and you were more likely to hear him as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Radames, Canio or Don Carlo. Later of course he want on to tackle Tristan and Parsifal, though he never sang Siegfried, and he dropped out of scheduled performances of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden, due to his religious scruples, saying he could not empathise with the character and that, in any case, the opera was blasphemous in character.

First impressions when listening to this disc are of the sheer size of the voice, and the power – a power that can be reined back to a merest pianissimo, then unleashed at will, like an organist pulling out all the stops. The other is intensity. Whether singing gently or loudly, there is a concentration and intensity that makes each short aria into a mini monodrama, and an ability to focus in on the meaning of each word and note. Nothing is taken for granted, nothing thrown away.

From a purely vocal point of view, it was still a very beautiful instrument back in 1961, and an aria like Cielo e mar is sung not only with golden tone, but with a true sense of wonder, and a way of pulling in and out of full voice that never destroys the long legato line.

Where many Italian tenors will add extraneous sobs and aspirates to indicate emotion, particularly in an aria like Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana, Vickers achieves an even deeper vein of emotion by never straying from the written notes, but simply (as if it was simple) intensifying his sound. In this he ressembles Callas, whom he revered so much having been Giasone to her Medea on many occasions.

One of the stand out tracks on this recital for me is Chénier’s Un di all’azzurro spazio delivered with mounting passion, but also somehow giving us a sense of the intellectual in the man. Canio suffers like no other, and yet he doesn’t have to break down in sobs at the end to make us feel it. His Otello developed into one of the towering creations of his, or any other, age, but even here, with the arias taken out of context, he conveys all the man’s pain and suffering.

Listening to this recital today at a distance of some years has been a peculiarly emotional experience. Jon Vickers was, and remains, unique, and we are unlikely to hear his ilk again.

Callas’s 1952 La Gioconda

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Recorded 6-10 September 1952, Auditorium RAI, Turin

Producer & Balance Engineer unknown

Callas’s first ever complete studio recording was made for the Italian firm Cetra in 1952, before she had signed with EMI. The role of Gioconda had furnished her with her Italian debut in 1947, and was the occasion she met two of the most important men in her life, her mentor Tullio Serafin and her future husband Battista Meneghini. Paradoxically she would make her second recording of the opera at the time of her affair with Onassis, and when she was separating from Meneghini.

When Callas recorded La Gioconda for Cetra she was still a large lady and at her vocal peak. It was recorded just a couple of months before she made her spectacular debut at Covent Garden in Norma and shortly before her only series of performances as Lady Macbeth at La Scala, a role one wishes had figured more in her career. She then went on to sing Gioconda at La Scala, her last performances in the role until the EMI recording in 1959.

Given the sheer animal power and massive, freewheeling brilliance she could command at this stage in her career, you would think this Cetra recording would, in all but matters of sound, win hands down over the later one, recorded seven years after when her vocal powers were failing, but I’m not sure it’s that simple, and, whilst listening to this one, there were quite a few passages where I found myself hankering after the later recording. True, the singing is often magnificent, and it is easy to be swept away by the coruscating force of her delivery, but I find myself missing some of the refinements she has made by the time of the second recording. This may be a controversial opinion, but this one seems to me to be a series of thrilling highlights, whereas the characterisation on the EMI set feels more of a piece, with a cumulative power I don’t get here, for all the added security of her voice; and actually there are certain, purely vocal moments, she manages better on EMI than she does on Cetra (the pitfalls of Ah come t’amo, the E un di leggiadre section from Suicidio, the whole of the section after she gives Laura the sleeping draught, for instance).

As against that, I should also state that her performance of Suicidio here completely floored me when I first heard it. I had no idea a female voice, a soprano at that, could sing with such passion, could have such powerful chest notes. It was absolutely staggering and one of the things that first turned me on to the genius of Callas in the first place. If I later got to know the opera better from the EMI recording and place that at a slightly higher level of achievement, it is none the less  a close-run thing.

The Warner engineers have done a great job of the re-mastering and it sounds much better than I remember it from my previous CDs, though obviously not so good as the stereo EMI set. One also misses the greater refinement of the La Scala orchestra and chorus.

As for her colleagues, it is largely a case of swings and roundabouts. Barbieri is a much more positive presence than the young Cossotto as Laura, but none of the men on either of the sets are particularly good. Ferraro on EMI isn’t very subtle, but he certainly makes a pleasanter sound than the awful Poggi. Honours are about equal between Silveri and Cappuccilli, Neri and Vinco. Votto’s conducting isn’t much different in the two sets, and remains some of his best work on disc.

One thing is for sure, Callas as Gioconda is an absolute must, and, regardless of any reservations surrounding her colleagues or recording quality, eclipses every other performance of the role on disc.

Callas’s 1959 La Gioconda

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Recorded 4-11 September 1959, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge and Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Harold Davidson

Suicidio! (in the earlier Cetra performance) was one of the first Callas arias I ever heard. It knocked me for six. I had no idea a human voice, an operatic soprano at that, could have such expressive power, and from then on Callas cast her spell on me.  This recording of La Gioconda was the second, and best, of the four Callas stereo remakes, and also the first complete opera she recorded (on the aforementioned Cetra set). The first pressing I owned was an American HMV Seraphim import, and I can’t in all honesty say much about how the sound on that compares with this. What I mostly remember is that one LP developed an annoying scratch in the scene after she gives Laura the vial in Act III, so annoying that it took me ages to relax and realise it wouldn’t be there when I listened on CD.

When I began listening to the Warner pressing I had the best intention  of comparing the sound with my original CDs (the 1987 digital remaster). First of all I compared the orchestral introduction. There was very little difference to my ears, but the new master did seem slightly clearer, as if the 1987 one had a slight fuzz on it. I then tried the Angele Dei at the end of Act I. Again, I found very little difference, but the voices on the Warner seemed a bit more finely focused, Callas’s voice at first blending with the male chorus, then soaring out over it. But I soon lost patience for making comparisons. The performance drew me in and I just wanted to get on with listening.

Recorded in September 1959, this Gioconda finds Callas in firmer voice than at any time since, say, the Dallas Medea of 1958, her top, right up to a solid top C in the last act, more focused and in control than it had been of late. She was in the process of separating from Meneghini, so maybe work came as a necessary distraction.

Callas only sang 12 performances of the role of Gioconda on stage (in Verona in 1947 and 1952 and at La Scala also in 1952), but she has become peculiarly identified with the role due to the success of her two recordings. Neither recording can boast the best supporting cast, but the second brings extra refinement from Callas, if less animal power, much improved recording and better orchestral playing from the La Scala orchestra.

The supporting cast is an interesting one. Cappuccilli had recorded Enrico in Callas’s second Lucia, as well as Masetto in the Giulini Don Giovanni and Antonio in his Figaro. He was still at the beginning of his career and his Barnaba lacks a certain authority. So too does Cossotto’s Laura, which is no match for Barbieri’s on the early Cetra set, beautifully though she sings. Ferraro can be an exciting singer at times, but it has always seemed an odd casting choice to me. He sings Gualtiero in the live Callas Carnegie Hall performance of Il Pirata, but appears to have done little else. Why on earth not Corelli, who only a year later was to sing Pollione on the second Callas Norma, and with whom she had sung on many occasions? Still, he is a great deal better than the wholly inadequate Poggi on the Cetra set. Vinco is no more than adequate as Alvise, Companeez rather better as La Cieca.

However, if we don’t get the six greatest singers the world could offer at the time, we do get the one greatest, and this is the reason the Callas La Gioconda remains the most recommendable recording of the work. Phrase after phrase is etched into the memory. Her very first entry brings a thrill of recognition, her legato digging deeply into the consoling phrases with which she comforts her mother. The score abounds with contrasts, and the first comes straight after this scene when she is confronted by Barnaba, spitting out the line Al diavol vanne colla tua chitarra, her voice dripping with loathing.

There is something so intrinsically right about her every utterance that it is impossible to imagine any other singer matching her achievement. She fails only on the pianissimo top B at Enzo adorato! Ah come t’amo! a phrase beloved of singers like Milanov and Caballe. If anything it is more in control here than it was in 1949, but where Caballe reaches to heaven, Callas is earthbound. That said if the performance of a whole opera can be ruined for you by one note, then I rather take pity on you. Callas’s singing was never about individual moments. A role had to be seen as a totality.

Interestingly, when Tebaldi came to record the opera quite late in her career, her recording producer suggested she listen to the Milanov recording, but when he went to visit her, he found her listening to Callas. “But why didn’t you tell me Maria’s was the best?” So much for rivalry.

Callas famously said of the last act of this set, “It’s all there for anyone who wishes to know what I was all about.” Looking back we can almost now see this as a valedictory statement, as she was never again to sing with such ease and security.