Callas’s First Recordings

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Recorded 8-10 September 1949, Auditorium RAI, Turin

Producer & Balance Engineer unknown

So finally I come to the end and find myself, after many hours of fantastic listening, at the beginning, Callas’s first commercial recordings and the 78s that introduced the world to the voice of Maria Callas. The recordings followed a radio concert of the same material (plus Aida’s O patria mia) and were obviously intended to showcase Callas’s versatility, a pattern which was to follow in some of her EMI recitals, like Lyric and Coloratura and the first French recital.

Callas was only 25 when these recordings were made, but they display an artistic and vocal maturity far beyond her years. She first sang the role of Isolde under Serafin in 1947 in Venice, literally sight singing the role at her audition. Serafin, who had conducted her in her Italian debut as Gioconda, was suitably impressed and hired her immediately.

The Liebestod is of course sung in Italian, but it is more than just a curiosity. This is a warm, womanly Isolde who rides the orchestra with power to spare. Note too how easily she articulates the little turns towards the end of the aria. Her legato is, as usual, impeccable, and the final note floats out over the postlude without a hint of wobble.

Norma’s Casta diva and Ah bello a me are sung without the opening and linking recitatives, but the long breathed cavatina is quite possibly the most beautiful she ever committed to disc, and the cabaletta, though it lacks some of the light and shade she would later bring to it, is breath taking in its accuracy and sweep.

But what caused the biggest sensation at the time was the Mad Scene from I Puritani. What was considered a canary fancier’s showpiece suddenly took on a tragic power nobody suspected was there. Qui la voce is sung with a deep legato, the long phrases spun out to extraordinary lengths, but with an intensity that never disturbs the vocal line. Vien diletto almost defies belief. No lighter voiced soprano has ever sung the scale passages with such dazzling accuracy, nor invested them with such pathos, emerging, as they do, as the sighs of a wounded soul. And to cap it all, this large lyric-dramatic voice rises with ease to a ringing top Eb in alt. I have played this to doubting vocal students before now, and they have sat in open-mouthed disbelief. I remember one opera producer friend of mine once telling me that listening to it made him profoundly sad. “I know I will never hear live singing of that greatness in my lifetime,” he confided to me. If ever confirmation were needed of the greatness, the genius of Maria Callas, it is here in these, her very first recordings, and especially in this astonishing recording of the Mad Scene from I Puritani.

For my part, I have enjoyed every moment of my journey from those late recordings, where the genius would flash through to offset the evident vocal problems to these earlier ones where the voice had an ease and beauty that deserted her all too soon. Callas is and remains the pre-eminent soprano of the twentieth century. I know of no other singer who has made music live the way she did. A post on Talk Classical recently discussed underrated singers. I’d be tempted to add the name of Maria Callas, because, to my mind, her genius was inestimable. None of the accolades she has received seem eloquent enough, and I certainly can’t add to them.

50 years after she last sang on the operatic stage, she is still causing controversy, and no doubt always will. Her career may have been short, but was it Beverly Sills who once said, “Better 10 years like Callas than 20 like anyone else?”

Callas in I Puritani

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Recorded 24-30 March 1953, Basilica di Sant’Eufemia Milan

Producer: Dino Olivieri, Balance Engineer: Osvaldo Varesca

I Puritani, Callas’s second opera for EMI was the first recorded under the imprimatur of La Scala, an association which would result in eighteen further opera sets over a period of seven years.

No doubt because of the circumstances surrounding her first Elvira (she learned it in 3 days to replace an ailing Margherita Carosio whilst still singing Brunnhilde in Die Walkure) and because of her famed recording of the Mad Scene, one would expect the role to have played a greater part in her career, but in fact after those first performances in Venice in 1949, it figured rarely in her repertoire.

She sang it again in Florence, in  Rome and  in Mexico in 1952, and in her second season in Chicago in 1955, then never again, though the Mad Scene did occasionally appear in her concert programmes, even as late as 1958 at  a Covent Garden Gala. A recording of her rehearsing the scene for her Dallas inaugural concert in 1957 exists, and shows her still singing an easy, secure and full-throated high Eb.

Maybe the reason she sang it so little is that Elvira offers less dramatic meat than Lucia or even Amina. The libretto is something of a muddle and Elvira seems to spend the opera drifting in and out of madness. Of course she gets some wonderful music to sing, and Callas certainly breathes a lot more life into her than most singers are able to do. She also gives us some of her best work on disc, her voice wonderfully limpid and responsive, the top register free and open. No doubt this is the reason it has remained one of the top choices for the opera since its release over 6o years ago.

We first hear her in the offstage prayer in Act I Scene I, and straight away there is that thrill of recognition as her voice dominates the ensemble. Then in the scene with Giorgio, she finds a wide range of colour, a weight of character, that we don’t normally hear. Her voice, laden with sadness for her first utterances, then defiant when she thinks she is to be wed to someone she doesn’t love, is fused with utter joy when she realises that it is Arturo she is going to marry. She skips through the florid writing with lightness and ease, but invests it with a significance that eludes most others. One moment that stood out in relief for me was her cry of Ah padre mio when Arturo arrives, which bespeaks the fullness of heart that is the main characteristic of this Elvira. Son vergin vezzosa is a miracle of lightness and grace, Ah vieni al tempio heartbreakingly real, though her voice does turn a little harsh when she doubles the orchestral line an octave up.

The Mad Scene needs little introduction. It is one of the most well-known examples of her art out there, the cabaletta moulded on a seemingly endless breath; and where have you ever heard such scales in the cabaletta? Like the sighs of a dying soul. The top Eb at its climax is one of the most stunning notes even Callas ever committed to disc, held ringingly and freely without a hint of strain. Words fail me.

She has less to do in the last act, which mostly belongs to the tenor, and this is where I have a problem with the set. Di Stefano is nowhere near stylish enough in a role that was written for the great Rubini, and he lurches at every top note as if his life depended on it. Sometimes the notes sound reasonably free, at others he almost sounds as if he’s holding onto them with his teeth. Mind you, who else was there around to sing it any better at that time? The recording was made too early for Kraus, though Gedda might have been a good idea. After all, he was already singing for EMI by then, and would sing Narciso on Callas’s recording of Il Turco in Italia, which was recorded the following year..

Rossi-Lemeni  is less woolly-toned than I remember him and sings with authority, especially good in the first act duet with Callas; Panerai is a virile presence as Riccardo. Serafin conducts with his usual sense of style, but also invests some drama into the proceedings.

The orchestra and voices sound really good, but the recording of the chorus is a bit muddy. Presumably that was also the case on the original LPs.

I do have a few problems with I Puritani. To my mind the libretto is plain silly, and even Callas’s wonderful singing can’t quite rescue it. That said, as singing qua singing, it’s some of the most amazing work she ever committed to disc, and for that reason it will always be a permanent part of gramophone history. I would never be without it.