Callas in Il Turco in Italia

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Recorded 31 August – 8 September 1954, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Francis Dillnutt

Given Legge’s musical conservatism, it always surprises me Il Turco in Italia was recorded at all; after all, it was not one of Rossini’s better known works. We should be grateful that it was, though, for this set is pure joy from beginning to end. It might not take any prizes for textual accuracy now, and cuts abound, but objections fade away in a performance of such sparkle and wit.

Callas had sung the role of Fiorilla in a production at the tiny Teatro Elisea in Rome in 1950 and would go on to sing it again in Milan in 1955 in a new production by Zeffirelli. Gavazzeni was in the pit on every occasion.

Callas’s only other excursion into comedy was the role of Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and, though the studio recording made in London was an outstanding success, her appearance in the role at La Scala was, by all accounts, one of the few low points in her career. No such caveats attach themselves to her Fiorilla, which seems to have been a success from day one. According to the critic Bebeducci, who was there at the opening night of the Rome production, it was “extremely difficult to believe that she can be the perfect interpreter of both Turandot and Isolde,” which was the reputation she had at that time. However, these performances could be seen to be a turning point in her career.

After singing Kundry in concert the following month, she never again sang a Wagner role. The opera also introduced her to Luchino Visconti, who, with his friends of the Anfiparnasso intellectual circle, mounted the production, and who was to become a seminal influence on her in the years to come.

Unlike so many of the operas she sang, and like most of Rossini’s comedies, Il Turco in Italia is an ensemble piece, and Callas is very much part of that ensemble. She has only one aria, Non si da follia maggiore which she sings with masterful ease, and a wonderful sense of the ironic, almost a vocal equivalent of an arched eyebrow. Indeed throughout so vivid is her verbal painting that you feel you can see every fleeting facial expression.

One of the high points is her duet with her husband Geronio, sung with quite the right hangdog tones by Franco Calabrese. At first haughty, then contrite as she attempts to assuage his indignation (No mia vita), then angrily rounding on him, her voice lashing out on Ed osate minacciarmi like a verbal slap, she is the mistress of every comedic turn.

She is surrounded by an excellent cast;  the aforementioned Calabrese, the veteran Stabile, dry voiced but full of personality as the Poet, Rossi-Lemeni an ever vascillating Turk, Gedda a lyrical Narciso, and Gardino as Zaida, the gypsy girl with claws only a mite less sharp than Callas’s; but it has to be said that only Callas has the dexterity, the flexibility and the ease in coloratura to do full justice to Rossini’s florid writing.

Gavazzeni conducts a sparkling version of the score. To get the opera in something like its original text you will have to turn to the Chailly recording with Bartoli. A deeper authenticity, however, lies in this version with Callas. One senses the performers had as much fun making it as we do listening.

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.

Late Callas Recitals

Recorded 1963 and 1964, Salle Wagram, Paros

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Paul Vavaseur

It’s useful to take these three recitals together. They were recorded over a similar period, and Callas was using the sessions as a way of working on her voice after a long period of inactivity. Indeed in 1962 and 1963 she didn’t appear on stage once, giving only a few scattered concerts.

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None of these discs could be considered essential, but the Verdi disc is the most recommendable. The most undemanding of the pieces (Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria) is predictably the one that causes her the least problems, and also yields the most vocal pleasure. As always the mistress of mood, she differentiates clearly between the conversational exchanges and Barbara’s song, her legato impeccable in the Ave Maria. The Aroldo arias are superbly intense and dramatic, as is Eboli’s O don fatale, the O mia regina section beautifully moulded, and benefiting from her deep legato. The top of the voice is no more pleasant here than it is elsewhere on these three discs, but the drama carries her forward and it is easier to forgive. There is not much to commend Elisabetta’s Non pianger mia compagna, and I often wonder why it was included.

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The Rossini and Donizetti fails to ignite her dramatic sensibilities quite so much, and there are plenty of uncomfortable moments. However there are still times, when we glimpse what Callas might have done with this music a few years before. Her Cenerentola lacks sparkle, but the scale passages are wonderfully supple and smooth. This is a serious Cenerentola, though, given what she suffers before singing this aria, such a reading is not entirely inapt. That said, there is a much better version of her singing this at a concert in London, where she finds a lightness of touch that eludes her here. Elsewhere, much of the singing sounds tentative, much more so than on the Verdi. Though she unerringly captures Mathilde’s sighing loneliness in the aria from Guglielmo Tell, there is a rather lifeless air about the recording, not helped by the omission of a chorus in some of the items. Nevertheless her sense of style never deserts her.

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Mozart, Beethoven and Weber are not composers one would naturally associate with Callas. That she could be a great Mozartian is evidenced by her test recording of Donna Anna’s Non mi dir, and a couple of blazingly defiant concert versions of Costanze’s Martern aller Arten, sung in Italian as Tutte le torture. (It is a little known fact that Callas was actually La Scala’s first ever Costanze.) The less said about Porgi amor and Donna Anna’s arias on this album, though the better. Elvira’s Mi tradi goes a lot better, and the recitative, with its contrasting emotions, is superb. It’s mirror piece, Beethoven’s concert aria Ah perfido also goes well, and, as it lies somewhat lower, suits her much better. It is without doubt the most successful item on the recital. Ocean, thou mighty monster is also superbly dramatic, but her peculiarly accented English is somewhat bizarre, and again the climaxes are something of a trial.

I find my attitude to these late recitals can vary each time I listen to them. Sometimes I find the wobbles, the insecure and unsupported top voice, the acidulous tone difficult to take; others I barely notice it, so taken up am I by her musical instincts. The Verdi I would hate to be without, the other two for very occasional listening only.