Callas’s Norma – 7 December 1955

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1955 had been a spectacular year for Callas, though its beginning was inauspicious. She had been scheduled to start the year singing one of her speciality roles, Leonora in Il Trovatore, at La Scala, but Del Monaco, who was to have sung Manrico pleaded indisposition, though oddly he felt well enough to sing Andrea Chénier (who knows the vicissitudes of tenors), so La Scala made a substitution. Callas could have stepped down, but learned the role of Maddalena in a few days. The opera, a La Scala favourite, had a big success, but the role was hardly one in which her rarified gifts could shine, and is omething of a curiosity in the Callas cannon. Thereafter she went from one major success to another. She sang Medea in Rome and followed it with three productions at La Scala, which have entered the realms of legend, the Visconti productions of La Sonnambula and La Traviata, and, by way of contrast, Zeffirelli’s production of Il Turco in Italia. During the summer she recorded Aida, Madama Butterfly and Rigoletto then in September she had a massive success in Karajan’s La Scala production of Lucia di Lammermoor, when the opera toured to Berlin. The autumn saw her back in Chicago for her second season, where she sang Elvira in I Puritani, Leonora in Il Trovatore (perfection according to her co-star Jussi Bjoerling) and her only stage performances of Madama Butterfly. Truly 1955 had been her anus mirabilis and she closed it with what, by common consent, is the greatest recorded performance of her signature role, Norma.

First a word about the differences between this Divina transfer and most others you will hear. Divina’s remaster is from a first generation master tape and the sound is very good, certainly the best I’ve heard. As the first fifteen minutes were not recorded, like other companies Divina have included music from another performance, but whereas other labels do not credit it, Divina tells us they used a 1965 performance under Gavazzeni for the overture and Oroveso’s first aria, and the Rome broadcast of 1955 under Serafin for part of the recitative before Pollione’s Act I aria. There was some radio interference in Norma’s long solo at the beginning of Act II, and most issues substituted the same scene from the Rome broadcast of the same year, but Divina have left it as it stands to retain the integrity of the La Scala performance, and so as not to lose some of Callas’s most moving singing. It lasts only a few seconds and is easy to live with.

The La Scala season starts every year on December 7th, and for the fourth time in five years, Callas had been given the honour of a new production to open the season. The last time she had sung Norma there was in 1952, the year she first became a permanent member of the La Scala company. The La Scala years saw a period of incredible artistic achievement and there is no doubt that by this time Callas had become the reigning queen of La Scala. The new production was by Margherita Wallman, with designs by Nicola Benois and the starry cast included Mario Del Monaco as Pollione, Giulietta Simionato as Adalgisa and Nicola Zaccaria as Oroveso.

Callas is in fabulous form from the outset, stamping her authority on the performance, and the Druids, in her opening recitatives, her voice taking on a veiled, mysterious quality when she sings about reading the secret books of heaven, before singing a mesmeric Casta diva. The repeated As up to B harden slightly in the first verse, but that hardness has dissipated by the second verse and therafter the voice seems to be responding to her every whim. The linking recitative between cavatina and cabaletta was always a high point of her performances, with that wondrous change of colour at Ma punirlo il cor non sa, leading her into the cabaletta. It’s a jaunty tune with plenty of opportunity for display, but Callas somehow invests it with a private melancholy available to few others. I find it impossible to think of the words Ah riedi ancora, qual eri allora without hearing Callas’s peculiarly plaintive voice in my mind’s ear.

The duets with Simionato are also high points of the performance. The two singers first appeared together in Mexico in 1950 and became life long friends. Before these La Scala performances, they had sung together in the opera in Mexico, Catania, London (in 1953) and Chicago. Though the pairing of Callas with Stignani had become a famous one, Simionato was a better fit for the role than Stignani, who both looked and sounded too mature, and no downward transpositions had to be made to accomodate her. Furthermore their voices blended well, and you can sense the deep rapport that existed between them after so many performances together. It is great cause for regret that Simionato was contracted to Decca and therefore never appeared on any of Callas’s studio recordings.

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There are so many things to cherish in this first duet, particularly the wistful way Callas’s Norma recollects the dawning of her love for Pollione and then the fullness of heart with which she consoles Adalgisa at Ah tergi il pianto. However the most arresting moment is in the cabaletta to the duet when she hits a top C forte, then makes a diminuendo on the note before cascading down a perfect ‘string of pearls’ scale, eliciting audible gasps of disbelief from the audience.

Having been all warmth in the duet, her voice flashes out in anger in the trio, the coloratura flourishes hurled out with terrific force, the top Cs like scalpel attacks. The act comes to an exciting end as Callas takes a thrilling, rock solid top D, which she holds ringingly for several bars.

The opening of Act II, a mixture of recitative and arioso akin in some ways to Rigoletto’s Pari siamo, always provoked some of Callas’s most moving singing. What other singer matches her range of tone colour in this scene? I’m thinking of the hard tone at schiavi d’una matrigna when she contemplates the fate of her children at the hands of a stepmother, and the way she drains the tone of colour at un gel mi prende e in fronte mi si solleva il crin so that it becomes a literal expression of her hair standing up on end. This leads to wonderfully tender singing as she looks at her sleeping children, and of course ultimately she cannot bring herself to kill them, her voice drenched with maternal love at son i miei figli.

The following duet, one of the most famous in the bel canto repertoire is, even more than the Act I duet, a perfect example of two artists at one with each other, their voices intertwining and their timing perfect. Not unsurprisingly it provokes rapturous applause from the audience.

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Callas’s performances were always cumulative and the final scene is almost unbearably moving as Callas takes us through the gamut of emotions, from the almost youthful joy with which she sings Ei tornera spinning out the melisma on come del primo amor ai di felici, through suppressed anger and barely contained rage to ultimate peace and magnanimity, heart-wringinly moving in her final plea for her children. But what we should always remember is how musically her effects are made, her phrasing and the way she shapes the musical line, her sense of rubato unparalleled. Another moment that has entered the history books is her singing of the words son io when Norma confesses her guilt. Apparently she would simply take the wreath from her head and you can almost hear the moment she does it. The audience respond with a sort of corporate moan. Was Ponselle ever as moving as this? Was Pasta? We will never know, but at least with Callas we have recorded evidence. So much is Callas’s way with the role imprinted on my subconscious that inevitably I find all others wanting. Her Norma is so complete, so all enveloping that it remains unchallenged to this day and we are fortunate indeed that this performance, which captures that moment in her career when art and technique reached their truest equilibrium, was captured in sound.

For the rest, Simionato is arguably the best Adalgisa Callas ever sang with and is in terrific form here. Zaccaria is a sympathetic and sonorous Oroveso. Del Monaco makes up for his lack of coloratura with a voice of heroic, clarion splendour and Votto, though he pales next to Serafin, is the perfect accompanist, which, with such a cast, is perhaps all he needed to be.

Great Normas have always been thin on the ground, though all sorts of unsuitable singers appear to be attempting it these days, but let no one think they have truly heard the opera until they have heard a performance with a great protagonist. The studio recordings have their value in enjoying better sound, but I have no hesitation giving this one the prize as the best of all Callas’s recorded Normas.

 

 

Callas as Anna Bolena (Warner transfer) – La Scala 1957

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One of Callas’s greatest nights in the theatre is also, unfortunately, one of Warner’s worst transfers. This sounds very much like the old EMI, which was transferred from a very poor source. The sound is muddy and apt to wander in pitch. You just have to listen to Divina’s wonderfully clear, clean and crisp version to hear the difference.

I reviewed the performance in its Divina transfer back in June last year, and, rather than just repeating myself, would enjoin you to read my review by clicking on the following link  https://tsaraslondon.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/anna-bolena-la-scala-milan-april-14-1957/

 

Callas in Anna Bolena- La Scala, Milan April 14 1957

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This live recording captures a great moment in operatic history, a moment when bel canto opera was finally taken seriously. As Montserrat Caballé once stated,

She opened a new door for us, for all the singers in the world, a door that had been closed. Behind it was sleeping not only great music but great ideas of interpretation. She has given us the chance, those who follow her, to do things that were hardly possible before her.

Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, Gencer, Scotto, even today’s DiDonato and Radvanovsky should all give thanks to Callas, for without this one production, their careers might have taken very different paths. True, Callas had by this time made people re-evaluate operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula, and she had had an enormous personal success as Rossini’s Armida in Florence in 1952, but it was La Scala’s spectacular production of this one opera, Anna Bolena which paved the way for the bel canto revival, and for the next few decades, long forgotten operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini would be revived all over the world.

Such was the anticipation and excitement surrounding the production that it was covered in the international press, the UK’s Opera Magazine dedicating seven pages of its June 1957 issue to Desmond Shawe Taylor’s review.

There is no doubt that La Scala wanted to make a splash, and there is ample photographic evidence of Nicola Benois’ stunning sets, and the superb costumes. It was also the apogee of Callas’s collaboration with Visconti, though unfortunately, after the production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, which followed they never worked together again. Visconti recalls.

It was rather beautiful, if I do say so myself. But not sublime as everyone else has said. It had atmosphere. Benois and I used only black, white and grey – like the grey of London – for the sets. The castle interiors, such as the broad staircase down which Callas made her entrance, were filled with enormous portraits. The colours of the costumes – Jane Seymour, the king’s new love, wore red, for example, and the guards scarlet and yellow – played off these sombre sets. But for Anna Bolena, you need more than sets and costumes. You need Callas. Each day I went with her to the tailor to watch over every detail of her gowns, which were in all shades and nuances of blue. Her jewels were huge. They had to be to go with everything about her – her eyes, head features, her stature. And believe me, onstage, Callas had stature.

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The opera was heavily cut, so if you are looking for some ur-text version, you would have to go to studio recordings featuring Sutherland, Sills, Souliotis or Gruberova, but you would be missing out on the greatest Anna on disc, who, according to Richard Fairman in Opera on Record III,  “alone, of latter-day artists, has the power to grasp the emotional crux of every line and put it across.”

First off I should mention that this Divina Records transfer is in a different world of clarity from the murky EMI version, which unfortunately is also the source for the recent Warner transfer. Available as a download, I recommend it unreservedly.

Callas’s conception of the character of Anna is absolutely right from the word go. When asked by Rescigno, who conducted her in several concert performances of the final scene, why she phrased something in a certain way, she replied simply, “Because she is a Queen,” and it is this simple statement of fact that informs and shapes her portrayal. Callas’s Anna, though she suffers like any other woman, never forgets that she is a queen. In Callas’s own words.

Now history has its Anna Bolena, which is quite different from Donizetti’s. Donizetti made her a sublime woman, a victim of circumstance, nearly a heroine. I couldn’t bother with history’s story; it really ruined my insight. I had to go by the music, by the libretto. The music itself justifies it, so the main thing is not the libretto, though I give enormous attention to the words. I try to find truth in the music.

Contemporary reviews (and photographs) attest to the nobility of Callas’s bearing, and her first entrance vocally reflects that. Her first words have a natural authority and regal reserve, which gives way to deep private melancholy in the aria Come innocente giovane, which she sings in a gentle, perfectly focused half voice, her command of line and legato as usual superb. In the cabaletta, which is addressed to the court, she uses more voice, but the voice remains supple and she never loses for a moment that sense of regal composure.

In the following scene, where she unexpectedly meets Percy for the first time, she publicly retains her composure, though the conflicting emotions running through her heart are exposed in the many asides, and she starts the ensemble Io seniti sulla mia mano in a movingly intimate tone of infinite sadness.

These first scenes have introduced us to the character of Anna, regal, melancholy, troubled and noble, but the next scene is the one that will seal her fate and the one in which Anna will show her mettle. Alternately tender, then anxious, then truly terrified with Percy (who, it has to be said, behaves like a lovesick schoolboy throughout the opera), she is found in compromising circumstances by Enrico. Overcome with emotion she faints, but wakes to plead in melting tones her innocence in the superb ensemble In quegli sguardi impresso. Deaf to her pleas, Enrico asserts that the judges will decide her fate, and this is where Callas’s Anna really rises to her full stature, bringing to bear her queenly outrage in the words Giudice ad Anna! Guidice ad Anna! Ad Anna! Guidice! before launching the final stretta with an intensity that has to be heard to be believed. Singing with all the force at her command, she caps the ensemble with a free and secure high D, held ringingly for several bars. Anna_6

The first scene of Act II (or Act III in this performance) contains the magnificent duet for Anna and Giovanna, prototype for so many of those female voice duets that pepper the operas of Donizetti and Bellini. In it Giovanna confesses her guilt, is at first repulsed by Anna, and then magnanimously forgiven. No doubt Bellini had this duet in mind when he penned the first duet for Norma and Adalgisa in Norma. Simionato, superb throughout the opera, is a worthy foil here, but Callas again transcends the music. Her interjections into Giovanna’s confession run the gamut of emotions from shock and revulsion to resignation and acceptance, until, in one of the most moving moments in the opera, she forgives Giovanna in a voice quivering with emotion. Always notable is the way Callas achieves her effects without once disturbing the musical line. She recognises that in bel canto opera it is the arc of the melody which carries the emotional impact, her sense of line and rubato always instinctively right.

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The final scene in the tower is one she programmed into recitals on several occasions and recorded (in its entirety) for EMI on what is arguably her most successful recital disc Mad Scenes. Many have since recorded it, so it has become relatively familiar, but one should remember that it was practically unknown at the time of this performance. In Al dolce guidami Callas’s voice takes on an unearthly, eerie beauty, the music seeming to emerge from the very depths of her soul. Though closely adhering to the score, she sounds almost as if she is extemporising on the spot, and the audience listens in rapt silence, hanging on her every note, until it erupts in a corporate outpouring of applause and cheers at its quiet close. Her delivery of the recitatives in the scene is again a lesson in how to weight and measure the proportions of each line. The final Coppia iniqua is sung with massive force, the famous rising set of trills, either ignored or sketchily sung by others, sung with both accuracy and intensity, her voice rising with power to the top Cs. This is Callas at her best.

She is ably, and brilliantly, supported by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who gives her ample rein to play with the music in the quiet, reflective moments and urges the ensemble to absolutely thrilling heights in the big finales. Rossi-Lemeni’s Enrico is authoritative but woolly-toned and Raimondi’s Percy pleasingly Italianate without being particularly individual. Simionato, inspired to give of her very best, is the only other singer who comes close to Callas’s achievement, singing with glorious tone and dramatic involvement, but even she is less specific, more generalised, in her responses than Callas.

Anyone who has any interest in bel canto opera has to hear this set, which puts you in the stalls on one of the greatest nights in Callas’s career. At the end of his review Desmond Shawe-Taylor, asked if Anna Bolena could enter the international repertory.

With Callas, yes; without her, or some comparable soprano of whom as yet there is no sign, no. Many people think it a flaw in these old operas that they depend on the availability of great singer; but what would be the fate of the standard violin and piano concertos if there were scarcely a player who could get his fingers round the notes, let alone fill them with a lulling charm or a passionate intensity?

Well, eventually other sopranos did take it on, with varying degrees of success, and the opera is still performed occasionally today, but none of these other sopranos has quite matched the genius of Maria Callas, who was, without any doubt, not only a great singer and actress, but also one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.

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Callas’s Two Recordings of Un Ballo in Maschera

Amelia is a role that should probably have figured more in Callas’s career. She sang excerpts as a student, almost got to sing it at La Scala under Toscanini, but actually didn’t tackle the whole role until the recording she made under Antonino Votto in 1956, and after singing it in a lavish new production at La Scala the following year, never sang it again, though she returned to Amelia’s two big solos in the studio in the mid to late 1960s.

We are fortunate that the La Scala live performance was captured in sound, and, though sonically it is not as clear as that on the studio recording, it is one of the best preserved La Scala broadcasts. Common to both the studio and live sets are the La Scala forces, Eugenia Ratti’s Oscar, Callas and Di Stefano. Everything else is different, so which is best?

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First off we note that Gianandrea Gavazzeni on the live set is a much more positive presence than the somewhat prosaic Anotonino Votto. It is testament to his soloists that the Votto recording remains one of the most recommendable of studio sets 60 odd years after its release, but Gavazzeni’s performance is definitely more alive to the drama, and, from that point of view at least, the live performance is preferable. One should also note that the audience is a palpable (and vocal) presence, which some may find distracting. Personally I find it all part of the fun. Though one of the best of Callas’s La Scala broadcasts, it still tends to overload at climaxes. The studio set is in good mono sound.

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Let’s now take the other differences. What I miss most on the live recording is Gobbi’s Renato. Bastianini on the live set was a fine singer, and probably had what we consider more of a Verdi baritone sound, but he is not nearly as imaginative as Gobbi. Bastianini has the more beautiful voice. Gobbi creates the more interesting character. When Gobbi sings the single word “Amelia” at the moment his wife is revealed to be the Duke’s paramour, he invests it with a wealth of conflicting emotions far beyond the scope of the more forthright Bastianini, so, in this respect at least the studio version is preferable. The conspirators on the studio set are also slightly better at vocal word painting than their live counterparts, but the difference is marginal.

Both the Ulricas are excellent, and if I prefer the magnificent Simionato on the live set, my preference is again only marginal. Barbieri is also excellent on the studio set. Eugenia Ratti is a trifle shrill for my liking on both the studio and live sets.

As for Callas and Di Stefano, I’d find it hard to choose between their performances, as they are both in terrific voice on both sets. Di Stefano is not the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but he has bags of personality. In the live set, he can be guilty of playing to the gallery somewhat, but the audience give him a rapturous reception, so who can blame him?

Callas is in magnificent form on both sets, her singing full of incidental details most singers miss, her command of the role’s difficulties staggering. I often wonder why her voice sounds so much fuller and richer in this role than it does on the studio Aida, which was recorded in 1955, the year before the studio set and two years before the live version. Possibly because Amelia is a transitional role, requiring a full compliment of trills and vocal graces of which Callas was a mistress. However it also requires quite a large voice, which is why the vocal niceties of the role are usually glossed over or ignored. Listen to Callas sing in her first scene the arching phrase Consentimi o signore with a pure legato and refulgent tone, whilst perfectly executing the little turn at the end of the phrase that signifies Amelia’s nervous state. Note also that when Amelia mirrors Oscar’s trills in the Oath Scene, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills. It is moments such as these that make Callas stand out from all others.

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A month after the La Scala prima, she was to sing Norma at the Rome Opera at a gala attended by the Italian president. She was unwell and tried to cancel, but, against her better instincts allowed herself to be persuaded by the management to do the performance, as, incredibly, they had not bothered to engage an understudy. During the performance, she felt her voice slipping away from her, and refused to carry on after Act I. This created one of the biggest scandals of her career. The Rome Opera refused to make any announcement on her behalf, and then compounded the problem by cancelling the rest of her contract, even though she had representations from doctors confirming her illness. The press had a field day, even fabricating footage of her supposedly rehearsing in good voice, though the footage was actually from a radio broadcast in 1955. She eventually sued the Rome Opera, a case that was settled entirely in her favour, but the case dragged on for years, and by the time she won the case, the damage done to her personally was irrevocable.

When she returned to La Scala later that year in a revival of Anna Bolena, the La Scala audience greeted her with icy silence, though, as was her wont, by the end of the first performance, she had scored a personal triumph even greater than at the prima the previous year. Unfortunately, when she returned to her villa with Meneghini, it was to find the walls and gates covered and daubed with dog excrement. Is it any wonder she began to doubt whether devoting her life to her art was really worth the trouble? Is it any wonder that the world of the glitterati, empty though it would turn out to be, should suddenly seem so attractive?

After the live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera, there are of course some stupendous performances to come, the Cologne La Sonnambula, the Dallas Medea, the London and Lisbon La Traviatas for instance, but we rarely hear her sing again with such security, and ease. Pure conjecture on my part of course, but I often wonder if that Rome cancellation, and the fall out from it, was when the pressure of performing, of always having to be the best really started to get to her.

Verdi’s Aida – a comparative review of 5 different recordings

I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up with five different recordings of Verdi’s Aida. It’s not my favourite Verdi opera by a long chalk. Though it has magnificent music, the characters always seem more like human archetypes than flesh and blood people and I admire it rather than love it. Three of my recordings feature Callas, and, though I never think of Aida as a Callas role, she brings more meaning to it than most. Two of the Callas recordings (the ones that find her in the best voice) are live, but the sound on both is, at best tolerable, so the studio one is also a necessity, though the 1955 mono sound on that can’t hope to compare with the fabulous sound accorded the new Pappano set that was recorded in 2015.

Aida is of course the quintessential grand opera, famed throughout the world for extravagant stagings at the Arena di Verona, but actually, aside from the great Triumphal Scene, many of its scenes are played out in private, behind closed doors.

I started my journey with the famous live 1951 performance from Mexico, with Callas, Del Monaco, Dominguez and Taddei, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis.

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Well let’s get over the caveats. The sound is pretty atrocious; it crumbles and distorts and the balances are all over the place. The voices come through reasonably well, but you do have to listen through the sound, as it were. But what a performance! And a memento of what was undoubtedly a thrilling evening in the theatre.

Callas is in superb voice throughout, and makes more of the somewhat placid character of Aida than any other singer I have come across. The power she was able to summon at this point in her career has to be heard to be believed, a power that goes right up to that unwritten, but absolutely stunning top Eb in alt in the Triumphal Scene, a phenomenal sound, that excites the Mexicans so much you can almost hear them rip the seats apart. Ritorna vincitor is absolutely thrilling, the duet with Dominguez’s Amneris also superb, but, as always with Callas, it is the Nile Scene that provokes her most moving singing.

O patria mia is not her best moment. She seems momentarily preoccupied with the exposed top C at the end, a solid if not exactly dolce as marked note, but once past the aria, she is on more congenial ground, and, with Taddei a worthy partner, alternately stentorian, implacable, insinuating and relentless, runs the gamut of emotions in an exciting Nile Scene. In the ensuing duet with Radames, she finds a wealth of colour as she seduces and cajoles him.

Del Monaco, as usual, is not particularly subtle, but there is the clarion compensation of the voice itself, and, like all the Radames Callas sings with in the three recordings, makes a better hero than lover.

Dominguez is very impressive. This was her debut in the role, and occasionally she overplays her hand, but her singing is very exciting and the Mexicans give her a rousing reception.

De Fabritiis conducts a dramatic, but not particularly subtle, version of the score. Nowhere does he find the delicacy of Karajan or Pappano, or even Serafin, but subtlety is not really what this performance is about.

I next moved onto another live Callas performance; this one from Covent Garden in 1953, with Kurt Baum, Giulietta Simionato and Jess Walters, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.

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Unfortunately Barbirolli turned out to be something of a disappointment. More subtle than De Fabritiis in Mexico admittedly, the performance lacks excitement and many of his tempi are unaccountably slow. Maybe his approach was more suited to the reserved Londoners than the excitable Mexicans, but the latter has a thrilling vitality completely missing in London.

There is no thrilling Eb in the Triumphal Scene, but Callas is still in superb voice. However Barbirolli’s slow tempi vitiate against some of her more dramatic moments. The I sacri numi section of Ritorna vincitor lacks the bite Callas usually brings to it, though she is able to spin out the final Numi pieta to even more heavenly lengths at Barbirolli’s slower tempo.

Baum is not quite as bad as his reputation, but he hardly ever phrases with distinction and he sobs and aspirates in what he evidently thought was the Italian manner. He also has a tendency to hold on to every top note as if his life depended on it, so that his duets, both with Callas and Simionato, become somewhat combative. That Callas manages to sing the final duet with the grace and delicacy she does is little short of miraculous, given Baum’s determination to bawl his way to his death.

Simionato, a more experienced Amneris than Dominguez, is magnificent and Barbirolli does finally wake up for her final scene, though you sense Simionato propelling the music forward and they almost become unstuck. Am I being picky, though, when I wonder if a little too much of Azucena creeps into Simionato’s interpretation? Amneris is after all a young princess, but more on that subject later.

Somewhat disappointed with Barbirolli, I moved on to the second Karajan recording, recorded in Vienna with Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa and Piero Cappuccilli.

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Karajan’s speeds in this, his second recording, of the opera are also spacious but much more vital. I’ve always found his first effort, with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, a little too self-consciously beautiful. This one is far more alive to the drama. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play superbly and the sound is excellent analogue stereo, though the voices are a little too recessed for my liking, and are often submerged by the orchestra. Given that Karajan uses lighter, more lyrical voices than we have become used to, this does seem a somewhat perverse decision.

If singers of  Radames tend to break down into the heroic and poetic, Carreras is more in the latter camp. His voice is doubtless a notch too small for the part, but it was still a beautiful instrument at that time, and his is the most attractive Celeste Aida we have heard so far, though he doesn’t manage the pianissimo top B at the end. He is at his best in the final duet, his piano singing a welcome relief from the overloud Del Monaco and Baum.

Freni is very attractive, if a little lacking in personality. Her voice might also be considered a little light for the role, but she never forces and sings within her means, phrasing sensitively and singing cleanly off the text. She does nothing wrong, but set next to Callas, she just isn’t that interesting.

The best of the soloists is, without doubt, Agnes Baltsa. Here at last we have a believably young, spoiled princess, a plausible rival for Aida. Seductively sexy and driven to distraction by jealousy, she is convincingly remorseful at the end of the opera, nor does she sound like an Azucena in disguise. She is superbly effective in her duets with Radames and Aida, and gorgeous in the first scene of Act II. She is my favourite of all the Amnerises.

Cappuccilli I find efficient rather than inspired. He doesn’t stamp his authority on the role of Amonasro the way Taddei and Gobbi do, though, as usual, his breath control is exemplary. In a star studded cast, both Ramfis and the King (Ruggero Raimondi and Jose Van Dam) are excellent and we even get the silken voiced Katia Ricciarelli in the role of the Priestess.

From Karajan I turned to the latest addition to the Aida discography. Recorded in the studio, a rarity for opera recordings these days, it is conducted by Antonio Pappano, and stars Anya Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk and Ludovic Tezier with Orchestra and Chorus of the Saint Cecilia Academy.

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As one might expect, the sound in this new digital recording is superb, much more naturally balanced than the Karajan, with the voices coming through beautifully. Pappano exerts a superb grip on the opera, and his might just be the best conducted version of the lot, in the best lyric Italian tradition of conductors like Serafin, more of whom below.

Best of the soloists is definitely Jonas Kaufmann, who might just be the best Radames ever to be recorded. He has both the heroics and the poetry (a deliciously ppp close to Celeste Aida) and is vocally the equal of all that Verdi throws at him. Throughout he phrases with sensitivity and imagination, and achieves miracles of grace in the final duet, with some genuine dolce singing. This is a great performance.

Harteros is in the Freni mould, vocally not quite as secure, but a little more interesting. She goes for a dolce top C in O patria mia, but it is a little shaky. She does not erase memories of Caballe (on the Muti recording) in the same music, but hers is nevertheless an attractive performance.

Semenchuk I don’t like at all. She has a typically vibrant Eastern European voice, with a tendency to be squally. She reminded me most of Elena Obrasztsova and sounds a good deal older than she looks in the photographs accompanying the recording. All the other Amnerises under consideration bring something more specific to the role, where she is more generalised, and consequently the big Act IV scene lacks tension.

If not quite in the Gobbi or Taddei class, when it comes to verbal acuity, Ludovic Tezier is a fine Amonasro and together he and Harteros, with Pappano’s inestimable help, deliver a fine Nile Duet. The basses are not quite in the same class as those on Karajan and Serafin.

Which brings me to Serafin and Callas’s studio recording of the opera.

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By the time this recording was made in 1955, Callas had given up the role of Aida, singing her last performances in Verona just a few months after the 1953 Covent Garden performances under Barbirolli.

Callas’s voice has thinned out quite a bit, and she sings a much more refined performance of the role, perhaps more in line with conventional interpretations, except of course that Callas can never be conventional. When Tebaldi sings Numi pieta at the end of Ritorna vincitor, she sings a pure lyrical line and it’s very pretty, but Callas reminds us that she is asking the Gods to take pity on her suffering. Time and time again she will illuminate a phrase here, a word there. The duet with Amneris abounds with contrast as the two women play off against each other, but it is the duet with Amonasro in the Nile Scene that holds the heart of this performance, the scene where Aida must choose country before love. Gobbi is at his incisive best as Amonasro, and I doubt I will ever hear this duet done better. Note too how eloquently Serafin makes the strings weep when Aida finally gives in, first with the climbing phrase on the cellos and then in the way he accentuates those stabbing violin figures, when Callas sings O patria, patria quanto mi costi. This is the real stuff of drama.

Tucker isn’t in Callas and Gobbi’s class I’m afraid. He has the right sound for the role, virile and forthright, but for every phrase delivered with just the right degree of slancio, there is another ruined by his tendency to aspirate and sob.

Barbieri is very fine, in the Simionato mould, and, with Serafin letting go a veritable storm in the orchestra, produces a thrillingly dramatic Act IV scena.

Both basses (Giuseppe Modesti as Ramfis, and especially Nicola Zaccaria as the King) are splendid, and Serafin, as you might have gathered, conducts a wonderfully dramatic version of the score, in the best Italian tradition.

So conclusions then. No doubt there will be some wondering why I didn’t include Solti and Muti. Well, Solti I’ve never taken to. I just can’t stand his bombastic, un-Italianate, unlyrical conducting, good though his cast is (though I’ve never quite joined in the general enthusiasm for Gorr’s Amneris). I know the Muti but don’t own it. Until Pappano came along I usually used to recommend it as the safest bet, and Caballe gives one of her finest performances as Aida, and it is still, if memory serves me correctly, worth considering.

From the five under consideration then, I’d say De Fabritiis in Mexico is essential listening, if only as a memento of a historical occasion and a truly thrilling evening in the theatre. It could never be a library version though because of the intransigent sound. From the point of view of a library choice, then the new Pappano would probably be the safest bet, even though it has the weakest Amneris. Forced to choose but one recording, though, I’d go for Serafin, with a rather regretful glance over my shoulder towards Baltsa’s Amneris. The mono sound is sometimes a bit boxy and not a patch on either Karajan or Pappano, but its studio acoustic is a good deal better than either De Fabritiis or Barbirolli, who, in any case, surprisingly trails in last place in this survey, despite the presence of both Callas and Simionato.

Callas’s vocal splendour is best caught in Mexico in 1951, but, the sound is a problem, so it’s Serafin for me, if only for the Amonasro/Aida Nile duet, the most thrilling on all these sets.