The Callas Bernstein La Sonnambula – La Scala 1955

1502883093_9029584465

Having got Andrea Chenier out of the way, and after singing four performances of Medea in Rome, Callas started work on what might have seemed a surprising role for her, that of the sweet ingénue Amina in La Sonnambula; surprising, that is, until one recalls that Bellini wrote the opera for the very same singer who created Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Bellini’s favourite Amina was evidently Maria Malibran, who was also a great Norma, but where Norma had become the property of large voiced, dramatic sopranos, who often couldn’t cope with the florid demands of the role, Amina had gone to light voiced, bird-like soubrettes, who rarely brought any depth to the character. Like Donizetti’s Lucia di LammemoorLa Sonnambula had become a vehicle for vocal display, nothing else, though this is clearly not what Bellini or his librettist, Romani, had in mind.

According to Romani,

The role of Amina, even though at first glance it may seem very easy to interpret, is perhaps more difficult than many others which are deemed more important. It requires an actress who is playful, ingenuous and innocent, and at the same time passionate, sensitive and amorous; who has a cry for joy and also a cry for sorrow, an accent for reproach and another for entreaty… This was the role created by Bellini’s intellect.

Used to the doll-like pipings of so many light voiced sopranos, Callas’s performances no doubt came as a revelation. She performed the role 22 times, always in the same La Scala Visconti production, which was revived in 1957, the same year she made her commercial recording of the opera, and travelled to Cologne and Edinburgh that same year too, though, by that time, Votto had replaced Bernstein as conductor and Nicola Monti had taken over from Cesare Valletti. Live recordings exist of both Cologne and Edinburgh, and my personal favourite has always been Cologne, where Callas, with slightly more limited resources, sings a more poetic, a gentler Amina; a portrait in pastels rather than oil.

However, I would never want to be without this thrilling La Scala recording, and to appreciate it fully, maybe a little background on the production would be helpful. Visconti, with his designer Piero Tosi, had sought to create a picture-book, dreamlike depiction of a nineteenth century village that never existed, the villagers dressed like ladies and gentlemen, the women in shades of pink, pearl and grey, and the men in black and white. Visconti’s vision of Amina was no village girl, but the evocation of a bejewelled nineteenth-century prima donna performing the role. She was costumed to look like the nineteenth century ballerina Maria Taglioni, and PIero Tosi recalls that when she made her entrance in the first sleepwalking scene, the impression she created was of “a sylphide tripping on the moonlight.”

Though one can see what Visconti was driving at, Callas’s genius ensures that at no point does she seem to be performing the role, so completely does she inhabit the character of sweet, trusting Amina, but it does explain some of the intricate variations Bernstein created for her, flung out to the Milanese audience with insouciant ease. Later performances under Votto would find some of the vocal display trimmed away. Bernstein also opens up some of the cuts reinstated by Votto, possibly because he had a tenor, Cesare Valletti, more capable of singing the music. Valletti is, in every way, far superior to Nicola Monti, who appears on the commercial recording and in the Cologne and Edinburgh performances.

Visconti undoubtedly built the production around Callas dramatically, just as Bernstein does musically. A trifle impatient with the choruses, he is wonderfully expansive in Amina’s solos, giving Callas time to shape and mould the phrases, their musical rapport absolutely as one.

From her first entry, Callas’s voice has a pearly softness, Come per me sereno exuding an inner happiness and fullness of heart that is at the core of her conception of Amina. For the cabaletta, Bernstein has given her some supremely ambitious embellishments, which she executes with staggering ease and agility, and the audience unsurprisingly give her a rousing reception.

But, as always with Callas, it is not just in the big set pieces that she excels. She is as inclined to make her mark in a word or line of recitative. I am thinking here of the way she imbues the words Il cor soltanto, when the Notary asks what she is bringing as dowry, with such love and trust and warmth. One should also note that Valletti is a worthy and distinguished partner, and, though he eschews some of the high notes written for the great Rubini, he proves himself to have been the perfect choice for the role. He makes a wonderfully sympathetic partner for Callas in the duet that ends the scene. A simple soul, his duping by the scheming Lisa becomes entirely believable,

Note also how Callas adopts a more veiled tone for the scenes in which she is sleepwalking, her confusion and terror when she wakes in the count’s bedroom palpably real. When Elvino rejects her, the pain she evinces is almost unbearable, her moulding of the phrases which launch the great ensemble, D’un pensiero e d’un accento couched in a legato which is meltingly poignant. In the allegro that follows, she lets out her full voice for the first time, as Amina’s desperation mounts, and caps the act with a ringing Eb in alt.

She has little to do in the opening scene of the last act, which belongs principally to the tenor, but she does much with what little she has, movingly concerned for Elvino even in the depths of her own pain.

It is in the final scene, though, where her gifts as a singing actress of the highest order are paramount. The range of colours she employs in the recitative is wide indeed, but she never destroys the dreamlike mood she has created. Certain phrases stand out in relief, like the pathos in her cry of Ah! Il mio anello and the heart-break in Questa d’un cor che more e l’ultima preghiera. The aria that follows, Ah non credea is a locus classicus of Callas’s art, couched in an almost seamless legato, its phrases spun out to prodigious lengths. The audience sit in rapt silence, totally drawn in and when, at its close, Elvino sings Ah piu non reggo, we too feel we can bear no more. This section worked well for Callas even as late as 1964 when she sang it on French TV. Elegantly coiffed and gowned though she is, and scarcely moving a muscle, she simply becomes the broken-hearted village girl Amina. This is the art that conceals art.

When Amina is awoken and the mood is broken, Callas breaks into the sparkling cabaletta, Ah non giunge with glittering abandon, executing the coloratura flourishes with coruscating brilliance. Some might feel that her singing here is too forceful, but again it is good to be reminded of what happened in Visconti’s production. He brought up all the lights, including La Scala’s huge central chandelier to full brilliance, and had Callas come down to the footlights, singing directly out into the audience, no longer Amina, but the great prima donna acknowledging her public. If there were still any doubt about the matter, this is the night that Callas was unequivocally crowned Regina della Scala.

As for the sound, I only have the old EMI version to hand for comparison, and can state that this Warner transfer is a good deal better than that. There are occasional moments of distortion and overload, but in general it is very listenable. Having listened to it again for the first time in several years, I now find it hard to chose between this one and the Cologne performance of 1957. How lucky we are to have both.

Callas at La Scala

51fx5yefo1l

Recorded 9-12 July 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Though recorded in 1955, release of this disc was delayed until 1958. Callas did not approve the arias from La Sonnambula for release and, when the recital was finally issued, it was made up with arias from the complete sets of I Puritani and La Sonnambula. EMI did eventually issue the Sonnambula arias, but not until 1978, on an LP called The Legend which included other unreleased material.

It’s true, there is a slightly studied air about the performances of them (and a chorus would no doubt have done much to enliven the proceedings), but her singing is unfailingly lovely. One misses that stunning cadenza between the two verses of Ah non giunge, with its stupendous ascent to a high Eb, which we get in both the studio and Cologne performances, and both cabalettas are over simplified, completely free of the flights of fancy Bernstein encouraged her to indulge in at La Scala. Serafin had apparently refused to let her do them. Maybe that is the reason she eventually rejected them. I’m glad I’ve heard them, but her Amina is better represented in the various live performances and the complete studio performance.

The Medea and La Vestale arias are more successful. Medea, of course, became one of her greatest stage successes. The opera was almost completely unknown when she first sang it in Florence in 1953 under Gui, but such was her success in the role that La Scala scotched plans for a revival of Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore later that year and replaced it with the Cherubini opera.  Callas’s singing of Dei tuoi figli la madre abounds in contrasts, reminding us that this is an appeal to Giasone. Callas reminds us that it is love, not revenge, that brings Medea to Corinth; notable here the softening of her tone at the repeated pleas of Torna a me, the pain in the cries of Crudel.

The arias from La Vestale are reminders of her one traversal of the role of Giulia at La Scala in 1954, in a stunning production by Visconti, which marked the emergence of the new, slim Callas, and the start of a whole new era, which resulted in the acclaimed Visconti productions of La Traviata, La Sonnambula and Anna Bolena.  Tu che invoco is notable for its long legato line, and the intensity she brings to the turbulent closing section, where her voice rides the orchestra with power to spare. O nume tutelar brings back memories of Ponselle, but Callas in no ways suffers by the comparison, her legato as usual superb, and the aria sung with a classical poise and sure sense of the long line. O caro ogetto has the same virtues.

There exists a complete recording of that La Scala La Vestale, but it is in such wretched sound, that this recital is valuable for Giulia’s arias alone. Her Medea and Amina are better represented elsewhere.

Callas’s Studio La Sonnambula

91k3udjbejl-_sl1461_

Recorded 3-9 March 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

The role of Amina probably seemed a curious one for Callas until it was remembered that Bellini wrote it for the very same singer for whom he wrote Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Where Norma was eventually taken over by big voiced dramatic sopranos, who mostly couldn’t do justice to its coloratura demands, Amina became the province of light, soubrettish high coloratura sopranos, intent on showing off their high notes and flexibility. Callas returned a human dimension to the role that nobody had suspected was there.

She first sang the role at La Scala in 1955 in performances that were a total revelation. Visconti reproduced a picture-book village, a Romantic vision of a time that never was, Callas costumed to look like a reincarnation of the nineteenth century ballerina Maria Taglioni. At the end of the opera, when Callas sang Ah non giunge, the lights on the stage and in the auditorium rose to full intensity, whilst Callas, no longer Amina but the reigning queen of La Scala, came to the front of the stage singing directly into the audience. In a live recording that exists of the night, the audience go mad with applause before the music has even finished. With Leonard Bernstein in the pit and Cesare Valletti as a stylish Elvino, the production was a massive success.

However this recording is more a reflection of the revival in 1957, and was made at the same time. La Scala subsequently took the production, with substantially the same cast, to Cologne and Edinburgh. Votto is now the conductor, Nicola Monti the Elvino and Zaccaria replaces Modesti as Rodolfo.

When considering the role of Amina, it might be wise to take a look at the advice of its librettist Felice Romani:

The role of Amina, even though at first glance it may seem very easy to interpret, is perhaps more difficult than many others which are deemed more important. It requires an actress who is playful, ingenuous and innocent, and at the same time passionate, sensitive and amorous; who has a cry for joy and also a cry for sorrow, an accent for reproach and another for entreaty… This was the role created by Bellini’s intellect.

And this is exactly what we get from Callas. Her first lines of recitative, and the aria that follows, Come per me sereno, are imbued with a deep happiness that radiates from within, her voice taking on a pearly softness. In a single phrase, Il cor soltanto, when the notary asks her what she brings as dowry, she expresses Amina’s deep love and trust in Elvino. In the first sleepwalking scene, her voice seems to come from somewhere inside her, an aural depiction of Amina’s dreamlike state; her confusion when she wakes, and subsequent distress when Elvino rejects her palpably real. I doubt I will ever hear a more moving account of Amina’s Oh se un volta sola and the aria that follows, Ah non credea, than we get from Callas. Here we truly hear the cry for sorrow; Callas’s singing goes beyond the notes to create the stuff of real-life tragedy, with a depth that nobody had even suspected was there when the role was sung by light pale-voiced soubrettes.

Technically her singing is brilliant, her command of line, trills, gruppetti, scale passages peerless. At one point, in the cadenza between the two verses of Ah non giunge, she sweeps up to a fortissimo Eb in alt. Unbelievably she effects a diminuendo on this stratospheric note before cascading down a perfect two octave scale, phrasing onward in one breath through an upwardly rising chain of notes to cap the cadenza. This is no trick of the gramophone, because she does exactly the same thing when she sings the role live in Cologne a few weeks later.

As for the rest, Valletti is a sad loss from the earlier performances. Monti is taxed by the higher reaches of the role, and many cuts are made to accommodate him. He’s also on Sutherland’s first recording, which followed in five years. Presumably light lyric tenors were in short supply in the mid 1950s. I often wonder why Gedda, who sang Pinkerton to Callas’s Butterfly a couple of years before was not engaged. Zaccaria’s mellifluous bass gives us a worthy Cari luoghi. Ratti is a bitchy, minx-like Lisa. Cossotto sings beautifully as Teresa, but sounds too young (which of course she was).

Votto’s conducting, which comes alive in Cologne, is often dull and routine here, particularly in the choruses, which lack energy (compare Bernstein in 1955). When Callas is before the microphone, you feel that it is she who leads, her sense of line, rubato and pace absolutely spot on.

The sound in this Warner issue is admirably open, with plenty of space around Callas’s voice, which, as I mentioned earlier, has a pearly radiance absolutely right for the role of Amina. I may on occasion prefer to listen to the 1955 La Scala performance with Bernstein, a truly thrilling and exciting evening in the theatre, but I feel that by 1957, both here and in Cologne, Callas has captured more of the poetry of Bellini and Romani’s heroine. Her Amina is an achievement to set beside that of her Norma, as, according to contemporary commentators, was that of the creator of the two roles, Giuditta Pasta. There can be no higher praise