Wunderlich in La Traviata

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This recording was taped at a performance in Munich in March 1965. It was a new production by August Everding, and, judging by the audience reaction, it was a tremendous success.

Teresa Stratas’s shattering Violetta  is of course well known from the Zeffirelli film, brilliantly acted, if vocally stressed. Here she is  just a few months short of her twenty-seventh birthday and making her debut in the role, and, if the photos in the booklet are anything to go by, she looked absolutely stunning. Vocally though, and divorced from her powerful stage presence, she has her problems, especially in the first act. She has to transpose down Sempre libera and, even then, it taxes her to the limit. There are other places too where her voice doesn’t quite do what she wants it to, though, in intention at least, it has the seeds of a great performance. For instance the moments leading up to Violetta’s outpouring of love at Amami, Alfredo are urgently and sincerely felt, though she can’t quite swell the tone at Amami, Alfredo itself. In the last act she delivers a telling letter reading and a moving Addio del passato, but the performance doesn’t yet add up to a complete whole.

No challenge then for Callas, whose Violetta is hors councours, and whose 1958 Covent Garden performance remains my all time favourite. In Zeffirelli’s film, though vocally not much more comfortable, Stratas surpasses what she does here, where we are also able to see her touchingly vulnerable acting.

Hermann Prey, 36 at the time and only a year older than Wunderlich, sounds too young and tends to oversing, possibly in an attempt to sound more Italianate. Though there is pleasure to be derived from the voice itself, I don’t get any sense of a real character.

No, the chief reason for hearing this set is the chance to hear Wunderlich sing a complete role in Italian. The language suits him well and he is an ardently lyrical Alfredo, singing with honeyed tone, but with plenty of heft in the outburst at Flora’s party. Very very occasionally he overplays his hand (mostly in recitative) but there is much that is treasurable; Dei miei bollenti spiriti has a lovely lilt and he and Stratas make a wonderfully touching moment out of their brief moment of happiness in the last act,  Parigi, o cara. Later perhaps he would have played down slightly the histrionics in his contribution to Gran Dio, morir si giovane, but it is already a treasurable performance and reason enough to hear this live recording.

De Los Angeles in La Traviata

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Victoria De Los Angeles has long been a favourite singer of mine and her Violetta satisfies on so many levels. She is a little strained by the tessitura of the first act, but the voice is generally clear and beautiful, her singing always musical and deeply felt. As in everything she did, the sensitivity and sincerity of the performance are most affecting and she is without doubt one of the best Violettas on disc. What I miss is that sense of desperation and impulsiveness inherent in the character. Her Violetta is touching, but not overwhelmingly tragic as it is with Callas, who does tend to spoil me for all comers.

She has a good supporting cast with Carlo Del Monte a manly and forthright Alfredo and Sereni a sympathetic Germont, as he is in Callas’s Lisbon performance.

I sometimes feel Serafin’s virtues are rather underestimated. He paces the score brilliantly, particularly good in the choruses, which can sometimes outstay their welcome. If I’m honest, I rather prefer his approach to the more interventionist Kleiber. The cuts traditional at the time are observed, so no cabalettas to Alfredo’s and Germont’s arias.

If Callas, particularly in London, remains my yardstick for this opera, this is nevertheless one of my favourite studio sets and I might even place it just above Cotrubas/Kleiber.

Wunderlich in La Traviata

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This recording was taped at a performance n Munich in March 1965. It was a new production by August Everding, and, judging by the audience reaction, it was a tremendous success.

Teresa Stratas’s shattering Violetta is of course well known from the Zeffirelli film, brilliantly acted, if vocally stressed. Here she is just a few months short of her twenty-seventh birthday and making her debut in the role, and, if the photos in the booklet are anything to go by, lshe ooked absolutely stunning. Vocally though, and divorced from her powerful stage presence, she has her problems, especially in the first act. She has to transpose down Sempre libera and, even then, it taxes her to the limit. There are other places too where her voice doesn’t quite do what she wants it to, though, in intention at least, it has the seeds of a great performance. For instance the moments leading up to Violetta’s outpouring of love at Amami, Alfredo are urgently and sincerely felt, but she can’t quite swell the tone at Amami, Alfredo itself. In the last act she delivers a telling letter reading and a moving Addio del passato, but the performance doesn’t yet add up to a complete whole.

No challenge then for Callas, whose Violetta is hors councours, and whose 1958 Covent Garden performance remains my all time favourite. In the Zeffirelli film, though vocally not much more comfortable, Stratas surpasses what she does here, where we are also able to see her touchingly vulnerable acting.

Hermann Prey, 36 at the time and only a year older than Wunderlich, sounds too young and tends to oversing, possibly in an attempt to sound more Italianate. Though there is pleasure to be derived from the voice itself, I don’t get any sense of a real character.

No, the chief reason for hearing this set is the chance to hear Wunderlich sing a complete role in Italian. The Language suits him well and he is an ardently lyrical Alfredo, singing with honeyed tone, but with plenty of heft in the outburst at Flora’s party. Very very occasionally he overplays his hand (mostly in recitative) but there is much that is treasurable; Dei miei bollenti spiriti has a lovely lilt and he and Stratas make a wonderfully touching moment out of tha brief moment of happiness, Parigi, o cara. Later perhaps he would have played down slightly the histrionics in his contribution to Gran Dio, morir si giovane, but it is already a treasurable performance and reason enough to hear this live recording.

Callas in La Traviata – Lisbon 1958

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First issued in 1980 by EMI, this performance was once considered the holy grail of Callas performances. Rumours always persisted about its existence, but, until its EMI release, nobody had been able to track it down. Terrence McNally even wrote a play called The Lisbon Traviata, in which it symbolises the unattainable and the quest to find it.

So how does it stand up to all the other Callas recorded performances of La Traviata? Well, I’d say it’s one of the best, if not quite the best, an epithet I would reserve for the Covent Garden performance of just a few months later and which I reviewed a few months back.

Callas’s Covent Garden Traviata

She is in marginally fresher voice in Lisbon, but the Covent Garden performance has a veracity and insight that is absolutely overwhelming, and I rather wish Warner had chosen that performance instead.

Presumably, given that Warner now own all EMI’s back catalogue, it was simpler to just go for Lisbon and unfortunately this seems to be a remaster of the awful 1997 Callas edition version, which renders the voices harsh and wiry. I have the 1987 remaster, done, I believe, by Keith Hardwicke, which is much warmer, so I won’t be throwing it away. As it was originally a full price issue, it also comes with full notes, texts and translations, although that reminds me that EMI’s mid-price Callas issues also came with notes, texts and translations. Warner are to be admonished for not even including them on a separate CD, as they did for the studio recordings. Some of the material in the Live box set is quite obscure and it can be difficult to find libretti elsewhere.

But back to the virtues of this Lisbon performance, and they are many. Of all the roles in Callas’s repertoire, it was Violetta which went through the greatest transformation, from those early, vocally resplendent performances in the early 1950s, through the famous La Scala/Visconti/Giulini production  of 1955 to the Covent Garden performances of 1958, her penultimate performances of the opera before Zeffirelli’s Dallas production also in 1958, which marked her farewell to the role, though she still entertained thoughts of singing it again as late as 1969.

As I said, Callas is in marginally fresher  voice here than in London a few months later, though the top Eb at the end of Sempre libera, a note she could easily and justifiably have omitted, is no more secure here than it was there. On the other hand the scale passages and duple descending quavers are wonderfully supple, and note how she differentiates between the two. As always, the singing is full of tiny details, overlooked by most singers, and yet there is never anything fussy about it. She always ensures that a lyrical line is maintained, and, though a great deal of thought and preparation has gone into her portrayal, it always sounds spontaneous, not in the least studied.

Much of her singing is similar to that in Covent Garden, of which I made a far more detailed assessment, when I reviewed it last year. If I continue to prefer that performance, it is mostly because Rescigno, inspired to give of his best, conducts a more flowingly lyrical version of the score than the sometimes pedestrian Ghione. Kraus’s Alfredo is a bonus in Lisbon, but the Schipa taught Valletti in London is at least his equal, and Zanasi slightly preferable to Sereni in Lisbon, good though he is.

Everyone should have at least one Callas Traviata in their collection, and it is a great shame that Legge didn’t wait a year or two for Callas to be free of her contractual obligations to Cetra, before recording it for his La Scala collection. Stella proved to be a poor substitute, and the recording never sold.

I have four Callas recordings in my collection, top of the list being the 1958 Covent Garden performance, recorded on one of those rare nights where everything comes together to create something very special. Second on my list would be the 1955 La Scala/Giulini performance, one of Callas’s greatest nights in the theatre, and one which changed for ever attitudes to Italian opera. The Lisbon performance comes in third for me, with the Cetra studio recording, in which her voice is at its freshest, coming in fourth.

Whichever recording you go for, I have no hesitation in crowning Callas the greatest Violetta we have on disc.

Callas’s Covent Garden Traviata

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Violetta is one of Callas’s most famous, most exacting characterisations, and a role she sang more than any other except Norma. She first sang it in Florence in January 1951 and finally in Dallas in October 1958 (in a new Zeffirelli production) just a few months after this performance at Covent Garden. In between she had sung it all over Italy, in South America, in Chicago and at the Met, in Lisbon (just a few months before the Covent Garden ones) and of course there was the famous Visconti La Scala production, which changed for all times perceptions of Italian opera production.

Of all the roles in her repertoire, it was Violetta which underwent the greatest refinement, and it is a great shame that her only studio recording of it is the somewhat provincially supported Cetra performance of 1952, made before Visconti’s 1955 production, which substantially changed Callas’s views on performing the role. As you would expect, Callas still makes a profound impression in the set, but from Visconti onwards, her interpretations became ever more subtly inflected, more deeply felt, and her Violetta, especially as heard here at Covent Garden, has never been surpassed, let alone equaled.

It is often said that the role of Violetta requires three different sopranos; a coloratura for Act I, a lyric for Act II and a dramatic for Act III. A soprano comfortable with the demands of Act II and III, will struggle with the coloratura and high tessitura of Sempre libera, and, conversely a soprano happy with Act I’s pyrotechnics, won’t have the necessary weight of voice for the final Act. With Callas, no such provisos needed to be made, and, though earlier in her career, Sempre libera may have had more dash, ease and security on high, she could still, though slightly strained by its demands, sing it with dazzling accuracy in 1958. Furthermore, she invested the scales and runs with a hectic, nervous energy that made them much more than mere display.

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The orchestral prelude of the Covent Garden performance starts with a small piece of operatic history. The microphone manages to pick up Callas quietly singing a couple of notes during the orchestral introduction. No doubt they were inaudible in the auditorium but their presence is one of the ways we Callas fans identify the performance from those first few bars. Indeed Terrence McNally’s play The Lisbon Traviata opens with the character of Mendy listening to the opening bars of this Covent Garden performance, then exploding, “No, no, no! That’s not Lisbon! It’s London 1958!” (I had the same reaction when I saw the play, until I realised it was intentional). Curiously, though, the notes are missing from ICA’s “first official” release. When I contacted ICA about it, they could offer no explanation, and their transfer is, in any case, somewhat muddy, so, for now, I would recommend the Myto transfer pictured above.

Whole tomes could be written about Callas’s interpretive insights in this performance, so inevitably right is her every utterance, so, in the interest of brevity, I will try to restrict myself to a few key points in each Act.

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She starts forthrightly as if trying to convince everyone, including herself, that Violetta is over her recent illness, and her exchanges with Alfredo and the Baron have a delicious playfulness about them. Note in the Brindisi how accurately she executes those little grace notes and turns, usually blurred or ignored by other singers. Valletti, who is for the most part a model of elegance and style, misses them completely.

The brief moment when she almost faints, and then privately acknowledges her frailty is masterfully done, though she quickly regains her composure for the duet with Alfredo. Stunningly accurate is her singing Ah, se cio ver, fuggitemi, the coloratura flourishes invested with a carefree insouciance, that somehow also manages to express that she is already falling for Alfredo.

Left alone, the recitative takes us on a journey of conflicting emotions, until, wistfully and reflectively, she sings Ah fors’ e lui, her voice scarcely rising above a mezzo forte that draws the audience in, her legato as usual impeccable, the top notes floated in a gentle pianissimo that never obtrudes on the mood she has created.  She herself tosses such thoughts aside in the Follie! Follie! section, pouring forth cascades of notes as she tries to convince herself that any ideas of love are pure whimsy.

Admittedly, top notes here and in the following cabaletta Sempre libera are a little tight and tense, but her coloratura is still brilliantly precise, and we note how she can make us hear the difference between simple scale passages and those separated into duple quavers. Alfredo’s interjection momentarily catches her off guard, and she launches into the reprise with even more gusto as she tries to block out his protestations. The unwritten final Eb is not exactly a pretty note (though no worse than Cotrubas’s on the Kleiber studio set), and it always seems a pity to me that she felt constrained to sing it at all, given that so many others, before and since, opt for the lower option. Nevertheless it rounds off an almost perfect rendition of this final scene.

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Callas’s range of tone colour and her ability to express different thoughts and attitudes in a very short space of time are amply demonstrated in the first few exchanges of Act II. The single word Alfredo, when she asks as to his whereabouts is suffused with happiness. This quickly gives way to dignified outrage at Germont’s boorish outburst (Donna son io, signore, ed in mia casa) which in turn quickly softens when she realises that, as Alfredo’s father, the man deserves her respect (Ch’io vi lasci assentite, piu per voi, che per me). Later, when Germont questions her past, she responds with a voice of blazing affirmation, Piu non esiste. Or amo Alfredo, e Dio lo cancello col pentiemento mio. Oh come dolce mi suona il vostro accento is sung with a sweet, sadly misplaced, trust, which is quickly replaced with a touch of panic at Ah no! Tacete! Terribil cosa chiedereste certo. This whole scene, the recitatives and the duets, is a locus classicus of Callas’s art and a perfect example of her ability to invest a seemingly unimportant line, or even just a word, with significance.

Non sapete quale affetto is sung with mounting panic, like a butterfly caught indoors beating desperately against a windowpane,  Gran Dio!, when Germont brutally suggests that she will age and Alfredo will not always remain faithful to her, in a tone of blank, pale despair. However the moment of true resignation, the moment Violetta accepts her fate, is enshrined in the one sustained note that leads into Dite alla giovine. Peter Heyworth saw this performance and reviewed it for The Observer. He describes the moment absolutely perfectly in his review.

But perhaps the most marvellous moment of the evening was the long sustained B flat before Violetta descends to the opening phrase of “Dite alla giovine”. This is the moment of decision on which the whole opera turns. By some miracle, Callas makes that note hang unsuspended in mid air; unadorned and unsupported she fills it with all the conflicting emotions that besiege her. As she descends to the aria, which she opened with a sweet, distant mezza voce of extraordinary poignancy, the die is cast.

One rarely comes across such brilliantly descriptive perception these days, and music criticism is much worse for it.

Imponete is uttered in a tone of total dejection, before the outpouring of emotion in which she begs Germont to embrace her like a daughter, and the scene in which she begs Alfredo to love her whatever happens is palpably, upsettingly real, Amami, Alfredo delivered with an intensity that makes you wonder how Alfredo could have doubted her for one second.

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The scene at Flora’s party finds her almost sleep-walking, as she attempts to hide her heartbreak. When Alfredo forces out of her a confession that she loves the Baron, we can feel what it costs her, and the thread of sound with which she sings Alfredo, Alfredo, di questa core, after Alfredo has denounced her, is heart-wrenchingly moving.

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The last act is almost too much to bear, and even just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. What other Violetta makes us feel so deeply her tragedy, her voice drained of all energy in the exchanges with Anina and the doctor? The tragedy really hits home with E tardi! after the reading of the letter; Addio del passato is delivered in a half tone of wondrous expressivity, its final A evaporating in the air. Rescigno recounts that the note kept cracking, and he would tell her to sing it with a little more power in order to sustain it, but she wouldn’t compromise. A firmer top A might have sounded prettier, but it did not reveal so well Violetta’s emotional and physical collapse.

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The adrenalin rush of Alfredo’s entrance provokes more energetic attack, and she seems momentarily to recover, but the recovery is short-lived and the realisation that not even Alfredo can stop her from dying provokes an outburst of passionate intensity at Ah! Gran Dio morir si giovine. That intensity is short-lived though and the final section of the opera is delivered in a half-voice of ineffably sweet sadness. According to reports, as Callas’s Violetta rose to greet what she thought was new life, she literally became a standing corpse, her eyes staring sightlessly into the audience. We cannot of course see this on the recording, but the way she simply shuts the breath off on her final  O gioia is an aural equivalent.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think though that spontaneity gets lost in the detail. The miracle of Callas is that not only does she achieve her effects with utmost musicality whilst closely adhering to what is in the printed score, but that she also does so as though the notes were coming newly minted from her mouth. Throughout she maintains her superb legato, never forgetting that, in Italian opera especially, it is the arc of the melody that is paramount. This surely is the art that conceals art.

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There are other reasons to treasure this set. Valletti, a Schipa pupil, sings with something of his master’s grace and elegance, though his tone is not as sappy as Di Stefano at La Scala or the young Kraus in Lisbon. Nonetheless he is a worthy partner, as is Mario Zanasi, who is my favourite of all the Germonts Callas sang with. His light baritone might sound a little young, but he is a most sympathetic partner in the long Act II duet, and a welcome relief from the four-square, over loud Germont of Bastianini at La Scala, however magnificent his actual voice.

Rescigno, as so often when accompanying Callas, is inspired to give of his very best, and the opera was cast with strength from the Covent Garden resident team, with Marie Collier as Flora and Forbes Robinson as the Baron.

Were I to be vouchsafed but one recording of La Traviata (I actually own six – four with Callas) on that proverbial desert island, then this would assuredly be it. In a performance such as this one forgets opera is artifice and what we are presented with is real life.

 

 

Callas’s Studio La Traviata

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Recorded September 1953, Auditorium RAI, Turin

Producer & Balance Engineer: Unknown

In one sense it’s a shame this Cetra recording of La Traviata was ever made. Had it not been, Callas would have been the Violetta on the Serafin La Scala recording with Di Stefano and Gobbi instead of Stella. Her contract stipulated that she could not re-record the role for 5 years. Legge presumably felt he couldn’t wait any longer to add a recording of such a central Italian classic to his catalogue.

Whatever the reasons, Callas was furious with Legge for engaging Stella and with Serafin for conducting it without her. For a while she and Serafin didn’t speak and he is notably absent from her recording schedule for the following year, 1956.

In retrospect maybe Legge should have waited till Callas was free to record Violetta again in 1958, the year of Callas’s most searchingly complex stage performances in the role (Lisbon and London). Had he done so EMI would no doubt have had the best-selling La Traviata of all time. As it is, the Stella recording was never a big seller, and only received a CD issue, when Testament unearthed it some years ago. Bad call, Walter.

Of all the roles in Callas’s repertoire, it was Violetta that went through the greatest transformation from her debut in the role in 1950, through the famous Visconti production at La Scala in 1955 to those last, movingly poetic performances in 1958 in Lisbon and London. It was the role she sang most often after Norma, and the role she most often considered for a comeback. There were discussions of a recording for EMI even as late as 1969, when, vocally, it would have been out of the question. Callas considered it very much her role, that of the woman who gave up everything for love. Maybe there was a parallel here with her own life. Didn’t she give up everything for love?

This recording of La Traviata was the first one I owned and the first of her Violettas I heard. It wasn’t that easy to get hold of, and my copy was a reissue on Pye Ember. I had no idea of the existence of any of the live recordings, and, had I never heard any of them, I would no doubt have been happy enough with her Violetta, as recorded here, though not necessarily with its surroundings. Compared to her EMI releases, this is a decidedly provincial affair. Santini’s conducting is leaden and neither Albanese as Alfredo nor Savarese as Germont are in the first rank. But at least we have Callas, and, if not as subtle or as heart-rending as she was to become, she is still a great Violetta, and still better than anyone else in the role.

The demands of the first act are more easily encompassed here than they were to become in later performances, though the top Cs in Sempre libera seem slightly tense, as does the concluding Eb. Still it’s freer and more open here than it is in any of the later sets and scale passages are wonderfully fluid. She is tremendously affecting in the duet with Germont, and fails here only in comparison to her later self. Other than this, her traversal of the role is not as complete as it is later to become. There are plenty of affecting moments to be sure, some in the duet with Germont, (the desperation with which she sings Non sapete, for instance) and especially the farewell to Alfredo with the lead up to Amami, Alfredo which seethes with that intensity so peculiar to her. In the second scene the great arching phrase, Che fia? Morir mi sento is too much of an outward sentiment as is Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core, beautifully though they are sung.

Act III has its moments too. Addio del passato ends on a much more secure pianissimo high A than we get at Covent Garden, but how much more moving is that thread of tone with which she ends the aria in London. Parigi o cara is saddled with  Santini’s leaden conducting, but Gran Dio morir si giovane strikes the right note of despair and Prendi quest’e l’immagine is eloquently moving, if not so eloquent as it was to become.

In short, if no other recording of Callas as Violetta existed, this would be my first choice for the opera. But the fact of the matter is that by 1958, she had refined her interpretation so much that this 1953 performance seems unfinished beside it, almost like a rehearsal for the main event.

Furthermore, in both Lisbon and London, she has a better supporting cast and conductors, and the sound, in London at least, is excellent. I was pleased to hear this performance again, and delighted to have it once more in my collection. Callas’s Violetta, in any of its incarnations is a major achievement after all, but I know it is still to Covent Garden that I will most often return.

I might just add that Warner have done wonders with the sound compared to what I remember of my rather muddy Pye Ember LP version.