Renata Scotto sings Verdi


When this recital first appeared in 1975, Scotto had been absent from the catalogues for some time. She was principally known on record for her Butterfly under Barbirolli (recorded for EMI in 1966) and for Mimi, Violetta, Gilda and Lucia (all recorded in the early 1960s for DG).

Butterfly was her calling card for many years, and the recording has remained one of the most recommendable (though, save for Liu in the Molinari-Pradelli Turandot, recorded in 1961, she appears not to have made any further complete opera recordings for EMI until she recorded Abigaille under Muti in 1977).

She first made her mark deputising as Amina in Edinburgh for Callas, who, in poor vocal health at the time, had refused to sing an extra uncontracted performance that La Scala had tried to thurst upon her. That was in 1957 and it would appear that, though she had considerable success on stage, recording companies were not so quick on the uptake. She herself has admitted that she could be a bit prima donna-ish in a “my way or no way” sort of manner, until she met her husband, Lorenzo Anselmi, who, according to Scotto, helped her to become more professional, and think more about the music.

She was at first known as a coloratura, but even in the early 1960s, John Steane notes that her high notes did not seem to come easily and could have a hard and pinched quality. She also had a great success as Butterfly, the role in which she had made her Met debut, but it soon became clear that this was the only repertoire Bing would call on her for. He refused to offer her anything else so she was absent from their schedules for a long time, returning in 1974 to sing Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, under Levine who became her champion. For many years, she was the Met’s house soprano, singing a completely new repertoire, which included Verdi roles like Leonora in Il Trovatore, Desdemona, Luisa Miller and Lady Macbeth.

This Verdi recital also marked the beginning of a new, fairly intensive recording schedule for her. In the ten years since her recording of Madama Butterfly the hardness on top has become more noticeable, and many of the louder notes above the stave are quite strident. There are however compensations in her musicality, her dramatic awareness, her deep legato and the firmness of the line. Then there is the added attraction of her attention to detail and her intelligent use of the words, though occasionally there is a lack of spontaneity. Art does not always conceal art.

There is a good mixture here of the familiar and the not so well known. In the former camp would be Lida’s aria and cabaletta from La Battaglia di Legnano, a fairly conventional piece whose cabaletta is nonetheless energetically exciting, and which Scotto attacks head on. There is a slight suspicion that the voice is a little small for the other early works here (Nabucco and I Lombardi), but she has an innate feeling for Verdian style and the cavatinas of both are beautifully moulded, the cabalettas propulsive and exciting. The voice takes on a lovely melancholy tinta for Elena’s Arrigo, ah parli a un core, which lies mostly in the middle register, though she eschews the written low F# in the cadenza, taking a higher alternative, and sings a bright and breezy Merce, dilette amiche. Best of all, probably because neither takes he much above the stave, are Violetta’s Addio, del passato, the reading of the letter absolutely heart-wrenching, and Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria, which is alive to every dramatic contrast, her singing full of anxious foreboding. Soon after this she would make a most touching Desdemona both on stage at the Met and on record in Domingo’s first recording.

Some may prefer a richer voice for this music, but few who are more vocally endowed sing with such specificity, such attention to the meaning of the text, such musicality and appreciation of Verdian style. Where other sopranos, like Souliotis and Sass, can be accused of being copycat Callases, Scotto can be said to have absorbed the lessons of Callas without losing her own individuality. This is a very good recital.

Callas in I Vespri Siciliani – Florence 1951


Florence and the Maggio Musicale, Fiorentino played a great part in Callas’s early career. It was at Florence’s Teatro Comunale that she debuted Norma, Violetta and Medea all of which were to become quintessential Callas roles. Other roles she sang there were Elvira in I PuritaniArmida (in which she had a spectacular success, though she never sang the role again), Lucia di Lammermoor (around the time of her first complete recording, which also used Florence resources),  and her first Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, under Erich Kleiber. That year she also undertook the role of Euridice in Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice (its first ever performance, given at the tiny Teatro della Pergola, also under Kleieber).

The success of this production of I Vespri Siciliani finally made Antonio Ghiringhelli, the Sovrintendete of La Scala, Milan, who had for some reason taken an instant dislike to Callas, offer her her first season at La Scala. Later that year she would open the La Scala season in the same opera, I Vespri Siciliani, though this time under the baton of Victor De Sabata. For that same season she was also engaged for Norma and the role of Costanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, its first ever performance at La Scala. The opera was sung in Italian, and this was to be the only Mozart opera Callas ever sang. La Scala became her artistic, and geographical, home for the next seven years, and it became a period of extrordinary artistic achievement, allowing Callas to work with directors like Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Margarita Wallmann, Carl Ebert and Herbert Graf; conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Victor De Sabata and Carlo Maria Giulini. Most of her recordings were also made under the imprimatur of La Scala too, and she is to this day indelibly associated with the theatre.

No recording exists of the La Scala I Vespri Siciliani, so we are fortunate indeed that we have this recording from Florence. Like most of her live recordings from Florence, the sound has never been good, though in 2007 Testament issued a clearer transfer from tapes made for Walter Legge, who was using them to audition Callas. This Warner issue would appear to be a clone of the Testament transfer, with the overture, which wasn’t recorded for Legge, tacked on from another source. As such, I found it no better nor worse than the Testament issue, but, though the sound distorts and overloads quite a bit, it is worth persevering for Callas is in superb voice, in a wide-ranging role that takes her from a low F# in Arrigo, ah parli a un core to a top E in the Siciliana in Act V.

Lord Harewood was in the audience for one of the rehearsals of the Florence production  and recalls precisely the effect of her entrance aria,

Act I of Vespri begins slowly; rival parties of occupying French and downtrodden Sicilians take up their positions on either side of the stage and glare at each other. The French have been boasting for some time of the privileges which belong by right to an army of occupation, when a female figure – the Sicilian Duchess Elena – is seen slowly crossing the square. Doubtless the music and the production helped to spotlight Elena, but, though Callas had not yet sung and was not even wearing her costume, one was straight away impressed by the natural dignity of her carriage, the air of quiet, innate authority which went with every movement. The French order her to sing for their entertainment, and mezza voce she starts a song, a slow cantabile melody; there is as complete control over the music as there had been over the stage. The song is a ballad, but it ends with the words “Il vostro fato è in vostra man” (Your fate is in your hand), delivered with concentrated meaning. The phrase is repeated with even more intensity, and suddenly the music becomes a cabaletta of electrifying force, the singer peals forth arpeggios and top notes and the French only wake up to the fact that they have permitted a patriotic demonstration under their very noses once it is under way. It was a completely convincing operatic moment, and Callas held the listeners in the palm of her hand to produce a tension that was almost unbearable until exhilaratingly released in the cabaletta.

Though we cannot see the impression she made, her very first words, Si canteró exude calm authority, with an undercurrent that suggests that, though she has agreed to sing, the French will not necessarily like what they hear. She starts almost mystically, gradually as Harewood describes, suffusing her tone with more pointed meaning at the words Il vostro fato è in vostro man. She then launches the cabaletta, Coraggio, su coraggio, almost sotto voce, building the tension as she starts to sing out with more force, her command of the wide leaps and coloratura staggering in its ease, the top of her voice gleaming and powerful. It is, as Lord Harewood suggests, a masterclass in how to use music to dramatic ends.

There is a good deal more to her Elena than that, though. She can be meltingly lyrical in the love music, such as in the beautiful mini aria Arrigo, ah parli a un core (though she only touches the low F# in its cadenza) and blithely suave and elegent in the Act V Siciliana, Merce, dilette amiche, notable for its light, breezy runs and an interpolated high E at its close. Few singers before or since can have so easily encompassed its vocal demands, whilst creating a character both sympathetic and imposing. There is never any doubt, from first note to last, that this Elena is an aristocrat; there are parallels here with Callas’s superb Leonora in Il Trovatore.

Of the supporting cast, Christoff, who also played the role at La Scala is a vocally resplendent and authoratative Procida, Mascherini a not particularly interesting Monforte. Giorgio Kokolios-Bardi, who sings the role of Arrigo, was a Greek tenor, whom Callas no doubt knew from her Athens Opera days. Occasionaly he phrases with a real sense of line, but just as often his singing lacks distinction. He was replaced by Eugene Conley at La Scala.

Erich Kleiber makes quite a few cuts in the sprawling score, but has a sure sense of its dramatic shape. There is a story that, at one point in rehearsals, he shouted out to Callas, “Maria, watch me,” to which she replied, “No, maestro, your eye sight is better than mine. You watch me.” Whatever the truth of this, they seem entirely at one in the performance, though I did wonder if Kleiber took the aforementioned Arrigo, ah parli a un core a tad to fast.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, I didn’t detect much improvement in the sound from the Testament issue of the performance, which in turn was quite a bit better than any heard before it was released. Nevertheless, this is essential Callas, and I wouldn’t want to be without it.



Maria Meneghini Callas Sings Operatic Arias


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.