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 and Corelli in Poliuto _ La Scala, Milan 1960

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Paolina in Donizetti’s Poliuto was Callas’s final new role. The opera opened the 1960/1961 season at La Scala, an honour granted to Callas five times since her official debut in I Vespri Siciliani in 1951. It also marked her return to the house since her last performances of Imogene in Il Pirata in 1958. The opera was to have been directed by Luchino Visconti, but he had withdrawn from the project in protest after his film Rocco e suoi fratelli had been censored by the Italian authorities. The sumptuous designs were by Nicola Benois, and Herbert Graf took over from Visconti as director.

The opening gala was attended by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the Begum Aga Khan, Onassis and what one might call the worldwide glitterati, all of whom had come not for Donizetti, but to see the most famous woman in opera, Maria Callas. Callas herself had had only two other engagements in 1960, singing Norma at the ancient amphitheatre in Epidaurus in Greece (the first time opera had ever been staged there) and making her second recording of the same opera for EMI. Nor did these performances signal a return to her erstwhile busy schedule. Her 1961 schedule was not much busier. She made her first disc of French arias, sang some arias with Sir Malcolm Sargent at the piano at a concert at St James’s Palace in London, and appeared in a new productions of Medea in Epidaurus and at La Scala. After a couple more performances of Medea at La Scala in 1962, she didn’t return to the stage until 1964 for the Covent Garden Tosca and the Paris Norma.

Paolina may seem a strange choice for Callas, considering that she is something of a secondary character to that of her husband, Poliuto, but publicity accompanying her every move was now at such a feverish level, that she no doubt thought it would take some of the pressure off her comeback at La Scala. An example of the hysteria which now surrounded her every move is the prolonged ovation which greets her first entrance, so loud and long that Votto has to stop the introduction to her aria and re-start after the hullabaloo has died down.

The reason I mention all this is that it helps place this performance in context, giving us an insight into Callas’s state of mind and the condition of her voice, and there is no doubting she seems nervous and uncharacteristically tentative at her first entrance. It is evident she is treading with caution, though, characteristically, her phrasing is as eloquent as ever. In Act II she appears to have gained in confidence, and the duet with Severo goes quite well. However she is still cautious in the upper reaches and an attempt at a top D at the end of the act is soon abandoned.

Her most eloquent singing comes in the Act III duet with Poliuto, and though the top of the voice is no more secure here than elsewhere, her singing is reminiscent of some of her best work. I remember a recording of this duet sung by Montserrat Caballé and her husband Bernabé Marti, but, though Caballé’s tone may be more ingratiating, her handling of the music is clumsy in comparison to Callas’s, nor does she make anything of the descending scale passages in Un fulgido lume, which Callas imbues with such significance.

Corelli is a splendid Poliuto, his voice burnished and golden, and less likely to indulge in those annoying sobs he often introduces into his singing of verismo, and the opera is cast from strength, with superb performances from Bastianini and Zaccaria. Votto, though he makes some swathing cuts to the score, is a reliable, if not particularly inspired, leader.

Being from 1960, the sound on this recording has always been quite good, and this new Warner master would appear to be a new transfer of the EMI one, which was also reasonably acceptable. A qualified success then. Not Callas at her best certainly, but definitely worth a listen.

 

Callas sings Maddalena in Andrea Chenier – La Scala 1955

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Andrea Chénier is an oddity in Callas’s career. The opera belongs to the tenor, Maddalena’s being a somewhat muted presence, confined to one aria and a couple of duets, both of which are led by the tenor. Of course she shouldn’t have been singing it at all, as the opera she was scheduled to sing at La Scala after the season’s opening La Vestale was to have been Il Trovatore, an opera much more conducive to her gifts. The story goes that the tenor, Mario Del Monaco pleaded indisposition. He did, however, feel well enough to sing Chénier rather than Manrico, and La Scala made the substitution. Who knows the vicissitudes of tenors? Maybe he feared being up against Callas in one of her greatest roles (Leonora), maybe he expected her to step down, as, not knowing the opera, she would have been perfectly within her rights to do. As it is, Callas accepted the challenge of learning the role in just a few days, though one wonders why she bothered. Maddalena was very much a Tebaldi role and a large portion of the house was against her from the outset. After these six performances she never sang the role again, and her appearance in the opera was soon forgotten, especially after the spectacular success of the next three productions she appeared in at the house.

Warner don’t appear to have found a new sound source for this performance, and this transfer sounds very much like the old EMI, regardless of claims of improvements in pitch. I guess you can’t do much with a sow’s ear.

Aside from the Aida she sang before her official debut, and Il Trovatore in 1953, this was the first time Callas was singing in a regular repertory opera at La Scala, and despite her intelligent and sensitive reading of the score, a portion of the audience were against her from the outset, no doubt more used to a much more forthright “can belto” style of singing verismo, . There were even rumours being bandied about that it was she who had demanded the substitution in order to steal away one of Tebaldi’s most successful roles. (Considering Callas never even sang Tosca at La Scala, this is a ridiculous assumption, not born out by the facts.) It is rather ironic, though, that it is Callas’s rendition of the aria La mamma morta, which achieved popular success after it was featured in the movie Philadelphia.

So how does the performance itself stand up after all this time, with all its attendant scandal consigned to the history books? Well, pretty well actually. It was a La Scala stalwart and the audience respond enthusiastically throughout, even giving the comprimaria, Lucia Danieli’s short solo as Madelon in Act III a rousing reception.

Protti, not usually the most subtle or imaginative of singers, makes a powerful Gérard and all the smaller roles, of which there are many, are cast from strength, with Votto much more at home in this opera than he sometimes is in bel canto. Del Monaco shows precious little sign of any indisposition and has a rousing success in a role that he was particularly well known for.

So, what of Callas? Whether it can be attributed to the weight loss or the shift in her repertoire, it cannot be denied that the voice is not as rich as it was when she sang Kundry, for instance, back in 1950, and those who prefer to hear the fuler tones of a Tebaldi, a Milanov or, in more recent times, a Caballé, will no doubt find her wanting. However she digs as deeply into the character as the music will allow her to go, and gives us a more psychologically complex character than is usually the case. As usual a mere line, a word of recitative speaks volumes, such as her whispered Perdonatemi to Chénier, when she realises she has offended him. There is no doubt that this Maddalena realises exactly what Chenier is talking about in his Improviso.

The girlishness in her voice has completely dissipated in Act II, and in Act III she delivers a scorching La mamma morta, though the climactic top B goes a little awry, causing a faction of the La Scala audience to voice its disapproval. Note however how the tone colour she uses at the beginning of the aria mirrors the cello solo introduction. As ever Callas’s musical sensibilities are sans pareil.

Both she and Del Monaco sing the final duet with mounting ardour and fulsome tone, and one wonders why they decided to make downward transposition at the end of the duet.

Still, however musically satisfying her Maddalena, it is a side issue in the Callas career, and one wonders why she bothered with it at all. Her greatest genius was revealed in operas of an earlier period, and she had ahead of her in that same season some of her greatest successes at La Scala, first the Visconti/Bernstein La Sonnambula (next up in the Warner box set), a Zeffirelli Il Turco in Italia, and, finally that season, the production that changed for ever people’s perceptions of Italian opera production, the renowned and controversially successful Visconti/Giulini La Traviata.

 

Callas in La Vestale – La Scala 1954

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7 December, the feast of St Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, is the official opening date of the La Scala season, and for the third time in four years, Callas was granted the privilege of opening the new season with a new production. This was also the first time she worked with Luchino Visconti, who was lured into directing opera by the prospect of working with Callas. He had first fallen under her spell when he saw her as Kundry in Rome in 1949; from that day onwards he tried to catch as many of her performances as he could . Between 1954 and 1957 he directed Callas in some of La Scala’s most iconic productions, La SonnambulaLa TraviataAnna Bolena and Ifigenia in Tauride. He was also to have directed her return to the theatre in 1960 in Poliuto, but he withdrew in protest after his film Rocco e suoi fratelli was censored by the Italian authorities.

This was Callas’s first appearance in Italy after the spectacular success of her first season in Chicago, which was her US debut. Her hair was now blonde (a short lived effect) and the transformation from everyone’s idea of an overweight prima donna to a svelte, elegant picture of glamour was complete.

With designs by Pietro Zuffi and sets by Nicola Benois, the production certainly looked stunning, and was cast from strength, with Franco Corelli as Licinio, Ebe Stignani as La Gran Vestale and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Il Sommo Sacerdote, but, for all the splendour of the staging and the excellence of the singing the opera failed to ignite the imagination the way Medea (even more unknown) had the previous year, and there the fault must lie with Spontini. whose music resists even Callas’s attempts to bring it to life. Though the opera is often dubbed a “junior” Norma, the character of Giulia has none of Norma’s inner turmoil or ultimate sacrifice, her sentiments, whether mooning over Licinio or gazing upward to Vesta, all too similar.

Callas does what she can, filling the music with her customary passion and wide palette of tone colour, and she moulds the phrases beautifully, her legato in such sections as O nume tutelar well nigh impeccable. Thrilling too is her propulsive singing of the cabaletta to Tu che invoco, but Spontini’s music never allows her to make the impression she does as Norma or Medea, or even Alceste.

The cause of the opera is not helped by Votto’s stodgy, soggy conducting. Maybe it needs a John Eliot Gardiner to bring it to life, as it rather resists even Riccardo Muti’s efforts in his recording.

For the rest, we have Corelli, compensating for some less than stylish singing with the clarion brilliance of his voice, Stignani a matronly Gran Vestale, which is apt enough for the character, I suppose, and Rossi-Lemeni dramatically committed, if woolly toned.

The sound here is no better nor worse than any of the other transfers I’ve heard, and distortion and overloading is, as it was in Alceste, pretty bad. I am happy that we have this document of a key production in Callas’s career, but, truth to tell, it is not an opera I turn to often, finding that the best of Giulia is to be heard in the three arias Callas later recorded in the studio with Serafin for the Callas at La Scala recital disc.

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.

Callas’s 1952 La Gioconda

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Recorded 6-10 September 1952, Auditorium RAI, Turin

Producer & Balance Engineer unknown

Callas’s first ever complete studio recording was made for the Italian firm Cetra in 1952, before she had signed with EMI. The role of Gioconda had furnished her with her Italian debut in 1947, and was the occasion she met two of the most important men in her life, her mentor Tullio Serafin and her future husband Battista Meneghini. Paradoxically she would make her second recording of the opera at the time of her affair with Onassis, and when she was separating from Meneghini.

When Callas recorded La Gioconda for Cetra she was still a large lady and at her vocal peak. It was recorded just a couple of months before she made her spectacular debut at Covent Garden in Norma and shortly before her only series of performances as Lady Macbeth at La Scala, a role one wishes had figured more in her career. She then went on to sing Gioconda at La Scala, her last performances in the role until the EMI recording in 1959.

Given the sheer animal power and massive, freewheeling brilliance she could command at this stage in her career, you would think this Cetra recording would, in all but matters of sound, win hands down over the later one, recorded seven years after when her vocal powers were failing, but I’m not sure it’s that simple, and, whilst listening to this one, there were quite a few passages where I found myself hankering after the later recording. True, the singing is often magnificent, and it is easy to be swept away by the coruscating force of her delivery, but I find myself missing some of the refinements she has made by the time of the second recording. This may be a controversial opinion, but this one seems to me to be a series of thrilling highlights, whereas the characterisation on the EMI set feels more of a piece, with a cumulative power I don’t get here, for all the added security of her voice; and actually there are certain, purely vocal moments, she manages better on EMI than she does on Cetra (the pitfalls of Ah come t’amo, the E un di leggiadre section from Suicidio, the whole of the section after she gives Laura the sleeping draught, for instance).

As against that, I should also state that her performance of Suicidio here completely floored me when I first heard it. I had no idea a female voice, a soprano at that, could sing with such passion, could have such powerful chest notes. It was absolutely staggering and one of the things that first turned me on to the genius of Callas in the first place. If I later got to know the opera better from the EMI recording and place that at a slightly higher level of achievement, it is none the less  a close-run thing.

The Warner engineers have done a great job of the re-mastering and it sounds much better than I remember it from my previous CDs, though obviously not so good as the stereo EMI set. One also misses the greater refinement of the La Scala orchestra and chorus.

As for her colleagues, it is largely a case of swings and roundabouts. Barbieri is a much more positive presence than the young Cossotto as Laura, but none of the men on either of the sets are particularly good. Ferraro on EMI isn’t very subtle, but he certainly makes a pleasanter sound than the awful Poggi. Honours are about equal between Silveri and Cappuccilli, Neri and Vinco. Votto’s conducting isn’t much different in the two sets, and remains some of his best work on disc.

One thing is for sure, Callas as Gioconda is an absolute must, and, regardless of any reservations surrounding her colleagues or recording quality, eclipses every other performance of the role on disc.

Callas in La Boheme

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Recorded 20-25 August, 3-4 September 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellinek: Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Mimi is a role one would not associate with Callas, and indeed it is one of four roles she learned for the gramophone but never sang on stage. The opera itself makes its effect easily and can withstand even a mediocre performance, the role of Mimi being probably one of the least demanding in the soprano repertoire. Great Normas may always have been thin on the ground; effective Mimis have been, and still are, plentiful. The role’s requirements are slight; sweetness, charm, and a capacity for what the Italians call morbidezza; qualities that come naturally to a De Los Angeles or a Freni, less so, one would have thought, to a Callas.

But of course the miracle of Callas is that she not only scales down her voice and personality to suit the demands of the role, but also finds within it a deeper vein of tragedy one hardly suspected was there, her singing full of little incidental details often overlooked by others. Her first utterances have a weariness that presages her illness, and she fades the voice away most effectively as she faints. The duet with Rodolfo is light and charming, but more of this Mimi’s capacity for love emerges in her aria. Starting shyly, she gradually suffuses her tone with warmth at the section beginning Ma quando vien lo sgelo, not lingering too long on the top As and thereby ruining the shape of the aria, as so many do, and I love the way the last section, from altro di me non saprei narare, is delivered with a slight touch of embarrassment as if Mimi suddenly realises she has revealed too much too soon.

It is in the last two acts, though, that Callas’s Mimi is at its most moving. Never before has Mimi’s despair been so heart-rendingly expressed, but also note how, with a single word (dorme? ) in the duet with Marcello, she conjures up all Mimi’s warmth and tender love for Rodolfo, with the gentlest of upward portamenti. Act IV is almost fail safe, but here too she is wonderfully effective, finding the palest of colours as the pallor of death takes over.

She has a good cast around her; Di Stefano in one of his best roles, Panerai a splendid Marcello, Moffo a sympathetic Musetta, and something of a relief from the sparky soubrettes we so often end up with. Zaccaria and Spatafora are an excellent pair of Bohemians.

Votto doesn’t do anything wrong, but such a cast would have benefited from a stronger hand at the helm. He accompanies well, but it’s a shame, given that Serafin was not an option at the time, Legge couldn’t have persuaded Karajan to stick around after recording Il Trovatore with her.

The sound of this La Boheme has always been good for its period. I owned the original Columbia LPs, which I played to death. These Warner CDs also sound pretty good to me.

There are so many good recordings of La Boheme in the catalogue, that choosing the best one is well-nigh impossible, and choice will no doubt come down to preference for certain singers. However this recording, made 60 years ago now, still holds its place amongst the top recommendations.

Callas’s Studio Un Ballo in Maschera

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Recorded 4-9 September, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

It may come as a surprise to find that this 1956 recording of Un Ballo in Maschera was the first time Callas was singing the role of Amelia complete, and that she would not sing it on stage until the following year at La Scala in a lavish new production by Margarita Wallman, her only stage performances of the role. As is her wont, she completely inhabits the role and so deep is her identification with it that one would assume she had been singing it for years.

Amelia is a transitional role in Verdi’s canon, looking forward to Verdi’s later style, but still with a requirement for many of the vocal graces one expects from a bel canto singer, most of them glossed over or ignored by technically less accomplished sopranos. Callas’s voice and technique were well suited to it, her dark timbre uniquely telling, filling out its phrases with true spinto tone. Amelia’s very first phrases are sung with breadth and a deep legato, and yet she executes the little turns Verdi adds to indicate Amelia’s nervous state of mind nimbly and with accuracy, and how beautifully she spins out the arch of the great melody at Consentimi, o Signore.

Act II finds her at her very best, first in the great scena that opens the act, including a secure top C at its close. But note how she phrases onwards and through the top note, so that the final cadenza and its quiet close become the focal point of the aria. Note also how she observes the sforzando markings at Deh mi reggi, whilst at the same time maintaining her impeccable legato. The ensuing duet with Riccardo (one of Verdi’s greatest inspirations) has an erotic charge not heard in any other version, save possibly the live one from the following year; who but Callas can invest the line Ebben si t’amo with so many conflicting emotions? Throughout this recording her voice, rich and dark hued, is more responsive than that of Eugenia’s Ratti’s light voiced soubrette. In the ensemble at the end of the first scene of Act III, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills, and hear in the Oath Quartet just before, how she whips through a series of triplets which take her from a sustained top Bb to D and Eb at the bottom of the stave with dazzling accuracy. This is Callas at her best, both vocally and dramatically.

The rest of the cast could hardly be bettered. Di Stefano may not be the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but it is still one of his best roles, sung with his own brand of slancio and lashings of charm. Gobbi is superb as Renato. Others may better him in the cantabile of Alla vita che t’arride, but few have expressed so eloquently the anguish and conflicts at the heart of Eri tu. Barbieri is a formidable Ulrica, and Ratti a pert, if occasionally too bright-voiced, Oscar. We also get a nicely ironic pair of conspirators in Maionica and Zaccaria.

Votto is, well, a good accompanist, and nowhere near as propulsive as Gavazzeni at La Scala the following year. Serafin would have been the better conductor for the job, but Callas was in a funk with him for agreeing to record La Traviata with Stella instead of her.

This was one of the few La Scala recordings not produced by Walter Legge, though the La Boheme which preceded it was. I have no idea why this should have been the case.  I originally owned the first UK reissue of the set on LP, and later the 1987 EMI Angel CD issue. Callas always sounded well on this set, but it is Ratti who sounds less shrill on the Warner than she did on the previous CD incarnation. Either that or my ears have become more forgiving.

I would never want to be without the live Un Ballo in Maschera from the following year, possibly the last time we hear Callas singing with such power and freedom, but this recording remains one of the most recommendable studio sets around, despite its mono sound. The opera was recently the subject of Radio3’s Building a Library programme. Final choice was eventually narrowed down to Muti with Domingo and Arroyo and this Callas set. If Roger Parker eventually plumped for Muti, that was because of the better, more modern sound and the greater refinement of Domingo’s Riccardo. However he comforted himself by making the Callas recording his historical choice, leaving him the best of both worlds.

Callas’s Studio La Sonnambula

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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

Callas’s 1959 La Gioconda

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Recorded 4-11 September 1959, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge and Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Harold Davidson

Suicidio! (in the earlier Cetra performance) was one of the first Callas arias I ever heard. It knocked me for six. I had no idea a human voice, an operatic soprano at that, could have such expressive power, and from then on Callas cast her spell on me.  This recording of La Gioconda was the second, and best, of the four Callas stereo remakes, and also the first complete opera she recorded (on the aforementioned Cetra set). The first pressing I owned was an American HMV Seraphim import, and I can’t in all honesty say much about how the sound on that compares with this. What I mostly remember is that one LP developed an annoying scratch in the scene after she gives Laura the vial in Act III, so annoying that it took me ages to relax and realise it wouldn’t be there when I listened on CD.

When I began listening to the Warner pressing I had the best intention  of comparing the sound with my original CDs (the 1987 digital remaster). First of all I compared the orchestral introduction. There was very little difference to my ears, but the new master did seem slightly clearer, as if the 1987 one had a slight fuzz on it. I then tried the Angele Dei at the end of Act I. Again, I found very little difference, but the voices on the Warner seemed a bit more finely focused, Callas’s voice at first blending with the male chorus, then soaring out over it. But I soon lost patience for making comparisons. The performance drew me in and I just wanted to get on with listening.

Recorded in September 1959, this Gioconda finds Callas in firmer voice than at any time since, say, the Dallas Medea of 1958, her top, right up to a solid top C in the last act, more focused and in control than it had been of late. She was in the process of separating from Meneghini, so maybe work came as a necessary distraction.

Callas only sang 12 performances of the role of Gioconda on stage (in Verona in 1947 and 1952 and at La Scala also in 1952), but she has become peculiarly identified with the role due to the success of her two recordings. Neither recording can boast the best supporting cast, but the second brings extra refinement from Callas, if less animal power, much improved recording and better orchestral playing from the La Scala orchestra.

The supporting cast is an interesting one. Cappuccilli had recorded Enrico in Callas’s second Lucia, as well as Masetto in the Giulini Don Giovanni and Antonio in his Figaro. He was still at the beginning of his career and his Barnaba lacks a certain authority. So too does Cossotto’s Laura, which is no match for Barbieri’s on the early Cetra set, beautifully though she sings. Ferraro can be an exciting singer at times, but it has always seemed an odd casting choice to me. He sings Gualtiero in the live Callas Carnegie Hall performance of Il Pirata, but appears to have done little else. Why on earth not Corelli, who only a year later was to sing Pollione on the second Callas Norma, and with whom she had sung on many occasions? Still, he is a great deal better than the wholly inadequate Poggi on the Cetra set. Vinco is no more than adequate as Alvise, Companeez rather better as La Cieca.

However, if we don’t get the six greatest singers the world could offer at the time, we do get the one greatest, and this is the reason the Callas La Gioconda remains the most recommendable recording of the work. Phrase after phrase is etched into the memory. Her very first entry brings a thrill of recognition, her legato digging deeply into the consoling phrases with which she comforts her mother. The score abounds with contrasts, and the first comes straight after this scene when she is confronted by Barnaba, spitting out the line Al diavol vanne colla tua chitarra, her voice dripping with loathing.

There is something so intrinsically right about her every utterance that it is impossible to imagine any other singer matching her achievement. She fails only on the pianissimo top B at Enzo adorato! Ah come t’amo! a phrase beloved of singers like Milanov and Caballe. If anything it is more in control here than it was in 1949, but where Caballe reaches to heaven, Callas is earthbound. That said if the performance of a whole opera can be ruined for you by one note, then I rather take pity on you. Callas’s singing was never about individual moments. A role had to be seen as a totality.

Interestingly, when Tebaldi came to record the opera quite late in her career, her recording producer suggested she listen to the Milanov recording, but when he went to visit her, he found her listening to Callas. “But why didn’t you tell me Maria’s was the best?” So much for rivalry.

Callas famously said of the last act of this set, “It’s all there for anyone who wishes to know what I was all about.” Looking back we can almost now see this as a valedictory statement, as she was never again to sing with such ease and security.