Maria Callas Live


Most Callas fans have known of the existence of these live recordings for some times, and they have proliferated on many different labels over the years, with variable results. On the one hand there are companies like Divina Records and Ars Vocalis meticulously transferring these recordings in the best possible sound, and others with a more slapdash approach. Regrettably EMI generally adopted the latter approach, often just copying what were bad sources in the first place, in their attempt to cash in on the pirate market.

So how does the new Warner set measure up? I have yet to hear the whole set, but it would at least seem that they have adopted a more serious approach. Though they have not always found the best sources (there will often be more than one source tape for a single performance), they have at least done what they could with often intransigent sound. Though these transfers may ultimately not turn out to be the last word in Callas Live, at the price they are good value, and, with this release, Warner is at least making some amazing performances available to a wider audience. That said, the set should come with a warning for first timers that most of these recordings are not even up to the standard of reasonable mono studio recordings of the time. Perseverance is rewarded, though you do have to learn to listen through the sound, as it were. If you can , you will discover some truly remarkable singing.

In many ways this set gives a truer reflection of Callas’s stage career than the studio set, which includes operas she never sang on stage, as well as some that were only peripheral to her success. Of the operas represented here, twelve of them (NabuccoParsifalI Vespri SicilianiArmidaMacbethAlcesteLa VestaleAndrea ChenierAnna BolenaIfigenia in TaurideIl Pirata and Poliuto) were never recorded in the studio. Of these Andrea Chenier is an oddity. Callas sang the role of Maddalena only once at La Scala in 1955. She had been scheduled to sing Leonora in Il Trovatore, one of her greatest roles, but Del Monaco, who was to be the Manrico, suddenly professed himself not well enough to sing the role and offered Andrea Chenier instead! Maybe, as Callas didn’t know the role, he expected her to stand down, but, typically for her, she learned the role in a couple of days and was a very effective Maddalena. It’s very much the tenor’s opera though, and one wonders why she bothered. The production followed Visconti’s superb production of La Vestale, which opened the La Scala season, and she would go on to have spectacular successes at the house that same season in Visconti’s  La Sonnambula and La Traviata and in a Zeffirelli production of Il Turco in Italia. The role of Maddalena hardly offered her the kind of challenge she was used to.

One might think Parsifal (sung in Italian as all Wagner was in Italy in those days) an oddity too, but we forget that Callas sang a good deal of Wagner in her early days. Aside from Kundry, she also sang Isolde and the Walküre Brünhilde, famously deputising for an ailing Margherita Carosio in I Puritani whilst still performing the role, a feat that dramatically changed the direction of her career. Her Kundry is much more than a curiosity, her singing sensuously beautiful as it should be, though the orchestra is muddily recorded in this 1950 broadcast.

I have a few gripes about some of the performances chosen. Rather than Covent Garden 1952, I’d have gone for the La Scala Norma of 1955, with Simionato and Del Monaco, arguably the greatest of all her recorded Normas, recorded on a night when her voice was responding to her every whim. For me it is the one where voice and art find their greatest equilibrium. It also sounds pretty good, at least in Divina Records’ transfer. For Medea I tend to turn to Florence 1953 or Dallas 1958, though it’s a close run thing, and for La Sonnambula I prefer the 1957 Cologne performance, which also enjoys better sound. The Lisbon Traviata is also a justly renowned performance, but Covent Garden from the same year is even better, and also in better sound.

I wonder about the inclusion of the Mexico Rigoletto, which is a bit of a mess of a performance, especially when the studio recording with Gobbi remains one of the greatest in the catalogue. Why not the 1957 La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera under Gavazzeni, which is a superb performance, in much better sound? On the other hand the inclusion of the Covent Garden Tosca, despite the existence of the classic De Sabata studio performance, is warranted by its fame and it being the last of her great successes.

Warner have also included BluRay discs of all the concert material, including the complete Act II of Tosca from Covent Garden, though I haven’t yet sampled these to find if they are any better than the DVD copies I already own.

Presentation is, mostly, exemplary, each opera enclosed in a hard cardboard gatefold sleeve, the cover graced with a photo from the production (though it should be noted that the photo on the cover of the Lisbon Traviata is actually from Covent Garden the same year). Inside the cover is a note on the recording itself, though Warner doesn’t go into much detail about sources or methods of transfer, the booklet that comes with each opera, restricts itself to a track listing, opera synopsis and essay on the opera in English, French, German and Italian.

The accompanying book would have benefited from a hard cover. I have a feeling its thin paper cover will become tattered in all too short a time. The book itself includes an essay on each performance and its history, and I was very pleased to see the name of the late John Steane amongst the contributors. However I regret the absence of a CD-Rom with libretti and translations, such as was offered with the Warner Studio set.

I intend to review each opera individually later in my blog, when I will discuss both sound and performance.


Callas’s Lady Macbeth



As I reviewed this performance only recently, I thought I would just re-post with a word or two about the sound of the Warner edition.

Thankfully, Warner seem not to have used the awful EMI version, itself a clone of another release. EMI failed to notice that the version they used had spliced into the Act I finale a few bars of a performance with Gencer, done to cover what was thought a loss of tranmission. This new version, and the Myto detailed below, has found the missing bars and included them, though the sound here is more muffled than elsewhere in the ensemble. Comparing Warner to Myto, I eventually came down in favour of Warner, which sounds a little cleaner to me, though there is not a great deal in it. I haven’t heard the Ars Vocalis version, so can’t comment on it. The main thing to take into account is that both Warner and Myto are a substantial improvement on EMI, which was practically unlistenable.


Having reviewed all Callas’s studio sets, I thought maybe it was time I tackled the live ones, or at least those I have on CD, though I’ve heard quite a few others at one time or another too. I’m starting with Macbeth, as it happens to be the opera I’m listening to at the moment.


One of the yawning gaps in EMI’s catalogue of Callas recordings has always been a studio recording of Macbeth with Callas and Gobbi as the murderous pair. With Di Stefano as Macduff and Zaccaria as Banquo and Serafin, or even Karajan, at the helm, EMI would no doubt have had a winner, but Walter Legge deemed the opera not popular enough and so Callas got to record Mimi, Manon and Nedda instead, roles which she was never to sing on stage, but no doubt seemed more commercially viable. It is also easy to forget that back in the 1950s, Macbeth didn’t have the same high regard it has now. Ultimately, all Callas got to record of the role were Lady Macbeth’s three great solos for her Verdi Heroines recital of 1958. Nevertheless, so successful are her interpretations that they have become the standard for all Lady Macbeths who followed, and Callas has become indelibly associated with the role, though in fact these La Scala performances were the only occasion she ever sang it.

This performance, which opened the 1952 La Scala season, was certainly a starry affair. It was directed by Carl Ebert, with designs by Nicola Benois, and conducted by Victor De Sabata, and though the rest of the cast were hardly in Callas’s class (who was?) they are all a good deal better than adequate.

As can be heard in Myto’s most recent transfer of the performance, much clearer than any I have heard before (and a good deal better than EMI’s shoddy presentation), De Sabata has a terrific grip on the score, his conception symphonically conceived, and the La Scala orchestra play brilliantly for him, his tempi, with one glaring exception, which I will come to shortly, judiciously chosen. We are vouchsafed all of the ballet music, which is brilliantly played.


Mascherini’s Macbeth has been criticised for being a relatively muted presence, and he’s certainly no Gobbi, but I think his performance works in context. Macbeth, after all, is a weak character. It is Lady Macbeth who drives the narrative, both in Shakespeare and in Verdi. Sure, Mascherini is not particularly imaginative in his phrasing, but he makes an excellent foil to Callas in the duets, which she dominates, as she should.


The opera belongs to the protagonists and both tenor and bass roles are relatively minor. Whilst Penno as Macduff and Tajo as Banquo are not in the first rank, neither of them is bad, and both are much better than adequate.

But, certainly in this performance, the opera belongs to Lady Macbeth and Callas is astonishing. So complete is her mastery of the role’s complexities, that one would have thought that she had been singing it for years, whereas this was in fact the first time she was singing it in public. She doesn’t get off to the greatest of starts, with her peculiar voicing of the spoken letter before her first recitative, but once she launches into Ambizioso spirto, she never misses a trick. Her voice was in prime condition at the time, securely gleaming on high, dark and richly powerful down below. No other Lady Macbeth has so acutely observed  Verdi’s meticulous markings; no other Lady Macbeth has sung with such power and force, and yet with such a range of colour and expression; no other Lady Macbeth has executed the fiendishly difficult fioriture with such uncanny accuracy. This is the stuff of genius, no doubt about it, and anyone who has ever doubted Callas’s pre-eminence in the field should listen to the performance, preferably with score in hand.


As usual with Callas, she is apt to make her mark in a line, a word of recitative, as in one of the big set pieces, and her portrayal, full of incidental details, is all of a piece. Amongst the many revelations, I would mention the way she sings Vergogna, Signor after Macbeth has broken down before the ghost of Banquo in the banquet scene. The peculiar inflection she gives it, somehow suggests the deep love that exists between the couple, for without it, how does one explain why Macbeth is so much in thrall to his wife.

When Callas came to record Lady Macbeth’s three big scenes for her Verdi Heroines recital disc, her voice had lost some of the power and security on top, and consequently, good though they are, both Vieni t’affretta and La luce langue reach their fullest expression in the live La Scala version. However I do have a problem with the very fast speed De Sabata adopts for the Sleepwalking Scene. At so fast a tempo, Callas is less able to make her points, and it has always seemed to me something of a miscalculation. By the end of the scene, he has slowed down a bit, so maybe he thought so too, and we don’t know what happened in subsequent performances.

By contrast, the version on the recital disc is one of the greatest examples on disc of Callas’s deep psychological penetration into the psyche of a character. In interview she retells how she had felt in pretty good voice on the day of the recording, and emerged from the studio feeling quite pleased with herself. However , she was a little taken aback when Legge said she would have to do it again. Once she listened to the playback, though, she knew exactly what he meant. She had done a great piece of singing, but had not done her job as an interpreter. She then goes into a detailed analysis of the scene, of Lady Macbeth’s fluctuating thoughts, her fractured mental state, and how this should be expressed through the voice. Though much of Callas’s art was instinctive, there was evidently much also that was intellectual.


Callas only sang Lady Macbeth for one series of performances, at La Scala in 1952, but her achievement in the role has never been bettered, and it is a great shame that the role did not remain part of her active repertoire.

Callas’s studio recordings – an introduction

Released in September 2014, Warner, the new owners of the EMI catalogue, re-mastered all the Callas EMI and Cetra studio recordings and released them in a luxury box on 70 CDs with a hardback book of photos and articles about the re-mastering process, and a CD-Rom iincluding all the opera libretti and texts of the recital discc. Each disc is in a separate paper envelope, each opera or recital in a harder card envelope with a booklet containing an essay on the recording, by either Tony Locantro or Ira Siff.

Truth to tell, these essays are mere puffs and one regrets Warner’s decision not to use John Steane’s essays that accompanied the original EMI issues.

The re-masters have been well managed and, for the most part, sound better than any of the previous issues, and a good deal better than the disastrous 1997 EMI Callas Edition versions, though one or two still sound best in their 1980s EMI incarnations. Sound aficionados will no doubt tell you that the best sound is to be had on the original LP pressings, and they may well be right, but I no longer have the room for a record player and vinyl, so CDs will do fine for me, and a lot better than the majority of internet downloads.

Over a period of several months, I listened to the complete set in reverse chronological order, reviewing each one in turn, and I have decided this would be a good place to collate all the reviews.

There are 26 complete operas and thirteen recital discs.