Maria Callas – Icon

Maria_Callas Icon

This is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote on gay icons for an online gay magazine, so I thought I’d include it in my blog. Please remember to take into account its intended audience.

There may have been divas before Maria Callas, but there is no doubt that the modern idea of what is a diva owes a great deal to the legendary opera singer, who, without ever singing a note of popular music, was as famous during her lifetime as a movie star. Even today, 41 years after her death and over 50 years after she last appeared on stage, her records outsell those of any other female opera singer.

Callas was born in 1923 in a New York hospital to Greek immigrant parents. Her mother, bitterly disappointed not to have had a son, wouldn’t even look at Maria for the first few days after she was born. Maria was an awkward, bespectacled, dumpy child with, in her mother’s eyes, one redeeming feature. She could sing. And, from an early age, Evangelia, Maria’s mother, decided Maria would become a star. No doubt here began the seeds of Callas’s burning desire to succeed, and also, what her record producer Walter Legge called, her superhuman inferiority complex. It was only by singing that she could get approval from her mother. It was a tempestuous relationship, and later they had a very public quarrel, leaving them estranged for the rest of Maria’s life.

41184a04e04b90de3653ed67d1d508c1--maria-callas-opera-singers              12cd6e4320697afc12d98c7e5ccd5bdc

Callas started out as everyone’s idea of the fat lady who sings, but shed 80lbs to become the svelte, elegant, iconic figure we know today, modelling her look on that of Audrey Hepburn. Some say this weight loss was also the reason for her relatively early vocal decline. Paradoxically, the more famous she became, the more her voice let her down, and her brilliance was relatively short, its peak lasting barely ten years, though as American opera star Beverly Sills once said, “Better 10 years like Callas, than twenty like anybody else.” She created a revolution in the staging of opera too, for Callas didn’t just sing, she could act, and it was her burning desire to fulfil all the dramatic demands of her roles, which was behind her decision to lose weight. To her way of thinking, it was crazy to have a fat, healthy looking soprano supposedly dying of consumption.

From the very beginning she caused controversy. Her voice was not conventionally beautiful, but it was better than that. It was a voice like no other, instantly recognisable with an extraordinarily wide expressive range, which she exploited to searingly dramatic ends. It was a large, dramatic voice too, and yet she had the technique to sing roles usually associated with much lighter voices. Those who just wanted to close their eyes and listen to beautiful sounds were jolted out of their complacency, and they didn’t like it. In her early days she enjoyed showing off her versatility, and within a week she alternated one of the heaviest roles in the repertory (Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre) with one of the lightest (Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani). It was a feat unheard of at that time, and she began to be known as the soprano who could sing anything. The traditionalists didn’t like it and battle lines were drawn.

From 1951 until 1958 she was the reigning queen of La Scala, Milan and Luchino Visconti, lured into opera by the prospect of working with her, here mounted some of the greatest opera productions ever in operatic history. It was also at La Scala that she worked with Franco Zeffirelli for the first time, and with conductors such as Victor De Sabata, Carlo Maria Giulini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. It was a period of amazing artistic achievement, and tenor Jon Vickers, often referred to Callas as one of the people most responsible for the revolution that occurred in opera after the second world war, rescuing it from the fustian stand and deliver concert in costume it had become, and creating living, breathing theatre. The La Scala audience was never an easy one, and she often had to deal with hostility from it, but, such was her genius, she could usually win a hostile audience over by the end of the evening. She was definitely a fighter.

8aec16d6efb7ee6115c2f30e90a2351a

The Callas myth is very much one made by the media. Her musical genius is often lost amongst the details of her private life and the scandals attached to it. The media concentrates on the occasional cancellations, the rows with opera managements, and often forgets the genius which made her a star. They build a picture of the capricious, temperamental, demanding opera singer, which, though partially true, tends to ignore the fact that she was intensely professional, dedicated and respected by most of the musicians she worked with. Her outbursts were usually brought about by what she saw as unprofessionalism. Unlike many divas who flounce in, do their bit and flounce out, Callas was often the first to arrive at rehearsal and the last to leave. She lived for her art. That is, until Aristotle Onassis arrived on the scene. Callas stupidly, blindly, fell in love and from that moment the media hardly ever left her alone.

When she met Onassis, she was still married to a much older man, Gian Baptista Meneghini. She married him shortly after she arrived in Italy in 1947, still only 23, overweight and gauche, and he had provided inestimable support in the early days of her career. By the time she met Onassis she was a very different person, svelte and elegant, and used to mixing with the artistic elite. Onassis, still married himself, was as taken by her fame as by her beauty and determined to make her his own. Callas, the ugly duckling who became a swan, was flattered by his attention, and became his mistress. She practically gave up her career for him, believing that one day they would marry, until, devastatingly, he married Jackie Kennedy instead. After the affair, Callas did try to pick up the threads of her career, but, along with the growing problems she was having with her voice, much of the fire had gone. During the Onassis years, she severely curtailed her engagements, attempting a comeback in 1964, after Onassis’s marriage. She agreed to appear in two new Zeffirelli productions to be shared with Covent Garden and the Paris Opéra, Tosca and Norma. Though the London performances of Tosca scored her an enormous personal success, the Normas in Paris went less well, and when she returned to the role there in 1965, the final performance of the run was abandoned, as Callas was simply too exhausted and unwell to continue. Later that year she made her final ever appearance in opera at a royal gala performance of Zeffirelli’s Tosca at Covent Garden, the only performance of the run she felt well enough to sing. She was singing against doctor’s orders, and even then only on condition that she sing only that one performance.

After that she lived as a recluse in Paris, occasionally attempting to revive her career. She played the role of Medea in Pasolini’s non-operatic film. Though her performance was enthusiastically greeted by the critics, the movie was not a commercial success, and she made no further pursuits in the direction of a movie career. She also gave a series of public master classes at the Juilliard in New York (the basis of Terrence McNally’s play Masterclass), and had an unsuccessful attempt at directing, with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, at the Turin Opera. She was, by this time, having an affair with Di Stefano, and, probably unwisely, agreed to embark on a world concert tour with him, at which they would sing duets and arias, accompanied by piano only. She had only just turned 50, but her voice was a pale shadow of itself. Only too aware of her shortcomings, she wryly noted how the critics were being much kinder to her then, than they were years ago when she was singing brilliantly. Audiences, though, went mad, screaming for more, besieging the stage with floral tributes, as if finally acknowledging now, in her ruin, the great star that she was.

When the tour came to an end, she holed herself up in her Paris apartment. She never stopped loving Onassis, for all that he treated her so badly. They secretly revived their friendship, though, according to her secretary, Nadia Stancioff, she flatly refused to have any kind of physical relationship with him after he married Jackie. After he died, it was as if all the fight was knocked out of her. Conductor Jeffrey Tate, who was working with her at this time (she never completely gave up the idea of a comeback), felt that she simply gave up living.

She died in 1977 at the age of 53 in circumstance that are still unexplained. Officially she died of a heart attack, but she was on so many uppers and downers by then, that some think it may have been an accidental overdose. Whatever it was, dying young certainly contributed to her legendary status.

Nowadays she continues to enthral and inspire, and her influence goes far beyond the opera house. Aside from the aforementioned Masterclass, Terrence McNally also wrote a play The Lisbon Traviata (taking its title from an at that time unavailable live recording of Callas singing La Traviata in Lisbon), which focuses on two of McNally’s pet subjects; gay relationships and the gay man’s love of opera. During her lifetime she was something of a fashion icon, having fabulous gowns designed for her by Milanese designer Biki, by Pucci, Fendi and Yves St Laurent. Not so very long ago Dolce and Gabbana produced t-shirts with her image on them for their 2009 collection, and recently American designer Zac Posen based an entire collection on costumes Callas wore in Argentina in her early years, and a couple of years ago, Mark Jacobs incorporated  images of Callas onto his designs of capes, t-shirts and bags.

In the world of film her records are frequently used on film soundtracks. Most recently it is the voice of Callas we hear singing Casta Diva in The Iron Lady, and Gus van Sant used her recording of Tosca as a backdrop for much of his brilliant Milk. And who could possibly forget that scene in Philadelphia, in which Andrew Beckett (played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks) attempts to explain to his lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), what opera means to him? As Maria Callas’s recording of La mamma morta from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier begins softly in the background and then swells to fill the theatre, Andrew translates the words and conveys the passions and emotional meanings behind this operatic excerpt.

“I am divine, I am oblivion, I am love. “

No wonder the Italians called her La Divina. After her death, baritone and colleague Tito Gobbi, said

“I always thought she was immortal, and she is.”

Advertisements

Poliuto _ La Scala, Milan 1960

81cwoavsenl-_sy355_

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.

 

Curmudgeonly Critics

Anybody who knows me will know that back in 2016 I was lucky enough to be cast as one of the featured dancers in the film Finding Your Feet. It stars some of Britain’s finest (Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Timothy Spall, Joanna Lumley and David Hayman), was directed by Richard Loncraine  and was eventually released on 23 February this year.

The whole process, from the auditions, where I reconnected with so many friends from my past, through the rehearsals and filming, was an absolute joy, and I number it among the most satisfying experiences of my career. This no doubt coloured my reactions to the film, which I first saw at a cast and crew screening just before its official opening, but I absolutely loved it. I found it heart warming and life affirming, funny and sad, beautifully played and directed, and felt sure that the reviews would reflect that.

27894200_366720420404479_30894150731694080_n
Imelda Staunton and Celia Imrie. Me in the background.

Unfortunately, the majority of the British critics were curmudgeonly and grumpy, most of them giving it just two out of five stars. It has been much better received in Australia, New Zealand and the US (winning the audience prize at the Palm Springs Film Festival last year), and audience reactions have in general been extremely positive.

My partner’s aunt saw it at a special preview in Australia last year, and told me the audience applauded at the end, an unusual occurrence which has been repeated at many showings here in the UK. Indeed one of the lovely young nurses, who was taking care of me during my recent spell in hospital, told me that the audience applauded at the end of the film when she went to see it last week. She’s a regular cinema goer, and found the spontaneous response somewhat out of the ordinary, but, according to many of the people I know who have been to see the film, it’s a regular reaction of audiences.

So why were the British critics so down on the film? It seems to me that they criticised the movie for what it wasn’t (and didn’t set out to be) rather than what it was. It’s a film about hope, about it never being too late to change your life, and it really isn’t. There is an element of fantasy, I suppose (though not the kind you will find in any blockbuster sci-fi movie) but what’s wrong with that? It doesn’t set out to be grittily realistic, in the manner of a movie by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh.

So please ignore the curmudgeons. Go see Finding Your Feet. I guarantee you will be entertained, and leave the cinema in a happier frame of mind than you were when you went in, unless of course you’re a curmudgeon too.

Il Pirata – Carnegie Hall 1959

1502882448_9029584466

Callas first sang the role of Imogene in Il Pirata in May 1958 at La Scala, Milan, her last appearance there until she returned to the house for Poliuto, the opening opera of the 1960 to 1961 season. It was not a particular happy time for her. Ghiringhelli, the intendant of La Scala, had been increasingly cold to her since the Rome walk out on January 2nd earlier that year. Relations had already cooled after her appearance in La Sonnambula in Edinburgh, after Ghiringhelli announced an extra performance without first getting Callas’s agreement. Ghiringhelli was playing a dangerous game, as he did not tell the Edinburgh Festival management that Callas was only contracted for four performances and let them sell a fifth using her name, presumably thinking that, once it had gone on sale, Callas would cave in and agree to the extra performance. Already unwell, and having fulfilled her contractual duties, she refused to sing the extra performance and left Edinburgh for warmer climes, a much needed rest, and, unwisely as it turned out, a party given by Elsa Maxwell in her honour. The press were merciless, painting Callas as the capricious prima donna, who had cancelled a performance in order to go to a party.

Though she had redeemed herself in the eyes of the La Scala audience the previous month  in a revival of Visconti’s production of Anna Bolena, Ghiringhelli did nothing to squelch rumours that Il Pirata would mark Callas’s last appearance at La Scala, and Callas seized a moment to point out the reason for her departure at her last performance. The word palco in Italian has a dual meaning. In the opera it means scaffold, but it also means theatre box, and when Callas came to sing La! Vedete! Il palco funesto! she strode to the front of the stage and gestured towards Ghiringhelli’s box in the theatre. Her meaning was not lost on the audience and it went wild, but Ghiringhelli had the last word, demanding that the fire curtain be lowered before Callas had been able to accept the ovations raining down on her.

It is a huge cause for regret that none of the La Scala performances appear to have been recorded, for there she was singing with first class support in Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini. Pier Miranda Ferraro, who sings Enzo on her second recording of La Gioconda, and Constantin Ego are not in the same class. Callas herself is in variable form, top notes occasionally afflicted with hardness and unsteadiness, but she is still a great Bellinian stylist, and the way she caresses and moulds the phrases shows up the provincial attempts of her colleagues. In the absence of a La Scala recording, we are fortunate that this concert performance was recorded.

There was an enormous amount of excitement attending her arrival in New York, fans having been deprived of seeing her at the Met after Rudolf Bing sacked her for not agreeing to the performance schedule he set out. Callas’s relationship with the Met had always been a tense one, but Bing’s boorish unwillingness to understand that a voice cannot switch to and fro between roles as differing in their vocal demands as Lady Macbeth and Violetta would suggest that the fault lay with his intransigence. His only concession was to offer a substitution of Lucia di Lammermoor for La Traviata, a role even further away from the demands of Lady Macbeth.

Understandably then, a certain amount of tension marks out her singing in her opening scene. Nevertheless, she stamps a Norma-like authority on her first recitative, and the whole scene, which she later recorded in the studio with Antonio Tonini, is a perfect example of how to express conflicting emotions, of carefully differentiating between public and private utterances. However she doesn’t really relax and get into her stride until the first duet with Gualtiero. Throughout this duet she gives a masterclass, unfortunately unheeded by Ferraro,  in how to shape and mould phrases, ensuring that the arc of the melody remains paramount.

Worth noting in the Act I finale is a dazzling four bars of rapid scales, which Callas executes with incredible virtuosity. Rescigno recalls that at the rehearsal, she muffed the scales at the fast speed with which he launched the stretta. He told her he would put the breaks on before her entry, but Callas responded,

“No, don’t do that, I like the tempo very much; it is valid and I don’t want you to help me.” “Well,” I said, “what if you don’t make it in the performance?” “That’s my business, not yours,” she countered. However out of her fantastic will came this superb, astonishing thing at the performance, all in order.”

In the second act duets she achieves marvels of elegance and grace, given the inadequacy of both Ego and Ferraro, neither of whom are in the least bit comfortable with any rapid passagework, and both of whom alter the vocal line to accommodate their weaknesses.

However it is when left alone in the final scene, a scene which she programmed regularly into her concert programmes, that she makes the greatest effect. Apparently at the performance, all the lights were lowered leaving just a spot on Callas. According to Louis Biancolli,

“An eerie glow fell on her face. At this ghostly juncture Miss Callas made the most of her strange and haunting timbres. It was something to be left in the dark with the voice of Maria Meneghini Callas.”

As ever the recitative is a lesson in how to weight and measure phrases, and the cavatina benefits from her deep legato, the filigree drawn out to heavenly lengths, but Rescigno takes it at a slightly faster tempo than both the studio recording of the previous year, and concerts later that year in Hamburg and Amsterdam, where she spins out the phrases to even greater length. The cabaletta too is more propulsive, but this only adds to the excitement, and the audience go wild at its close. As reported in the New York Times

Hundreds debouched down the aisles to the footlights. They applauded and yelled and screamed “Bravo Maria!” Miss Callas returned again and again for curtain calls. Finally a man came out and turned off the lights, and the worshippers departed.

Away from all the attendant excitement, the listener will no doubt realise that the performance, as a whole, is a little lacking in polish, but Callas’s greatness remains, regardless of the fact that she is not in her best voice. I may regret the absence of a recording of the La Scala production, but, as the only example of Callas’s Imogene, this recording is definitely worth having. None of the commercial recordings of the opera quite matches its fire and excitement.

The sound on this Warner issue is a good deal better than that of the old EMI issue, which would suggest that it comes from a different source.

 

 

 

La Traviata – Lisbon 1958

d81fp3y4vqbl-_sl1500_

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.

 

 

 

Ifigenia in Tauride – La Scala 1957

s1502891846_9029584454

After the spectacular success of Anna Bolena, Callas and Visconti plunged straight into rehearsals for her next new production at La Scala, that of Ifigenia in Tauride, an Italian translation of Gluck’s French opera. Though they didn’t know it at the time, this was the last time they were to work together, and they never really agreed about the production at all. Visconti wanted the opera to look like a Tiepolo fresco brought to life, but Callas just couldn’t understand the concept. She would ask him why he was doing it like that, averring that it was a Greek story, that she was a Greek woman and that she wanted to look Greek on stage. Whether she liked the concept or not, there is no doubt she looked magnificent in the costumes designed for her, but the production was at best a succès d’estime and was never seen again after the four performances given that season.

Visconti was to have worked with her on her return to La Scala in Poliuto in 1960, but, shortly before rehearsals began, a play he had staged (L’Aroldo) was censured by the government, and he withdrew in protest, refusing to work in any state-supported theatre. After that he would occasionally suggest projects, but she would always find reasons not to do them. She couldn’t dance like a gypsy for Carmen, she didn’t want to disrobe as Salome, or she didn’t feel sufficiently Viennese for the Marschallin, though, to be honest, I can’t really imagine Callas in Strauss.

As a whole, the La Scala performance of Ifigenia is somewhat lacklustre, which might explain why it was never revived. Sanzogno conducts in respectful, soupy, lugubrious fashion (you only have to listen to conductors like Gardiner and Minkowski to hear how much more vital the music can be), and the supporting cast, save for Cossotto’s Diana, makes very little impression at all.

Callas, however, commands attention from her very first utterance. It’s worth quoting here Visconti’s recollection of the impression she made at her first entrance.

Maria did exactly what I asked. As the curtains lifted, a storm was raging and she had to pace frantically across the stage. She wore a majestic gown with many folds of rich silk brocade and an enormous train, over which she had a large cloak of deep red. Her hair was crowned with huge pearls, and loops of pearls hung from her neck, encompassing her bosom. At a certain moment she ascended a high stair, then raced down the steep steps, her cloak flying wildly in the wind. Every night she hit her high note on the eighth step, so extraordinarily coordinated was her music and movement. She was like a circus horse, conditioned to pull off any theatrical stunt she was taught. Whatever Maria may have thought of our Ifigenia, in my opinion it was the most beautiful production we did together. After this I staged many operas without her – in Spoleto, London, Rome Vienna. But what I did with Maria was always something apart, existing unto itself, created for her alone.

She is in fine voice for this performance, riding the orchestra in that first entrance with power to spare, infinitely expressive in the more reflective moments, like Oh, sventurata Ifigenia. Later in the opera, when she recognises her brother, she somehow manages to impart four simultaneous emotions to the single word fratello; sister-love, sadness at their being parted so long, happiness to have found him and fear for his imminent, sacrificial death. Neither Montague on the Gardiner studio version, nor Delunsch in the Minlowski comes within a mile of her range and specificity of expression.

The sound on this Warner version is similar to the EMI I owned before, Act I enjoying rather better sound than Act II.

Maybe not an essential set, but Callas once again demonstrates her proficiency in Gluck even in less than ideal circumstances. One can only imagine how her performance would have been transformed with some of today’s conductors at the helm, and with a supporting cast more attuned to the needs of the composer.

Anna Bolena – La Scala 1957

cd_callas_live_anna_bolena

One of Callas’s greatest nights in the theatre is also, unfortunately, one of Warner’s worst transfers. This sounds very much like the old EMI, which was transferred from a very poor source. The sound is muddy and apt to wander in pitch. You just have to listen to Divina’s wonderfully clear, clean and crisp version to hear the difference.

I reviewed the performance in its Divina transfer back in June last year, and, rather than just repeating myself, would enjoin you to read my review by clicking on the following link  https://tsaraslondon.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/anna-bolena-la-scala-milan-april-14-1957/

 

Lucia di Lammermoor – Berlin 1955

81ABZEPHN2L._SL1500_

Moving on through the Live Warner Callas box, we come to the legendary night on which she sang Lucia at the Berlin State Opera.

Callas first sang Lucia in Mexico in 1952 and caused such a sensation that she completely changed people’s attitudes to the role. The following year she sang the role again in Florence, Genoa, Catania, Rome, and it was one of the roles she chose for her American debut at the Chicago Opera House in 1954. Also in 1954 she appeared for the first time in Karajan’s La Scala production, which he subsequently took to Berlin in 1955 and to Vienna in 1956, and all those iconic photos of Callas wearing that long, pleated nightdress are taken from this production.

To understand what a sensation the Callas/Karajan Lucia di Lammermoor wrought, one has to remember that, back then, the opera was considered no more than a silly Italian opera, in which a doll-like light voiced coloratura got to show off her high notes and flexibility. That a conductor of the calibre of Herbert von Karajan, famed for his Beethoven and Brahms, was taking it seriously caused people to reassess their perceptions. There is a charming story of Toti dal Monte, an erstwhile famous Lucia herself, visiting Callas in her La Scala dressing room, tears streaming down her face and confessing she had sung the role for years without ever realising its dramatic potential. Indeed it is pretty safe to say that without Callas’s Lucia, Sutherland’s career might never have taken the trajectory it did.

Apparently, though Callas loved making music with Karajan, she hated his production with its dark, murky projections and backdrops. However Zeffirelli thought that he got it just right. In the mad scene, Karajan lowered all the lights and just put a follow spot on her, which, as Zeffirelli stated, was all you had to do with a Callas. Karajan simply allowed her to become music.

Berlin was in a high state of excitement when Karajan took the La Scala production there in 1955, and, as can be heard on this recording of the event, the audience can hardly contain their enthusiasm. Desmond Shawe Taylor reviewed it for Opera magazine.

I dare say she will never sing better than she does now; there is Greek resin in her voice which will never be quite strained away; she will never charm us with the full round ductile tone of Muzio or [Rosa] Raisa or Ponselle. But she has sudden flights, dramatic outbursts of rocketing virtuosity, of which even those more richly endowed singers were hardly capable

His words now seem prophetic as 1955 could well be seen as the apex of Callas’s career. It was the year of the Visconti La Sonnambula and La Traviata, the Zeffirelli Il Turco in Italia, the Chicago Il Trovatore with Bjoerling, the year she made seminal recordings of Rigoletto with Serafin and Madama Butterfly  with Karajan (not universally well received at the time, but now considered a classic), and she closed the year with what many consider her greatest ever performances of Norma, at La Scala with Simionato and Del Monaco, mercifully preserved in sound and best heard in its Divina Records transfer.

The sound of this Berlin broadcast has always been one of the best of all Callas live performances and this Warner transfer, which is from a different source to the EMI one, is very clear, with very little distortion and only a hint of pre-echo. Furthermore, where EMI were somewhat parsimonious with the applause, Warner have left more of it in, which makes more sense of the encored Sextet. This is certainly one of those cases where the side show is almost as gripping as the show itself.

Callas did of course record the role of Lucia twice in the studio under Serafin. The first, in 1953, was her very first recording for EMI and the second, made in 1959, was the first of the four operas she re-recorded in stereo, a set I have a certain affection for it as it was the recording that introduced me to the opera when I was still in my teens. However, if I want to listen to the opera, it is invariably to this live recording with Karajan at the helm to which I turn.

Callas’s rare collaborations with Karajan always reaped gold, and it is greatly to be regretted that they didn’t work together more often. It was a symbiotic relationship and one can hear in this performance how Karajan appears to breathe with her, giving her ample room to spin out the phrases. However, with two such egos, the relationship was never going to be completely harmonious. Callas was apparently furious with Karajan for granting the Berlin audience an encore of the Sextet, meaning that she had to do twice the work before her Mad Scene; so furious that she turned her back on him during the Mad Scene. Years later, when she met him again, she said to him, “What was it you did when I was so bitchy and turned my back on you in the Mad Scene? I knew you were clever. But the accompaniment was so perfect, I decided you were not only a genius, you were also a witch.” “It was very simple,” Karajan replied, ” I watched your shoulders. When they went up I knew you were breathing in, and that was my cue for attack.” Callas, being something of a witch herself, no doubt knew that was only part of the story.

There is no doubt that Callas’s voice is lighter, more airy, than it was in any of her Lucias up to now. How much this had to do with the shift in repertoire, the weight loss or Karajan’s input is a moot point, but her singing is unfailingly lovely, with phrases drawn out to prodigious lengths, spinning them out the way a master violinist might play their violin.

From the outset Callas presents us with a highly-strung, romantic dreamer, a young girl, who would no doubt have been closeted and protected from the real world. Her first solo is sung with wonderful delicacy, the line deliciously drawn out and beautifully held at Karajan’s expansive tempo. As so often with Callas, there is no artifice to her singing, nor any sense of the routine, the music sounding as if it has sprung newly minted from her lips.

How typical that the first climax of the scene, should not be the aria itself, beautifully though it is sung, but a line of recitative that follows, with Lucia’s simple affirmation of her love for Edgardo (Egli e luce a’ giorni miei) just before she launches into the cabaletta Quando rapito in estasi, which is sung with lovely rhythmic buoyancy.

In the ensuing duet with Edgardo, she is all sweet concern, her phrases pouring balm on Edgardo’s troubled utterances, but we get a glimpse of the slightly unhinged Lucia, when, in a voice peculiarly quivering with intensity, she sings Ah no! rimango nel silenzio sepolto per or l’arcano affetto.

Verrano a te sull’aria is sung with prodigious breath control, the legato line spun out to wondrous effect. Di Stefano is here at his honeyed best, and Karajan provides subtly supple support, a superb example of artists listening to each other and working together.

The second act is the turning point for Lucia. In the face of such cruelty from her brother, this is the moment she starts to lose her reason, and you can hear in Callas’s voicing of the words Ahi!.. La folgore piombo! that the poor girl is at the end of her tether. Soffriva nel pianto is almost unbearably moving, as Callas digs deep into its melancholy.

In the following scene, she seems almost to be sleepwalking, until she falls apart completely when Edgardo suddenly appears and condemns her seeming treachery. The whole of this scene is dramatically thrilling, from the superbly sung (and encored) Sextet through to the knife-edge finale, where Karajan has opened up some of the cuts usually made in previous Callas performances.

The Mad Scene is, as it should be, the apex of Callas’s performance. So supple, so exquisite is her singing, that the voice seems to hover in mid air, and she literally seems to be extemporising on the spot. Certain phrases (Alfin son tua, for instance) are so firmly etched on my consciousness that any other singer seems just to be skimming the surface. The miracle is that she can execute all the vocal tricks of the coloratura soprano with such accuracy and skill, whilst at the same time making musical and dramatic sense of the notes. As ever, Karajan provides impeccable support.

We are lucky that such a superb cast was assembled; Di Stefano is at his considerable, lyrical best as Edgardo, Panerai terrifyingly single minded and relentlessly evil as Enrico, and Zaccaria a mellifluous and sympathetic Raimondo.

Aside from the cuts opened up in the Act II finale, the opera is unfortunately cut in the manner traditional back then. However the recording is nonetheless absolutely essential listening, not only for Callas fans, but for all lovers of Italian opera.

 

 

 

 

La Sonnambula – La Scala 1955

1502883093_9029584465

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

According to Romani,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrea Chenier – La Scala 1955

1498837923557

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.