Tosca – Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1964

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I’d forgotten that I hadn’t reviewed the final opera in Warner’s Callas Live Remastered, so, rather belatedly, here it is.

This Tosca marked Callas’s triumphant return to the stage after an almost two year hiatus. She had been lured out of semi-retiremet by Zeffirelli who was also to stage Norma for her in Paris, with the two opera houses sharing the two productions, though, in the event, the Paris Norma never made it to London. Paris did however get to see the Covent Garden Tosca. It was also the vehicle for her last ever stage appearance the following year when she agreed to sing, against doctor’s orders, for a Royal Gala. A couple of months before she had collapsed on stage and was unable to complete a performance of Norma.

At this performance, though the voice is not what it was when she made the famous De Sabata recording eleven years earlier , she is in remarkably good form, and her interpretation has deepened even further, no doubt the product of weeks of intensive rehearsal and her deep rapport with Tito Gobbi. John Copley, who was Zeffirelli’s assistant on the production, once told me he had never before or since come across such complete actor/singers. At rehearsals, Callas and Gobbi would improvise their scenes and then discuss what had worked, what hadn’t, before returning to the scene to incorporate any new ideas, just as straight actors do on stage. According to Gobbi, so close was their connection that they were even able to do this during a performance, so that if anything unusual happened, as it did one night when Callas’s hairpiece caught fire in one of the candles, they could incorporate it into their stage business.

The production has gone down in history as one of the greatest opera productions of all time, and those who were alive to see it still talk about it today. Act II has been preserved on film and goes some way to revealing the Callas magic on stage, but why oh why didn’t they record the whole thing? What a missed opportunity. The fame of the Zeffirelli staging, the iconic photos taken from it and the 1953 recording are no doubt the reason Callas is so much associated with the role, though it was not a favourite of hers, and, truth to tell, she rarely sang it after making the recording, and never at La Scala during her glory days there.

The first thing to be said for this release is that Warner have discovered a new sound source for the performance, and it is a lot better than anything we have heard before. There is a good deal of stage noise to be sure, but both voices and orchestra come across very clearly. It almost sounds like stereo, so clear is the acoustic.

The performance largely justifies its reputation, and is absolutely gripping from start to finish. Cioni is its weakest link, the voice a little thin and reedy, and, possibly intimidated by appearing alongside two such dramatic giants, with a tendency for empty overacting. He is certainly no replacement for Di Stefano in the 1953 recording, or Bergonzi in the 1964 studio recording, on which Callas is in less secure voice than she is here. He’s not at all bad, just not outstanding.

As for Callas, the voice lacks the beauty and velvet of her 1953 self, but, histrionically she is more inside the role than ever. Her Tosca is more feminine, more vulnerable, even more volatile, but somehow more endearing, and her singing is peppered throughout with wonderful little details. She is particularly charming (not a word one usually associates with Callas) in the Act III duet with Cavaradossi, girlishly happy in the way she looks forward to her future, which contrasts brilliantly with her utter despair when that future is cruelly snatched away from her.

Gobbi’s voice has also lost some of its velvet since 1953, but he too is wonderfully inside the role, his vocal acting so vivid you can almost taste the words. Actually one of the pleasures of the set is being able to hear the words so clearly, not only from the three principals, but also from all the excellent comprimarii. Cillario conducts an exciting performance, if without the many subtleties and revelations of De Sabata in the studio, which remains a first choice for the opera. That said, this one is highly enjoyable and I would place it above Callas’s second studio performance. It may not be not the essential listening of some of the other operas in Warner’s live box set are, but it is certainly worth hearing, and nicely rounds off the set, which thus covers almost all of her international stage career, from Nabucco in 1949, just two years after her Italian debut in Verona, to this Tosca, recorded the year before she sang for the last time on the operatic stage.

 

 

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25 Movies

People on Facebook have been posting stills from movies that have had an impact on them, and it got me to thinking of which ones I would choose.I’ve chosen 25, and realise that most of these are quite old, but maybe that’s because things make more of an impact on you when you’re younger and have experienced less. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are stills from 25 of mine. They are numbered for convenience, but that in no way reflects any preferential order. How many of you can guess the titles from the stills here?

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Maria Callas – Icon

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

 

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.

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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

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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

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

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

Callas’s Covent Garden Traviata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Ifigenia in Tauride – La Scala 1957

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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

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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

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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.