It’s useful to take these three recitals together. They were recorded over a similar period, and Callas was using the sessions as a way of working on her voice after a long period of inactivity. Indeed in 1962 and 1963 she didn’t appear on stage once, giving only a few scattered concerts.
None of these discs could be considered essential, but the Verdi disc is the most recommendable. The most undemanding of the pieces (Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria) is predictably the one that causes her the least problems, and also yields the most vocal pleasure. As always the mistress of mood, she differentiates clearly between the conversational exchanges and Barbara’s song, her legato impeccable in the Ave Maria. The Aroldo arias are superbly intense and dramatic, as is Eboli’s O don fatale, the O mia regina section beautifully moulded, and benefiting from her deep legato. The top of the voice is no more pleasant here than it is elsewhere on these three discs, but the drama carries her forward and it is easier to forgive. There is not much to commend Elisabetta’s Non pianger mia compagna, and I often wonder why it was included.
The Rossini and Donizetti fails to ignite her dramatic sensibilities quite so much, and there are plenty of uncomfortable moments. However there are still times, when we glimpse what Callas might have done with this music a few years before. Her Cenerentola lacks sparkle, but the scale passages are wonderfully supple and smooth. This is a serious Cenerentola, though, given what she suffers before singing this aria, such a reading is not entirely inapt. That said, there is a much better version of her singing this at a concert in London, where she finds a lightness of touch that eludes her here. Elsewhere, much of the singing sounds tentative, much more so than on the Verdi. Though she unerringly captures Mathilde’s sighing loneliness in the aria from Guglielmo Tell, there is a rather lifeless air about the recording, not helped by the omission of a chorus in some of the items. Nevertheless her sense of style never deserts her.
Mozart, Beethoven and Weber are not composers one would naturally associate with Callas. That she could be a great Mozartian is evidenced by her test recording of Donna Anna’s Non mi dir, and a couple of blazingly defiant concert versions of Costanze’s Martern aller Arten, sung in Italian as Tutte le torture. (It is a little known fact that Callas was actually La Scala’s first ever Costanze.) The less said about Porgi amor and Donna Anna’s arias on this album, though the better. Elvira’s Mi tradi goes a lot better, and the recitative, with its contrasting emotions, is superb. It’s mirror piece, Beethoven’s concert aria Ah perfido also goes well, and, as it lies somewhat lower, suits her much better. It is without doubt the most successful item on the recital. Ocean, thou mighty monster is also superbly dramatic, but her peculiarly accented English is somewhat bizarre, and again the climaxes are something of a trial.
I find my attitude to these late recitals can vary each time I listen to them. Sometimes I find the wobbles, the insecure and unsupported top voice, the acidulous tone difficult to take; others I barely notice it, so taken up am I by her musical instincts. The Verdi I would hate to be without, the other two for very occasional listening only.