This live recording captures a great moment in operatic history, a moment when bel canto opera was finally taken seriously. As Montserrat Caballé once stated,
She opened a new door for us, for all the singers in the world, a door that had been closed. Behind it was sleeping not only great music but great ideas of interpretation. She has given us the chance, those who follow her, to do things that were hardly possible before her.
Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, Gencer, Scotto, even today’s DiDonato and Radvanovsky should all give thanks to Callas, for without this one production, their careers might have taken very different paths. True, Callas had by this time made people re-evaluate operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula, and she had had an enormous personal success as Rossini’s Armida in Florence in 1952, but it was La Scala’s spectacular production of this one opera, Anna Bolena which paved the way for the bel canto revival, and for the next few decades, long forgotten operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini would be revived all over the world.
Such was the anticipation and excitement surrounding the production that it was covered in the international press, the UK’s Opera Magazine dedicating seven pages of its June 1957 issue to Desmond Shawe Taylor’s review.
There is no doubt that La Scala wanted to make a splash, and there is ample photographic evidence of Nicola Benois’ stunning sets, and the superb costumes. It was also the apogee of Callas’s collaboration with Visconti, though unfortunately, after the production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, which followed they never worked together again. Visconti recalls.
It was rather beautiful, if I do say so myself. But not sublime as everyone else has said. It had atmosphere. Benois and I used only black, white and grey – like the grey of London – for the sets. The castle interiors, such as the broad staircase down which Callas made her entrance, were filled with enormous portraits. The colours of the costumes – Jane Seymour, the king’s new love, wore red, for example, and the guards scarlet and yellow – played off these sombre sets. But for Anna Bolena, you need more than sets and costumes. You need Callas. Each day I went with her to the tailor to watch over every detail of her gowns, which were in all shades and nuances of blue. Her jewels were huge. They had to be to go with everything about her – her eyes, head features, her stature. And believe me, onstage, Callas had stature.
The opera was heavily cut, so if you are looking for some ur-text version, you would have to go to studio recordings featuring Sutherland, Sills, Souliotis or Gruberova, but you would be missing out on the greatest Anna on disc, who, according to Richard Fairman in Opera on Record III, “alone, of latter-day artists, has the power to grasp the emotional crux of every line and put it across.”
First off I should mention that this Divina Records transfer is in a different world of clarity from the murky EMI version. Available as a download, I recommend it unreservedly.
Callas’s conception of the character of Anna is absolutely right from the word go. When asked by Rescigno, who conducted her in several concert performances of the final scene, why she phrased something in a certain way, she replied simply, “Because she is a Queen,” and it is this simple statement of fact that informs and shapes her portrayal. Callas’s Anna, though she suffers like any other woman, never forgets that she is a queen. In Callas’s own words.
Now history has its Anna Bolena, which is quite different from Donizetti’s. Donizetti made her a sublime woman, a victim of circumstance, nearly a heroine. I couldn’t bother with history’s story; it really ruined my insight. I had to go by the music, by the libretto. The music itself justifies it, so the main thing is not the libretto, though I give enormous attention to the words. I try to find truth in the music.
Contemporary reviews (and photographs) attest to the nobility of Callas’s bearing, and her first entrance vocally reflects that. Her first words have a natural authority and regal reserve, which gives way to deep private melancholy in the aria Come innocente giovane, which she sings in a gentle, perfectly focused half voice, her command of line and legato as usual superb. In the cabaletta, which is addressed to the court, she uses more voice, but the voice remains supple and she never loses for a moment that sense of regal composure.
In the following scene, where she unexpectedly meets Percy for the first time, she publicly retains her composure, though the conflicting emotions running through her heart are exposed in the many asides, and she starts the ensemble Io seniti sulla mia mano in a movingly intimate tone of infinite sadness.
These first scenes have introduced us to the character of Anna, regal, melancholy, troubled and noble, but the next scene is the one that will seal her fate and the one in which Anna will show her mettle. Alternately tender, then anxious, then truly terrified with Percy (who, it has to be said, behaves like a lovesick schoolboy throughout the opera), she is found in compromising circumstances by Enrico. Overcome with emotion she faints, but wakes to plead in melting tones her innocence in the superb ensemble In quegli sguardi impresso. Deaf to her pleas, Enrico asserts that the judges will decide her fate, and this is where Callas’s Anna really rises to her full stature, bringing to bear her queenly outrage in the words Giudice ad Anna! Guidice ad Anna! Ad Anna! Guidice! before launching the final stretta with an intensity that has to be heard to be believed. Singing with all the force at her command, she caps the ensemble with a free and secure high D, held ringingly for several bars.
The first scene of Act II (or Act III in this performance) contains the magnificent duet for Anna and Giovanna, prototype for so many of those female voice duets that pepper the operas of Donizetti and Bellini. In it Giovanna confesses her guilt, is at first repulsed by Anna, and then magnanimously forgiven. No doubt Bellini had this duet in mind when he penned the first duet for Norma and Adalgisa in Norma. Simionato, superb throughout the opera, is a worthy foil here, but Callas again transcends the music. Her interjections into Giovanna’s confession run the gamut of emotions from shock and revulsion to resignation and acceptance, until, in one of the most moving moments in the opera, she forgives Giovanna in a voice quivering with emotion. Always notable is the way Callas achieves her effects without once disturbing the musical line. She recognises that in bel canto opera it is the arc of the melody which carries the emotional impact, her sense of line and rubato always instinctively right.
The final scene in the tower is one she programmed into recitals on several occasions and recorded (in its entirety) for EMI on what is arguably her most successful recital disc Mad Scenes. Many have since recorded it, so it has become relatively familiar, but one should remember that it was practically unknown at the time of this performance. In Al dolce guidami Callas’s voice takes on an unearthly, eerie beauty, the music seeming to emerge from the very depths of her soul. Though closely adhering to the score, she sounds almost as if she is extemporising on the spot, and the audience listens in rapt silence, hanging on her every note, until it erupts in a corporate outpouring of applause and cheers at its quiet close. Her delivery of the recitatives in the scene is again a lesson in how to weight and measure the proportions of each line. The final Coppia iniqua is sung with massive force, the famous rising set of trills, either ignored or sketchily sung by others, sung with both accuracy and intensity, her voice rising with power to the top Cs. This is Callas at her best.
She is ably, and brilliantly, supported by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who gives her ample rein to play with the music in the quiet, reflective moments and urges the ensemble to absolutely thrilling heights in the big finales. Rossi-Lemeni’s Enrico is authoritative but woolly-toned and Raimondi’s Percy pleasingly Italianate without being particularly individual. Simionato, inspired to give of her very best, is the only other singer who comes close to Callas’s achievement, singing with glorious tone and dramatic involvement, but even she is less specific, more generalised, in her responses than Callas.
Anyone who has any interest in bel canto opera has to hear this set, which puts you in the stalls on one of the greatest nights in Callas’s career. At the end of his review Desmond Shawe-Taylor, asked if Anna Bolena could enter the international repertory.
With Callas, yes; without her, or some comparable soprano of whom as yet there is no sign, no. Many people think it a flaw in these old operas that they depend on the availability of great singer; but what would be the fate of the standard violin and piano concertos if there were scarcely a player who could get his fingers round the notes, let alone fill them with a lulling charm or a passionate intensity?
Well, eventually other sopranos did take it on, with varying degrees of success, and the opera is still performed occasionally today, but none of these other sopranos has quite matched the genius of Maria Callas, who was, without any doubt, not only a great singer and actress, but also one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.