Released to coincide with the 25th anniversary
of the death of Maria Callas, this release is one of four opera sets
and further recital discs commemorating one of the most famous opera
divas of the last century. This set will have her fans salivating as
one of the most prominent features of a Callas performance is here in
full – the dramatic presence on stage, and the ability to make the drama
come alive, simply by the use on one’s ears. EMI has done a superb job
of La Sonnambula, given the material with which they had to work. It
comes in a full size double box, plus a high quality synopsis of the
opera and historical details of the artist, all at mid-price.
Are there any drawbacks to this issue? Yes. The recording,
although apologies are made for the sound quality on the box, is in
terms of when the performance was recorded (1955), the quality of sound
is pretty dreadful. The sound picture moves back and forward as the
singers move about he stage, and the audience is unruly, shouting and
bawling at strategic points as is common with many live Italian performances
from this venue.
If sound quality is of importance, I wouldn’t touch
this issue with a barge pole. However that would be to miss a glorious
performance of Bellini’s popular opus, with a dramatic flow which other
better recorded performances miss. Bernstein’s conducting is somewhat
reticent, not helped at all by the boxy sound quality and somewhat approximate
playing of the band, and ragged singing of the chorus.
There is verisimo singing with a vengeance, with more
sobs to the minute than I have experienced recently. However all is
not lost. Callas is in very fine voice, and this is caught reasonably
well by the recording, which overloads and distorts fairly regularly.
Once you have tolerated the first 15 minutes or so, the shortcomings
in the recording quality become less noticeable, allowing the true plus
points of the performance to shine through. The only singer which I
couldn’t tolerate was Eugenia Ratti, a soprano with a bright squally
tone which I found downright uncomfortable. Her duet with Cesare Valetti
at the beginning of Scene 2 in Act II is painful, and I am sure that
she wasn’t chosen to show up Maria Callas.
Bellini’s story of the sleepwalker is a pretty banal
story, accompanied by very simple tunes and nothing very inspirational
to carry the unsuspecting audience along. That this performance is compelling
at all is down to the artists involved.
Maria Callas performed in La Sonnambula 10 times in
March and April with Bernstein at La Scala, a further 12 performances
with Antonio Votto, 6 at La Scala in March 1957, followed by 2 in Köln,
and finally 4 in Edinburgh also in 1957. She recorded the opera in the
studio in 1957, conducted by Antonio Votto and this performance is also
still available (2 discs at full price).
Wherever she sang this role she was greeted with rapture,
and quite rightly so if this, first night performance is anything to
go by. I have not made any comments about the rest of the cast, as this
is really not necessary – anyone contemplating purchase of this set
will be buying it for Maria Callas, and it is well worth while for this