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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Maria Callas sings Puccini

Manon Lescaut: In quelle trine morbide; Sola, perduta, abbandonata; La Bohème: Si, mi chiamano Mimi; Donde lieta usci; Suor Angelica: Senza mamma; Gianni Schicchi: I mio babbino caro; Turandot: Signore, ascolta; In questa reggia; Tu che di gel sei cinta; Madama Butterfly: Viene la sera ... Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia ... Vogliatemi bene (with Nicolai Gedda, tenor, and Lucia Danieli, mezzo-soprano); Un bel di vedremo; Che tua madre; Una nave da Guerra ... Scuoti quella fronda di cillegio (with Lucia Danieli); Con onor muore ... Tu? tu? tu? tu? tu? tu? tu? Piccolo Iddio (with Nicolai Gedda)
Maria Callas (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Tullio Serafin
The Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Herbert von Karajan (Madama Butterfly)
rec. London, 15–21 September 1954, Milan 1–6 August 1955 (Madama Butterfly)
REGIS RRC1234 [72:16]

This disc is a compilation of nine arias recorded separately and originally issued as a Puccini recital-LP. To this are added quite extensive excerpts from the complete Madama Butterfly. Of all these operas Callas sang only two on stage: Turandot 25 times in 1948-1949 and 3 performances of Madama Butterfly in Chicago in November 1955, i.e. after this recording was made. But hearing her in these arias and scenes one can’t imagine that these were merely studio creations. That was of course one of Callas’s secrets: her total identification with everything she did and her ability to find the right persona. One need only listen to a few bars of the first Manon Lescaut aria to hear this. Alright, even as early as 1954 her "ugly" vibrato is becoming more apparent but one feels the personality, one realises through her timbre that Manon is only 17 years old – while in the voice of Tebaldi she is matronly and Albanese tells us that she is approaching 50. It is true that her acidity can be an irritant but is compensated for by so much involvement and by her ability to colour the voice.

The original recital takes us chronologically from Manon Lescaut to Turandot and within the operas the arias are also in chronological order. Her Mimi is a wonder of nuances, not as sweet as Victoria de los Angeles but just as believable. Maybe she was more a Musetta than a Mimi but these two arias are also telling evidence of her identification with a role that wasn’t a natural for her. Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi were even less typical Callas repertoire but she also invests these arias with her personality – not as beautiful as some colleagues but beauty is only a secondary quality with Callas. Her Turandot is regal and she has the ice as a natural ingredient in her voice, while Liú’s arias, especially the second one, seem like personal confessions.

The "bonus", which occupies approximately 50 % of the disc, comes in the form of substantial chunks from the complete Butterfly recording, where Karajan leads a pathos-filled performance from La Scala. In the great duet ending the first act Callas is partnered by Nicolaï Gedda, not very Italianate in timbre but an extremely impassioned and lyrical Pinkerton. This recording of the duet was actually my first contact with this opera, on an LP entitled "Callas in Duet" with extracts from several of her complete sets. Today, more than forty years later, every inflection of this reading is so indelibly etched into my memory. Maybe Gedda is too weak, too human a Pinkerton and Callas too worldly-wise a Butterfly – it should be the other way around – but still, after so many other outstanding versions, live or on disc, this is my touchstone. Un bel di, vedremo is sung with restraint and innocence and Karajan draws sensual playing from the La Scala forces. Callas and Lucia Danieli blend well in the Cherry Blossom Duet but on her own Danieli is a bit anonymous. In Butterfly’s Con onor muore, where all her hopes and dreams are finally proved to be shattered, Callas’s voice is at first drained of all tone, but then she holds no barriers and pours out all her despair with an intensity that hurts and is felt long after Pinkerton’s cries of Butterfly - too late! - and the last notes have died away.

All these arias, and the scenes from Butterfly, are of course classics and most Callas fans probably already have them in one format or other. Comparing this disc with my old LP pressings there was little difference in sound quality. This makes the CD a good buy – and cheap – for those who want to upgrade. Newcomers – and I hope this species is not yet extinct – could also with advantage start here.

Göran Forsling

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