Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

Maria Callas
sings popular music from TV Film and Opera
EMI CDC5 57050 2 [74:28]

The album comprises arias from the following films:-

Philadelphia; Diva; The Bridges of Madison County; A Room With a View; Fatal Attraction; Trainspotting; The Fifth Element; Entrapment; Street Fighter; My Geisha; Basquiat; Copycat - and from the UK TV advertisement for Ford Modeo

Many films use popular well-known, well-loved operatic arias as source music. This album has seventeen of these sung by probably the best-known, best-loved operatic diva of the 20th century - Maria Callas (1923-1977). Her talent was immense, her virtuosity prodigious. By dint of hard work and supreme dedication she rose to the top of her profession. Her acting was applauded as much as her singing - one only has to watch her singing Vissi d'arte (from Puccini's Tosca) to appreciate the great intensity she brought to her roles. [See my review of The Art of Singing that includes this performance with the great Tito Gobbi as Scarpia]. Photographs of her in her prime, show her to have had the same sort of elfin beauty as Audrey Hepburn. The press loved her; one of two Paris Match double-page spreads, devoted to her, commented, "At the home of Puccini's granddaughter [the well-known Milanese couturier Biki], Callas tries on her evening gown…" (for a gala concert on 19th December 1958 at the Paris Opéra). Fame and 'scandal', the stuff of screenplays, followed Callas who died prematurely a semi-recluse in Paris abandoned by Onassis. But the 'whims' and 'scandals' fade into insignificance when her achievements are considered; her great musicality and her respect for composers' works and interpretative intentions-- she never took liberties. The album includes Callas in duets with other great voices of the century including the tenor Nicolai Gedda and baritone Tito Gobbi. Any further comment or rating from me is as unnecessary as it is superfluous.

The arias (not all of them used in films) are as follows:-

Vincenzo BELLINI
Casta Diva (Norma) from The Bridges of Madison County and featured in the Ford Mondeo ad. (8, 10, 19)

Ebben? Ne andrò lontana (La Wally) from Diva (14; 19)

O mio babbinio caro (Gianni Schicchi) from A Room With A View (14, 19)
Vissi d'arte (Tosca) from Copycat (10, 18)
Un bel dì vedremo (Madama Butterfly) from Fatal Attraction and My Geisha (14, 19)
Sì, Mi chiamano Mimì (La bohème) (14, 19)
Donde lieta uscì (La bohème)

Giuseppe VERDI
Ah, fors' è lui (La Traviata)
Addio, del passato (La Traviata) (13, 16)

Christoph Willibald GLUCK
J'ai perdu mon Eurydice (Orphée et Eurydice)(12, 17)

Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix (Samson et Dalila) from The Bridges of Madison County

Georges BIZET
L'amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera) (Carmen) from Trainspotting and Entrapment and Street Fighter
Près des remparts de Séville (Carmen) with Nicolai Gedda
Les tringles des sistres tintaient (Chanson bohème) (Carmen)(6, 11, 17)

Gioachino ROSSINI
Una voce poco fa (Il barbiere di Siviglia) (14, 15)

Spargi d'amaro pianto (Lucia di Lammermoor) with Tito Gobbi and Raffaele Arié
from The Fifth Element (4, 5, 7, 9, 19)


Giordano: Andrea Chénier: La mamma morta (14, 19)
Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila: Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix (12, 17)

Maria Callas (sop); Nadine Sautereau (sop) (1); Jane Berbié (mezzo) (2); Nicolai Gedda (ten) (3); Tito Gobbi (bar) (4); Raffaele Arié (bass) (5); Choeurs René Duclos (6); Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (7); Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano (8); Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (9); Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano (10); Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris (11); Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française (12); Orquestra Sinfonica do Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos, Lisbon (13); Philharmonia Orchestra (14)/Alceo Galliera (15); Franco Ghione (16); Georges Prêtre (17); Victor de Sabata (18); Tullio Serafin (19)

and Chris Fifield adds:

"Maria Callas: popular music from tv, film and opera" it says on the cover, leaving the uninitiated to imagine La Diva letting her hair down with the likes of "As time goes by", "My funny Valentine" and maybe "Moon River". But no, they didn't have crossover in those days and what it means is popular bits of operas which have been used in film soundtracks.

Now there is a serious point to be made here. Operatic extracts have cropped up in films and TV programmes, not to speak of TV ads, in the most unlikely places, and, to a remarkable extent, it is the Callas recordings which get used, as though opera and Callas have in some way burnt themselves into late 20th Century consciousness as synonymous. Italian Television made the point well during their Callas Day celebrations by putting together a string of snippets from such films, but I'm not so convinced that a sound-only recording has anything to contribute. And EMI are shooting themselves in the foot because not all the films referred to used the Callas recording anyway. I haven't checked them all, but "A Room with a View" used the Te Kanawa version of "O mio babbino caro", a performance whose gentle radiance was better suited to the film, if not to the opera, than the more pungent reading to be found here. No, I'm afraid that EMI, who must have been paid handsomely by the film producers in the first place, are just trying to get more mileage out of recordings which have surely earned their keep many times over. Purely on principle I feel this shouldn't be bought.

Of course, a clutch of unpublished or rare recordings would have made all the difference, but seasoned collectors will already have seen that there is nothing which is not readily available in more logical couplings. Not that it isn't a pleasure to hear it again, or most of it, but even forgetting the title and treating it as a portrait of Callas I have some reservations. The French pieces are all mezzo repertoire and she gets round them with that liberal use of the chest voice which surely contributed to her vocal decline. Furthermore, in the Gluck (usually heard in Italian as Che farò but both versions are authentic) she and Prêtre aid and abet each other in treating the piece to a continuous accelerando, an interpretation which likely to be as unacceptable to those brought up on Kathleen Ferrier's assuaging tones as to modern listeners whose expectations are altogether more historically aware. One can understand Callas wanting to portray Carmen, but listening to extracts rather than the whole opera focuses attention not on her psychological depth but on the singing as such, and here she throws more than a hostage to latter-day detractors who say she made a horrible noise.

But the Italian extracts are all justly legendary. I will try to explain why one day, but I prefer to wait for the next time a complete opera or a more serious anthology comes up. The recordings sound well, though the live Traviata is markedly inferior. Spot checks with some of the original LPs reveals that the sound has acquired more body and lost some of its cutting edge - mostly for the better. There are photographs and notes in line with the enterprise - lots about the legend and precious little about the music. So the message is, if you haven't got any Callas, go out and buy plenty. Which? Well, be wary of bootleggers, but anything with an EMI logo on it is safe. Anything, that is, except this.

Chris Fifield



Downright bad taste

Reviews from previous months

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