The year 1949 was a
turning point in Maria Callas’s career.
In January of that year, having just
sung her first Brünnhilde in ‘Die
Walküre’, she was encouraged by
Tullio Serafin to stand in for an indisposed
soprano and sing Elvira in ‘I Puritani’.
The story goes that Serafin’s wife had
heard Callas singing ‘Qui la voce’ and
persuaded Serafin to consider her. The
rest, as they say, is history.
So it is appropriate
that this survey of Callas’s early recordings
starts with ‘Qui la voce’ from ‘I Puritani’.
This comes from a concert that she recorded
with RAI in Turin under Arturo Basile.
This concert also supplies the following
recording of ‘Casta Diva’ from ‘Norma’;
both items show Callas in fine voice
(the concert also included items from
‘Aida’ and ‘Tristan’). The recording
quality is not completely ideal, the
quality of the orchestral sound is fairly
limited, but one can accept this given
the stunning quality of Callas’s performances.
It remains remarkable that such an apparently
large voice could navigate the bravura
passage-work of these arias with such
apparent ease. Not that ease means an
easy coasting along; Callas is able
to go far beyond technique to use the
coloratura to mean something. Whilst
larger voiced sopranos have always included
Norma in their repertoire, it was rare
for Elvira to be sung by such a big,
dark voice. The combination of this
vocal quality with Callas’s technical
ability is electrifying.
The Mad Scene from
‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ comes from Callas’s
1953 recording of the work. This was
the first of two recordings and was
her first commercial recording for EMI.
Many admirers will, of course, have
the complete recording. But for those
who have the later recording or one
of the live ones, this extract gives
us a fine example of Callas’s art. All
the more attractive because it was recorded
before her dramatic weight loss the
following year and before her voice
started to fray.
dischuiso’ and Lady Macbeth’s ‘Vieni
t’afretta’ both come from a live performance
given in 1952 with the Orchestra of
RAI conducted by Olivero De Fabritiis
(besides the two arias here, the concert
included items from ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’
and ‘Lakme’). I found the orchestral
contributions in these items a little
disappointing; the ‘Macbeth’ aria suffering
notably from a rather plodding accompaniment.
The recording quality gives Callas’s
voice a distressing steely quality,
particularly in the upper register.
This is a disappointment, because the
performance of the Lady Macbeth’s aria
is truly fiery.
The items from ‘La
Traviata’ come from the complete set
recorded in 1953. These represent a
way station in Callas’s development
in the role and are not as involving
as her later live recordings, though
they are technically very assured. For
those who possess one of her later complete
recordings, these three extracts give
a good example of Callas’s contribution
without having to suffer too much of
Francesco Albanese’s sub-standard Alfredo.
As with other items in this set, the
orchestral part disappoints and the
recorded sound is quite poor.
‘Suicidio’ from ‘La
Gioconda’ is compelling. It is from
the complete set recorded in 1952 and
preserving Callas’s first Italian role.
Unlike the early ‘La Traviata’, this
is far more successful as a whole and
the complete recording (also available
on Regis) is highly recommendable. For
those who do not wish to invest in another
complete ‘La Gioconda’ this extract
gives a fine indication of the recording’s
Callas only ever sang
Santuzza on stage when she was 15 in
Greece, though she made a complete recording
in 1953 from which this extract comes.
As with other roles which were no longer
in her repertoire, Callas confounds
expectations and creates a stunningly
vivid dramatic performance. Finally,
no Callas recital would be complete
without ‘Tosca’ and here the aria ‘Vissi
d’arte’ is taken from her complete 1953
EMI recording with de Sabata.
There are some stunning
things on this disc, but I did feel
that the compilers had included rather
too many items from Callas’s complete
sets. Surely we could have missed off
the item from ‘Tosca’ and some of the
‘La Traviata’ items and had some more
of her arias from the RAI performances.
But if you only possess
later Callas recordings this is a fine
way to hear her in her younger, securer