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Maria Callas
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835) Qui la voce from I puritani (1); Casta Diva from Norma (1)
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1798 - 1848) Ardon gl’incensi (Mad Scene) from Lucia di Lammermoor (2)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Anch’io dischuiso from Nabucco (3); Vini! t’afretta! from Macbeth (3); E strano..Ah, fors’e lui..Sempre libera from La Traviata (4); Addio del passato from La Traviata (4); Parigi, o cara from La Traviata (4)
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834 - 1886) Suicidio! from La Gioconda (5)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924) Vissi d’arte from Tosca (6)
Francesco Albanese (tenor) (4)
Orchestra of RAI, Turin (1, 3, 4, 5)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale, Fiorentino (2)
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan (6)
Arturo Basile (conductor) (1)
Tullio Serafin (conductor) (2)
Olivero De Fabritiis (conductor) (3)
Gabriele Santini (conductor) (4)
Antonino Votto (conductor) (5)
Victor de Sabata (6)
Recorded 1949 (1); 1953 (2, 4, 6); Live, 1952 (3); 1952 (5)
REGIS RRC 1165 [76.13]


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.

Abigaille’s ‘Anch’io 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 quality.

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 days.

Robert Hugill

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