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Maria Callas: A Portrait
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)

Norma: Casta Diva
I Puritani: O rendetemi la speme (w Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass; Rolando Panerai, baritone); Qui la voce sua soave (w Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass; Rolando Panerai, baritone); Son vergin vezzosa (w Aurora Cattelani, soprano; Giuseppe Di Stefano, tenor; Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass and Carlo Forti, bass)
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)

Lucia di Lammermoor: Il dolce suono; Ohimè! Sorge il tremendo; Ardon gli incensi; splendon le sacre faci (w Gino Sarri, tenor; Raffaele Arié, bass); Spargi d’amaro pianto (w Raffaele Arié, bass; Tito Gobbi, baritone)
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834 – 1886)

La gioconda: O madre mia; Suicidio!
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)

La traviata: Libiamo ne’ lieti calici (w Francesco Albanese, tenor); E’ strano! E’ strano!; Ah, fors’ è lui
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)

Tosca: Mario! Mario! ... Son qui! (w Giuseppe Di Stefano, tenor); Ora stammi a sentir (w Giuseppe Di Stefano, tenor); Vissi d’arte
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)

Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod (Sung in Italian)
Maria Callas (soprano), Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin (tracks 1 – 4, 14 – 16); Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Tullio Serafin (tracks 5 – 8); Turin Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antonino Votto (tracks 9, 10), Gabriele Santini (tracks 11 – 13), Arturo Basile (track 17)
Recorded in the Cinema Metropol, Milan, 1954 (track 1), in the Basilica di Santa Eufemia, Milan, 1953 (tracks 2 – 4), in the Teatro Comunale, Florence, 1953 (tracks 5 – 8), in the Auditorium RAI, Turin, 1952 (tracks 9, 10) and 1953 (tracks 11 – 13), at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1953 (tracks 14 – 16) and by CETRA (recording venue unknown) on 8th November 1949 (track 17)
NAXOS 8.111082 [68:11]

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The items on this compilation disc are all culled from Callas’s complete recordings made before 1955 and consequently out of copyright. Added to these is her very first recording, a shellac made on November 8th 1949, and what an auspicious debut, setting down Isolde’s Liebestod. And what a superb recording. Even here, when she was still 26, we recognize the typical Callas attributes: the gleaming high notes, the ravishing pianissimo singing, the somewhat hollow tone, sounding as if she had pebble-stones in her mouth, and also that slow beat, that is not very obtrusive here, but as time went by developed to the ugly wobble we know from her later recordings. With hindsight we realize it was a warning signal. Here, though, her singing is marvellous – and deeply felt. It is a pity that space couldn’t be found for the other items she recorded the following two days: her first Casta Diva on the 9th and O rendetemi la speme ... Vien, diletto, e in ciel la luna on the 10th. Especially this Casta Diva is a marvel. Maybe she delves even deeper into the character in the 1954 recording and her stereo remake in 1959, darker, more naked, is hair-raising, but by then the beauty of the voice was gone.

As always with compilations like this, one wishes that the items were presented in chronological order. The Gigli Edition, also on Naxos, is ideal in that respect. Then it is possible to notice changes and development. It is for example possible to hear a deterioration in the voice between her Traviata, made in September 1953, and her Norma, recorded in April and May 1954. And even earlier, when recording La Gioconda in 1952, her voice was at its most glorious. Suicidio! is a marvel with velvety soft pianissimo notes and rock-steady climaxes. Her Tosca is of course in a class of its own and there is actually nothing here I would like to be without. Maybe the Traviata duet with that four-square Albanese, but Callas is lovely here, so why complain?

I’m not going into detailed analyses here, instead I refer readers to reviews of the complete sets which have appeared on MusicWeb during the last couple of years. My advice is: by all means buy this disc – it’s a wonderful sampler of Callas at her best, the transfers by Ward Marston and Mark Obert-Thorn are excellent, there is a good essay by Malcolm Walker and at Naxos’s price it won’t ruin you. I’m almost certain that you will want to hear the complete sets as well and in that case you can always give away the sampler to somebody, who hopefully also will get the complete sets. Isn’t that what we call Domino effect nowadays?

Göran Forsling

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