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Maria Callas (1923-1977) - The Complete Studio Recordings (1949-1969)
Detailed contents list at end of review
EMI CLASSICS 3959182 [70 CDs]

This seventy CD set claims to feature everything Maria Callas recorded in the studio and that is certainly the case in respect of operas and recitals previously published by EMI itself and also by Cetra. Material not previously remastered has been done so specifically for this issue, including the Cetra recordings that were recently reissued by Warner Classics under the title Simply Callas (2564 69814-4). The contents are listed at the end of this review and include twenty-six operas and fourteen recitals, most of the latter as they were originally issued in LP form. The seventy CDs of this collection are contained in cardboard sleeves within an ornamental box, which slides in a outer case bearing the singer’s portrait. The CDs are numbered sequentially according to recording date except for CDs 68 and 69. the first of which contains recordings made between 1953 and 1961 and not included elsewhere. Likewise the second is of recordings made between 1962 and 1969. The final CD (70) is a ROM with libretti and ‘Callas Picture Gallery’. The libretti are given as separate files grouped by composer. Each libretto is given with translation in English, German and French. The picture gallery comprises a set of black and white photographs of Callas in various roles or in the recording studio. In view of the comments, in this review and elsewhere, about her weight loss and its possible effect on her singing, the difference between her figure in the early 1950s and by 1955 are notable. The accompanying booklet gives all details including venues and dates for each recording and a brief essay in English, German and French about the singer and her recording career. It is not easy to find the contents from this booklet and purchasers might do better to print off the list at the end of this review and keep it in the box.
It is often said that the great Italian tenor Caruso made the gramophone or, alternatively, the gramophone made the tenor’s reputation. Certainly his singing made a big impact on the sale of the new fangled phonographs and record playing devices that became the vogue in many homes. Cometh the day, cometh the man, or woman. With the advent of the 33rpm long playing record, every recording company saw the opportunity that the new playing length offered for the recording of opera. What had previously taken eighteen sides or more on 78rpm shellac discs could now be accommodated on a mere five or six of 33rpm vinyldiscs. Each recording company rushed to sign up known stars from the operatic stage for their roster of planned, or to be thought about, repertoire. Audiences in the major houses of Milan’s La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, as well as in the Italian provinces, were thick with recording company executives. Some of the singers on stage were well known, being involved with the complete operas already available on 78s. Otherwise the executives were alert for new talent. The British Columbia label, Angel in America, and its chief record producer Walter Legge, were very much on the look out. Making a big impact was an American-born singer of Greek origin called Maria Callas, who opened the La Scala season in 1951, the ultimate accolade. Legge thought her histrionic and vocal skills were what his company needed; skills around which to build their opera catalogue. The problem for Legge was that Callas had already been signed up by Cetra-Sorio, an Italo-American company to record four operas La Gioconda, La Traviata, Manon and Mefistofele. Dario Sorio, Cetra’s President had noted Callas’s Verona debut in 1947 and later broadcast recital.
Born in New York of Greek parents, at age 14 Callas returned to Greece in 1937 for her musical education, and sang the role of Santuzza in a student production when only 15 years old! She joined the Athens Lyric Theatre singing Tosca, the Fidelio Leonore, and Santuzza again. However, it was not until 1947 when she sang La Gioconda in the vast Verona Arena that she attracted attention and was engaged by Tulio Serafin to sing Isolde - in Italian. In 1949, having sung Brünnhilde eleven days earlier, she sang Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani in Venice. To learn and perform two operas of such diverse fach in such a time-scale was a formidable achievement of intellect and vocal skill. Each role is formidably challenging for a mature well-established singer let alone one at the start of a career. Dario Sorio did not lose sleep over such issues and in 1949 the Cetra label issued recordings based on radio performances in Turin. These constitute the first recital disc of this collection. This recital (CD 1) includes Callas’s deeply impressive singing of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Casta Diva from Norma and three arias from I Puritani. What a selection! No wonder Legge was to get interested. But, two years later, in October 1951, on her way back to Italy from Rio, Callas stopped off in New York and signed the Cetra contract. She made her first complete opera recording for the company, La Gioconda, in Turin one year later (CDs 2-4). This recording, together with the Cetra recital and the La Traviata that Callas was to record for the company are included in this collection in new remasterings under licence from Warner-Fonit.
At this stage in Callas’s burgeoning performance career, fate took a turn in Legge’s favour. Dario Sorio moved to Angel Records, the American arm of EMI, its relationship with RCA Victor having come to an end. After an assiduous courtship Callas followed Sorio, and Legge had his artist; Callas signing an exclusive contract in July 1952. By then Callas was making considerable waves in the long neglected bel canto repertoire. She had broken into international recognition singing Norma in South America in 1949. Whilst Norma was to be her calling-card at Covent Garden, La Scala and the Met, it was her portrayal of the title role in Lucia de Lammermoor that caused waves round the operatic establishments in the early 1950s. This became her first recording under her new Columbia/Angel contract. Before that could take place Callas fulfilled the first of her obligations to Cetra with a recording of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. In fact Callas only ever sang the part of Gioconda thirteen times on stage, including her Italian operatic debut at Verona in 1947. The 1952 recording reprises the tenor and conductor from the Verona performances. The demanding and highly complex character of the eponymous heroine requires just the skills that the diva evinced in abundance at this point in her career (CDs 2-4) She recorded the part again in 1959 (CDs 52-54). Many Callas enthusiasts contend that in this later recording, despite manifest vocal shortcomings, her interpretation is more vivid than found here. That is as maybe. Personally, I find that the first recording, with Callas’s voice fresh and even, some movement between registers in Suicidio apart, to be preferable. Her singing is tender, passionate and fiery, as the interpretation variously demands; in its totality her performance constitutes a formidable portrayal. I review the whole of this first recording in the Naxos remastering (see review). Despite my admiration for the Naxos realisations, taken from LP pressings by Mark Obert-Thorn and Ward Marston, with the advantage of access to the master tapes the versions under consideration here have a sonic advantage in respect of clarity and impact. To my ears these advantages are shared by all such parallel releases. However, I must point out this is a contentious issue and relates to the pitch of the transfers. This matter is discussed in some detail in a postscript to a colleague’s review of the first Callas Tosca recording on Naxos. In my own review of the parallel remasterings by Naxos and Regis of the Callas Rigoletto, I touch on the influence of remastered pitch on the audible output. Apart from that between Naxos and Regis, the differences between these various reissues are not so great as to worry any except those with perfect pitch, the highest quality audio reproductive systems and reference speakers.
The Columbia contract was intended to combine the use of La Scala with its august orchestra and chorus. This did not prove possible for three of the first five operas recorded as the sessions were scheduled during the theatre season. With Callas’s performances of the title role in Lucia de Lammermoor in Italy in 1952 being described as revelatory it was the first to be recorded - but not the first released - of the Columbia/Angel recordings (CDs 5-6). It was recorded in the Teatro Communale in Florence, a friendlier recording acoustic than the ever-problematic La Scala. The orchestral and choral forces are under the eloquent baton of Callas’s guide and mentor Tullio Serafin. He had prepared Rosa Ponselle in 1927 as well as Callas for their debuts in the role, and in 1959 he did likewise for Joan Sutherland for her memorable performances at Covent Garden. It was Serafin who persuaded Callas to bring the bel canto repertoire into her own when she seemed heading towards Wagner (Kundry, Isolde and Brünnhilde) and the heavier Italian roles (Turandot) all of which she had sung in the theatre.
Legge also signed Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi to constitute a core triumvirate with Callas for many of the complete opera recordings that he and the soprano were to set down together over the next seven or so years. Both male singers make outstanding contributions to the success of the Lucia recording (see review). Gobbi with his incisive biting tone is a suitably bullying Edgardo, whilst as Lucia’s lover, Enrico, Di Stefano gives one of his best performances in the series of collaborations with the soprano. In this recording Callas concentrates on the words and the evolution of the unfolding drama and uses a great variety of colour and tone to portray Lucia’s various situations, emotions and ultimate madness. In the Mad Scene itself she goes through her full vocal repertoire. Starting with covered, even occluded, half voice and then moving, via a high girlish tone, into full spinto richness and then clear toned coloratura with pin-point accuracy before concluding with a pure high E flat note that runs down the spine. In the totality of her interpretation there are times when a slight tonal unevenness between the registers is evident, but this is far superior to the 1959 stereo remake where her voice no longer does her bidding and where her tenor partner, Tagliavini, is well past his best (CDs 50-51).
A major problem with many of Serafin’s opera recordings, including those with Callas, was his predilection for the then current performing practice in respect of traditional cuts. Their work together suffers in that respect. In general there were several more years to wait before absolutely complete recordings of operas, particularly in the bel canto repertoire. That being said, and although much is made of Callas’s contribution to the so-called bel canto revival, it owes just as much to Serafin’s work with her and others. He had the idiom of the genre in his bones as is well illustrated in this Lucia recording, and elsewhere on disc, with his pacing and support for the singers and the moving forward of the drama. He is the conductor of the following I Puritani, (CDs 7-8) (see review) and Cavalleria Rusticana (CD 10), both being recorded in the Basilica di Santa Eufemia in Milan. Although the resonant acoustic of the venue certainly muddied the sound of the Bellini in its LP days, it is much clearer in these remasterings. Callas is still in good form in the bel canto Bellini whilst the drama of Santuzza’s predicament brings out the vocal strengths in her dramatic lower register; Di Stefano shows some vocal limitations in both. It is worth noting that Callas took on the role of Santuzza for the recording a few weeks before the scheduled Tosca sessions when another singer withdrew.
In August 1953 came the first recordings in the La Scala theatre itself, Puccini’s dramatic Tosca was chosen with the theatre’s redoubtable Music Director himself, Victor de Sabata, on the rostrum (CDs 10-11). Recorded complete, anecdote and legend surround the recording and particularly the number of re-takes the perfectionist conductor and Legge demanded. Although when first issued the performance was not greeted with unalloyed joy, it has become recognised as one of the all-time greats. By absolute standards, none of the three principals is vocally perfect. Callas herself does not always sustain a perfect legato, Gobbi has raw patches in his tone and Di Stefano is stretched at climaxes. However, it has to be said that these failings are more than adequately compensated for by the strengths of the performance. Di Stefano sings with ardent lyrical beauty in his great solo pieces and particularly in the Act 3 duet with Tosca. No Scarpia on record has been so threatening, or snarled so effectively, as Gobbi; his taunting of Tosca in the Church, prior to the Te Deum, is chilling But, above all, what makes this performance truly great is Act 2, where Gobbi and Callas, as they did in so many theatres, act off each other. The sparks of the drama, aided by the orchestral tension built up by de Sabata, really fly. There are moments of involvement and identification of singer and role rarely caught on a recording. It is the vocal acting and dramatic tension built up in Act 2 that justifies the iconic status of this recording (see review).
The issue of the first Callas opera sets on the Columbia/Angel labels, and their reception, must have seemed like free publicity for the smaller Cetra label. They took Maria into the RAI studios in Turin to record her Violetta in La Traviata in September 1953, eighteen months before her acclaimed performances in the renowned Visconti production conducted by Giulini at La Scala in 1955. With a relaxed Santini on the rostrum, and alongside relatively routine colleagues, she shines. It is her only studio recording of the role. To considerable frustration currency restrictions meant that Britain was not able to import copies from the Italian source. The performance has all the Callas hallmarks and the 2007 EMI remasterings sound far superior to the LPs I eventually owned after Manchester’s Rare Records franchised the Cetra catalogue, albeit nearly bankrupting themselves in the process! My review of the performance on remastering for Naxos indicates the poorer recording quality obtained by Cetra compared with Columbia and I am pleased to report sonic improvement here (CDs 12-13).
It was back to the Metropole Cinema in Milan in April 1954 for Callas’s first recording of Norma. Strangely, at La Scala itself Renata Tebaldi, Decca’s and Callas’s personal diva rival, was singing Tosca. Why Legge waited so long to record here as Norma I do not know. It would have been a better choice than I Puritani the year before as evinced by her vocal freshness in Lucia. In the 1952 performances at Covent Garden under Gui she had bowled over the critics. This live performance has been issued by EMI (562668-2). On this studio recording Callas and Stignani, as Adalgisa, are in less fresh voice whilst Fillipeschi is routine as Pollione. Despite these reservations, as I indicate in my review of the Naxos remasterings (see review), Callas’s Norma in this performance has an overwhelming impact (CDs 14-16). She re-recorded the work in stereo in September 1960 in her last opera recording at La Scala with Serafin again the conductor (CDs 55-57). In this later recording, Corelli, as Pollione, and Zaccaria are infinitely better than their predecessors, whilst Christa Ludwig is a vocally secure but unidiomatic Adalgisa. Callas, however, is vocally uneven. Her lifestyle and her inappropriately heavy repertoire of ten years before had taken their toll on a significant interpretation of one of the greatest of bel canto roles for the soprano voice.
In June 1954 diva and producer Legge were back in La Scala for Pagliacci; Serafin again the conductor (CD 17). I find Callas’s voice too big for Nedda and she tries, unconvincingly, to lighten her tone. Gobbi is, however, first rate. Two months later, Legge and Callas were again in La Scala for the first of five Verdi recordings that were made over the next twenty-seven months. Perhaps aware of Decca’s plans for Tebaldi, the opera chosen was La Forza del destino (CDs 18-20). It would be foolish to state that Callas could soar above the orchestra with an even line like Tebaldi let alone Milanov in this work. But despite moments of vocal unsteadiness in a sotto voce diminuendo or at the top of the voice as she floats a phrase, overall hers is a performance of high standard. Legge, wisely cast the bigger voiced Tucker for the spinto role of Alvaro. For her last La Scala recording of the year, set down in the August, the opera chosen was the then rarely performed, except by Callas, bel canto work by Rossini, Il Turco in Italia. This was badly received at its premiere in La Scala in August 1814 but under Gavazenni, and alongside Gedda as Narcisco, Callas works wonders with its fioratura and humour (CDs 21-22).
September 1954 saw Callas in the different setting of Watford Town Hall and embarking on two - her first - recital discs titled Puccini Arias (CD 23) and Lyric and Coloratura Arias (CD 24). Her trusted mentor, Serafin, was on the rostrum. On the Puccini disc her rendering of Donde lieta usci from La Boheme is to die for whilst her Si. Mi chiamano Mimi from the same opera is less convincing. As well as her Butterfly arias, of note also is her singing of Liu’s two poignant arias from Turandot that tear at the heartstrings. In contrast her rendering of In questa reggia is unsteady. She never sang Mimi on the stage whilst her Turandot was heard widely in Italy a few years before this recording. In the second recital, her singing of L’altra notte in fondo al mare from Boito’s Mefistofele makes one regret that the contracted Cetra recording was never realised and her La mamma morte from Andrea Chenier is really her metier. In a period when coloratura technique seemed lost Callas’s craft was much admired. Over 50 years later with many singers with which to compare her coloratura skills, hers can be faulted in many respects, technical as well as interpretive. An example is her singing of Lakmé’s Bell Song; much admired at the time of its issue it now seems thin and wiry with Callas’s coloratura lacking tonal body and flexibility. The lower pitched Una voce poca fa, recorded the year before her La Scala performances, which were only moderately well received, it is significantly more technically adroit and with her characterisation showing Rosina’s viperish persona.
The year 1955 was the era of Callas at La Scala. She appeared in no fewer than six productions varying between Rossini’s comedy Il Barbiere di Siviglia to verismo and also including the memorable series of La Traviata performances conducted by Giulini and produced by Visconti. In the two years previously she had shed over twenty-five kilos of weight. To her divadom at La Scala Callas added other facets of the diva lifestyle and behaviour. With her newly svelte figure she began to be concerned about the ‘correct’ social circles and her picture appeared in the newspapers beyond the review pages. Her first recording of the year was a recital made in the La Scala theatre (CD. 25) under Serafin and taking in repertoire varying from Cherubini’s Medea, Spontini’s La Vestale to Bellini’s La Sonnambula and produced by Walter Jellineck who seemed to take on the duties when Legge was not available. Despite Callas’s great season at La Scala that year, Legge, to her chagrin, chose to record La Traviata with another singer rather than wait another two years for her restrictions under the Cetra recording to lapse. One wonders if the ever-perceptive Legge was hearing things in her sung performances, or seeing warning signs in her lifestyle, that caused him concern. That may be just contentious conspiracy theory. Certainly he continued to cast her in a widely varying repertoire, some of which she had never sung on stage, whilst neglecting to record some of her greatest roles such as Lady Macbeth. For him repertoire was sales bound whilst for her part she was comfortable in the recording studio and seemed willing to record whatever was proposed.
What Legge had in mind was a renewal of Callas’s association with Karajan with whom she had worked to great acclaim in Lucia di Lammermoor that same year. The chosen opera for the June recording was Madama Butterfly (CDs 26-27) with Nicolai Gedda as Pinkerton. Callas only ever sang the role on stage three times, but together with Karajan she creates a very individual performance being able to represent Butterfly’s evolving maturity, soon-to-be-dashed joy and the move to her destiny, in a manner few have equalled. The rest of the cast are mediocre and Gedda a disappointment.
Two months after the Butterfly recording Callas returned to Verdi for her next three recordings, all made in La Scala with its particular acoustic problems. The first two, Aida (CDs 28-29) and Rigoletto (CDs 30-31), have Serafin on the rostrum and Gobbi as the father. Callas had not sung Aida on stage since 1953, perhaps recognising it was no longer a role for her in the theatre. On record her performance is vocally varied. In my review of the Naxos remastering, I note her lack of vocal security in O patria mio while acknowledging her better Ritorna Vincitor and enjoying the visceral excitement and drama of her confrontation with Barbieri’s Amneris in Fu la sorte dell’armi and with Gobbi’s Amonasro in the Nile scene. Richard Tucker is a robust Radames. In the September it was the turn of Rigoletto with Di Stefano returning to the recording roster as the Duke. Callas never sang Gilda on stage and although she manages convincing coloratura she never gets under the skin of the role and her affecting of a girlish tone does nothing for her dramatic gifts or the opera. This issue really belongs to Gobbi’s dramatic interpretation of the jester (see review).
The final instalment of the Verdi trio took place at La Scala in August 1956. It was one of Callas’s longest gaps from studio recording at that time. With Karajan again on the rostrum the work was Il Trovatore (CDs 32-33). Legge had wanted the vocally robust Tucker for the role of Manrico. Tucker, a devout Jew, preferred not to be associated with Karajan whose connections with the Nazi regime in World War II were, to say the least, questionable and the part went to di Stefano. In the lyrical passages he sings and phrases well, but lacks the vocal heft that the role really requires. Inevitably this is evident in Manrico’s big scena in act 3, Ah si, ben mio and Di quella pira when the voice takes on a bleating character rather than a full-toned attack. Callas exhibits not dissimilar weaknesses as Leonora. That she could and does inflect insights into the facets and dilemmas of the character is indisputable but as in her Aida there is a downside. Perhaps the best illustration of the strengths and drawbacks can be heard in Callas’s singing of the two main soprano arias in the opera, Tacea la notte in placida and D’amor sull’ali rose and in the more dramatic outbursts when pressure is put on the voice above the stave and unsteadiness ensues. Rolando Panerai’s assumption of De Luna fields a rounder tone than Gobbi might have done but is rather monochrome and his Tace la notte …Il Trovador! Lo tremo and Il balen are better heard elsewhere. Fedora Barbieri’s Azucena, whose Stride la vampa and Ai nostri monte are achieved with seemingly effortless sonority and expressive characterisation, is one of the strengths of the performance. Karajan makes minor excisions (see full review).
A fortnight after her Trovatore Leonora Legge had Callas go back to Puccini and another role, Mimi, in La Boheme, a role she never sang on stage. That seems no limitation and Callas is a very appealing Mimi. Panerai is a better Marcello than he was as Luna in Trovatore whilst Moffo, in one of her earliest recordings, is an appealing Musetta (CDs 34-35). Votto is the conductor as he is in the following Un Ballo in Maschera (CDs 36-37) recorded a month after Boheme and with the usual partnership of Di Stefano and Gobbi. It was Callas’s last Verdi recording and finds her in better all-round voice than in Il Trovatore. Her declaration of love in act 2 is memorable while the love duet with an ardent Di Stefano is one of the best on record. But it is her rendering of the dramatic Morro, ma prima in grazia that remains in the mind. Yes, there is the odd thin or curdled note, but this is one of the soprano’s best Verdi assumptions on record, her Violetta excepted, and where singers who are her equal surround her. The role of Riccardo suits Di Stefano well and his voice is not over-stretched, allowing him to phrase and express the emotions of the role. Gobbi’s Renato is heard best in Eri tu, whilst Barbieri is ideal as Ulrica and Eugenia Ratti a perky Oscar.
Legge was only too aware that Decca in particular was leaving his company behind in the technology of the emerging stereophonic recordings. In June 1956 he had assembled a star-studded cast at London’s Kingsway Hall and overcoming the complications of the new technology recorded Verdi’s Falstaff in the new medium. It seems it was not so easy to set up the necessary microphones and equipment in La Scala, so for Callas’s next recording, Il barbiere di Siviglia (CDs 38-39) the singers moved to the London venue in February 1957. With the orchestra under an idiomatic Alceo Galliera and with Gobbi dominant and charismatic as the eponymous barber, it is a thoroughly enjoyable performance. Callas had sung the role at La Scala in the winter of 1956 when the claque was vociferous and unsettling. In this recording, with a well selected tessitura suiting her vocal state she characterises well. The recent re-issue of the recording in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series is reviewed in detail by a colleague (see review).
Back at La Scala for Bellini’s La Sonnambula the following month (CDs 40-41). Callas is in good voice although not as light-toned or as fresh as she needs to be in act one as the young Amina. Later her veiled and occluded tone conveys the character’s dilemma. Nicola Monti as Elvino tends to put too much pressure on his voice at times, producing an unfortunate bleating. A complete contrast in respect of repertoire (CDs 42-43) came with the following recording in the July of Puccini’s Turandot. Callas had made a big impression in the title role in the early 1950s before concentrating on the bel canto repertoire. However, in her first recital disc for Legge of Puccini arias (CD 23), recorded in 1954, she sounds strained singing In questa reggia (tr. 10). By the time of this complete recording her high notes are a strain on the listener. Less than a week later she recorded the composer’s Manon Lescaut (CDs.44-45). Both complete operas featured Serafin on the rostrum. Callas’s Manon is full of vocal drama, particularly in the final scene, whilst she is less successful with the character’s fickleness.
Later in 1957, in a let-out clause in her EMI contract, but with Serafin and the La Scala forces and recorded in the theatre, she sang Cherubini’s Medea for Casa-Ricordi (CDs 46-47). Her interpretation of the title role has been described as classic. That may be so, and certainly her characterisation is superb, but it does not disguise the changes, for the worse, in her vocal state. As she increasingly became famed for diva tantrums and her social and love life, so her vocal state was deteriorating. This was, perhaps, the last of her opera recordings when she could adequately disguise, even overcome, the problems that were becoming increasingly manifest in her stage and studio performances. The male principals are not in her class despite the limitations referred to.
After the Medea recording it was another year before Callas returned to the studio. As her social life among the international jet set drew attention, so performances in the opera house declined. To a degree she compensated with recitals and was to record another two recital discs, her first since June 1955 (CD 25). The first, devoted to Verdi Arias (CD 48) was recorded in the Abbey Road Studio 1 in October 1958 and overlaps the second recorded in Kingsway Hall the same and following days. The difference is the provision, of the Philharmonia Chorus for the disc entitled Mad Scenes (CD 49). The Verdi Arias 1 includes Lady Macbeth’s three big arias. This was a role that Callas had sung on stage ten or more years before and she really spits character and venom in her interpretations. Verdi had stated that he wanted character and definitely not a beautiful voice for the role and Callas’s performance here would have pleased him immensely. She really bites the drama in Nel di della (CD 48 tr.1) whilst not being able to disguise vocal unsteadiness in the following La luce langue and adopting a characteristic occluded tone in the sleep walking aria, a mono version of which is included on CD 68. Overall, her interpretations of Lady Macbeth here do make one regret that Legge was too conservative and under the prevailing thumb of the popularity of the opera. Nowadays collectors would love a studio recording of Callas and Gobbi, as King and Queen, made around 1953. EMI has issued a live recording from La Scala made in 1952 under De Sabata and that is some compensation (CMS7 64944-2). The same is true for Nabucco in respect of the lack of a studio recording. Callas only ever sang the role of Abigaille in 1949 in Naples. None the less, her representation of Ben io t’ invenni (CD 48 tr.4) is imperious, albeit the movement from chest voice upwards in the stave is not without vocal faults and the final note is not easy on the ear. Elvira in Ernani was a role she never sang on stage and her interpretation in Ernani, Ernani, involiami (tr.5) has no virtues in her then vocal state, whilst her Elisabetta from Don Carlo has perhaps too much character, as well as unsteadiness, for the lovely final aria of the young Queen, Tu che le vanita (tr.6).
In the following recital, entitled Mad Scenes (CD 49), Callas sings with abandon and the effects are thrilling as long as the listener can live with the her vocal frailty. This is increasingly the state of affairs as she and Legge repeated Lucia di Lammermoor in London in March 1959 (CDs 52-53) and La Gioconda at La Scala in September 1960 (CDs 53-54), both in stereo. Callas enjoyed a major success in Lucia under Karajan in Berlin in 1955. As with Macbeth, a recording of a performance from that series has been issued by EMI (CMS7 63631-2) but it was an opportunity lost for a studio recording. As with their first Lucia recording (CDs 5-6), Serafin butchers the score whilst the singing of both Callas and Tagliavini is as severe a disappointment to me now, as it was fifty years ago. The young Pierro Cappuccilli as Enrico shows the promise amply fulfilled in the theatre and on record in the following thirty years. It is he, Ivo Vinco as Alvise, Pier Miranda Ferrraro as a virile voiced Barnaba and the young Fiorenza Cossotto as La Cieca who provide the enjoyment in the La Gioconda remake (CDs 52-54). Others find Callas’s interpretation preferable to the earlier Cetra recording. For me the vocal flaws weigh heavily. Callas’s stereo remake of Norma followed at La Scala a year after in September 1960 (CDs 55-57). In the role that was for so long her calling-card, it is again a shadow of her greatest interpretations in the theatre, some of which are available on disc as live recordings.
After the remake of Norma, and with her private life continuing to impose strain on her operatic work, Callas made some recordings in London conducted by Antonio Tonini who, as assistant Music Director at La Scala, had helped to prepare many of her roles at the theatre in the mid-1950s. These are contained on CDs 68 and 69 and are dealt with below. In spring 1961, autumn 1963 and again in May 1964, Callas ventured into the warm acoustic of the Salle Wagram in Paris to record recitals with Georges Prêtre on the rostrum. She felt the acoustic suited her voice at that time and the results were issued as Callas à Paris 1 and 2 (CDs 58-59). Her choice of repertoire is interesting and must reflect her own awareness of some vocal limitations at the top of the voice although Depuis le jour requires a legato beyond her vocal state. All the arias are sung in French with the three from Samson et Dalila on the first disc being the most successful and where she also essays the two arias from Carmen. The following three recital discs (CDs 60-62) were recorded, again in the Salle Wagram but with Nicola Rescigno on the rostrum at sessions in December 1963 and early 1964. They are titled Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, Verdi Arias II and Rossini and Donizetti Arias. Of these Salle Wagram recitals, items such as Ah! perfido from Oberon suit her vocal state better than others, certainly better than Donna Anna’s or Elvira’s arias from Don Giovanni (CD 60. trs 1 and 4-6). On the Verdi disc her rendering of Desdemona’s act four arias from Otello (CD 61 trs. 2-3) are full of characterful insights but are also marred by the occluded tone that she had, of necessity it seems, adopted as standard. Lack of steadiness that is nothing short of a wobble is also a feature that intrudes into the bel canto arias of CD 62. These vocal characteristics are also found on the third Verdi recital disc (CD 67) where it is painful, to me at least, to compare her singing of Tacea la notte (tr. 5) from Il Trovatore and Ecco l’orido campo and Morro, ma prima in grazia from Un Ballo in Maschera (tr. 7-8) with her singing on the complete recordings. Like the so-called Tonini sessions, recorded in London in 1960, 1961 and 1962 and a last session in 1969 under Rescigno, all contained on CDs 68 and 69 these are perhaps for Callas enthusiasts and masochists only. Maybe Callas herself was aware of their limitations and only agreed to the release of some of them several years after their recording.
Callas had returned to perform at La Scala in the seasons 1960-62 and to Covent Garden for Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca in 1964 where the queue waited and slept on the pavements for days beforehand. She was still seen as a great singing actress despite her evident vocal limitations. Aware of her selling potential, EMI cast her as Carmen in a Salle Wagram recording of the opera made in August 1964. With the polyglot Nicolai Gedda as José, and a Francophone cast in the other roles, and with Georges Prêtre on the rostrum. The company issued the three LPs in a crimson luxury box with the motto Callas is Carmen (CDs 63-64). It was a role she had never sung on stage. The central tessitura suits her and she is more of the tigress than the sexy vamp. However, her vocal unevenness is problematic on repeated hearings.
With sessions split over Christmas 1964, and with an unrealised film dubbing in prospect, Callas recorded her last complete opera. It was to be Tosca again (CDs 65-66). Despite the harshness at the top of the voice she and Gobbi had been magnetic at Covent Garden, particularly in act two, a black and white recording of which exists. Some of that vitality is lost under Prêtre’s flaccid baton; he nowhere approaches the De Sabata class of the 1953 recording, but is a mere ‘routinier’. Apart from the sound, the only improvement on the mono 1953 recording is Bergonzi who is a vocally tasteful and strong, but not overly ardent, Cavaradossi.
In conclusion, no singer in the twentieth century divided critical opinion like Maria Callas. There is a big, big, problem facing any critic when reviewing a Callas collection. For the past fifty years, there has been a cohort of critics reviewing her recorded performances who saw her on stage. She was, without doubt, one of the greatest singing actresses ever to adorn the operatic stage. Her Violetta at La Scala in Visconti’s 1955 production of Il Traviata, with Giulini on the podium, were legendry great nights of opera albeit not vocally perfect. London critics had had similar great histrionic nights with her Norma and Aida at Covent Garden. However, too many critics who were in the theatre on those great nights have, in my view, consistently allowed their subjective memory of the stage diva to influence their objective analysis of the singer’s recorded performances; particularly those made later in her career. Whatever the reason, be it flawed vocal production in respect of how the sound was produced and projected, or singing big parts at too young an age, or the lifestyle she adopted as a media celebrity, her vocal peak was short-lived and her decline rapid.
Maria Callas died, alone, in her Paris apartment in 1977. The legend of the singer lives on. Such was her impact on operatic performances in the theatre and on record. She made an ill-advised return to the concert platform with her former tenor partner Giuseppe Di Stefano in early 1973. The duo made some recordings, in studio conditions and accompanied by a London orchestra that have never seen the light of day. Only the pedantic would deny EMI their heading for this issue in the year of the thirtieth anniversary of the diva’s death and the sixtieth of those Verona performances that caused such a stir among the opera cognoscenti. In bringing all her recognised studio recordings together, at an attractive price, it will enable a new generation of opera lovers to make their own judgement. In those early years of her career, when coloratura technique seemed lost, Callas revived a repertoire consigned to history. After her Sutherland, Caballé, Gruberova and the likes have taken on that repertoire, often with a more secure vocal technique. That is the way of progress, but none can take away from Callas the impact her performances had in theatres and on the awareness of opera among the general public. That is her greatest epitaph.
Robert J Farr
The accompanying booklet gives all details in sequence of recording, except for CDs 68 and 69. These CDs are collections from various dates ranging from 1953-61 on the fist disc and 1962-1969 on the second.
Detailed Contents List
1. The complete studio recitals
First Recital - Bellini and Wagner. (CD 1)
(Recorded November 1949 in Turin for Cetra). Remastered. 2007
RAI Orchestra, Turin, Arturo Basile
Puccini Arias. (CD 23)
(Recorded September 1954, London)
Philharmonia, Tullio Serafin
Lyric & Coloratura Arias. (CD 24)
(Recorded September 1954, London)
Philharmonia, Tullio Serafin
Callas at la Scala. (CD 25)
(Recorded June 1955)
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Mad Scenes. (CD 49)
(Recorded September 1958, London)
Philharmonia, Nicola Rescigno
Verdi Arias volume 1 (CD 48 )
(Recorded September 1958, London)
Philharmonia, Nicola Rescigno
Verdi Arias volume 2 (CD 61)
(Recorded December 1963 & February 1964, Paris)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, Nicola Rescigno
Verdi Arias volume 3 (CD 67)
(Recorded 1964 to 1969)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra & Paris Opéra Orchestra, Nicola Rescigno
Callas à Paris volume 1 (CD 58)
(Recorded March-April 1961, Paris)
French Radio National Orchestra, Georges Prêtre
Callas à Paris volume 2 (CD 59)
(Recorded May 1963, Paris)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, Georges Prêtre
Rossini & Donizetti Arias (CD 62)
(Recorded April, 1964)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, Nicola Rescigno
Mozart, Beethoven & Weber Arias (CD 60)
(Recorded December 1963 & January 1964, Paris)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, Nicola Rescigno
The EMI Rarities (2 CDs) (CDs 68-69)
Recorded 1962 London (The Tonini sessions). 1964, 1965 and 1969 Paris

2. The complete studio opera recordings
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma (CDs 14-16)
(Recorded April 1954) - Mono
Mario Filippeschi, Ebe Stignani
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Norma (CDs 55-57)
(Recorded September 1960) - Stereo
Christa Ludwig, Franco Corelli
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
I Puritani (CDs 7-8)
(Recorded March 1953)
Giuseppe Di Stefano, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Rolando Panerai
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
La Sonnambula (CDs 40-41)
(Recorded March 1957)
Eugenia Ratti, Fiorenza Cossotto, Nicola Monti
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Antonino Votto
Georges BIZET (1838-1870)
Carmen (CDs 63-64)
(Recorded July 1964, Paris)
Nicolai Gedda, Robert Massard
Paris Opéra Orchestra, Georges Prêtre
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Medea (CDs 46-47)
(Recorded September 1957), remastered. 2007
Renata Scotto, Mirto Picchi
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor (CDs 5-6)
(Recorded February 1953, Florence) - mono
Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi
Chorus & Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Tullio Serafin
Lucia di Lammermoor (stereo recording) (CDs 50-51)
(Recorded March 1959, London) - Stereo
Ferruccio Tagliavini, Piero Cappuccilli
Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra, Tullio Serafin
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)
Pagliacci (CD 17)
(Recorded May 1954)
Giuseppe Di Stefano
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana (CD. 9)
(Recorded August 1953)
Giuseppe Di Stefano
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda (CDs 2-4)
(Recorded September 1952, Turin, for Cetra)
Fedora Barbieri, Gianni Poggi, Paolo Silveri
RAI Turin Chorus & Orchestra, Antonino Votto
La Gioconda (Second recording) (CDs 52-54)
(Recorded September 1959)
Fiorenza Cossotto, Piero Cappuccilli
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Antonino Votto
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème (CDs 34-35)
(Recorded August-September 1956)
Giuseppe Di Stefano, Anna Moffo, Rolando Panerai
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Antonino Votto
Madama Butterfly (CDs 26-27)
(Recorded August 1955)
Nicolai Gedda, Lucia Danielli
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Herbert von Karajan
Manon Lescaut (CDs 44-45.)
(Recorded July 1957)
Giuseppe Di Stefano
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Tosca (CDs 10-11 )
(Recorded August 1953) - Mono
Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Victor de Sabata
Tosca (Second recording) (CDs 65-66)
(Recorded December 1964, Paris) - Stereo
Carlo Bergonzi, Tito Gobbi
Paris Opéra Chorus & Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, Georges Prêtre
Turandot (CDs 42-43)
(Recorded July 1957)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Eugenio Fernandi
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia (CDs 38-39)
(Recorded February 1957, London)
Luigi Alva, Tito Gobbi
Philharmonia Orchestra, Alceo Galliera
Il Turco in Italia (CDs 21-22)
(Recorded August-September 1954)
Nicolai Gedda, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Gianandrea Gavazzeni
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida (CDs 28-29)
(Recorded August 1955)
Richard Tucker, Fedora Barbieri, Tito Gobbi
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Un ballo in Maschera (CDs 36-37)
(Recorded September 1956)
Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Antonino Votto
La forza del destino (CDs 18-20)
(Recorded August 1954)
Richard Tucker, Carlo Tagliabue
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
La Traviata (CDs 12-13)
(Recorded September 1953, Turin), remast. 2007 (2 CDs)
Francesco Albanese, Ugo Savarese
RAI Chorus and Orchestra, Turin, Gabriele Santini
Rigoletto (CDs 30-31)
(Recorded September 1955)
Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Tullio Serafin
Il Trovatore (CDs 33-32)
(Recorded August 1956)
Giuseppe Di Stefano, Rolando Panerai, Fedora Barbieri
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Herbert von Karajan
CD 70 CD-ROM (Opera-Libretti & Callas Picture Gallery in black and white)


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