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Maria Callas Opera Highlights
CD 1
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801–1835)
Norma (1831) [60:03]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Norma; Franco Corelli (tenor) – Pollione; Christa Ludwig (mezzo) – Adalgisa; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Oroveso;
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Tullio Serafin
rec. September 1960, Teatro alla Scala, Milano
CD 2
Georges BIZET (1838–1875)
Carmen (1875) [61:11]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Carmen; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Don José; Andréa Guiot (soprano) – Micaela; Robert Massard (baritone) – Escamillo; Nadine Sauterau (soprano) – Frasquita; Jane Berbier (mezzo) – Mercédès; Claude Cales (baritone) – Morales
Choeurs René Duclos, Choeurs d’enfants Jean Pesneaud
Orchestre du Théâtre National de l’Opera de Paris/Georges Prêtre
rec. July 1964, Salle Wagram, Paris
CD 3
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) [59:49]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Lucia; Ferruccio Tagliavini (tenor) – Edgardo; Piero Cappuccilli (baritone) – Enrico; Bernard Ladysz (bass) – Raimondo; Leonard Del Ferro (tenor) – Arturo; Margreta Elkins (mezzo) – Alisa; Renzo Casellato (tenor) – Normanno)
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Tullio Serafin
rec. March 1959, Kingsway Hall, London
CD 4
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
La bohème (1896) [53:36]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Mimi; Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) – Rodolfo; Rolando Panerai (baritone) – Marcello; Manuel Spatafora (baritone) – Schaunard; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Colline; Anna Moffo (soprano) – Musetta; Carlo Badini (bass) – Alcindoro
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Antonino Votto
rec. August-September 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milano
CD 5
Giacomo PUCCINI
Madama Butterfly (1904) [55:33]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Butterfly; Lucia Danieli (mezzo) – Suzuki; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – B. F. Pinkerton; Mario Borriello (baritone) – Sharpless
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1-6 August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milano
CD 6
Giacomo PUCCINI
Tosca (1900) [52:12]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Floria Tosca; Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) – Mario Cavaradossi; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Scarpia; Franco Calabrese (bass) – Cesare Angelotti; Angelo Mercurilai (tenor) – Spoletta; Dario Caselli (bass) – Sciarrone/Gaoler)
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Victor de Sabata
rec. 10-21 August 1953, Teatro alla Scala, Milano
CD 7
Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Aida (1871) [58:18]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Aida; Richard Tucker (tenor) – Radamès; Fedora Barbieri (mezzo) – Amneris; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Amonasro; Giuseppe Modesti (bass) – Ramfis; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Il re d’Egitto; Franco Ricciardi (tenor) – Un messaggero
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Tullio Serafin
rec. August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milano CD 8
Giuseppe VERDI
La traviata (1853) [55:50]
Maria Callas (soprano) – Violetta Valery; Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) – Alfredo Germont; Ettore Bastianini (baritone) – Giorgio Germont; Silvana Zanolli (mezzo) – Flora Bervoix; Luisa Mandelli (mezzo) – Annina; Giuseppe Zampieri (tenor) – Gastone; Arturo La Porta (baritone) – Il barone Douphol; Antonio Zerbini (bass) – Il marchese d’Obigny; Silvio Maionica (bass) – Il dottore Grenvil; Franco Ricciardi (tenor) – Giuseppe
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milano, 28 May 1955
EMI CLASSICS 3971042 [8 CDs: 60:03 + 61:11 + 59:49 + 53:36 + 55:33 + 52:12 + 58:18 + 55:50]

Less than a year ago I reviewed a 13 CD box with the complete studio recitals by Maria Callas, including a number of takes that were never published during her life-time. I stated then that this was a set to return to over and over again to savour her unique ability to make a role her own and this whatever vocal limits there invariably were the further into her career. I also argued that the best of Callas was in her complete recordings when she interacted with colleagues of her own calibre; this is what we get in abundance in this box. Here are eight operas in highlight form with focus on Maria Callas. It’s a treat for anyone who hasn’t already got the complete recordings, which should be first priority, or are satisfied with the recordings they already have but would like to have Callas in key scenes from a number of her best roles.

In all honesty not every role here is premium Callas. She never sang Carmen or Mimi on-stage, but she sang the arias on record and in concert. Every role she undertook in the studio she plunged wholeheartedly into and even though she might have been less than enthusiastic about some recording assignments the finished result never gave a hint of possible aversion.

What could be regarded as her three key roles, Norma, Lucia and Tosca, she recorded twice for EMI. The first was in the early 1950s in mono and with the advent of stereo she reprised them a decade or more later. By then her voice had deteriorated: the delivery was more effortful, the actual quality of tone was throatier and she had developed a quite prominent wobble on sustained notes above the stave. There was also a metallic hardness when the voice was under pressure. Not even in her earliest recordings was her voice anywhere near the well-equalized instrument of her toughest competitor Renata Tebaldi, but around 1960 her heavy work-load and a string of arduous roles had taken their toll.

For this box EMI have chosen the mono Tosca, which was a wise decision, since this is one of the true classics of the gramophone, while for Lucia and Norma the stereo remakes have been selected. The sound quality is certainly superior but are the performances?

As regards Norma, the later version has several advantages. Franco Corelli in his first recording for a major company, is a great improvement on Filippeschi on the earlier set. His larger-than-life approach is wholly appropriate for Pollione and not only does he have one of the most glorious voices but he is also sensitive. In the final duet his baritonal timbre is mightily impressive. The choice of Christa Ludwig as Adalgisa may have raised an eyebrow or two in 1960 but she is quite simply tremendous. She was far preferable to Ebe Stignani on the earlier set, who was idiomatic but over-aged. It’s a vibrant but nuanced reading and the only drawback is that Callas and Ludwig are so similar in timbre – two mezzos! – that it is sometimes hard do know who sings what. The fourth main character, Oroveso, is only heard briefly in the finale and it is a pity that Pollione’s aria in the first act wasn’t included – there was space in abundance for that. As for Callas I still think that the earlier recording is superior. She sings with even deeper insight here and the interpretation at large is just as thrilling as before but the voice has lost in steadiness and sometimes she is decidedly ugly. Considering the advantages of the new recording: better sound, a better Adalgisa and a far better Pollione, this is possibly the best all-round recording of the work, since Callas is still up to the requirements in most respects. It is a nuisance that Casta diva is shorn of the preceding recitative and the cabaletta and that the Mira, o Norma duet isn’t given complete. There was room for that, too.

Carmen was Callas’s last complete opera recording and I still remember the EMI flyers that were distributed at the time: CALLAS is CARMEN! She recorded the Habanera and the Seguidilla successfully on a recital disc in 1961 and showed her potential. In spite of some rough ends she lives up to the expectations here and singing in the mezzo-soprano range there are fewer technical obstacles. Carmen was certainly a role that was in line with Callas’s dramatic preferences and by and large this performance is one of the most earthy recordings of the opera. Lyrical Spanish singers – Victoria de los Angeles and Teresa Berganza – have committed warmer portraits of this character to disc, but Callas’s approach is fully valid and she has a thrill of her own. With Nicolai Gedda one of the best Don Josés, ardent and humane, Andrea Guiot a bright-toned but pleasing Micaela and Robert Massard a Francophone Escamillo, only superseded by José Van Dam, this is an excellent representation of Bizet’s masterpiece. The final duet has rarely been so intense.

Callas’s first Lucia di Lammermoor is universally acclaimed as one of the great opera recordings with Di Stefano a lyrical and ardent Edgardo and Gobbi a supreme Enrico. For the stereo re-recording EMI chose Ferruccio Tagliavini as Edgardo – a singer who had reaped laurels at the Met and was regarded as the natural heir to Beniamino Gigli, whose honeyed pianissimo was also Tagliavini’s hallmark. Tagliavini had recorded extensively for Italian Cetra – Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Boheme, Tosca and Werther some of his best recordings – but this was his first complete opera recording for a major company. By 1959 he was already 47 and had lost something of his lovely voice. His Giglian pianissimo was in good shape and there was still a good ring to his top notes but in the mid-register the voice had thinned out. I remember buying an LP with Neapolitan songs in the mid-1960s where he was still stylish but then the honey was gone forever and what remained was a hard-driven but still charming voice where bel canto seemed a lifetime away. On these excerpts he is a better than average Edgardo – and who else was at hand that was better suited to the role? Di Stefano recorded at about the same time with the young Renata Scotto and then he was ardent but stentorian. Callas is insuperable in this role and even though she was in better shape in 1953 she is an unusually life-like Lucia, some wobbling and shrillness apart. The young Piero Cappuccilli in one of his earliest major recordings – he was Masetto for Giulini at about the same time – is an intense but not very bel canto Enrico. It has to be said that Tagliavini in the moving final scene – which unfortunately is not given in full – is just as honeyed as Gigli but more stylish (no sobs) in Tu che a Dio in the tomb scene.

In the Bohème extracts Di Stefano certainly lives up to his reputation as he leading Italian lirico-spinto and his Che gelida manina is on the same level as Björling’s and Bergonzi’s, or Tagliavini’s for that matter. Callas is an expressive Mimi – who could have thought otherwise? – but a fraction cold compared to de los Angeles. But of course she is the seamstress to the life and the final scene is as moving as any on record. There are good contributions by secondary singers: most prominently the young Anna Moffo as Musetta. I wish Antonino Votto had been a little more adaptable and given her a chance to be more expansive and open just as the role requires. Panerai and Zaccaria are also valuable members of the cast but for this particular opera the Beecham recording is still without peer – even though I have colleagues who question this canonization.

The Butterfly recording, with Karajan less bombastic than in his Decca recording from 1973, is also thought to be definitive. That Maria Calls could scale down her basically dramatic voice was perhaps not too surprising but it still comes as a surprise that the formidable Tosca and Norma can also convincingly create a seventeen-year-old girl. In the duet that concludes the first act one even has a feeling that Pinkerton is the weaker part of the relation. Even so, such is Nicolai Gedda’s insight in the role that he, in spite of his rank, subordinates himself to his partner. The duet is an historical example of two voices of diametrically opposed quality uniting superbly.

The Tosca recording from 1953 is unsurpassable. The remake from 1964 is not bad. Tito Gobbi is still formidable Scarpia – though a little worn – and Carlo Bergonzi is a splendid Cavaradossi. Sadly Prêtre lacks a tense grip on the proceedings and Callas is in coarse voice. The problem with this highlight selection, though it includes most of the scenes that one would like to hear, is that, unaccountably, Cavaradossi’s Recondita armonia, is left out. At a playing time of just over fifty minutes this aria and a lot of other music should have been retained.

Aida was on Callas’s repertoire as early as 1948 but when she recorded it in 1955 she had already shunned the Ethiopian princess, after a performance in Verona on 8 August 1953. Theoretically this would be a dream role for her with its mix of youthful lyricism and high-strung drama. In fact she feels a bit over-the-top in Ritorna vincitor but the next moment she is wonderfully sensitive and inward. The Nile scene, which is more or less completely rendered on this disc, has her in duet with the formidable Tito Gobbi as her father Amonasro and the dramatic scene with Radamès. He is sung by a totally involved Richard Tucker – though he was even better a decade earlier for Toscanini – and Fedora Barbieri is a better than average Amneris. Once again I regret that certain passages were not included. The whole tomb scene would certainly have been an asset, since there is so much sensitive singing in O terra addio.

Maria Callas had her first recording contract with Italian Cetra. Besides some separate arias this resulted in two complete operas: La Gioconda and La traviata.  La Gioconda was re-recorded with a fairly starry cast at La Scala but for Traviata there was a catch: it had to wait another five years and in the meantime EMI recorded it with Antonietta Stella as Violetta - a set due for reissue on Naxos. When EMI wanted to give a picture of the diva they had to rely on live recordings and there turned out to be two. Both have been around for some time and both are live. One is with Alfredo Kraus and Mario Sereni from Lisbon with Franco Ghione (1886-1964) conducting, the other is the one included here, with Giulini conducting and Di Stefano and Bastianini supporting.

Even more than the other excerpts this one is focused on Callas. Nothing wrong in that but, considering how exquisitely Di Stefano and Bastianini sing other items should have been included. My candidates would be the first act duet Un di felice eterea con amore, the long second act scene, where it seems that the baritone is inspired by the total involvement of the heroine, Alfredo’s aria that opens act 2 and Germont’s Di Provenza il mar.

The discs come in a fairly slim-line box, 30 mm wide, with the discs in separate cardboard covers and with a 96-page booklet. Full contents - I should have provided it but I felt dog-tired - on Amazon and other commercial sites.

Oh, yes! An assessment. Is it worth the money? Amazon, the French branch, retail the set at EUR 24:05 which is a very decent price for eight CDs and a booklet with track-lists and synopses and some historical notes. Were I out for “Callas in the Theatre” with associates I wouldn’t hesitate. Ideally EMI would have been able to include a lot more on each disc but as things stand it is still a bargain for Callas-hunters content with extracts.

Göran Forsling 

 

 

 


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