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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.