Maria Callas made her Italian debut in 1947 as La Gioconda
and then went on to sing a number of other heavier roles such
as Aida, Turandot, Brunnhilde and Isolde; though she also included
Norma in her repertoire. It was only her standing in for an indisposed
singer as Elvira in I Puritani in 1949 that brought about
her remarkable conversion to bel canto opera.† Though she
had sung Santuzza whilst still a student, she was also trained
by Elvira de Hidalgo in coloratura roles.
and her voice illustrate graphically the divide between the
heavier repertoire and the coloratura. Generally her vocal performances
move between an alarming wildness and a remarkable control.
The wildness, when held in check, contributes a remarkable vividness
and immediacy; the remarkable control meaning that her passage
work could be astoundingly clean for one possessed of such a
large voice. What makes recordings of her live performances
so astounding is the roller-coaster ride they can be as the
voice alternates between these two aspects always guided by
her intelligence and feel for music and character.
running through this is the steely core to her voice - no matter
how veiled her tone could be, no matter how plummy the sound
or how wild the vibrato on a held note, this core was present.
This gives her best performances a good sense of line despite
are vividly illustrated on this disc of bel canto arias
recorded between 1949 and 1957. The first six items are studio
recordings taken from recitals which Callas made for Italian
Radio. This means that they have a live quality but lack the
immediacy of some recordings of Callasís stage performances.
Also, though the diva is still peerless in her characterisation,
there is no denying that these early accounts are not a patch
on hearing the same item from a complete staged opera.
The first two items,
from I Puritani and Norma demonstrate a
remarkable inwardness, willingness and ability to thin the voice
down to a narrow thread. In these performances Elvira, Norma
and even Lucia are sisters under the skin; the voice narrowed
down, the tone inward and contemplative but with fine passagework.
Of course, there is wildness too; when she applies pressure
to the voice then the vibrato appears. All the louder passages
and the acuti suffer in varying degrees from this problem.
At best you hear a distinct vibrato of about a semi-tone and
at worst a simply alarming squawk-like sound. It could be argued
that often this is in keeping with the extreme nature of the
situation that the women find themselves in.
Here Lucia is not
manically demented but discreetly troubled and definitely otherworldly.
This extract reminds you that this is a concert performance
of an extract; on stage Callasís Lucia would certainly develop.
Bel raggio lusinhier
from Semiramide is perhaps the best item on the disc
when it comes to technical matters. In this item the control
wins out over the wildness, but the perfection comes at a cost
- the characterisation is low on the high wattage we expect
from Callas. Something similar could perhaps be said about the
aria from La Vestale, but this could simply be my relative
unfamiliarity with this earlier repertoire.
The final item is
the Finale from Donizettiís Anna Bolena, recorded live
from La Scala. Here we gain the benefit of hearing Callas live,
with the requisite gain in character, vividness and immediacy.
The passagework is still impressive and even in the louder passages
Callas refrains from the ugly punching out of individual notes
which can occur when bigger voices sing coloratura.
The transfers are
adequate; the recordings certainly sound their age but I have
not heard the originals so must assume that we are hearing the
The selection of
items does not seem to have any sort of general plan. Items
have been cherry-picked from a series of Callasís recitals and
the CD booklet gives no reasons (either artistic or technical)
for the selection.
The CD booklet includes
information about the background to each of the operas as well
as details of Callasís career. There are no texts.
This is an interesting
disc but not an essential one. There are a variety of other
recital discs where Callasís art can be sampled. But at budget
price, it is easy to suggest that this makes a reasonably attractive
proposition for Callas fans.