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Maria Callas sings Bel Canto
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Vien, dileto (I Puritani)  (1835) [7.07] (1); Casta Diva (Norma) (1831) [8.57] (2)
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Mad Scene (Lucia di Lammermoor) (1835) [12.29] (3); Finale (Anna Bolena) (1830) [20.50] (7)
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Bel raggio lusinghier (Semiramide) (1822) [6.15] (4); D’amore al dolce impero (Armida) (1817) [6.43] (5)
Gaspare SPONTINI (1774-1851)
Tu che invoco
(La Vestale) (1805/07) [11.12] (6)
Maria Callas (soprano)
Gabriella Carturan (7); Gianni Raimondi (7); Plinio Clabassi (7); Orchestra of RAI, Turin (1, 2); Orchestra of RAI, Rome (3); Orchestra of RAI, Milan (4, 5, 6); Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan (7); Arturo Basile (conductor) (1, 2); Oliviero de Fabritiis (conductor) (3); Alfredo Simonetto (conductor) (4, 5, 6); Gianandrea Gavazzeni (conductor) (7)
rec. RAI, Turin 1949 (1, 2); RAI, Rome 1952 (3); RAI Milan 1956 (4, 6); RAI Milan, 1954 (5); La Scala, Milan, 1957 (7)
ALTO ALC1028 [74.00]


Experience Classicsonline

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.

Her performances 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.

The fundamental 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 the wildness.

These qualities 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 Callas’s 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 Callas’s 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 Donizetti’s 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 best possible.

The selection of items does not seem to have any sort of general plan. Items have been cherry-picked from a series of Callas’s 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 Callas’s career. There are no texts.

This is an interesting disc but not an essential one. There are a variety of other recital discs where Callas’s art can be sampled. But at budget price, it is easy to suggest that this makes a reasonably attractive proposition for Callas fans.

Robert Hugill


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