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Maria Callas (soprano)
Lyric and Coloratura Arias
Francisco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur (1902): Ecco: respiro appena. Io son l'umile ancella [3:50]; Poveri fiori [3:13]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chenier: La mamma morta (1896) [4:53]
Alfredo CATALANI (1854-1893)
La Wally: Ebben? Ne andrò lontana (1892) [4:53]
Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele: L'altra notte in fondo al mare (1868) [7:28]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia: Una voce poco fa (1816) [6:53]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Dinorah: Ombra leggera (1859) [5:43]
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Lakmé: Dov'è l'Indiana bruna? [8:06]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
I vespri siciliani: Merce, dilette amiche (1855) [4:02]
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Medea: Dei tuoi figli la madre (1797) [4:49]*
Gasparo SPONTINI (1774-1853)
La vestale (1805/7): Tu che invoco con orrore [10:51]; O Nume, tutelar [2:30]; Caro oggetto [3:46]*
Maria Callas (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra, *Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/Tullio Serafin
rec. 1954, *1955


Experience Classicsonline

By now, so much ink, actual and virtual, has been spent arguing pro and con Maria Callas that there's little point in prolonging the discussion. So this review will offer the not-quite-random thoughts and reactions engendered and provoked by this album - which, by the way, I enjoyed immensely.

The voice was huge. One understands this intellectually if one knows the history - how Serafin convinced Callas to step into Puritani while she was in Italy to sing the Walküre Brünnhilde. Since recording engineers compress the sound of big voices, to avoid overloading, record listeners have to take the size and amplitude of Callas's voice somewhat on faith. For the alert listener, it's the color changes that give the game away. The sense of a sudden upsurge of overtones as the soprano reaches the top of the staff - which happens only with large, well-produced voices - is almost visceral, even heard through the monaural recording. The downward transition, into the chest voice - and it is a real transition, not the squawking register break perpetrated by some would-be spintos - brings a subtler but still striking enrichment and darkening of the tone. 

And Callas did know how to sing. This shouldn't need to be spelled out, but one finds the opinion circulating in various quarters that the rapid erosion of the voice was caused by poor technique. Lord knows that's so, frequently enough, but in this case, the Délibes and Meyerbeer arias - sung by Callas in Italian translation as listed above - should put paid to that idea. It isn't just the way she sails through the coloratura, moving fluidly in and out of the topmost range with ample reserves of tone, though that's wonderful enough. Listen to her dynamic control, alternating fortes and firmly supported pianos for the echo effects of Ombra leggera, attacking the Bell Song's first note strongly and diminishing to a gentler mix. The CD is worth having, I think, just for the two French pieces. 

Yes, there were technical irregularities, not yet full-blown problems in 1954. One wonders at the busy vowel formations; Callas pulls some bright "e" and "i" vowels into a dark "pocket," which doesn't particularly help either with intelligibility - Callas's is generally excellent - or with maintaining a consistent legato. Then there's that peculiarly bright, lifted "ah", particularly on sustained tones in the upper-middle, perhaps intended to keep the tone light. I suspect it was this formation - which tends also to lift the voice off its physical support - that would ultimately lead to the wiry, "flapping" high notes of later years, such as we hear in the 1955 recordings here. There's some unsteadiness, too, in the earlier recordings, and not on the highest notes. The top A-flat on "atroce" in Adriana Lecouvreur's first aria, the first "mai più" (a G) in La Wally, the high As in L'altra notte all betray varying degrees of unsteadiness; but the full-voiced climactic high Bs of the Chenier and Wally arias are firm. 

Even admirers of Callas's acting didn't always realize how much the music of each role was the vehicle for her stage persona. More than most singers, Callas understood how the music complemented and extended the sense of the bald text, so that her musical discipline enhanced the dramatic side of her performances. The recitatives and arioso passages, where one can't hide behind a beautiful melody, make this more clearly evident than the arias, though you can sense the same involvement there. She brings immediacy to the opening lines of La mamma morta, simply by pacing them naturally, in the narrative rhythms of Italian. Similarly, the single recitative line that sets up Adriana Lecouvreur's first aria is spacious: not self-indulgent in the "aimless diva" manner of some students - and some divas! - but weighting the statement with care. 

And Callas was more versatile than her renown in the big, tragic roles might suggest - she could play comedy, and she could sing "Classically." The care and musicianship she brought to her dramatic roles stood her in equally good stead for comedy, as this Una voce poco fa reveals. She sings the aria in Rossini's original mezzo key of E major, where most leggiero sopranos transpose it up. In this slightly lower range, the soprano's full timbral palette comes into play, making for a substantial character: the descending runs suggest, not a merely foxy Rosina, but a formidable one. 

The Cherubini and Spontini performances, despite the occasional strain - the Medea lies a bit high for Callas's full voice - are models of how to realize the expressive capacity of music built on formal, contained structures and emotional reserve. (We get some of this in the Rossini as well, which after all isn't that far removed from the Classical style.) And, where the reserve itself is the point - as in the gently rocking pastoral rhythms of Caro oggetto - it is impeccably rendered. 

Serafin's conducting is mostly excellent, save for the inexplicably droopy interlude in Una voce poco fa. The sound is plausible. There's a grainy tone to the Philharmonia in mono, especially noticeable when they play out. But Callas's voice reproduces well, only occasionally threatening to overwhelm the equipment, as it did in the Puccini aria recital.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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