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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)
La sonnambula (1831)
Maria Callas (soprano) – Amina; Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo) – Teresa; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Count Rodolfo; Nicola Monti (tenor) – Elvino; Eugenia Ratti (soprano) – Lisa; Giuseppe Morresi (bass) – Alessio; Franco Ricciardi (tenor) – A Notary;
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Antonino Votto
rec. 3-9 March 1957, Basilica di Santa Eufemia, Milan
Appendix: Callas Sings Arias from Medea and La Vestale
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760 – 1842)
Medea: Dei tuoi figli [4:54]
Gaspare SPONTINI (1774 – 1851)
La Vestale: Tu che invoco [10:52]; O Nume, tutelar [2:27]; Caro oggetto [3:45]
Maria Callas (soprano)
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. 10-12 June 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
NAXOS 8.111284-85 [77:40 + 65:17]
Experience Classicsonline

When reviewing the Virgin recording with Natalie Dessay a year ago (see review) I made an overview of existing recordings that I knew. My colleague Robert Farr mentioned a few more in his review. Returning to the Callas recording after an interval of a couple of decades I have to admit that my memory has tended to underrate it. I still think that Evelino Pidň is a more positive conductor but Antonino Votto was well versed in the Italian repertoire. Even though his name is not surrounded by the aura of Toscanini, Serafin or De Sabata he was certainly a reliable interpreter, well on a par with Erede, Molinari-Pradelli and Santini.
There isn’t much drama in La sonnambula and I don’t think a conductor should superimpose more power than is inherent in the score. Bellini’s lyricism and melodic invention has a value in itself. We have to accept that the action unfolds in the manner of a sleepwalker paralleling the character of Amina. When the composer for once speaks a grander language, which he does in the opening chorus of act II, then Votto rightly paints in dark colours. The La Scala forces by and large live up to their reputation. The recording is OK though marred by some distortion and various noises that are especially noticeable when listening through headphones.
However, one can’t write very long about Bellini’s music without mentioning the singing. The simple plot, the plain characters and the gracious music requires light flexible voices and that principally is what is on show here. This is Callas’s opera with Amina the central character and the one who has the most testing music – and the most grateful. Amina is, to be certain, quite different from Norma – or Elvira in I puritani. There are no histrionics or flashing eyes. Amina is a shy, innocent country girl – and that is exactly what she sounds like in Callas’ assumption. She is light, lyric and girlish and her pianissimo singing is exquisite. There are in fact few other instances in her recorded legacy where she has sounded so free from blemish. Come per me sereno is spotlessly vocalised, the cabaletta Sovra il sen is effortlessly elegant in runs and embellishments, the coloratura spot-on. Only the top note at the end is slightly acidulous. And this is the case throughout the opera. In duet with Nicola Monti the voices blend beautifully. When we reach the final scene Ah! non credea mirarti is heavenly, whereupon one sits breathless in Ah! non giunge when she sails up to that E flat and then makes a diminuendo. Unbelievable! Natalie Dessay is also superb but I believe Callas is a notch or two above.
Nicola Monti, who made Elvino something of a speciality – he also recorded the role with Sutherland a few years later – is also very good. He sings Prendi: l’anel ti dono almost in the Tagliavini class, though the older singer has the ability to colour his voice more expressively. Sometimes on high notes the tone can become slightly pinched, but this is on the whole a worthy account of the role.
Nicola Zaccaria is a reliable rather than superior Rodolfo but he sings Vi ravviso with good steady tone and fine legato. When he sees Amina he radiates warmth and affection and the cabaletta is well sung.
Eugenia Ratti is a bright-toned Lisa, singing with security and lightness. The young Fiorenza Cossotto sings Teresa with characteristic dark-hued expressivity. She had made her La Scala debut in the world premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites on 26 January 1957. This Sonnambula was recorded during the first week of March that year, so she certainly had an auspicious start to her career.
As an appendix we get arias from Medea and La Vestale from a Callas recital made two years earlier. When I reviewed the 13-CD box ‘The Studio Recitals’ some years ago I wrote: ‘the Medea aria offers a lot of acidulous singing but still more easy on the ear than in her complete recording. The three excerpts from Spontini’s La vestale are reminders of a role she sang at La Scala in 1954. Her first tone in Tu che invoco, after the beautifully played horn solo, has an inward lyrical quality that is touching, and this aria, so rarely heard, also finds her in unusually steady voice. Spontini’s dramatic orchestral writing can also be admired in this long scene. Her beautiful legato is shown at its best in both the following arias, of which Caro oggetto especially has a delicious melody.’
I still think the Dessay/Pidň recording a notable achievement. These two sets are not strictly speaking competitors on equal terms, since the Pidň employs a newer critical edition where in several cases the pitch is lower. It is also more complete than the Votto. My advice is: Get both!
Göran Forsling

see also review by Ralph Moore



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