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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La traviata (1853)
Maria Callas (soprano) – Violetta; Cesare Valletti (tenor) – Alfredo; Mario Zanasi (baritone) – Germont; Maria Collier (soprano) – Flora; Lea Roberts (soprano) – Annina; Dermot Troy (tenor) – Gastone; Forbes Robinson (bass) – Douphol; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Nicola Rescigno
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 20 June 1958


Experience Classicsonline

Violetta Valery in La traviata was one of Callas’s greatest roles and it is a thousand pities that she wasn’t granted a worthy studio recording. She did record it in the early 1950s for Italian Cetra but neither of the other leading singers was very distinguished. Some years later EMI arranged for a recording with their top trio Callas, Di Stefano and Gobbi and conductor Tullio Serafin, but there was a hang-up: in Callas’s contract with Cetra was stipulated that she wasn’t allowed to record the work again for five years. EMI couldn’t wait and instead contracted the young and upcoming Antonietta Stella. The resulting recording wasn’t bad (see review) but the missed opportunity of hearing Callas opposite singers of the first rank was sadly missed. We are lucky, however, to have her in some unofficial live recordings, a couple of them later issued commercially by EMI. One was recorded at La Scala in 1955, the year she was supposed to make the studio set. It is conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and Germont père and fils are sung by Ettore Bastianini and Giuseppe Di Stefano. The other was recorded in Lisbon in 1958, the same year that the present Covent Garden recording was made, with veteran Franco Ghione conducting, Alfredo Kraus and Mario Sereni in the other leading roles. Starry casts in both cases. A review of a highlights disc from the Giulini set is here.

The present set suffers from unsophisticated recording, rather boomy and with a fair amount of distortion. As with so many live recordings the balance is variable, voices coming and going depending on stage movements. The voices fare better, anyway, than the orchestra which in the prelude seems to play forte from the outset. The choruses, especially in act II scene 2, at Flora’s party, are well sung with fine rhythmic lilt. Nicola Rescigno, who was one of Callas’s favourite conductors, ensures a well paced performance. At the time of recording he was in his early forties; he died last August (2008) aged 92.

But it is neither the orchestra nor the chorus, not even the conductor that will tempt record buyers. It is first and foremost Callas. Even in her earliest recordings she had her squally moments and by 1958 there was a marked deterioration in her voice. But that loosening of vibrato, which at its worst could be a reason for the listener to seek shelter, is noticeable only occasionally and what characterizes her reading is the total identification with the role. From the incipient infatuation in the first act scene with Alfredo, crowned with a passionate Un di, felice, eterea, via the wonder, indecisiveness and finally exultation of her great solo in the same act, the fright, sorrow, despair and consolation in the scene with Germont, to the last act’s weakness, temporary hope and last blossoming before she dies, she hardly puts a foot wrong. It is in a way a basically low-key performance, pianissimo dominating, but such is the emotional strength and inward intensity that in several instances, where there normally are ovations, in this performance there is not a sound from the audience and the performance can go on without the spell being broken. Thus the whole long second act scene with Germont is performed unbroken. This happens again after the meltingly sung Parigi, o cara in the last act.

The Alfredo is a further asset on this recording. Cesare Valletti was no doubt the foremost tenore di grazia during the 1950s, having studied privately with Tito Schipa. His recordings of Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti are still models but he also recorded Traviata for RCA with Monteux, opposite Carteri and Warren and, most surprising, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly opposite Anna Moffo with Leinsdorf conducting. Alfredo is a hothead, at least in the Flora scene when he denounces Violetta, but elsewhere he is caring and deeply in love. In Un di, felice, eterea he caresses every syllable with passionately trembling tone. He is nuanced, elegant and noble – like Schipa. The lyric elegance and sensitivity is also apparent in his act II aria. Bergonzi, with a larger voice, and Alfredo Kraus with his lean slightly reedy tone are both different from Valletti but they have the elegance and stylishness in common. It goes without saying that Valletti lacks the heroic heft for the outbreak on Ogni suo aver tal femmina in the Flora scene, but Kraus is similarly lacking. Both singers compensate with inner intensity. In the remorse scene, after Germont has condemned his action, he is perhaps too lachrymose – but it is on the other hand a scene charged with emotion. Parigi, o cara finds Callas and Valletti, two so different voices, blending exquisitely.

Mario Zanasi as Germont père sings Pura siccome un angelo with admirable legato but basically emerges as a rather foursquare character as compared with Callas’s total commitment. It could be argued that Germont is stiff and unremitting as a personality, at least in the beginning of the scene. Eventually he warms to Callas’s lovable singing of Dite alla giovine and in the following duet almost matches her in nuance. On his own he sings a straightforward Di Provenza il mare, where he ends both stanzas with well judged pianissimos.

The supporting cast is largely unexceptional, not all of them even credited in the cast list and a couple of them having their names misspelt. The booklet has a tracklist and an essay on the background and coming into being of the opera. Standard cuts of the period are observed, which doesn’t disturb me, since my first Traviata was just as heavily cut. What is more disturbing are the frequent drop-outs of sound. There are really no notes missing but as soon as there is a short silence the rather boomy acoustics are edited out and the effect is like a temporary loss of hearing for a fraction of a second.

General opera lovers who want a decent library recording of La traviata shouldn’t bother. All Callas lovers, innumerable I believe, who haven’t got one or both of the EMI sets should go for this and get a splendid Alfredo in the bargain.

Göran Forsling 



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