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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
on 26 January 1957.
was recorded during the first week
of March that year, so she certainly had an auspicious
start to her career.
an appendix we get arias from Medea
and La Vestale
a Callas recital made two years earlier. When I reviewed
the 13-CD box ‘The Studio Recitals’ some years ago I wrote: ‘the Medea
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
, 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
has a delicious melody.’
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!
see also review by Ralph Moore