I was looking forward to hearing this new mastering of the private
tape of this live, 1958 performance of "La traviata"
at Covent Garden. Unfortunately, it's a disappointment; it seems
that ICA Classics have simply shaved off the top frequencies.
To take but one example of how this has produced an inferior
result, on the other labels, a mild curiosity is still audible.
Just after the overture has begun, you can hear Callas warming
up quietly in the wings, accompanying the orchestra! Presumably
this is something the mike picked up but the audience could
not – but the remastering here by ICA has obliterated that charming
little vignette – goodness knows how. The Myto issue has more
hiss and rumble but you can hear the details and upper frequencies
of the performance; this ICA sounds opaque, muddied and veiled
- you are listening through a blanket of filtering. Nor is there
more ambience, despite their claims to have engineered an improved
sense of space; it's still reasonably clean, spacious mono without
much distortion. Worried by my findings, I sought corroboration
of my impression from independent ears before writing this review
and they confirmed what I had heard: this is not a success.
This is a great pity, as there is little doubt in my mind that
this performance preserves what I believe it to be by far the
best souvenir we have of Callas as Violetta and for once she
is properly supported by a distinguished cast. I have enthusiastically
reviewed elsewhere this performance as issued on the Myto and
IDIS labels; meanwhile, I'd stick with the former as the cheapest
and best-sounding option, or you can go with the more expensive
IDIS - but both are preferable to this one. I am not by any
means against remasterings that clean up frequencies and remove
hiss, and am as such a great advocate of Andrew Rose's work
for Pristine. I only wish the kind of result he gets could have
been achieved here.
The performance itself is a gem and is as close as we shall
ever get to the-recording-that-never-was-but-should-have-been.
I would add only that it would be dishonest to fail to remark
that Callas' top notes are indeed occasionally a bit screamy
and piercing - but they pale into insignificance when set against
the depth and brilliance of her Violetta. She is in good voice
and here worthily partnered; Valletti especially is in perfect
voice: youthful, boyish, unaffected and impassioned. He never
makes an ugly sound but there is no shortage of commitment to
his Alfredo. It is true that Zanasi sounds far too young as
Germont - turn to Bruscantini in the Gardelli set with Freni
and Bonisolli for an authentic-sounding father - and thus lacks
a little authority, but he sings honestly and expressively with
far more sensitivity than either the detached Sereni or the
boorish Bastianini (much as I love both in other roles and recordings).
He makes the transition from stiff outrage to fatherly compassion
really credible and shows particularly fine control over his
soft singing. Trusted friend and ally Rescigno supports Callas
unobtrusively with flexible, unhurried tempi and his calm control
obviously allowed the diva to feel as comfortable as possible.
There is a bit of coughing, some stage noise and the odd imbalance
– but nothing untoward and the audience applause simply heightens
the obvious excitement of the evening. Unlike the wretched,
crumbly, live Lisbon recording, the prompter is rarely in evidence.
I shall continue to take the Myto set down from my shelves when
I want to hear Callas's incomparable characterisation of Violetta
in all its lacerating pity and pathos; for me, it renders the
Cetra studio recording obsolete. She maintains such poise and
control in key moments such as "Dite alla giovane"
that it is easy to forgive the odd instance of vocal frailty
- of which there are surprisingly few, in any case. For the
most part, this is a master-class by the greatest exponent of
a notoriously difficult role; her Violetta is an enormously
subtle creation and this performance enshrines it for posterity.