Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La traviata (1853) [121:33]
Violetta Valery Maria Callas (soprano)
Flora Bervoix Marie Collier (mezzo)
Annina Lea Roberts (mezzo)
Alfredo Germont Cesare Valletti (tenor)
Giorgio Germont Mario Zanasi (baritone)
Gastone Dermot Troy (tenor)
Il Barone Douphol Forbes Robinson (bass)
Il Marchese DObigny Ronald Lewis (baritone)
Il Dottor Grenvil David Kelly (bass)
The Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Nicola Rescigno
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 10 June 1958
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5006 [68:37+52:56]
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.
An enormously subtle creation enshrined for posterity.