Maria Callas Sings “Casta diva” 
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835)
Norma (1831)
Norma - Maria Callas (soprano)
see end of review for performance details
rec. 1949-58
IDIS 6647/48 [69:48 + 78:01]

Here’s one for the irredeemable Callas groupie: ten separate, mono versions on two CDs of “Casta diva”, all but the first with the “Sediziose voci” introduction and all but the last with the “Ah! Bello a me ritorna” cabaletta. They were recorded over almost ten years between March 1949 and December 1958. All but nine are live recordings; the 1955 RAI broadcast performance is wrongly labelled as being “studio” and the sole exception is the famous Cetra studio recording from Milan in 1954.
The IDIS documentation is typically minimal, consisting only of the briefest of recording details, track listings and nothing else. You will therefore not be able to tell which are from concerts and which are from staged operas, nor who is singing Oroveso in the recitative; I am here providing this information for those interested but you will look in vain for it in the booklet itself.
An aural health warning first: the first disc features four execrable recordings from the point of view of sound quality. Only the fourth excerpt from Covent Garden is listenable with any pleasure and comes as a relief after the first three; the remainder are a real trial. The second disc is in tolerable sound despite a relapse in the 1958 concert performance from Rome. Any audiophile will need to keep away from half of these recordings; in any case, ultimately this is an issue for the opera buff par excellence.
How many times in succession does one want to hear this most famous and demanding of bel canto arias sung by one singer? Especially as, ironically, the intrinsic interest of hearing Callas sing her signature tune over a period of ten years is somewhat compromised by the fact that she is amazingly consistent over that period in both timings and interpretation. True, there is some discernible deepening of her characterisation but hers was essentially a fully-formed Norma by as early as 1950. Despite the popular mythology surrounding Callas’s decline, there is in fact very little deterioration in her voice in evidence here; the faults, such as they are, are already apparent in 1949 and little exacerbated by the time of this last concert performance in Paris in 1958. I have long argued that the decline in Callas’s voice was by no means linear and depended more upon the vagaries of her emotional state and extrinsic factors such as the circumstances of her private life. You may hear her singing wonderfully well as late as 1969 on “Callas- the EMI Rarities”. The bad patch came between 1962 and 1964; as such, the obvious omission in this survey is an excerpt from the superb 1960 recording of “Norma”, which remains my favourite complete performance owing to the quality of Callas’s co-singers and the subtlety of the singer herself, despite some slight diminution in her vocal prowess. Otherwise, my personal preference amongst earlier recordings has long been for the two live accounts from 1955 under Serafin and Votto. Although the sole studio recording here under Serafin finds her in superb voice, she is less than glamorously partnered, especially in comparison with the starry team of Corelli, Ludwig and Zaccaria for EMI. The only real surprise for me here was the 1952 London performance under Gui - which is also the most sonically tolerable on CD 1.
So what of the individual performances here? Taking them in chronological order, as they are presented, the first, a radio broadcast from Turin, is in hissy, fluttery sound with some peaking on higher, louder notes. Callas is in her youthful prime: the voice is large and flexible, her coloratura immaculate, especially the downward fifth and octave interval runs. She spins the voice on a mere thread and the high C is secure. The flautist plays exquisitely.
The second, a Gala Concert from Buenos Aires, is virtually unlistenable: distant, crumbly, with frequent tape drop-outs. There are six time-keeping bleeps on the second at 1:43. The third, from Mexico City is, if anything, even worse; it sounds as though it is being filtered through a face flannel and a scraping noise constantly obtrudes. Callas is evidently in superb voice on both of these occasions but I can see little point in their inclusion except for completeness of record.
The fourth from London brings blessed relief: the voice is distant but clear and relatively cleanly recorded even if the orchestra blares. The strength of Callas’s lower register is especially remarkable. Tempi are a tad lethargic under Gui but this is beautifully secure vocalisation.
The fifth is once more in dreadful sound: there is a loud hum and the recording might as well be from 1913 as 1953. There is a sudden change of acoustic medium at 1:56; the hum disappears but the distortion is still pretty bad. The voice itself is marginally looser on higher notes but is still gorgeous.
The second disc, by contrast, affords almost unalloyed pleasure, sonically as well as artistically, as long as you are tolerant of decent mono sound. The sixth excerpt is the best of all, being the studio recording, and we may finally hear properly the nuances of Callas’s interpretation. There is a hint of flap and wobble but this remains magical singing.
Both the seventh and eighth performances from Rome and Milan in 1955 are, as I have already said, justly famous. There are few vocal frailties and Callas is matched in the complete recordings by superb co-singers. There is somewhat more interference in Milan and the diva perhaps sounds more at ease in Rome. The ninth, also from Rome in 1958, suffers a regression in sound quality and there is some evidence of the incipient wobble which gave Walter Legge nightmares, causing him to warn Callas that if she didn’t get it under control he would have to issue her records with sea-sickness pills. It appears that she heeded his warning; the tone is a little harder but still refulgent; the vibrations are only marginally looser; the phrasing remains peerless. Incidentally, this was the performance in which Callas became indisposed and it was cancelled after Act 1.
Finally, we hear an extract from the Paris concert; the excellent sound also permits us to enjoy the prompter’s contribution, but no matter. The Oroveso is weak and Callas’s runs are not quite so liquid as of yore but she is Callas still and the delivery is both technically fine and emotionally heartfelt.
My reservations about the validity of including the excerpts on CD1 notwithstanding, I can still see this quirky and rather daring issue appealing to the faithful.  

Ralph Moore 

Performance details
Oroveso (bass) - Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (CD1, tracks 3-5 & CD2, tracks 1-3); Nicola Moscona (CD1, tracks 6-8); Giacomo Vaghi (CD1, tracks 9-11); Boris Christoff (CD1, tracks 12-14); Giuseppe Modesti (CD2, tracks 4-6); Nicola Zaccaria (CD2, 7-9); Giulio Nero (CD2, tracks 10-12); Jacques Mars (CD2, tracks 13-14).

rec. 7 March, 1949, Torino (CD1, tracks 1-2); 9 July, 1949, Buenos Aires (CD1, tracks 3-5); May, 1950, Mexico City (CD1, tracks 6-8); 18 November, 1952, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London (CD1, tracks 9-11); 19 November, 1953, Trieste (CD1, tracks 12-14); April/May, 1954, Milan (CD2, tracks 1-3); 29 June, 1955, Rome (CD2, tracks 4-6); 7 December, 1955, Milan (CD2, tracks 7-9); 2nd January, 1958, Rome (CD2, 10-12); 19 December, 1958, Paris (CD2, tracks 13-14). AAD mono

A quirky and rather daring issue that should appeal to the faithful.