Medea was a role which Callas kept in her repertoire over the glory years of her career from the revival in Florence in 1953 until the 1962 La Scala performances under Thomas Schippers. She sang it 31 times and recorded it for Ricordi in 1957. It was a role that ideally suited her vocal gifts and temperament. Complexity of characterisation was there without unduly exposing her voice to undue wear and tear, yet it simultaneously offered maximum scope for the singularity of her stage presence. Medea does not appear on stage until well over half an hour into the opera, yet henceforth, from the moment of her baleful intrusion, her presence looms over the whole proceedings; or it does if the role is interpreted by a great singing actress such as Callas. It was also her role as a film actress when she was directed by Pasolini in “Medea”, made in 1969-70 when her singing career was over.
I have dipped into four other versions in addition to listening to this live BBC recording. They range from that first in the Maggio Musicale under Gui, to the famous five performances under Bernstein at La Scala later the same year. Add to these the studio set and the two runs under Rescigno at Dallas in 1958 and this one, here at the Royal Opera. Callas is superb in all of them and considerations governing choice, if only one is required, depend more on the quality of her co-singers and the clarity of recording. The solitary studio version made under Serafin’s measured baton, has since been accepted into its Callas canon by EMI. It is a rather more staid affair, lacking both the best cast and the electricity of a live performance, but it still merits consideration in that it is the only option in good stereo sound. This present issue is in fact marginally the most muffled of all the other mono recordings, with both voices and orchestra rather too distant. On the other hand it has the compensations of a stellar cast and the recreation of the excitement of live theatre.
Callas herself gives little evidence of any vocal deterioration. Her vibrato in 1953 was marginally tighter and top notes slightly less inclined to flap but really differences over the six years covered by the recordings I mention above are negligible. The worst sound amongst the live recordings is in Dallas in 1958 but for many this is the most impassioned performance. Even the earliest recording from Florence in 1953 is perfectly listenable despite some echo. If you sample her lovely Act One aria, “Dei tuoi figli” from all of them, you will simply hear an amazing interpretative and artistic consistency. Callas encompasses all the tortured anti-heroine’s moods, from her chilling first entry to the heart-breaking intensity of her plea to Giasone to return to her in “Torna a me!”. All the while she maintains the loveliest legato and an immediacy of utterance that no singer since has ever emulated. Her B flats on “Perché Giasone è mio”, the top B on “senti” just before “Dei tuoi figli” and “Dell’Orco”, and even a slightly effortful top C at the end of Act Two all remain secure and stupendous - she is suffering womanhood incarnate.
Her co-singers here are much the same as in Dallas the year before and offer the best cast. The replacement of the excellent Berganza by Cossotto as Neris is no loss as you may hear from Cossotto’s poised account of her beautiful “Solo un pianto”. This aria forms the emotional still point at the heart of this most turbulent of operas. Vickers repeats his noble Giasone, singing smoothly and heroically. He is better than either the stentorian Gino Penno or the less imposing Mirto Picchi, good as they both are. The quality of the Royal Opera’s cast is immediately established by the delightful voices of two British unknowns as the maidservants. Especially notable is the under-recorded Joan Carlyle, who is in purest voice as Glaucis and is preferable even to Scotto in the studio recording. Zaccaria adds his big, smooth, incisive bass to the mix as an impressive Creonte. The whole is expansively and dramatically conducted by Rescigno, always the most sensitive accompanist to Callas in her latter years.
If you don’t already own the Dallas performance, this is the one to have if you want to hear La Divina in finest form in a favourite role and worthily accompanied.