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Maria Callas – Live (Remastered Live Recordings 1949–1964)
20 live operas and five concert performances WARNER CLASSICS 9029 584470 [42 CDs; 3 Blu-ray discs]
A friend and I each independently made a survey comparing the sound quality of individual operas in this newly remastered set with as many previous issues on EMI and other labels as we could, and came to the same conclusion: while there are few miracles here, there are also a good few pleasant surprises. Warner carefully claim that these new remasterings are made from “the best available sources”; a cynic will pounce upon the weasel word “available” and wonder if they were prepared to fork out for superior recordings from private sources or instead assumed the default position of making the best of tapes already in their posisession. To be fair, the notes to separate operas sometimes indicate that a new and better source has been employed but only a handful of the new issues here represent any great improvement over what we have been able to hear on the Opera d’Oro or Myto labels. Furthermore, five of the operas here are also in the small catalogue of the Divina label, who often have often found access to better and more complete source tapes, but their issues are much more expensive than the bargain compilation here of 42 discs, currently on sale for around £100 or even
a lot less than $100 in the US. Finally, the improvements achieved in these latest remasterings become increasingly marked as we progress through the set and the original source tapes become more susceptible to enhancement via modern sound-engineering techniques.
The recordings here span fifteen years from 1949 to 1964 and fairly cover Callas’ glory years; her last live operatic performance was in 1965 and it is best to draw a veil over the comeback concerts with Di Stefano in 1973 and 1974. However, I always maintain that her vocal decline was neither linear nor exponential; despite struggling with wobbling top notes post 1961, she continued to do some wonderful things and can be heard in the EMI “Callas Rarities” release singing three Verdi arias beautifully as late as 1969. The bad patch was between 1962 and 1964, precisely when in response to Franco Zeffirelli asking her why she no longer practised, she replied that she was instead concentrating on being a woman rather than a diva. It is true that her uncanny ability to inhabit a character was partly the result of her drawing upon her personal traumas in her family and love lives but she was already a complete artist in 1949 and her relationship with Onassis from 1957 onwards surely did her great psychological damage which was inevitably impacted upon her physiological and, specifically, vocal estate. Her health deteriorated quickly to the point that she died at an age – 53 – when many divas are still in their prime. We must therefore be grateful for what we are given here, even if inevitably some will wonder why other performances of Norma, Medea or La traviata have not been included.
The superb CD cover and booklet photographs also act as visual testimony to Callas’ spectacular weight loss of some forty kilos between May 1953 and the end of 1954; that transformation is documented by tracing the alteration in her appearance through comparison of pictures of her as Norma in November 1952, Medea in December 1953, Alceste in April 1954 and, finally, La vestale in December 1954, a metamorphosis so striking as to have led many commentators to suggest that the physical change somehow removed necessary “support” from her voice. I have always been highly dubious of that theory, as plenty of svelte singers have generated vocal heft and I cannot see how excess weight is anything other than a burden on the vocal apparatus. It is more likely that Callas’ vocal trials were attributable to other psychological, physical and, possibly, medical origins.
Newcomers to live Callas recordings may be shocked at the dismal quality of some of the offerings here, despite the best efforts of the Parisian sound restoration engineers at Studio Art et Son, and retreat to the twenty operas in the Warner 2014 complete studio recordings set. Apart from some excerpts from Il pirata, none of these live recordings was released in Callas’ lifetime and one can understand why; it is only her enduring posthumous reputation which justifies their release. We must also remember that she never made studio recordings of twelve of the operas here. EMI routinely excoriated release of these “pirated” recordings on other labels before issuing its own Lisbon La traviata; now the parent company Warner has embraced the inevitable and tried to steal a march on all the other, smaller labels by doing it better. However, the sumptuous presentation of the 216-page booklet, with full notes by the ever-reliable John Steane and Michel Roubinet critically contextualising Callas’ performances and numerous photographs, does not excuse the absence of libretti. Even the infamous EMI “blue boxes” provided those. The track listings, brief synopsis and historical notes provided in the slim booklet in the separate opera digipacks will be sufficient for aficionados but the lack of texts may well present an obstacle to the newcomer’s enjoyment.
The performances themselves are of course phenomenal. While I do not subscribe to the view that Calls may be appreciated only when heard live, there was certainly a special quality to her stage appearances where often both her magnetism and vocal prowess are most apparent. Serafin referred to Callas’ sound as “una vociaccia” – approximately translated as “a big, grand, ugly voice” – although the English “ugly” is too extreme. Certainly, studio recordings can over-emphasise the “cupped”, hollow nature of her voice – which I personally love – and exaggerate the beat which soon afflicted her top notes to the extent that Walter Legge joked that he would have to issue sea-sickness pills with her LPs if she didn’t get it under control. Those who do not respond to her use of colour, portamento and instantly recognisable timbre will hardly bother to acquire this jumbo set; the converted will flock to order. As a whole, these recordings amply illustrate the range and capacity of an extraordinary voice which first emerged as a dramatic coloratura – a voice category thought extinct – moved into Romantic bel canto roles and embraced the repertoire of a soprano Falcon.
I offer here a few comments on the individual recordings in chronological order, in terms of both their technical and aesthetic qualities.
Nabucco: This is generally very well cast but it is Callas’ extraordinary technical virtuosity in encompassing the very wide leaps in Abigaille’s music and top notes up to E flat, in combination with the subtlety of characterisation which stand out. The sound is dim and distant and deteriorates alarmingly in Act 4 but is still better than anything previously issued, in that the flatness of pitch evident has been rectified and flutter has been reduced.
Parsifal: There are cuts but the sound is wholly acceptable despite the distancing of the orchestra; voices are very present and the singing per se is wonderful; Wagner sounds remarkably apt and graceful in Italian. Callas brings an animal passion to Kundry of a kind heard scarcely anywhere else but her co-singers are equally admirable.
I Vespri Siciliani: This is a rare instance where another issue, this time on the Testament label, remains superior to the one here; it is not as sharp or clear. However, the Testament set employed tapes made for Walter Legge has no overture as he was interested only in the voices, whereas it is included here. Surely Warner had access to the EMI tape so presumably the remastering is at fault here, by being too intrusive. The sound is still poor but Callas is incandescent and her co-singers a fine bunch.
Aida: The sound is relatively poor but it’s nowhere near as bad as the worst here and the electricity of the performance comes through, not least Callas’ famous top E flat at the end of the victory scene in Act 2 – a note which came more easily to her in her early career than a top C. Everybody sings as loudly as possible and each singer is extraordinary, not least the young Oralia Dominguez as Amneris, but Del Monaco and Taddeo are superb, too. The sound here is better than the Opera d’Oro issue, which also unaccountably uses a different recording source for the overture.
Armida: Yet another crumbly, hissy, distorted recording and Warner follow previous issues in omitting the twelve-minute section in track 9, CD 2, which was overdubbed in the original source with male crosstalk, whereas Divina includes it and also restores two short snippets missing in the duet for Armida and Rinaldo concluding Act 1. The chorus are in a wind tunnel yet the soloists are again superlative, including three first rate tenors. Filippeschi shows off his heroic quality and Albanese duets beautifully with Callas, often sounding uncannily like Stuart Burrows; sample track 10. Callas’ agility is astonishing; she demonstrates what a true dramatic coloratura is: a huge, flexible voice capable of entwining itself round the pyrotechnic coloratura notes with ease. ‘D’Amore al dolce impero’ and the finale are simply breath-taking - it is such a pity that the sound is so abysmal.
Rigoletto: We must be grateful for really quite reasonable sound here and it has been well tidied. Di Stefano is in blazing form and Campolonghi is fine, apart from a tremulous vibrato and suffering the disadvantage of not being Tito Gobbi. He is nonetheless a stage animal and makes a great show of prolonging “È follia!”. Ignacio Ruffino is an imposing Sparafucile but uncertain of intonation, too often turning sharp. The Monterone is weak. Callas is delicate, vulnerable and infinitely touching, lightening her essentially full tone even more so than her studio recording. The prompter intermittently assumes a starring role but this remains one of the best sets in this collection.
Norma: This performance was new to me and I was immediately struck by the firm, vibrant Oroveso, Giacomo Vaghi, then the neat, virile tone of the Pollione, Mirto Picchi. Callas is never less than stellar in all the extant recordings, both live and the two studio versions, and here she is once more in best voice for a role which surely resonated more with her than Tosca, a character she actively disliked for all that her assumption was definitive. With Stignani’s entrance we enter operatic heaven; her duets and trio with Picchi and Callas are sheer delight. The sound is a bit papery up top but perfectly listenable. For me, this was the discovery of the whole collection.
Macbeth: The improvement over my EMI set is noticeable; there is less pre-echo and distortion, and fewer drop-outs, even if it is still rather distant. I think more highly of Callas’ co-singers than some commentators but it is she who dominates proceedings. Her portrayal is the quintessential “she-devil” Verdi wanted and proceeds from an ideal match between the demands of the role and her own temperament.
Medea: This is another remastering success: the saturation has been attenuated and the overall acoustic is warmer and easier on the ear. This is not necessarily the greatest recording of Callas’ live accounts of Medea; some would unhesitatingly first choose Dallas in 1958, or the one at the Covent Garden the following a year, especially in its incarnation on the Pristine Classics label, but there is no doubt that Bernstein, riding by the seat of his pants conducting an opera he learned in the five days prior to the opening night, and Callas as Medea in prime vocal estate, combine to provide a thrilling performance.
Alceste: This noblest of opera is ideally served by Giulini and Callas, who both understood how intensely the fires burn beneath the icy perfection of Gluck’s classical style. The sound reverts to poor once more, yet no-one who loves Callas will want to be without this monument to her art.
La vestale: Again, the reduction in overload in comparison with previous issues on other labels is most welcome. Furthermore, apart from the intrinsic merit of the singing of a stellar cast, Callas’ collaboration with Visconti in this La Scala the production afforded the opportunity for some of the most striking and evocative photographs of Callas ever taken, some of which are reproduced in the booklet.
Andrea Chénier: This was always one of the worst live recordings, technically speaking. Improvements have clearly been effected, including some reduction in the persistent overloading and resultant shatter, and tape-speed fluctuations have been corrected, but it’s still sonically a bit grim. Fortunately, the singing is splendid: Protti opens the opera in strong, vibrant voice, Del Monaco is heroic in a favourite role and Callas deservedly earns tumultuous applause after “La mamma morta” – a miracle of pathos, nuance and dramatic intensity.
La sonnambula: Another remastering success: the flatness in the Opera d’Oro transfer has been corrected, the distortion and papery flutter in the tapes mitigated, there is now more air and space around the voice and loud, high notes sound sweeter. Callas was working here with both Visconti and Bernstein, and is happily paired with the elegant tenor Cesare Valletti. Callas’ concluding aria, “Ah|! non giunge” is one of the pinnacles of Callas’ art as a bel canto, coloratura specialist.
Lucia di Lammermoor: Yet another noticeable improvement in sound; there is now greater depth, immediacy and clarity to enhance what is almost universally accepted to be Callas’ best Lucia and one of the great live performances, where everything came together. There is a special delicacy to Callas’ singing, and she is matched for flair and imagination by Di Stefano and Panerai, with Karajan pacing proceedings unerringly, often employing daringly slow tempi which allow the beauty of the voices to bloom.
Anna Bolena: The sound is richer, fuller and more natural than my Opera d’Oro set, permitting more detail able to emerge with the hollowness largely removed and the semitone drift downwards towards the end of the opera which was apparent in the official EMI version has thankfully been corrected. Only Simionato matches Callas; Raimondi is adequate, Rossi-Lemeni woolly and Carturan an embarrassment.
Ifigenia in Tauride: as with the majority of the remasterings here, the sound is again fuller and less “papery” allowing the voices to be more present, but overall still harsh and distant. Gluck suited Callas’ imperious manner; as with Medea, she is always particularly convincing portraying noble, imperious women whose souls are in torment. Unfortunately, like the preceding opera, except for Cossotto in the small role of Diana, her co-singers are not up to her standard but Sanzogno’s conducting is wonderfully driven in the fast sections but also serene and responsive in the slow passages.
La traviata: This was a nice surprise; I have always favoured the London performance three months later and still prefer Valletti’s purer, more boyish tenor to Kraus’ reedier timbre but the sound here marginally better and marginally steadier and more secure, too, is Callas’ Violetta, though there’s not much in it. “Ah! dite alla giovine” is spun on a thread of sound, suffused with conflicted emotion – just one example of Callas’ supremacy in portraying the Fallen Woman as a deeply tragic figure, not just a “Tart with a Heart”.
Il pirata: Another welcome improvement over the previous EMI issue; tape speed fluctuations have been regulated and overload appreciably lessened. Callas’ supporting cast is ordinary and both the orchestra and chorus of the "American Opera Society" are lusty and unrefined but she is in fine voice, especially as by 1959 frailties were appearing. The haunted, hooded element in her tone as she conveys Imogen’s suffering is peculiarly affecting,
Poliuto: The sound here is softened, de-hissed but also paradoxically brightened – a fine piece of engineering. This was Callas’ brave choice of opera to grace her re-admission to La Scala, having fallen out with manager Ghiringhelli two years earlier. The risk was that both Corelli and Bastianini would upstage her, as the role of Paolina is relatively low-key role compared with other Donizetti heroines, but it permitted her to display her special gifts for pathos and intensity without stretching a failing voice. The wisdom of her gamble was vindicated by the fact that all three artists triumphed. Tosca: The only stereo recording here and obviously not only the best sound in the whole box set but the best recorded of Callas’ live performances. It’s a pity that Cioni is the tenor; his whining, “ingolato” tone is uningratiating and might for some puts this out of the reckoning, especially when we can hear Callas in similar voice in the studio recording made in the same year with a far superior Cavaradossi in Bergonzi and Gobbi once again giving us his matchless Scarpia, lean and mean of voice - once heard, all other Scarpias pale. The beat in Callas’ voice is sometimes obtrusive, yet there are so many pleasures to be derived from her Tosca, despite the occasional flap or wobble in alt, that all True Believers will want to own and hear this. Maria Callas in Concert
Callas is in commanding voice in Paris 1958 and the sheer glamour of the occasion lends an extra frisson to the staged concert. She is immediately mesmerising in her extended scena from Act I of Norma: she simply stands still and does very little in the way of acting; she doesn’t have to because the voice, posture and facial expressions are doing it all. Franco-Australian tenor Albert Lance, singing offstage as Manrico in the Il trovatore extract, is excellent.
The sound in the Act 2 of Tosca is a bit muffled but Gobbi and Callas are extraordinary both vocally and theatrically; it is impossible to imagine a better realisation of the music drama. Lance again sings well but is hardly the picture of a romantic hero. The London Act 2 is from the same run as the stereo recording above and again, the Cavaradossi, Renato Cioni, is not ideal but his “Vittoria!” is excellent and his appearance much more plausible; similarly, Gobbi’s aquiline putty nose is also less extreme and distracting than in the earlier staging. The camerawork is closer, with more revealing head-shots than in London than in Hamburg and Zeffirelli’s staging more varied and atmospheric. The elapse of two years since Hamburg has made no great difference to the voices of Callas and Gobbi apart from a bit more shouting from him and a little more flap from her. They are still both enthralling.
The two Hamburg concerts are equally captivating, the first displaying Callas’ versatility, from her command of legato and ability to evoke pathos in the bel canto arias from La vestale and Il pirata, to the fervid outpourings of Lady Macbeth and Elisabetta to the pearlescent coloratura of Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa.” The second evidences the downward shift of the tessitura of her voice in the early 60’s as the top notes faded and back towards dramatic soprano and mezzo roles. (I’m surprised she didn’t fall over from bearing the weight of flowers presented to her at the end of the 1959 concert…) The opening aria in 1962, “Pleurez! pleurez mes yeux!”, is riveting despite some flap on top notes. She is comfortable as Carmen, radiating enjoyment and allure and the three concluding arias all suit the darker hue of her voice at this stage of her career; the lower register is as dark and ductile as ever. The 1962 London recital is recorded in the more resonant acoustic of the Royal Opera House and at a higher than the other concerts. The Don Carlo aria evinces a beat on top notes and piano passages but they are passing frailties; the Carmen arias are if anything more alive and intense than the performance of the same programme in Hamburg.
The full list of complete operas and concerts is as follows:
Verdi: Nabucco (2CD) [129:13]
Vittorio Gui (Gino Bechi, Amalia Pini, Gino Sinimberghi)
20/12/1949 · Napoli, Teatro San Carlo
Wagner: Parsifal (3CD/sung in Italian) [210:22]
Vittorio Gui (Rolando Panerai, Africo Baldelli, Boris Christoff)
20-21/11/1950 · Rome, Auditorium della Rai
Verdi: I vespri siciliani (3CD) [168:18]
Erich Kleiber (Giórgios Kokoliós-Bardi, Enzo Mascherini, Boris Christoff)
26/05/1951 · Firenze, Teatro Comunale
Verdi: Aida (2CD) [146:07]
Oliviero de Fabritiis (Mario del Monaco, Oralia Domínguez, Giuseppe Taddei)
03/07/1951 · Mexico, Palacio de Bellas Artes
Verdi: Rigoletto (2CD) [120:54]
Umberto Mugnai (Giuseppe di Stefano, Piero Campolonghi, Ignacio Ruffino)
17/06/1952 · México, Palacio de Bellas Artes
Bellini: Norma (2CD) [119:40]
Vittorio Gui (Mirto Picchi, Ebe Stignani, Giacomo Vaghi)
18/11/1952 · London, Royal Opera House
Verdi: Macbeth (2CD) [140:27]
Victor de Sabata (Enzo Mascherini, Italo Tajo, Gino Penno)
07/12/1952 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Cherubini: Medea (2CD) [129:16]
Leonard Bernstein (Gino Penno, Maria Luisa Nache, Giuseppe Modesti)
10/12/1953 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Gluck: Alceste (2CD) [114:36]
Carlo Maria Giulini (Renato Gavarini, Paolo Silveri, Rolando Panerai)
04/04/1954 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Spontini: La vestale (2CD) [131:39]
Antonino Votto (Franco Corelli, Enzo Sordello, Nicola Rossi, Lemeni)
07/12/1954 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Giordano: Andrea Chénier (2CD) [109:56]
Antonino Votto (Mario del Monaco, Aldo Protti, Maria Amadini)
rec. 08/01/1955 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Bellini: La Sonnambula (2CD) [140:51]
Leonard Bernstein (Cesare Valletti, Giuseppe Modesti, Gabriella Carturan)
rec. 05/03/1955 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (2CD) [119:34]
Herbert von Karajan (Giuseppe di Stefano, Rolando Panerai, Nicola Zaccaria)
rec. 29/09/1955 · Berlin, Städtische Oper
Donizetti: Anna Bolena (2CD) [139:18]
Gianandrea Gavazzeni (Gianni Raimondi, Nicola Rossi Lemeni, Giulietta Simionato)
rec. 14/04/1957 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Gluck: Ifigenia in Tauride (2CD) [108:41]
Nino Sanzogno (Francesco Albanese, Anselmo Colzani, Fiorenza Cossotto)
rec. 01/06/1957 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Verdi: La traviata (2CD) [123:56]
Franco Ghione (Alfredo Kraus, Mario Sereni, Laura Zannini)
rec. 27/03/1958 · Lisboa, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos
Bellini: Il pirata (2CD) [117:17]
Nicola Rescigno (Pier Miranda Ferraro, Costantino Ego, Glade Peterson)
rec. 27/01/1959 · New York, Carnegie Hall
Donizetti: Poliuto (2CD) [111:22]
Antonino Votto (Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Nicola Zaccaria)
rec. 07/12/1960 · Milano, Teatro alla Scala
Puccini: Tosca (2CD) [109:09]
Carlo Felice Cillario (Tito Gobbi, Renato Cioni)
rec. 24/01/1964 · London, Royal Opera House
Maria Callas in Concert Paris 1958 [91 mins]
Selections from Norma; Il trovatore; Il barbiere di Siviglia; Tosca
(Tito Gobbi, Albert Lance, Louis Rialland, Hurteau, Jacque Mars)
Orchestre et Chœurs du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris/Georges Sébastian
filmed live 19 July 1958, Palais Garnier, Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris Hamburg 1959 & 1962 [119 mins]
Arias from La vestale; Macbeth; Il barbiere di Siviglia; Don Carlo; Il pirata
Symphonieorchester des NDR/Nicola Rescigno
filmed live 15 May 1959, Musikhalle, Hamburg
Arias from Le Cid; Carmen; Ernani; La cenerentola; Don Carlo
Symphonieorchester des NDR/Georges Prêtre
filmed live 16 March 1962, Musikhalle, Hamburg London 1962 & 1964 [70 mins]
Arias from Don Carlo & Carmen
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Georges Prêtre
filmed live 4 November 1962, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Tosca Act 2
Renato Cioni (tenor); Tito Gobbi (baritone); Robert Bowman (tenor); Denis Wicks (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Carlo Felice Cillario
filmed live 9 February 1964, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London