Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A classic Il Trovatore



Though Callas, even in her early days, often courted controversy, there was very little disagreement about her Leonora, which seems to have been universally acclaimed from day one. Schwarzkopf called it “a miracle”, Bjoerling “perfection” and Lauri- Volpi “glorious”. Il Trovatore was of course a staple of the repertoire, but years of lazy singing by less technically accomplished sopranos had removed much of Leonora’s filigree. When Callas sang the role, critics said it was as if an old master had lovingly been restored to its original glory. Writing of her performance of the role in London in 1953, Cecil Smith in Opera wrote,

For once we heard the trills fully executed the scales and arpeggios tonally full-bodied but rhythmically bouncing and alert, the portamentos and long-breathed phrases fully supported and exquisitely inflected.

Used to enlisting Serafin’s support with a new role, she had had to prepare it alone for her first Leonoras in Mexico,  as she would be singing it under a different conductor (Guido Picco). A recording of that performance in 1950 shows that most of Callas’s ideas on the role were her own, and her singing is wonderfully accomplished, though she would eschew some of the interpolated high notes in later performances of the opera. She subsequently sang the role in Naples (under Serafin), at La Scala, in London, in Verona, in Rome and in Chicago (with Bjoerling), and finally for this recording in 1956.

By 1956 Callas’s voice is not what it was even in 1953, when she sang the role at La Scala, and high notes can be strident, but her voice in the middle and lower registers still has a dark beauty absolutely apt for the role. Her breath control is prodigious, her legato superb and throughout she phrases like a violinist rather than a vocalist.  Not only are the trills, scales and arpeggios fully executed, as Cecil Smith points out, but they are bound into the vocal line, becoming expression marks rather than just trills or scales. Even with a great singer, like Ponselle, the cadenza at the end of D’amor sul’ali rosee can seem as if it is just tacked on. With Callas, it becomes the natural conclusion of the aria, a musical expression of Leonora’s voice flying out to Manrico. In this recording we are also vouchsafed the cabaletta after the Miserere, (Tu vedrai) which was usually cut before then, presumably because most lyric-dramatic sopranos would find it beyond their capabilities. Callas is magnificent. Musically, I have no doubt that Leonora was one of her greatest achievements.

The rest of the cast are probably as good as could be assembled at the time. Di Stefano almost convinces his voice is right for the role, though, truth to tell, it’s a notch too small. He doesn’t really have the heroics for Di quella pira, but he is always alive to the drama, always sings off the words. Barbieri is a terrific Azucena, Panerai an intensely obsessive Di Luna, and Zaccaria a sonorous Ferrando.

But if Callas is the star vocalist, then Karajan is the second star of the recording. I’d even go so far as to say this is one of his very best opera recordings. His conducting is thrilling and one is constantly amazed at the many felicities he brings out in the orchestral colour, like the sighing two note violin phrases in Condotta ell’era in ceppi, or the beautifully elegant string tune that underscores Ferrando’s questioning of Azucena in Act III, cleverly noting its kinship with Condotta ell’era in ceppi. His pacing is brilliant, rhythms always alert and beautifully sprung, but suitably spacious and long-breathed in Leonora’s glorious arias. Nor does he shy away from the score’s occasional rude vigour. It is a considerable achievement.



My LP pressing was in the fake stereo re-issue, and I had the 1997 Callas Edition on CD. This Warner re-mastering sounds a good deal better than both, with plenty of space round the voices and plenty of detail coming through from the orchestra.


A classic Il Trovatore then, which has stood the test of time, and has held its place amongst the best. In all but recorded sound, I would prefer it to both the Mehta with Leontyne Price and Domingo and the Giulini with Plowright and Domingo again, though Giulini does have possibly the most interesting Azucena of them all in Brigitte Fassbaender. Callas and Karajan, on those rare occasions they worked together, are a hard act to follow.


Saturday, 15 November 2014

A surprisingly lovely Mimi



Mimi is a role one would not associate with Callas, and indeed it is one of the four roles she learned for the gramophone but never sang on stage. The opera itself makes its effect easily and can withstand even a mediocre performance, the role of Mimi being probably one of the least demanding in the soprano repertoire. Great Normas may always have been thin on the ground; effective Mimis have been, and still are, plentiful. The role’s requirements are slight; sweetness, charm, and a capacity for what the Italians call morbidezza; qualities that come naturally to a De Los Angeles or a Freni, less so, one would have thought, to a Callas.

But of course the miracle of Callas is that she not only scales down her voice and personality to suit the demands of the role, but also finds within it a deeper vein of tragedy one hardly suspected was there, her singing full of little incidental details often overlooked by others. Her first utterances have a weariness that presages her illness, and she fades the voice away brilliantly as she faints. The duet with Rodolfo is light and charming, but more of this Mimi’s capacity for love emerges in her aria. Starting shyly, she gradually suffuses her tone with warmth at the section beginning Ma quando vien lo sgelo, not lingering too long on the top As and ruining the shape of the aria, as so many do, and I love the way the last section, from Altro di me non le saprei narare is delivered with a slight touch of embarrassment as if Mimi suddenly realises she has revealed too much too soon.

It is in the last two acts, though, that Callas’s Mimi is at its most moving. Never before has Mimi’s despair been so heart-rendingly expressed, but also note how, with a single word  (dorme? ) in the duet with Marcello, she conjures up all Mimi’s warmth and tender love for Rodolfo, with the gentlest of upward portamenti. Act IV is almost fail safe, but here too she is wonderfully effective, finding the palest of colours as the pallor of death takes over.

She has a good cast around her; Di Stefano in one of his best roles, Panerai a splendid Marcello, Moffo a sympathetic Musetta, and something of a relief from the sparky soubrettes we so often end up with. Zaccaria and Spatafora are an excellent pair of Bohemians.

Votto doesn’t do anything wrong, but such a cast would have benefited from a stronger hand at the helm. He accompanies well, but it’s a shame, given that Serafin was not an option at the time, Legge couldn’t have persuaded Karajan to stick around after recording Il Trovatore with her.

The sound of this La Boheme has always been good for its period. I owned the original Columbia LPs, which I played to death, though I can’t really remember how they sounded now. This Warner issue is excellent, with lots of space round the voices, which have an added warmth compared to the 1997 Callas Edition CDs I had before.

There are so many good recordings of La Boheme in the catalogue, that choosing the best one is well-nigh impossible.  This Callas version is certainly one of them.


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Callas's studio Un Ballo in Maschera



It may come as a surprise to find that this 1956 recording of Un Ballo in Maschera was the first time Callas was singing the role of Amelia, and that she would not sing it on stage until the following year at La Scala in a lavish new production by Margarita Wallman, her only stage performances of the role.

As is her wont, she completely inhabits the role and so deep is her identification with it that one would assume she had been singing it for years. Amelia is a transitional role in Verdi’s canon, looking forward to Verdi’s later style, but still with a requirement for many of the vocal graces one expects from a bel canto singer, not that we hear them very often. Callas’s voice and technique were well suited to it, her dark timbre uniquely telling, filling out its phrases with true spinto tone. Amelia’s very first phrases are sung with a breadth and deep legato, and yet she executes the little turns Verdi adds to indicate Amelia’s nervous state of mind nimbly and with accuracy, and how beautifully she spins out the arch of the great melody at Consentimi, o Signore.



Act II finds her at her very best, first in the great scena that opens the act, including a secure top C at its close. But note how she phrases onwards and through the top note, so that the final cadenza and its quiet close become the focal point of the aria. Note also how she observes the sforzando markings at Deh mi reggi , whilst at the same time maintaining her impeccable legato. The ensuing duet with Riccardo (one of Verdi’s greatest inspirations) has an erotic charge not heard in any other version, save possibly the live one from the following year; who but Callas can invest the line Ebben si t’amo with so many conflicting emotions? Throughout this recording her voice, rich and dark hued, is more responsive than that of Eugenia’s Ratti’s light voiced soubrette. In the ensemble at the end of the first scene of Act III, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills, and hear in the Oath Quartet just before, how she whips through a series of triplets which take her from a sustained top Bb to D and Eb at the bottom of the stave with dazzling accuracy. This is Callas at her best, both vocally and dramatically.



The rest of the cast could hardly be bettered. Di Stefano may not be the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but it is still one of his best roles, sung with his own brand of slancio and lashings of charm. Gobbi is superb as Renato. Others may better him in the cantabile of Alla vita che t’arride, but few have expressed so eloquently the anguish and conflicts at the heart of Eri tu.  Barbieri is a formidable Ulrica, and Ratti a pert, if occasionally too bright-voiced, Oscar. We also get a nicely ironic pair of conspirators in Maionica and Zaccaria.

Votto is, well a good accompanist, and nowhere near as propulsive as Gavazzeni at La Scala the following year. Serafin would have been the better conductor for the job, but Callas was in a funk with him for agreeing to record La Traviata with Stella instead of her.

This was one of the few La Scala recordings not produced by Walter Legge, though the La Boheme which preceded it was. I have no idea why this should have been the case.  I originally owned the first UK reissue of the set on LP, and later the 1987 EMI Angel CD issue. Callas always sounded well on this set, but it is Ratti who sounds less shrill on the Warner than she did on the previous CD incarnation. Either that or my ears have become more forgiving.


I would never want to be without the live Un Ballo in Maschera from the following year, possibly the last time we hear Callas singing with such power and freedom, but this recording remains one of the most recommendable studio sets around, despite its mono sound. The opera was recently the subject of Radio3’s Building a Library programme. Final choice was eventually narrowed down to Muti with Domingo and Arroyo and this Callas set. If Roger Parker eventually plumped for Muti, that was because of the better, more modern sound and the greater refinement of Domingo’s Riccardo. However he comforted himself by making the Callas recording his historical choice, leaving him the best of both worlds.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Callas's minx-like Rosina



Callas only once sang Rosina on stage, in 1956 in an antiquated production at La Scala, which was, by all accounts, the one big flop of her career. People opined that comedy was obviously not her metier, though they must have had short memories and forgotten all about her success in the Zefirelli production of Il Turco in Italia the previous year, an opera she had originally sung back in 1950 and also recorded.

Giulini, who conducted the La Scala production, recalls the production as the worst memory of his life in the theatre.

I don’t feel it was a fiasco for Maria alone, but for all of us concerned with the performance. It was an artistic mistake, utterly routine, thrown together, with nothing given deep study or preparation.

It was also the last time Giulini ever conducted an opera at La Scala, and in fact he rarely conducted opera at all after that.

Whatever the problems at La Scala, though, the studio recording made the following year in London, with Gobbi and Alva joining Callas from the La Scala cast, is a joyous affair, and still one of the most recommendable recordings of Il Barbiere di Siviglia in the catalogue. The edition used wouldn’t bear scrutiny today, but at least Callas sings in the mezzo keys, though she does sing upward derivatives when the line takes her too low, interpolating a secure top D at the end of her duet with Figaro.


I am reminded that when my friend Elijah Moshinsky was asked to produce the opera in Russia, he acquired a modern recording of the opera, no doubt in some urtext edition, but found the whole thing completely dispririting. Having very little enthusiasm for his task, he was about to cancel, when he decided he would have a listen to the Callas recording. His ideas were absolutely transformed. Swept away by the sheer exuberance of the recording, he set about his assignment with renewed enthusiasm.

Callas’s Rosina is a mettlesome minx, defiant with Bartolo, flirtatious and seductive with Almaviva, and playfully scheming with Figaro. The whole character is laid out for us in her singing of Una voce poco fa, sweet docile and gentle, but (and just listen to the explosive way she sings that one word ma) a little devil when crossed. Some find her Rosina lacks charm. Well maybe she misses a touch of the coquettish, but, one thing’s for sure, this Rosina would be a lot of fun. Her technical proficiency in the role’s florid writing is little short of staggering, her voice infinitely responsive.  

However Callas is no prima donna in this opera, and is very much part of a team, and one of the delights of this recording is  in the many duets and ensembles with which the score abounds. You sense that this team of singers really enjoyed working together; there is a real sense of ensemble about it. Individually, they are an excellent bunch, led by Gobbi’s jovial Figaro. Alva is on more than one recording of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and he too works wonderfully well in duet with Gobbi, and also sings with some of the grace one associates with singers of an earlier generation. Zaccaria and Ollendorff are also well in the picture, and don’t overdo the slapstick. The Buona sera ensemble had me chuckling out loud. Gabriella Carturan contributes a nice cameo as Berta too. Alceo Galliera is an unexpected choice of conductor. Known mostly for his role as an accompanist, he conducts a sprightly, fleet and sparkling version of the score.

I think the sound is better than the 1997 Callas Edition one I had, and probably quite close to the LPs. But does anyone else notice a slight differenece in microphone placing? Callas seems further away from the mike in her duet with Gobbi, which is something I hadn’t noticed before. I felt I had to turn the volume up a bit to hear everything she was singing.


For all its textual inaccuracies, this Barbiere has held its place as one of the best recordings around, its sense of fun and ensemble almost unrivalled. A joyfully theatrical set, so full of character, that one hardly needs visual aid, so vivid is its storytelling. 


Saturday, 1 November 2014

Callas's poetic La Sonnambula



The role of Amina probably seemed a curious one for Callas until it was remembered that Bellini wrote it for the very same singer for whom he wrote Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Where Norma was eventually taken over by big voiced dramatic sopranos, who couldn’t do justice to its coloratura demands, Amina became the province of light, soubrettish high coloratura sopranos, intent on showing off their high notes and flexibility. Callas returned a human dimension to the role that nobody had suspected was there. 

She first sang the role at La Scala in 1955 in performances that were a total revelation. Visconti reproduced a picture-book village, a Romantic vision of a time that never was, Callas costumed to look like a reincarnation of the nineteenth century ballerina Maria Taglioni. At the end of the opera, when Callas sang Ah non giunge, the lights on the stage and in the auditorium rose to full intensity, whilst Callas, no longer Amina but the reigning queen of La Scala, came to the front of the stage singing directly into the audience. In a live recording that exists of the night, the audience go mad with applause before the music has even finished. With Leonard Bernstein in the pit and Cesare Valletti as a stylish Elvino, the production was a massive success.



However this recording is more a reflection of the revival in 1957, and was made at the same time. La Scala subsequently took the production, with substantially the same cast, to Cologne and Edinburgh. Votto is now the conductor, Nicola Monti the Elvino and Zaccaria replaces Modesti as Rodolfo.
When considering the role of Amina, it might be wise to take a look at the advice of its librettist Felice Romani:

The role of Amina, even though at first glance it may seem very easy to interpret, is perhaps more difficult than many others which are deemed more important. It requires an actress who is playful, ingenuous and innocent, and at the same time passionate, sensitive and amorous; who has a cry for joy and also a cry for sorrow, an accent for reproach and another for entreaty… This was the role created by Bellini’s intellect.

And this is exactly what we get from Callas. Her first lines of recitative, and the aria that follows, Come per me sereno, are imbued with a deep happiness that radiates from within, her voice taking on a pearly softness. In a single phrase, Il cor soltanto, when the notary asks her what she brings as dowry, she expresses Amina’s deep love and trust in Elvino. In the first sleepwalking scene, her voice seems to come from somewhere inside her, an aural depiction of Amina’s dreamlike state; her confusion when she wakes, and subsequent distress when Elvino rejects her palpably real. I doubt I will ever hear a more moving account of Amina’s Oh se un volta sola and the aria that follows, Ah non credea, than we get from Callas. Here we truly hear the cry for sorrow; Callas’s singing goes beyond the notes to create the stuff of real-life tragedy, with a depth that nobody had even suspected was there when the role was sung by light pale-voiced soubrettes.

Technically her singing is brilliant, her command of line, trills, gruppetti, scale passages peerless. At one point, in the cadenza between the two verses of Ah non giunge, she sweeps up to a fortissimo Eb in alt. Unbelievably she effects a diminuendo on this stratospheric note before cascading down a perfect two octave scale, phrasing onward in one breath through an upwardly rising chain of notes to cap the cadenza. This is no trick of the gramophone, because she does exactly the same thing when she sings the role live in Cologne a few weeks later.

As for the rest, Valletti is a sad loss from the earlier performances. Monti is taxed by the higher reaches of the role, and many cuts are made to accommodate him. He’s also on Sutherland’s first recording, which followed in five years. Surely there was someone better around. Zaccaria’s mellifluous bass gives us a worthy Cari luoghi. Ratti is a bitchy, minx-like Lisa. Cossotto sings beautifully as Teresa, but sounds too young (which of course she was).

Votto’s conducting, which comes alive in Cologne, is often dull and routine here, particularly in the choruses, which lack energy (compare Bernstein in 1955). When Callas is before the microphone, you feel that it is she who leads, her sense of line, rubato and pace absolutely spot on.  


The sound in this Warner issue is admirably open, with plenty of space around Callas’s voice, which, as I mentioned earlier, has a pearly radiance absolutely right for the role of Amina. I may on occasion prefer to listen to the 1955 La Scala performance with Bernstein, a truly thrilling and exciting evening in the theatre, but I feel that by 1957, both here and in Cologne, Callas has captured more of the poetry of Bellini and Romani’s heroine. Her Amina is an achievement to set beside that of her Norma, as, according to contemporary commentators, was that of the creator of the two roles, Giuditta Pasta. There can be no higher praise.


Friday, 31 October 2014

Callas as Turandot



1957 started well for Callas. She made two of her best recordings (Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Sonnambula) and had a huge success as Anna in Anna Bolena at La Scala. The Iphigenie en Tauride which followed was more of a succes d’estime but, though her colleagues were decidedly under par, she was superb and in good voice, as she was when La Scala took their production of La Sonnambula to Cologne in Germany.

She then records two operas far less suited to her gifts (Turandot and Manon Lescaut), goes on to sing a concert in Athens, when she is decidedly not in her best voice, sings Amina again with the La Scala company in Edinburgh, where she sounds thoroughly exhausted, and then  compounds the problem by recording Medea. The cracks are definitely beginning to show. After a few weeks rest, she is back on form for a Dallas Opera Inaugural concert (or appears to be on a recording of the rehearsal), and finishes the year well with a stupendous performance of Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera at La Scala.

Turandot figured quite heavily in Callas’s early career. In 1948 and 1949 she sang it in Venice, Rome Caracalla, Genoa, Verona, Naples and Buenos Aires. She once said in interview that she dropped it as soon as she could, “because it’s not really good for the voice, you know.” All that exists from any of these performances are a couple of short extracts from the Buenos Aires performance, in which her voice is massive and free-wheeling, as far as one can tell through the execrable sound. By 1957, it certainly wasn’t that, and one might wish that she had recorded the role even a few years earlier when she sings a vocally secure and thoroughly commanding version of In questa reggia on the Puccini recital of 1954.

That said, I find the voice less wobbly and ill-supported than I do in the Manon Lescaut, which followed, on which, to my ears, she sounds exhausted, for all her customary musical imagination and insights. She is more secure in this Turandot but she doesn’t really disguise the effort it costs her. Where Nilsson and Sutherland, and Eva Turner before them, soar, Callas is more earth bound. That said, she makes a psychologically more complex heroine than any of them, her singing more subtly layered than we have come to expect from a Turandot. Hear how she vocally points the finger at Calaf in In questa reggia when she sings Un uomo come te, the almost mystical recounting of the story of Lou-u-ling. The first signs of Turandot’s vulnerability come in the Riddle Scene, anxiety creeping into her voice at Si la speranza che delude sempre, and her pleading to her father is almost in the voice of Butterfly, suddenly a daughter trying to get round her father.

There are signs of her vulnerability too in the brief scene with Liu, when she asks,  Che posa tanta forza nel tuo core? mirroring Liu’s response with her repetition of the word L’amore. Even the last scene is less of an anti-climax than it usually is. When she sings Che e mai di me? Perduta, we know that she is conquered, and her final aria Del primo pianto is sung with a wealth of detail. For all the evident strain the role makes on her resources, it is a great performance, and she is far less stressed by its demands than, say,  Ricciarelli on Karajan’s recording.

The rest of the cast is interesting. Many have opined that Schwarzkopf sounds as if she had wandered in from the wrong studio, but I like her finely nuanced and beautifully shaded Liu. She is particularly impressive in her exchanges with Turandot and in the mini aria Tanto amore, effecting a wonderful diminuendo on the line Ah come offerta suprema del mio amore. What a pity this is the only time the two most intelligent sopranos of the post war period ever sang together.

Fernandi, a strange choice considering he was very little known at the time, and hardly at all since, is rather better than his lack of reputation suggests. Not as exciting as a Corelli (why on earth was he not engaged?) he nevertheless sings a valid Calaf, often phrasing with distinction. Not the best Calaf on record certainly, but not the worst either. Zaccaria is a sympathetic presence as Timur, Ping, Pang and Pong all characterful. There is also a connection with the first ever performance as Nessi, who sings the Emperor, created the role of Pang.


Serafin’s conducting is excellent, urgent and well-paced. What a pity that he doesn’t have the benefit of modern stereo sound, which this of all operas really cries out for. The sound here is, to my ears anyway, less boxy than the sound for Manon Lescaut, though it is not as open as say the De Sabata Tosca, which was recorded four years earlier, and of course no match for the magnificent Mehta and Karajan recordings. This Warner pressing sounds a good deal better than my 1997 Callas Edition, with Callas’s voice far less shrill in the upper reaches. It may never be anyone’s library choice for the opera, but I would not want to be without the insights Callas brings to the role. It is, in many respects, a more thoughtful rendering of the score than we often hear.




Callas's Manon Lescaut



Manon Lescaut has never been a favourite opera of mine, and to my mind pales in comparison to Massenet’s work, which is a truer representation of L’Abbe Prevost’s novel, for all that he ends the opera in Le Havre rather than America; nor does this recording rank particularly high in my roll call of Callas recordings. Though recorded in 1957, it waited 3 years before it was released, so presumably Legge and Callas had their doubts too.

For much of the first two acts, the recording itself has a curiously flat sound to it, and though we hear a fair amount of orchestral detail, both strings and voices sound undernourished. I don’t know whether it was me becoming more involved, but things do seem to improve in the last two acts, where Callas also sounds more comfortable vocally.

To my ears, she has always sounded utterly exhausted in this set. It was recorded shortly after Turandot, which she really ought not to have been singing at that stage in her career anyway. She manages Turandot surprisingly well, but the effort it must have cost her shows in the parlous state of her top in much of this Manon Lescaut. She is actually in much better voice in the later complete recordings of La Gioconda, Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma, even the Medea, but then in all those she was singing repertoire more suited to her gifts. I’m not sure it was ever the right voice for Puccini, for all her success in the role of Tosca. Not long after this, she sang Amina in Edinburgh and made the studio recording of Medea, neither of which find her in her best form, and it is not until the Dallas Inaugural Recital in November that she recovers form. She is also in stupendous voice for the live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera in December, so presumably she had benefited from some rest. Even in the middle and lower registers, much of the velvet is missing from the voice, and even in quieter passages she doesn’t seem to have sufficient energy to support the voice.

Of course, there are, as always, musical compensations aplenty. In the first act, Callas sings with a lightness and purity that mirrors Puccini’s con sempicita markings. Later, her In quelle trine morbide is even more finely nuanced, sung more as a reflection to herself than to Lescaut; and the trills and grace notes in L’ora o Tirsi sung with a lightness and accuracy that eludes most singers of the role; the duet with Des Grieux sung with a restrained passion. In Act III she has less to do, but her few exchanges have a weariness and dull despair that is most affecting. However it is in the final act, which is often anti-climactic, where vocally and dramatically she is at her best, with a harrowing Sola perduta and a chillingly moving death scene.

Di Stefano’s singing is variable, occasionally disturbingly tight on top and at other times admirably free, but he does bring personality and face to his singing. Full of youthful joie de vivre in Act I, he becomes a man consumed with love and literally at the end of his tether for Guardate, pazzo son. It’s an appreciable performance, if not the best sung Des Grieux you’ll ever here.

No complaints about the rest of the cast. Fioravanti I have never come across before or since, but he makes an excellent Lescaut and we also get a nice cameo from Fiorenza Cossotto as the madrigal singer.

Serafin, as so often, gets the pacing just right. So much about his conducting is just so unobtrusively right, and in Act III he builds the ensemble leading up to Des Grieux’s outpouring at Guardate, pazzo son in masterly fashion.


Not an opera or a recording that I want to listen to that often, but it certainly has its moments. 

Monday, 27 October 2014

Callas's Studio Medea



Well, first a word on the recording.  Warner were apparently not able to locate the original masters and so they have used the 1990 digital remaster as their source. As such, it hardly differs from the 1990 Callas Edition version, though that actually sounded rather better than the awful, noisy Everest LP pressing I used to own.

This recording of Medea has an unusual history. Callas desperately wanted to record it, but Legge had no interest it in so agreed to release her from her contract, when Ricordi, who were launching a new label, approached her about recording it. It has been variously released by EMI, Mercury, Everest and maybe others.

However she was probably unwise to record it when she did, right after the Edinburgh performances of La Sonnambula when she was in ill health. Her voice isn’t exactly wobbly above the stave here, but it does lack power, a power that she recovers when she sings the role in Dallas the following year.
That said, when I first got to know this opera, and this recording, I had no other point of reference, and it seemed pretty good to me. It was only later that I heard those barnstorming performances from Florence, La Scala and Dallas and it is only in comparison with herself that she fails. She is still a good deal better in the part than any other who attempted it, certainly a lot better than Gwyneth Jones and Sylvia Sass, who also made studio recordings of this Italian version.

The version of Medea that Callas sang is actually a hybrid. Medee was originally an opera-comique in French with spoken dialogue. It was later translated into Italian, then recitatives were written by Franz Lachner for a German production. The version Callas performed was an Italian translation of the Lachner version for its 1909 La Scala premiere. Even so, each conductor Callas worked with (Gui, Rescino, Serafin, Schippers) prepared their own version of the score, and made their own cuts. Consequently no two Callas performances are the same. 



Serafin’s conception is essentially Classical, but his conducting varies from the somnolent to the dramatic. After a tautly conceived overture, the first scene up to Medea’s entrance drags on interminably. I understand the necessity to establish an atmosphere of peace and calm, into which Medea bursts, but this goes too far.

Without foreknowledge of other performances by Callas, this is still a great performance of a difficult role. We lose some of the power and ferocity, but there are gains too. Ricordi il giorni tu la prima volta quando m’hai veduta? is couched in the most melting tones, her duplicity in the scene with Creon, and the following duet with Jason brilliantly charted, and her scene with the children movingly intense. Vocally, for all that she is not in her best voice, she manages its angular lines and wide leaps with consummate skill, her legato still wondrously intact. Note also how, in this Classical role, her use of portamento is more sparing.

When it comes to the supporting cast, Scotto is less of an advantage than you might expect, Pirazzini rather more (though not quite a match for Barbieri in Florence and at La Scala or Berganza in Dallas). Picchi, who sang Pollione to Callas’s Norma in London in 1952, is rather good, though Vickers is even better in Dallas. Modesti makes a good Creon too, though I would prefer Zaccaria in Dallas.


So, all in all, still probably the best studio Medea you’re likely to hear, and the sound (stereo, but still rather boxy) is a lot better than what you will hear in Florence, Milan or Dallas. Nevertheless all three of those performances are preferable, regardless of sound quality, for the white hot intensity Callas brings to the role.  


Saturday, 25 October 2014

Callas Verdi Heroines



If Mad Scenes is my favourite Callas recital disc, this one comes a very close second. Never before have Lady Macbeth’s arias been sung with such ferocity, such verbal acuity, such a wealth of understanding and psychological penetration, and I doubt they ever will be again. Listening to these three arias, text in hand, is to come face to face with Lady Macbeth the way Verdi had no doubt intended her to be. Furthermore Callas’s realisation of the score and Verdi’s detailed instructions sounds utterly spontaneous. This is truly Dramma per musica. That Walter Legge never had the foresight to record the complete opera with Callas as Lady Macbeth and Gobbi as her husband remains one of the greatest causes for regret in recording history.

This Warner pressing seems to me the best I’ve heard since the original LP, which I had in a French pressing I believe. There is a lot more space round the voice, top notes less apt to glare. This is particularly noticeable in the scene from Nabucco, where even the final recalcitrant top C sounds less unpleasant than in its last outing on CD. The Bellinian cantilena of Anch’io dischiuso finds Callas spinning out its long lines to heavenly lengths, before, all thoughts of love cast aside, she strengthens her resolve in the cabaletta. Prepared to flinch before the top Cs, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in this new pressing, they fall far more easily on the ear. The final top C is still an unlovely note, but it sounds far less like a shriek.

She never sang in Ernani on stage, but Elvira’s Ernani involami figured fairly regularly in her concert programmes. As usual, she brings a wealth of colour to the recitative (just listen to the change of colour from Questo odiato veglio to col favellar d’amore, and how lovingly she caresses Ernani’s name in the opening strains of the aria. Her top register is no more pleasant here than elsewhere, but she moulds the phrases beautifully, singing with grace and style, managing perfectly the aria's wide intervals.

She only once sang Elisabetta on stage (at La Scala in 1954), but her Tu che le vanita is a justly famous interpretation, and one that she sang in concert on many occasions.“ A performance of the utmost delicacy and beauty” Lord Harewood calls it in Opera on Record, which indeed it is, though we also get the baleful sounds of Callas’s unique chest notes in la pace dell’ avel; note also how wistfully she longs for her homeland in the Francia section.

My one regret is that Legge didn’t see fit to add the contributions of chorus and comprimarii as he does on the Mad Scenes disc. A chorus would no doubt have enlivened the Nabucco and Ernani arias, and one misses the contributions of the doctor and lady-in-waiting in the Macbeth Sleepwalking Scene. No matter, listening to this great record has been a moving experience. I must have heard dozens of different performances of the arias on this disc, all with their own merits, but none have ever affected me so deeply. Callas’s gift was and remains unique.

Callas Mad Scenes



I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is the best recital record Callas ever recorded, and by default one of the classic recital discs of all time. The 1954 Puccini disc and Lyric and Coloratura will find her in better voice, but this one sums up more than any other her greatness, her ability to bring alive music that can seem formulaic, and even plain dull in the hands of lesser artists.

I know I’ve said this elsewhere, but her singing has an improvisatory air about it, almost as if she is extemporising on the spot; how she achieves this whilst closely adhering to what is on the printed page is a mystery beyond solving. In the Anna Bolena finale, the recitative alone provides a lesson in how to bind together disparate thoughts and ideas. She brilliantly conveys Anna’s drifting mental state, whilst still making musical sense of the phrases and the long line. We can only imagine what she might have achieved in Monteverdi’s recitativo cantavo.

Once into the first aria, Al dolce guidami, her voice takes on a disembodied sound, as if the singing is coming from the far recesses of her soul. Her legato is as usual superb, her breath control stupendous, those final melismas spun out to the most heavenly lengths.  In the cabaletta Coppia iniqua, her voice takes on a majestic power, and she manages the rising set of trills with more force than anyone (Suliotis doesn’t even attempt them).

In the magnificent Mad Scene from Il Pirata, she traces a long Bellinian line second to none; spinning out the delicate tracery of the decorations from Digli ah digli che respiri  onwards with magical fluency. A complete contrast is afforded when she rears back with the words Qual suono ferale, before launching into the thrillingly exciting cabaletta.

Ophelia’s scene from Hamlet is quite different. There is no formal recitative, aria, recitative, cabaletta construction. The scene is more a series of arioso segments interspersed with recitative and can often sound disjointed as a result. Callas binds together its disparate elements with masterly ease. Her voice is lighter here than in either the Bellini or Donizetti, and though the very upper reaches tax her somewhat, she sings with delicacy and consummate skill. The switch from Italian to French causes her no problems at all, her enunciation of the French text admirably clear. Yet again every fleeting expression, every change of thought is mirrored in her voice.

A listening companion of John Steane once said to him regarding Callas, “Of course you had to see her,” to which her replied, “Oh, but I can, and I do.” This was her genius, amply displayed in this recital; the ability to make us see as well as hear.


I did try to make sound comparisons with my other CD issues of this recital, but, as usual, I had little sympathy for the task. Callas drew me in and all I wanted to do was listen. Without making direct comparisons then, I can only state that the sound here is very satisfactory, with plenty of space round the voice.  


The Curing Room at the Pleasance Theatre, London



“It made the recent Globe production of Titus Andronicus look like a teddy bear’s picnic!” said my companion, as the lights went down on Stripped Down Production's The Curing Room.And indeed over 90 minutes we had been subjected to a deluge of blood, guts and gore, coupled with full frontal male nudity the likes of which I have never seen before on the stage.

David Ian Lee’s  The Curing Room throws seven Soviet soldiers into the empty cellar of  a monastery, stripped of all belongings and their clothes. Abandoned by their captors, and left without food, the men resort finally to murder and cannibalism in order to survive. The play asks questions about how we redefine ourselves in extreme circumstances, how the constraints of normal civilised society and military rank cling to us, or don’t.

The play is something of a tour de force for the seven brilliant actors, who literally bare all before the  audience. Director Joao De Sousa is unflinching in his depiction of cannibalism and there is, as I said earlier, a lot of blood. My companion spent much of the latter part of the evening with his head turned away from the stage.  This play is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and if your only reason for going is a prurient desire to see seven men naked, well you soon get used to that. The gore is harder to cope with.


It would be invidious to pick out any one of the actors. They all work as a close knit team, and all, without exception give excellent performances. De Sousa’s pacing is brilliant, and I was gripped throughout. Once away from the theatrical brilliance of it all, though, a few minor doubts crept in about the writing and about the play itself. For much of the play, the characters come across as mere cyphers, as representatives of certain types; the stiff upper lip captain, the honourable senior-lieutenant, the slightly simple young private, the old retainer and so on. This could be the reason I found it ultimately less involving than I should have. Though the horror of what unfolds before you certainly draws you in,  ultimately ones cares little about the fate of these soldiers as individuals.

None the less, The Curing Room is gripping drama and well worth seeing if you have the stomach for it. I doubt we will see anything like it again for some time.



4 stars


The Curing Room is at the Pleasance Theatre until November 9th.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Callas's Second Studio Lucia



This Warner reissue of Callas’s stereo remake of Lucia di Lammermoor sounds a good deal better to me than the Callas Edition CDs, and much more like the LP set I used to own (a German EMI Electrola edition). There seems to be more space round the voice, and high notes are nowhere near so shrill as they are on previous re-masters.

Popular opinion holds that Callas’s Lucia is best represented by the earlier set made in 1953, and the live Karajan performance from Berlin, so why would anyone bother with this remake, made in 1959? Surely, apart from much better sound, it can’t have much to commend it. For a start the other soloists on both the 1953 studio and live Karajan are much better than the ones we get here. Cappuccilli is nowhere near as menacing as either Gobbi or Panerai, and consequently there is a loss of drama in the first act and in his confrontation with Lucia. Tagliavini may have seemed like a good idea at the time, a lyric tenor in the old style, but by 1959 he was in his late 50s, and, quite honestly, he sounds it. One misses Di Stefano’s youthful ardour, even if Tagliavini is more stylish. As for Bernard Ladysz, just why? The only other recording he made was of Penderecki’s  The Devils of Loudon. Who on earth thought he might be any good in Donizetti? He is no match for either Arie or Zaccaria.

You might therefore think that this set is not really worth listening to, especially as Callas herself Is surely nowhere near as in good voice as she was in 1953 and 1955. And you might be right, maybe this set is only for the die hards, except I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that.

Listening to it again for the first time in a few years, I was actually astonished at just how good she sounds, and it reminded me that in fact I first really got to know Callas’s voice from post weight- loss records.  This set was my first exposure to Lucia di Lammermoor, and I don’t remember the state of Callas’s voice bothering me too much back then. I was just overwhelmed by the truth of the interpretation, and the beauty, yes that word again, of much of her singing. Ok, the Ebs are not exactly things of beauty, and she shortens the cadenza in the Mad Scene substantially. Mind you, she didn’t really need to be singing them anyway. What a pity, the bel canto revival hadn’t moved on enough for her to be able to record the version Caballe recorded, in generally higher keys, but without the stratospheric top notes. It might well have suited the Callas of 1959 a lot better.

There is no doubt this Warner re-master is a vast improvement on the Callas Edition. Most of the shrillness on high seems to have faded away. In some ways, and though she sounds no more secure, the voice in general falls far more easily on the ear, and she has peered even deeper now into Lucia’s psyche. From the word go, this Lucia is highly strung, a romantically inclined dreamer, completely lost in the cruelty of a man’s world. There is desperation in her Ah, no...rimanga nel silenzio sepolto per or l’arcano affetto. Already she sounds slightly unhinged. It is not difficult to understand that it would take very little to tip her over the edge. Later in the scene with Enrico, Ahi. La folgore piombo pierces one’s very soul, and the ensuing Soffriva nel panto is sung with heart-wrenching sorrow.

In the Wedding Scene, she sounds almost in a trance, and even in the few solo lines she has, she manages to convey Lucia’s utter despair. As an assault on women, Lucia di Lammermoor must be one of the cruellest operas in the repertory. As for her singing, her legato line is as usual superb, the coloratura has a lovely finish and in the Mad Scene, her singing has almost an improvisatory air about it. This is surely the art that conceals art.


So, in conclusion, this stereo set will not replace either the 1953 or live Karajan Berlin performances, but it is still one that I will want to dig out from time to time, and sonically it is a great improvement on both.

Callas in Karajan's production of Lucia di Lammermoor

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Callas's EMI recording of La Gioconda



Suicidio! (in the earlier Cetra performance) was one of the first Callas arias I ever heard. It knocked me for six. I had no idea a human voice could have such expressive power, and from then on Callas cast her spell on me.  This recording of La Gioconda was the second, and best, of the four Callas stereo remakes, and also the first complete opera she recorded (on the aforementioned Cetra set). The first pressing I owned was an American HMV Seraphim import, and I can’t in all honesty say much about how the sound on that compares with this. What I mostly remember is that one LP developed an annoying scratch in the scene after she gives Laura the vial in Act III, so annoying that it took me ages to relax and realise it wouldn’t be there when I listened on CD.

When I began listening to the Warner pressing I had the best intention  of comparing the sound with my original CDs (the 1987 digital remaster). First of all I compared the orchestral introduction. There was very little difference to my ears, but the new master did seem slightly clearer, as if the 1987 one had a slight fuzz on it. I then tried the Angele Dei at the end of Act I. Again, I found very little difference, but the voices on the Warner seemed a bit more finely focused, Callas’s voice at first blending with the male chorus, then soaring out over it. But I soon lost patience for making comparisons. The performance drew me in and I just wanted to get on with listening.

Recorded in September 1959, this Gioconda finds Callas in firmer voice than at any time since, say, the Dallas Medea of 1958, her top, right up to a solid top C in the last act, more focused and in control than it had been of late. She was in the process of separating from Meneghini, so maybe work came as a necessary distraction.

Callas only sang 12 performances of the role of Gioconda (in Verona in 1947 and 1952 and at La Scala also in 1952), but she has become peculiarly identified with the role due to the success of her two recordings. Neither recording can boast the best supporting cast, but the second brings extra refinement from Callas, if less animal power, much improved recording and better orchestral playing from the La Scala orchestra.

The supporting cast is an interesting one. Cappuccilli had recorded Enrico in Callas’s second Lucia, as well as Masetto in the Giulini Don Giovanni and Antonio in his Figaro. He was still at the beginning of his career and his Barnaba lacks a certain authority. So too does Cossotto’s Laura, which is no match for Barbieri’s on the early Cetra set, beautifully though she sings. Ferraro can be an exciting singer at times, but it has always seemed an odd casting choice to me. He sings Gualtiero in the live Callas Carnegie Hall performance of Il Pirata, but appears to have done little else. Why on earth not Corelli, who only a year later was to sing Pollione on the second Callas Norma, and with whom she had sung on many occasions? Vinco is no more than adequate as Alvise, Companeez rather better as La Cieca.

But if we don’t get the six greatest singers the world could offer at the time, we do get one, and this is the reason the Callas La Gioconda remains the most recommendable recording of the work. Phrase after phrase is etched into the memory. Her very first entry brings a thrill of recognition, her legato digging deeply into the consoling phrases with which she comforts her mother. The score abounds with contrasts, and the first comes straight after this scene when she is confronted by Barnaba, spitting out the line Al diavol vanne colla tua chitarra, her voice dripping with loathing.

There is something so intrinsically right about her every utterance that it is impossible to imagine any other singer matching her achievement. She fails only on the pianissimo top B at Enzo adorato! Ah come t’amo! a phrase beloved of singers like Milanov and Caballe. If anything it is more in control here than it was in 1949, but where Caballe reaches to heaven, Callas is earthbound. That said if the performance of a whole opera can be ruined for you by one note, then I rather take pity on you. Callas’s singing was never about individual moments. A role had to be seen as a totality.


She famously said of the last act of this set, “It’s all there for anyone who wishes to know what I was all about.” Looking back we can almost now see this as a valedictory statement, as she was never again to sing with such ease and security. 

Callas's 1960 Studio Norma


This was actually the first opera set I ever owned, and, so it comes with a host of memories. I was only 18. Why Norma for a first opera, you might ask. Well I had recently discovered Callas, and at that time very little of her recorded repertoire was available. I knew that Norma was considered her greatest role, so I thought it would be a good place to start. Collecting opera was expensive in those days, and my older brother, who was working by this time, bought the set for me for Christmas. I was unbelievably excited, my excitement only slightly tempered by the discovery that no libretto was included, only a synopsis, and that I would have to send off for it, not of course that I waited for its arrival before sampling the set. 

It being my one and only opera set for a good few months, I got to know the opera pretty well, and of course Callas’s unique inflections will for ever be part of that knowledge. Since then of course, I have heard a fair amount of other Normas, Sutherland, Caballe, Eaglen, Bartoli (please, never again), Sass live at Covent Garden (disastrous) and plenty more by Callas herself; the live 1952 Covent Garden, the 1954 studio, the 1955 Rome broadcast and, best of all, the live 1955 La Scala, as well as excerpts from many others, right up to her final performances in the role in Paris in 1964.



So how does it hold up? Well, pretty well actually. True, notes above the stave have taken on a metallic edge, and they don’t always fall easily on the ear, but the middle and lower timbres have a new found beauty, and a characterisation that was always complex and multi-faceted has taken on an even greater depth, parts of it voiced more movingly here than anywhere else. 

There are other gains too. The cast here is a vast improvement on the earlier studio one, Corelli in particular being a shining presence. Fillipeschi was a liability on the earlier set, but, whilst not quite a paragon, and chary of some of the coloratura in his role (Serafin making a further cut in the great In mia man duet to accommodate his lack of flexibility), Corelli’s is a noble presence, and his clarion voice is ample compensation. Zaccaria may be less authoritative than the woolly voiced Rossi-Lemeni, but his tones are distinctly more buttery. Ludwig is an unexpected piece of casting, but she too is an improvement on Stignani, who, great singer though she was, was beginning to sound a bit over the hill by the time of the first Callas recording (she was 50 to Callas’s 30). Ludwig sounds, as she should, like the younger woman. Her coloratura isn’t always as accurate as one would like, certainly no match for Callas, but she sings most sympathetically in duet with her older colleague, and Mira o Norma is, for me, one of the greatest performances on disc. After Ludwig states the main theme, Callas comes in quietly almost imperceptibly and at a slightly slower tempo with an unbearably moving Ah perche, perche, her voice taking on a disembodied pathetic beauty. When Ludwig joins her for the section in thirds, she perfectly matches Callas’s tone on her first note, before Callas joins her in harmony, a real example of artists listening to each other in a sense of true collaboration.

One should I suppose mention the losses from the earlier recording. Yes, some of Callas’s top notes are shrill, and we lose some of the barnstorming heroics that were a part of Callas’s Norma right up to 1955. This Norma is more feminine, more vulnerable, if you like. How much this had to do with interpretive development, and how much with declining vocal resources is a moot point, but there is no doubt Callas is still a great singer, doing the best she can with what she has. Some sections are more moving here than in any of her other performances. I’ve already singled out Mira o Norma but the earlier duet is its equal, Callas wistfully recalling her own awakening to first love. The beginning of Act II always brought out the best in her, and here she is sublime. Dormono entrambi is an unusual piece which alternates passages of recitative with arioso, rather like Rigoletto’s Pari siamo. Callas draws on all the colours in her palette to express Norma’s contrasting emotions. You can almost feel the chill that comes over her at un gel me prende e in fronte si solleva il crin followed by the choked emotion of I figli uccidi! The arioso of Teneri figli is couched in a tone of infinite, poignant sadness, but then her tone hardens with her resolve at Di Pollion son figli, before, with a cry she drops the knife (and we can almost hear the precise moment), crying out Ah no, son miei figli! Operatic singing and acting on the highest level.

Serafin’s conducting is much as it was in the first set. He has the virtue of not conducting the opera as if it were Verdi, as so many do. Sometimes I’d like him to get a move on a bit, but his pacing of the final two duets (one in public, one in private) is superb, and he perfectly judges the climaxes in the Grand Finale, one of the greatest in all opera.

All in all, I'd say Callas's second studio Norma is as essential as her first, but it will always have a special place in my affections.


Sunday, 5 October 2014

Callas a Paris




Callas never sang a role in French on stage, and only one complete role (Carmen) on record, but as can be heard on these two discs, she had a natural affinity for the language. She spoke it fluently (though tellingly refused the role of Carmen in the Beecham recording, "because my French isn't good enough yet") and of course made Paris her home in her last years. Previously she had sung only Ophelia's Mad Scene in French on the Mad Scenes recital disc and Louise's Depuis le jour in recital in 1954.

Two years separate the recording of these two discs, and it is alarming to hear the marked deterioration in Callas's voice in such a short period of time, a voice that was already showing signs of stress in the first recital recorded in 1961. These were also the last records of hers to be produced by Walter Legge.

Despite her vocal problems, and despite the fact that she is evidently having to tread carefully, there are still treasures on this second disc. Leila's Comme autrefois doesn't really come off, nor does Manon's Je marche sur tous les chemins, which, without the gavotte, sounds inconclusive. Manon's Adieu, notre petite table, though, is a different matter; maybe a tad too serious, but, as always her phrasing is exemplary, and she makes the aria work supremely well out of its context. She sounds strained to the limits by the Gluck, and it can make for uncomfortable listening. Even so her grasp of the classic style and her command of legato never falters.

For the rest, we are vouchsafed three great performances. Gounod's Margeurite comes as a total surprise, Callas finding here a lightness of touch that one might have thought was beyond her by this time. In the Ballade she meticulously differentiates between Marguerite's thoughts and the strophic song she sings, carefully placing Marguerite's simplicity before us. Her innocent rapture when she opens the casket of jewels is brilliantly caught. There is charm here (a trait that often eluded her in the past) and femininity, the text clearly enunciated, the runs deftly executed. She is defeated only by a watery top B at the end, which detracts from, rather than caps, what had been a beautiful performance.

Berlioz's Margeurite is superb. Alongside Baker's performance on the Pretre recording and one by Shirley Verrett (on a rare recital record that I would love to get hold of), this is one of the greatest performances of the piece put down on record. At the beginning of the aria, Callas perfectly mirrors the tone of the cor anglais with her first words, then beautifully lightens her tone, putting a smile in the voice for Sa marche que j'admire (and note how we hear the separation of the duple quavers in de sa main, de sma main la caresse, without once disturbing her impeccable legato). Her mounting rapture at Je suis a ma fenetre find its release in a cathartic O caresses de flamme, which she achieves again without once upsetting the long musical line. "Who would not wither in the flame of her genius?" asked the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns. Who indeed? I can only imagine what she might have done with the roles of Cassandre and Didon, and why not Les Nuits d'Ete too? Can you just imagine Callas singing the words O grands desirs inapaisees?

And finally to Charlotte's great Letter Scene, arguably the most dramatic piece on the album, which brings out the best in her. How brilliantly she differentiates between Charlotte's thoughts and Werther's own words, particularly noticeable when she repeats the phrase Ne m'accuse moi, pleure moi, as their significance dawns on her. Unerringly, she captures Charlotte's mounting panic as she reads the letters. So vividly does she bring this scene to life, that I can now just read through the text, and Callas's voice and inflections come to my mind's ear. Like many of her performances, it spoils me for all others.



Though there are still a few wild and insecure notes, the first disc is one of the classic recital discs of all time, and one I would never be without. Whole tomes could be written about Callas's psychological insights, her realisation of the composer's intentions; every aria is like a new discovery. There isn't a single dud on the recital, though the rather empty coloratura of Philine's Je suis Titania would hardly seem worth her effort. She manages it remarkably well, the filigree beautifully executed, with a lovely lightness of touch, magically lightening her tone. She sounds a different singer from the Carmen and Dalila, which precede it, but it's still my least favourite piece on the disc.

Everything else is pure Callas Gold. The Gluck arias sung with passion, but retaining their classic contours, Orphee's J'ai perdu mon Eurydice emerging as a true lament. Note the appeal in the voice at the words C'est ton epoux, ton epoux fidele, the blank, despairing tone at Mortel silence and the suffering that truly tears at the heart (dechire mon coeur). Alceste's great entreaty to the gods is hardly less affecting. Though the top notes are driven here, they are not intrusive, and Callas again finds a wealth of colour for each intercession, for each recurring statement of Divinites du Styx, with a lovely softening of her tone at Mourir pur ce qu'on aime.

Carmen's arias are best seen as a preparation for the complete set, but the Habanera is seductive and playful, and the Segeudille full of humour, with a lovely lightness of touch. Dallila's arias are even better. In Printemps qui commence she sounds like a young tigress, flexing her claws in the sun, as one critic put it, though I can't find the reference right now. The danger lurking under that seductive surface is unleashed in Amour viens aider ma faiblesse , and then she gives us a real siren, when she sings the famous Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix. Incidentally, always a stickler for the composer's intentions, Callas here sings exactly what Saint-Saens wrote, which is that Ah reponds a ma tendresse should be sung in one breath. Most singers add an extra Reponds, which gives them a chance to snatch an extra one. In the second statement, she does indeed take a (perfectly justifiable) breath at Verse moi, verse moi l'ivresse (there is a comma here after all), but this might have been the reason why she refused to allow the aria to be released when the record first came out. It wasn't issued until the disc was reissued after her death. In any case I doubt any of these arias has ever been done better, and they are enough for Alan Blyth to name Callas as Dalila in his dream cast for Samson et Dalila.

Juliette's Waltz Song is a miracle of lightness and elegance. Though the tone is mature, Callas suggests better than anyone the joy of the young girl, but note too the change of colour, when a veil of sadness comes over her voice at Loin de l'hiver morose. Callas gets more meaning out of this seemingly innocent tune than any other singer I know. Chimene's glorious Pleurez, mes yeux has a dark, tragic beauty, her chest tones uniquely telling, her legato superbly eloquent.

Finally we come to Louise's apostrophe to love and life. There are some alarming flaps on high notes here, and we note that even in 1954 the aria never quite worked for her in toto, but the quiet intensity of her intent is never in doubt. Has any other singer, before or since, captured quite so unerringly Louise's mounting rapture, or sung quite so erotically the words je tremble delicieusement. So her voice doesn't always do quite what she asks of it. Who cares, when she realises the fundamental truth at the root of this aria, which is actually about a young girl's sexual awakening? When this recital was first reissued, Richard Osborne wrote, "Records like this change people's lives." It certainly changed mine


Late Callas Recitals



It's useful to take these three recitals together. They were recorded over a similar period, and Callas was using the sessions as a way of working on her voice after a long period of inactivity. Indeed in 1962 and 1963 she didn't appear on stage once, giving only a few scattered concerts.

None of these discs could be considered essential, but the Verdi disc is the most recommendable. The most undemanding of the pieces (Desdemona's Willow Song and Ave Maria) is predictably the one that causes her the least problems, and also yields the most vocal pleasure. As always the mistress of mood, she differentiates clearly between the conversational exchanges and Barbara's song, her legato impeccable in the Ave Maria. The Aroldo arias are superbly intense and dramatic, as is Eboli's O don fatale, the O mia regina section beautifully molded, and benefiting from her deep legato. The top of the voice is no more pleasant here than it is elsewhere on these three discs, but the drama carries her forward and it is easier to forgive. There is not much to commend Elisabetta's Non pianger mia compagna.


The Rossini and Donizetti fails to ignite her dramatic sensilbilities quite so much, and there are plenty of uncomfortable moments. However there are still times, when we glimpse what Callas might have done with this music a few years before. Her Cenerentola lacks sparkle, but the scale passages are wonderfully supple and smooth. This is a serious Cenerentola, though, given what she suffers before singing this aria, such a reading is not entirely inapt. That said, there is a much better version of her singing this at a concert in London, where she finds a lightness of touch that eludes her here. Elsewhere, much of the singing sounds tentative, much more so than on the Verdi. Though she unerringly captures Mathilde's sighing loneliness in the aria from Guglielmo Tell, there is a rather lifeless air about the recording, not helped by the omission of a chorus in some of the items. Nevertheless her sense of style never deserts her.





Mozart, Beethoven and Weber are not composers one would naturally associate with Callas. That she could be a great Mozartian is evidenced by her test recording of Donna Anna's Non mi dir, and a couple of blazingly defiant concert versions of Costanze's Martern aller Arten, sung in Italian as Tutte le torture. (It is a little known fact that Callas was actually La Scala's first ever Costanze.) The less said about Porgi amor and Donna Anna's arias on this album, though the better. Elvira's Mi tradi goes a lot better, and the recitative, with its contrasting emotions, is superb. It's mirror piece, Beethoven's concert aria Ah perfido also goes well, and, as it lies somewhat lower, suits her much better. It is without doubt the most successful item on the recital. Ocean, thou mighty monster is also superbly dramatic, but her peculiarly accented English is somewhat bizarre, and again the climaxes are something of a trial.

I find my attitude to these late recitals can vary each time I listen to them. Sometimes I find the wobbles, the insecure and unsupported top voice, the acidulous tone difficult to take; others I barely notice it, so taken up am I by her musical instincts. The Verdi I would hate to be without, the other two for very occasional listening only.


The Callas Carmen



And so, still moving chronologically backwards through this set, we come to the last of the four roles Callas sang without ever singing them on stage.

This Carmen has always been controversial, the most controversial element being Callas herself, so, let me deal with the rest first.

The edition used wouldn’t bear scrutiny. We are of course back in the days of the old Guiraud recitatives, but there’s no point complaining about that. This is how everyone was doing Carmen back then. The sound is excellent early 1960s stereo and sounds better than ever in this new remaster.

This is a very French Carmen. Aside from Callas and Gedda, everyone else involved is French, and Gedda was, in any case, the best French tenor around in those days. Pretre’s conducting is swift, sometimes maybe too much so, and deliciously light in places, but his speeds make dramatic sense. I like it a lot. The orchestra and chorus, again French, sound idiomatically right to me. The Escamillo of Robert Massard sounds authentic too, if not so characterful as someone like Jose Van Dam. Andrea Guiot’s Micaela I like a lot. She does not display the creamy beauty of a Te Kanawa or a Sutherland, but she is much more convincing than them at playing the plucky, no-nonsense village girl. We must not think of Micaela as a wilting violet; she is actually quite a strong character. Not only is she able to hold her own with the soldiers in the first act, she has the strength to confront Carmen and the gypsies in the third act. Her voice is firm, clear and very French. She sounds just right to me.

Gedda of course had already recorded the role under Beecham with De Los Angeles. He does not have the heroic sound of a Domingo or a Vickers, but, as always he sounds totally at home in French opera. In any case, is a big heroic voice what is required? Don Jose is basically a nice young man, somewhat repressed, who gets caught up with the wrong woman. A young man, who, once his passions are aroused, does not know how to control them. Gedda is superb at charting Jose’s gradual disintegration. He sings a beautifully judged Flower Song, with a lovely piano top Bb, is gently caring in his duet with Micaela, and suitably shamed when he meets her again. In the last act he is a man at the end of his tether, dangerous because he has nothing left to lose. As a performance I think it has been seriously underestimated. I find him entirely convincing, much more so than, say Corelli, with his execrable French in Karajan I.

And so we come to Callas. Many of the objections when the set first came out were not about her singing, but about her characterisation, one critic opining that she was closer to Merimee than Meilhac and Halevy. But that’s an objection that makes no sense at all. Meilhac and Halevy may have watered down Carmen’s indiscretions with other men when she was still with Jose, but they still make it clear she is a free spirit, not to be tied down. In the 1960s, women were still fighting for equality (they still are). Much of the debate about the contraceptive pill in the 1960s centred around the fact that it would encourage promiscuity. People, especially men, were not comfortable with the idea of a sexually promiscuous woman, so Carmen’s character was often played down. The De Los Angeles recording with Beecham had been highly praised, but, love De Los Angeles though I do, can anyone really imagine her Carmen pulling a knife on a fellow worker in a cat fight? She is altogether too ladylike to even think of such a thing. But Callas is exactly what she is described in the text, dangereuse et belle, as Micaela calls her. This Carmen definitely lives free. As she tells Jose in the last act, Libre elle est nee et libre elle moura! 

When she admits to her friends Je suis amoureuse, Callas gives the line an ironic twist, even more so on the following amoureuse a perdre l’esprit. We know absolutely, as her friends do, that this is the whim of the moment, the mood of the day, and that there will be others.

Her seduction of Jose is brilliantly charted. Ou me conduirez-vous? she asks Jose, as he is about to take her to prison, and the little girl lost tone she uses is just what’s needed to draw him in, which she does expertly till she has him eating out of her hand. Carmen always gets her way.

Later on when Jose comes to the inn and they end up arguing, some have found her rage too over the top, but there is justification for this too. When Jose tells her he has to go back to the barracks, that could be the moment she realises that maybe she is not in love with this milksop after all. Have a row, send him packing. That’s the best way to get rid of him. Only things don’t quite work out that way; her cry of Au diable le jaloux! is actually quite matter of fact. Finally she realises she is saddled with him, but is quite pragmatic. In fact, now that I think of it, the whole plot only works if you accept that Carmen was never in love with Jose in the first place; that he was first a challenge, then a convenience. Escamillo is much more up her street (for a while anyway); when he comes looking for her and Micaela comes looking for Jose, this is just the way out she is looking for. Unfortunately, Jose turns out to be even more unhinged than she had imagined, but defiant to the last, she refuses to give in to him, and staring death in the face, asserts her freedom from all men. No doubt this is what commentators found so disturbing. Some no doubt still do. It doesn’t make for comfortable listening.

Apart from a few squally top notes in the ensembles (which she didn’t need to sing anyway), her voice was absolutely right for the role at this stage in her career and the performance is full of miraculous detail, as well as some really lovely singing in the Habanera, darkly telling in the Card Scene. I notice something different in it each time I hear it.

When it was reissued, Richard Osborne in Gramophone wrote,

“Her Carmen is one of those rare experiences, like Piaf singing La vie en rose, or Dietrich in The Blue Angel, which is inimitable, unforgettable, and on no account to be missed.”

I couldn’t put it better myself. I think it one of her most telling assumptions.