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.