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.