Wednesday, 24 June 2015

PROUD Film Premiere on July 1st


This is the trailer for the PROUD film by Nicholas Feustel, which will be premiered at the Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way, London SE 11 4TH on July 1st at 7.30pm. The full video will be available to view after that date. I was one of the participants and will be on the panel for a Q&A session after the premiere on July 1st.





TRAILER: The Proud Study from MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL on Vimeo.

I am absolutely convinced that PrEP is a major breakthrough in HIV prevention, and that the NHS should now be offering it to those who are most a risk. We now now that HIV positive people, who are on treatment, and who therefore have an undetectable viral load, cannot pass on the virus. If HIV negative people, who were at risjk were on PrEP, then we could bring down rates of HIV transmission down dramatically within a decade. We need to be proactve.



Monday, 8 June 2015

Callas's uniquely tragic Butterfly



Well I’m a mess! To quote John Steane in his review of the first CD issue of this set,

Still feeling the impact of that devastating final chord in the opera, I believe devoutly that Madama Butterfly is the most moving of all works for the stage, that this is the best recording of it, and that it is Callas's greatest achievement on records. 

I may not go quite that far, but it does remind me how many times I think just that after listening to almost every one of Callas’s complete opera sets, so completely does she identify with each role that she sings.

Callas recorded the role of Butterfly a few months before her only stage appearances in the role in Chicago, in November 1955. It was also the occasion of one of the first major scandals of her career, when a process server tried to stuff a court summons into the belt of her kimono just after she exited the stage. Callas exploded, cameramen just happened to be there to record the exact moment she lost her temper, and the rest is history.

This recording also marked one of the three occasions on which Callas worked with Karajan, a powerful combination which also produced those famous La Scala Lucias, which were repeated in Berlin and Vienna, and the studio recording of Il Trovatore.

Now if you’re idea of a perfect Madama Butterfly  is one in which some gorgeous voices sing some beautiful tunes, bathed in lush orchestral sounds, which incidentally happen to accompany  the sad little story of a Japanese girl who ends up committing hari kari, then this recording is probably not for you. There have certainly been more beautifully sung Butterflies, but few that elevate it to the level of real tragedy on a par with those of Shakespeare and Euripides. Here we are treated to a cautionary tale, a moral tale if you like, of how even nice people can do terrible things unthinkingly, and how one thoughtless act can set in motion a whole chain of tragic events. It doesn’t always make for comfortable listening, but who said great art was meant to be comfortable?



Callas’s portrayal is full of miraculous detail, phrases, even single words given a significance you won’t hear in other performances. Take, for instance, the way she manages to suggest all Butterfly’s trust in Pinkerton at Ieri son salita, the final Amore mio sung with a conviction that makes it easy to understand her utter faith in his return. In the love duet she is all shyness until gradually her voice is flooded with warmth and passion, as she succumbs to Pinkerton’s ardour. Here, maybe, I should add a word about Gedda’s Pinkerton, which some have found too uncaddish. But surely that is to miss the point. That nice people can, and do, perpetrate unkind things is surely the crux of the plot. Gedda sounds like his music; a nice, charming young man, who gives no thought to the consequences of his actions. His remorse in the last act is entirely believable, though it also exposes his weakness. 

But back to Callas, who finds in Butterfly, not the frailty of childhood, but its strength. According to John Steane in the Gramophone review quoted above,

The keynote is firmness of mind; a simple factuality which sees right and wrong with the clarity of that miraculously rinsed and lightened voice.

She sings Un bel di not as some big soprano show piece, but integrates it into the drama, a simple reiteration of Butterfly’s faith, the details of Pinkerton’s return sung in wistful fashion as something she has gone over and over again in her mind. Che tua madre, with its cries of Morta! Morta!, is almost unbearably intense, Sotto il gran ponte dal cielo unbearably moving. Only in the final scene, when left alone, does she let her full voice out, and the effect is overwhelming, Puccini’s final chords shatteringly played by the orchestra under Karajan, who conducts a tautly dramatic performance of the opera, less inclined to wallow than in his later recording.

Danieli is excellent as Suzuki, Borriello a sympathetic Sharpless, but this, of all Puccini operas, is all about the heroine; even Pinkerton is a supporting role, and Callas, with Karajan’s help, makes sure that all our attention is concentrated on Butterfly.


The sound is a trifle boxy but sounds a lot better here than it did in the 1997 Callas Edition. Still it mystifies me that it is not up to the quality of the Tosca that was recorded two years earlier. Essential nevertheless, for Callas, Karajan, and all those who think Puccini’s opera is more than a sentimental pot boiler.

The moment a process server stuffed a summons into her kimono after her performance of Butterfly in Chicago.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Callas's final Aida



Aida is not my favourite Verdi opera. I find it hard to identify with any of the characters, and they usually emerge as representatives rather than real people. It is full of great music, but I have to admit I admire it rather than love it. Nor would the role of Aida be considered a natural for Callas, though she sang it, with a great deal of success, quite often between her debut in the role in 1948 and her last stage appearances in it in 1953, this 1955 recording being the last time she would ever sing the complete role, though she returned to the aria Ritorna vincitor and the Nile duet with Radames (with Corelli) late in her career in the mid 1960s. Interestingly enough, though one doesn’t think of Aida as a Callas role, when the now defunct International Opera Collector magazine conducted a poll of its readers to assemble the ideal Aida cast, Callas emerged as top favourite for the title role, ahead of such famous Aidas as Ponselle and Leontyne Price.

The reason for this can only be that she brings the rather placid character of Aida to life like no other. Though she may not have the sweetness of timbre one might ideally want from an Aida, there are plenty of other rewards. She takes a little while to settle down in the first trio, but Ritorna vincitor is alive with meaning and contrast. Just listen to the way she spits out her hatred for del egizii coorti, the power with which she exhorts her compatriots to destroy the legions, with particular emphasis on the word struggete, the complete change of colour at Ah! Sventurata che dissi, the tenderness with which she sings of her love for Radames and the pain and desperation in her voice at Da piu crudeli angosce un core affranto; the last imprecation to the Gods sung with her tone drenched in sorrow, her legato as usual impeccable. Aida’s cruel predicament is set before us in this one aria with a psychological penetration second to none.

There are wondrous little details in the ensuing duet with Amneris too, like the touch of pride that enters her tone at Mia rivale! Ebben sia pure, quickly withdrawn when she realises she could easily give the game away.

But it is the Nile Scene that makes the greatest impression in this set. It starts with Aida’s O patria mia, which some commentators have found to be the weak link in her portrayal, but she yearns most wistfully, floating the tone wonderfully at O freschi valli. She always had problems with the ascent to top C, but it is a lot more solid here than I remember it, though it certainly isn’t dolce as marked by Verdi. The following duet is another matter and the finest realisation of it on disc. I doubt any singers have come close to Callas and Gobbi in the way they create drama in sound, and Serafin is at his very best in this scene too. I found it impossible to hold back the tears as Callas launched into that glorious tune at O patria, patria, quanto mi costi, and how brilliantly Serafin makes the violins weep with her.

The duet with Radames is hardly less fine, though Tucker can be a bit graceless at times. Yet again, Callas brings out a wealth of detail, like the insinuating way she sings Pur, se tu m’ami with that slight portamento on the word m’ami. She plays Radames brilliantly here, wonderfully seductive when she sings La tra foreste vergini. This is operatic singing on the highest level. In the last act too, she has something to offer, singing with grace and accuracy the difficult fioriture of Vedi? Di morte l’angelo.

As already mentioned Gobbi is superb as the implacable Amonasro, though still able to inject some tenderness into his duet with Aida. Tucker has the right heroic timbre for the role of Radames, but he can be a bit lachrymose, and tends to aspirate and sob, as if mimicking the mannerisms of a true Italian tenor. Barbieri is more subtle than I remember her, and provides a barnstorming Amneris, though I have come to prefer Baltsa on Karajan’s second recording, who reminds us that Amneris is a young princess and a valid rival for Aida.

Serafin is on top form, conducting in the best Italian tradition, lyrical and dramatic in equal measure. There may not be any great surprises or revelations, but his deep understanding of the music and its style is its own reward.

Soundwise, my only point of comparison was the 1997 Callas Edition. Voices and orchestra seem to have more space around them here, Callas’s voice much less shrill. Maybe that’s why that top C in O patria mia didn’t strike me as being that wobbly this time around. I’ve heard far worse from some more recent singers.

All in all, it was a great surprise to re-discover this set, to enjoy the opera more than I thought I would, and to find myself appreciating Callas’s very individual take on the role.



Callas's infinitely touching Gilda




Gilda is another role one would not readily associate with Callas. She did sing it on stage for two performances in Mexico in 1952, but, unhappy with her performance, never sang it again except for this recording made in 1955. The Mexico performances are a bit of a mess and sound under-rehearsed, but Callas is superb, and one notes how it is often she who keeps the ensemble together, even though she was so blind on stage she could never see the conductor. It is actually something of a tragedy that she didn’t sing the role more often. If she had, then people may have rethought the role of Gilda, as they did that of Lucia. It is usually sung by a light voiced lyric coloratura, who manages Caro nome well enough, but can’t really muster the power to dominate the ensembles in the last two acts, as she should. This was brought home to me in a performance at Covent Garden recently, in which Aleksandra Kurzak was a lovely Gilda. She sang a stunning Caro nome, which rightly brought the house down, but in the last two acts her voice was often completely overpowered by the orchestra and the other singers, meaning that her Gilda didn’t make quite the effect it might have. Still at least she sang within her means, and didn’t force.

No problem there for Callas of course, but the miracle is that she doesn’t simply sing out with the voice of Norma or Aida, when she needs a bit more power, but continues to think upwards. The voice takes on a little more weight after the seduction, but it is still the voice of Gilda, a voice miraculously rinsed and lightened, the tone forwardly produced.

I often think it odd that when people talk about Verdi sopranos, it is the voices of Tebaldi and Leontyne Price they have in mind, but could either of those sopranos have sung Gilda, or Lady Macbeth, or any of Verdi’s early roles? Tebaldi may have sung Violetta, but it wasn’t a natural for her, the coloratura in Sempre libera smudged (and transposed down in live performances). Nor did Tebaldi sing the Trovatore Leonora on stage, as the role lay too high for her. Price did of course, and she was an appreciable Leonora, though she doesn’t sing with the same degree of accuracy as Callas. Callas, on the other hand, sang with equal success Gilda and Lady Macbeth, Abigaille and Elisabeth de Valois, Elena and Aida, both Leonoras, Amelia and Violetta, all on stage not just in the studio, and one regrets that she didn’t get the chance to sing more of Verdi’s early operas. What a superb Luisa Miller she might have made, or Odabella in Attila, or virtually any of those early Verdi heroines. Maybe, after all, it is Callas who is the ideal Verdi soprano.

But back to this Rigoletto, in which Callas yet again completely inhabits an uncharacteristic role. In the first two acts, she presents a shy, innocent young girl, with a touch of wilfulness that explains her disobedience to her father. In the duet with Rigoletto, we feel the warmth of her love for him, and in the one with the Duke, the shy young girl awakening to passion. Caro nome is not just a coloratura showpiece, but a dreamy reverie, and ends on a rapturous trill as she exits the stage. In Act III her voice takes on more colour (Ah, l’onta, padre mio) and it is Tutte le feste that becomes the focal point of her performance, her voice rising with power to the climax (nell’ansia piu crudel), and note how at the opening she matches her tone to that of the cor anglais introduction. She has the power to ride the orchestra in the storm scene in the last act, and the final duet with Gobbi is unbelievably touching. As usual her legato is superb, phrases prodigious in length, shaped and spun out like a master violinist. It is a great pity she didn’t sing Gilda more often, for it is a considerable achievement.

There are other reasons to treasure this performance of course, chief among them being Gobbi’s superbly characterful, endlessly fascinating and heartrending performance of the title role. Gobbi and Callas always had a striking empathy, and the three duets for father and daughter in this opera, gave that relationship full rein. Some have remarked that Gobbi’s voice was not a true Verdi baritone (whatever that means), but, like Callas, he was successful in a range of different Verdi baritone roles, his most famous probably being Rigoletto. Who has ever matched Gobbi in tonal variety and vocal colour, and psychological complexity? None that I can think of. Maybe Simon Keenyslide, who was a blisteringly moving Rigoletto at Covent Garden. Interestingly he too might be said not to be a true Verdi baritone.

 Di Stefano may not be quite in their class, and there are certainly more elegant Dukes on record, but he sings with such face and charm. One can imagine why Gilda would be captivated by this Duke. By contrast, Samir Pirgu, the Duke at those recent Covent Garden performances, may have been good looking, but was totally charmless, his singing lacking in grace.

Serafin’s tempi can sometimes be a bit slow, (noticeable after listening to Karajan’s superbly sprung Il Trovatore) but he is totally at one with Callas and Gobbi in the duets, and whips up quite a storm in the finale to Act II.

The sound is truthful and clear, the voices wonderfully present, and, as in all the Warner sets so far, sounds excellent on my system.


Years ago I remember an acquaintance, not really a voice fan (or a major opera fan, for that matter), asking me which recording of Rigoletto I recommended. He had the Giulini, and quite enjoyed it, but thought there was something missing. I warned him that some were allergic to Callas’s voice, but lent him my set anyway. A couple of days later he excitedly returned it to me, having ordered the recording for himself. “Fantastic,” he said, “Exactly what I was looking for. Suddenly the whole opera came to life.” Well you can’t ask for much more than that.

Callas as Gilda in Mexico 1952