Monday, 30 November 2015

A lusciously sensual Under Milk Wood

My review of this film adaptation of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood first appeared in TheGayUK in October 2015.



I studied  Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” for my English A Level, rather more years ago now than I choose to mention and it came as quite a surprise to me to realise that I still remembered, almost word for word the narrator’s first long speech, beautifully spoken here by Rhys Ifans.

“Under Milk Wood” is really an extended dramatic poem for voices. It was first conceived as a radio play, commissioned by the BBC in 1954, with Richard Burton voicing the narrator. Later it was turned into a stage play, and there is at least one previous film (1972) with Burton reprising his narrator role, and with such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O’Toole and Glynis Johns amongst the cast.

Whilst remaining absolutely true to Thomas’s original text, the screenplay of this new film, brings out more than any I’ve seen or heard, the sheer earthy, lascivious and hilariously funny filthiness of Thomas’s dreamscape, a true celebration of the joys of sex. Only most of the sex in this story takes place in people’s minds, their fantasies and desires brought out in full, luscious technicolour glory. 

The film looks superb, for which director of photography Andy Hollis deserves enormous credit.
Director Kevin Allen has at his disposal an excellent cast of Welsh actors, many of them faces well-known from TV, all perfect for their roles. Rhys Ifans, who also doubles as Captain Cat, is quite as effective as Richard Burton in his long opening speech, his accent, though perfectly intelligible, just that bit more Welsh, where Burton, targeting a 1950s audience, slightly Anglicised his tones.



Charlotte Church, making a very successful screen debut, is cast as Polly Garter. She has a plump, rounded, wholesome sexiness that is absolutely perfect for the fertile baby machine, that the rest of the village like to gossip about.

Ultimately, though, the film is also about loss; loss of community, loss of a way of life. Captain Cat is old and dying and his demise is symbolic of the death of the village Llareggub (Bugger All spelt backwards). There hangs over the film a purveying sense of nostalgia for a time that never waa. Gritty realism is swept away with a click of the camera, and for 85 minutes we can escape into a world of dreams and fantasy. I enjoyed it immensely.


4 stars

A scorching Greek Santuzza



According to the notes accompanying this recording, Callas actually replaced the scheduled singer for it, a famous mezzo who was having trouble with her top notes. Does anyone know who this might have been? Could it have been Stignani? She ducks some of the top notes in Callas’s Norma the following year, and she was getting on a bit by this time, so it’s possible I suppose.

Whoever it was, we should be pleased that Callas was around to fill the breach, because her Santuzza is superb. Unbelievably she had only previously sung the role in her student days, when only 15 and also a couple of times with the Athens Opera, but, apart from this recording, never again, and yet, in fabulous voice, she inhabits the role of poor, hapless Santuzza as no other.

At this stage in her career her voice was as responsive in verismo as it was only a few weeks before, when she was recording Bellini (I Puritani). She uses none of the tricks of the verismo soprano, no glottal stops, no aspirates, no sobs, but sings with a pure musical line. When she sings io piango at the end of Voi lo sapete, she is able to suggest tears without actually sobbing.

Furthermore her characterisation has been thoroughly thought out. This is a young woman at the end of her tether with nothing left to lose. Her very first utterances are full of weariness and hopelessness, that first little dialogue with Mamma Lucia full of despair. Quale spina ho in core, she sings, and her singing of those few words rends the heart, as do her thrice repeated cries of O Signor in the Easter Hymn. Left alone with Mamma Lucia, she pours out her sad story.  Voi lo sapete is not only heartrendingly poignant, but beautifully sung, and we note how economically she uses her chest voice. Intensity is not achieved at the expense of musical line.

Nor is it in the duet with Turiddu, which bristles with contrast and drama. Here it is not just a duet with two singers bawling their heads off at each other, but a full scale Sicilian row between a young couple. Callas pleads, rails, cajoles and, finally, when she can take no more, hurls her curse at Turiddu.

Alfio serendipitously turning up at just that moment gives her the opportunity to vent her spleen, but, yet again, her singing is full of subtle little details and the solo that leads into the duet is sung with a sustained, if tragic beauty. Note how skilfully she shades the line at the end when she takes the pressure off the voice, moving from chest to head and ending quietly on lui rapiva a me. The closing section has both Panerai and Callas pulling out all the stops. It is absolutely thrilling.

A few words then about the rest of the cast. Di Stefano  sings with his own brand of slancio and presents a caddish, if ultimately remorseful Turiddu, Panerai is a splendidly virile Alfio, and Anna Maria Canali a sexy, minx-like Lola, superbly bitchy in her short exchange with Callas’s Santuzza. Serafin’s speeds are sometimes a bit slow in the choruses, but he paces the meat of the drama really well.

The recording still overloads occasionally at climaxes, so I assume that is a problem that exists on the master, but otherwise the sound is quite open and Callas’s voice fairly leaps out of the speakers.

Not for nothing has this remained one of the top recommendations for Cavalleria Rusticana for over 50 years, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. For first-rate recorded sound and orchestral splendour one would go to Karajan, for characterful full-throated singing to Serafin. 


Sunday, 15 November 2015

Callas's groundbreaking Lucia di Lammermoor



Of all the roles Callas sang, it was probably Lucia which created the biggest furore. Back in the early 1950s, nobody took the opera very seriously. It was considered a silly Italian opera in which a doll-like coloratura soprano ran around the stage showing off her high notes and flexibility. There is a hilarious description of the characters in E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread attending a provincial performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. Here he describes the prima donna’s first entrance.

Lucia began to sing, and there was a moment's silence. She was stout and ugly; but her voice was still beautiful, and as she sang the theatre murmured like a hive of happy bees. All through the coloratura she was accompanied by sighs, and its top note was drowned in a shout of universal joy.

For anyone who loves opera or Italy, I heartily recommend this self-mocking tale of the English abroad.

But back to Callas, who first sang the role of Lucia on stage in Mexico  in 1952. A few months earlier she had sung the first part of the Mad Scene at a concert in Rome. After Mexico, she would sing it in Florence, Genoa, Catania and in Rome before appearing in Karajan’s legendary production at La Scala at the beginning of 1954, a production that subsequently travelled to Berlin (one of her most famous recorded live performances) and Vienna.  It was also one of the roles she chose for her U.S. debut in 1954 in Chicago and at the Met in 1956. Her last performances of the role were in Dallas in 1959 (in the same Zefirelli production that made Sutherland a star at Covent Garden) and she made two recordings of the opera;  this one in 1953 in Florence, shortly after stage performances there and the second in 1959 in London. After Norma, Violetta and Tosca it is the role she sang most often, so it is hardly surprising that she is so much associated with it.

Back in the 1950s it must have seemed unthinkable that such a large voice could tackle the role, and not only sing it, but sing it with such accuracy and musicality, giving the opera back a tragic intensity that people had forgotten, or didn’t even know,  was there.  There is a touching story of Toti Dal Monte, an erstwhile famous Lucia herself, visiting Callas in her dressing room after a performance, tears streaming down her face, and confessing she had sung the role for years without really understanding its dramatic potential.

With Karajan

From Callas’s very first notes, she presents a highly-strung, nervous character, but sings with impeccable legato, all the scales and fioriture bound into the vocal line, the tone dark, but plangent, expressive but infinitely subtle. Regnava nel silenzio is a model of grace, but she still manages to invest the words di sangue roseggio with a kind of horror, whilst never resorting to glottal stops or other verismo tricks. She understands that with bel canto it is the arc of the melody, of the musical line that is paramount. 

And so it continues, with her consolatory Deh ti placa in the duet with Di Stefano’s Edgardo, a duet of musical contrasts, in which Callas’s Lucia is at its most feminine. The duet with Gobbi, their first encounter on disc together, is also full of contrasts, and Gobbi makes a much more interesting villain than Cappuccilli in her second recording, finding a range of insinuating colour that his younger colleague doesn’t even hint at.

The Mad Scene is a miracle of long breathed phrases, with such lines as Alfin son tua heartbreakingly expressed, and of course here there are none of the problems with the top Ebs that we get in the second recording.

The Mad Scene in Karajan's La Scala production

Di Stefano is more suited to Edgardo than he would be to Arturo in I Puritani, which was recorded soon after, and he is much to be preferred to the over-the-hill Tagliavini on the second recording. Serafin conducts a tautly dramatic version of the score.

The sound on this Warner issue still tends to distort and crumble in places. I guess that must be on the master, but the voices ring out with a little more truth.

Of course both Callas and Di Stefano can be heard together in the famous 1955 Berlin performances under Karajan, in sound which is not much worse than this, and that recording would still be my first choice amongst Callas’s Lucias, for all that she eschews the first Eb in the Mad Scene. Under Karajan’s baton and in a live situation she sings with effortless spontaneity, almost as if she is extemporising on the spot.

Still this first Callas studio recording is the one that got people talking and the one that quite possibly changed opinions about bel canto for many years to come. As such it has a historical significance which should never be forgotten.



Callas as Bellini's Elvira is not to be missed



I Puritani, Callas’s second opera for EMI was the first recorded under the imprimatur of La Scala, an association which would result in eighteen further opera sets over a period of seven years.

No doubt because of the circumstances surrounding her first Elvira (she learned it in 3 days to replace an ailing Margherita Carosio whilst still singing Brunnhilde in Die Walkure) and because of her famed recording of the Mad Scene, one would expect the role to have played a greater part in her career, but in fact after those first performances in Venice in 1949, it figured rarely in her repertoire.

She sang it again in Florence ,in  Rome and  in Mexico in 1952, and in her second season in Chicago in 1955, then never again, though the Mad Scene did occasionally appear in her concert programmes, even as late as 1958 at  a Covent Garden Gala. A recording of her rehearsing the scene for her Dallas inaugural concert in 1957 exists, and shows her still singing an easy, secure and full-throated high Eb.

Callas as Elvira in Mexico in 1952

 
Maybe the reason she sang it so little is that Elvira offers less dramatic meat than Lucia or even Amina. The libretto is something of a muddle and Elvira seems to spend the opera drifting in and out of madness. Of course she gets some wonderful music to sing, and Callas certainly breathes a lot more life into her than most singers are able to do. She also gives us some of her best work on disc, her voice wonderfully limpid and responsive, the top register free and open. No doubt this is the reason it has remained one of the top choices for the opera since its release over 6o years ago.

We first hear her in the offstage prayer in Act I Scene I, and straight away there is that thrill of recognition as her voice dominates the ensemble. Then in the scene with Giorgio, she finds a wide range of colour, a weight of character, that we never really hear. Her voice, laden with sadness for her first utterances, then defiant when she thinks she is to be wed to someone she doesn’t love, is fused with utter joy when she realises that it is Arturo she is going to marry. She skips through the florid writing with lightness and ease, but invests it with a significance that eludes most others. One moment that stood out in relief for me was her cry of Ah padre mio when Arturo arrives, which bespeaks the fullness of heart that is the main characteristic of this Elvira. Son vergin vezzosa is a miracle of lightness and grace, Ah vieni al tempio heartbreakingly real, though her voice does turn a little harsh when she doubles the orchestral line an octave up.

A much slimmer Callas as Elvira in Chicago in 1955


The Mad Scene needs little introduction. It is one of the most well-known examples of her art out there, the cabaletta moulded on a seemingly endless breath; and where have you ever heard such scales in the cabaletta? Like the sighs of a dying soul. The top Eb at its climax is one of the most stunning notes even Callas ever committed to disc, held ringingly and freely without a hint of strain. Words fail me.

She has less to do in the last act, which mostly belongs to the tenor, and this is where I have a problem with the set. Di Stefano is nowhere near stylish enough in a role that was written for the great Rubini, and he lurches at every top note as if his life depended on it. Sometimes the notes sound reasonably free, at others he almost sounds as if he’s holding onto them with his teeth. Mind you, who else was there around to sing it any better at that time? The recording was made too early for Kraus, though Gedda might have been a good idea. After all, he was already singing for EMI by then, and would sing Narciso on Callas's recording of Il Turco in Italia, which was recorded the following year..

Rossi-Lemeni  is less woolly-toned than I remember him and sings with authority, especially good in the first act duet with Callas; Panerai is a virile presence as Riccardo. Serafin conducts with his usual sense of style, but also invests some drama into the proceedings.

The orchestra and voices sound really good, but the recording of the chorus is a but muddy. Presumably that was also the case on the original LPs.


I do have a few problems with I Puritani. To my mind the libretto is plain silly, and even Callas’s wonderful singing can’t quite rescue it. That said, as singing qua singing, it’s some of the most amazing work she ever committed to disc, and for that reason it will always be a permanent part of gramophone history. I would never be without it.


Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Possibly the most famous opera recording ever made?




What can one say about this famous recording of Tosca that hasn’t been said before? It regularly appears in lists of the greatest recordings ever made, and it seems now that its legendary status is confirmed.

Because of it, Tosca has often been considered the quintessential Callas role, but, though she sang it a fair amount in her early career, she pretty much ignored the role after this recording, until it became the vehicle for her operatic comeback in London in 1964. Indeed she never sang it, or any other Puccini role, at La Scala, which was her cultural home at the height of her career. A few months after making this recording she sang the role at a couple of performances in Genoa, then promptly ignored it, except for her two seasons at the Met in 1956 and 1958. In 1964, Zeffirelli managed to get her to choose it as the vehicle for her comeback, but, typically for her, she would only agree if they could do Norma as well, which he staged for her in Paris.

The Zeffirelli production, which was shared by Paris and London, became one of the most famous in operatic history (and in fact Covent Garden only retired it a few years ago). Indeed one could say the photos of Callas in that red velvet dress she wore in Act II have since become iconic, even though Callas herself often voiced her disdain for both the opera and the role.

True, it may not have offered her the vocal challenges of Norma or Medea, of Violetta or Lady Macbeth, but in 1953 her voice was an amazingly limpid and responsive instrument, enabling her to easily encompass its demands, whilst rendering the score with an accuracy the likes of Tebaldi and Milanov could only dream of. Take, for instance, the lightness and grace with which she sings a line like le voce delle cose in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta. Most Toscas are clumsy here, but Callas sings it with elegant ease. Furthermore at this stage in her career, she can swell the tone to a refulgent climax at Arde in Tosca un folle amor, which she can’t quite manage by the time of the second recording, which was recorded around the same time as the London and Paris performances.

Interestingly, though, in terms of interpretation, there are not that many differences between Callas’s Tosca of 1953 and 1964; a few minor details here and there, but for the most part the character of Tosca is as musically finished here as it was to be histrionically in Covent Garden. Though Zeffirelli may have helped her with odd bits of stage business, it seems sure that her conception of the character had changed little in the intervening years. The main differences are vocal, and here she rides the orchestra with power to spare, the top Cs, that emerged as little more than shrieks in 1964, full throated and solid as a rock. Vissi d’arte (which Callas used to say should be cut as it held up the action) is both beautiful and heart-rending. So it is in 1964, but the ending taxes her to the limit there, whereas here it is full throated and easy.

Iconic photo of Callas in the 1964 Zeffirelli production of 1964

Of course there are other reasons why this set has retained its place as the best of all Tosca recordings. Gobbi is also in fuller, securer voice here than he was in 1964, and his loathsome, reptilian Scarpia is a towering achievement. As usual, he and Callas strike sparks off each other, their confrontations bristling with tension. Di Stefano, who also appears on the first Karajan recording, is here in his best voice, an ardent, youthful and passionate Cavaradossi. Both duets with Callas are erotically charged affairs, as they should be.


Sonically it is surely the best of all Callas’s studio mono sets from La Scala. One hardly notices the lack of stereo; voices are perfectly placed and the orchestra sounds richer and more full-bodied than was often the case. This transfer has also corrected some of the errors that crept into previous CD incarnations, not least the terrible GROC version.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Callas's only studio Violetta



In one sense it’s a shame this Cetra recording of La Traviata was ever made. Had it not been, Callas would have been the Violetta on the Serafin La Scala recording with Di Stefano and Gobbi instead of Stella. Her contract stipulated that she could not re-record the role for 5 years. Legge presumably felt he couldn’t wait any longer to add a recording of such a central Italian classic to his catalogue. 

Whatever the reasons, Callas was furious with Legge for engaging Stella and with Serafin for conducting it without her. For a while she and Serafin didn’t speak and he is notably absent from her recording schedule for the following year, 1956.

In retrospect maybe Legge should have waited till she was free to record Violetta again in 1958, the year of Callas’s most searchingly complex stage performances in the role (Lisbon and London). Had he done so EMI would no doubt have had the best-selling La Traviata of all time. As it is, the Stella recording was never a big seller, and only received a CD issue, when Testament unearthed it some years ago. Bad call, Walter.

In Visconti's production of 1955
Of all the roles in Callas’s repertoire, it was Violetta that went through the greatest transformation from her debut in the role in 1950, through the famous Visconti production at La Scala in 1955 to those last, movingly poetic performances in 1958 in Lisbon, London and Dallas. It was the role she sang most often after Norma, and the role she most often considered for a comeback. There were discussions of a recording for EMI even as late as 1969, when, vocally, it would have been out of the question. Callas considered it very much her role, that of the woman who gave up everything for love. Maybe there was a parallel here with her own life. Didn’t she give up everything for love?

In Visconti's production of 1955

This recording of La Traviata was the first one I owned and the first of her Violettas I heard. It wasn’t that easy to get hold of, and my copy was a reissue on Pye Ember. I had no idea of the existence of any of the live recordings, and, had I never heard any of them, I would no doubt have been happy enough with her Violetta, as recorded here, though not necessarily with its surroundings. Compared to her EMI releases, this is a decidedly provincial affair. Santini’s conducting is leaden and neither Albanese as Alfredo nor Savarese as Germont are in the first rank. But at least we have Callas, and, if not as subtle or as heart-rending as she was to become, she is still a great Violetta, and still better than anyone else in the role.

The demands of the first act are more easily encompassed here than they were to become in later performances, though the top Cs in Sempre libera seem slightly tense, as does the concluding Eb. Still it’s freer and more open here than it is in any of the later sets and scale passages are wonderfully fluid. She is tremendously affecting in the duet with Germont, and fails here only in comparison to her later self. Other than this, her traversal of the role is not as complete as it is later to become. There are plenty of affecting moments to be sure, some in the duet with Germont, (the desperation with which she sings Non sapete, for instance) and especially the farewell to Alfredo with the lead up to Amami, Alfredo which seethes with that intensity so peculiar to her. In the second scene the great arching phrase, Che fia? Morir mi sento is too much of an outward sentiment as is Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core, beautifully though they are sung.

With Kraus in Lisbon


Act III has its moments too. Addio del passato ends on a much more secure pianissimo high A than we get at Covent Garden, but how much more moving is that thread of tone with which she ends the aria in London. Parigi o cara is saddled with  Santini’s leaden conducting, but Gran Dio morir si giovane strikes the right note of despair and Prendi quest’e l’immagine is eloquently moving, if not so eloquent as it was to become.

In short, if no other recording of Callas as Violetta existed, this would be my first choice for the opera. But the fact of the matter is that by 1958, she had refined her interpretation so much that this 1953 performance seems unfinished beside it, almost like a rehearsal for the main event. 

Furthermore, in both Lisbon and London, she has a better supporting cast and conductors, and the sound, in London at least, is excellent. I was pleased to hear this performance again, and delighted to have it once more in my collection. Callas’s Violetta, in any of its incarnations is a major achievement after all, but I know it is still to Covent Garden that I will most often return.


I might just add that Warner have done wonders with the sound compared to what I remember of my rather muddy Pye Ember LP version. 

At Covent Garden

Callas's first recording of Norma



Back in October last year I wrote a mini-review of Callas’s second recording of Norma and now, four months later, I arrive at the first.

Though I did have this version on LP (when it was reissued in the 1970s), I never had it on CD. The 1960 version was one of the first LP opera sets I ever owned, and, not surprisingly, became one of the first I owned on CD. Later I got a version of the live 1955 La Scala performance on Arkadia, which I eventually replaced with the Divina Edition one of the same performance. As this was the Norma I most often pulled down off the shelf, I decided I didn’t really need another, so never got round to getting this 1954 recording on CD.

First impression on this set was the presence of the voice. When Callas commandingly sings Sediziose voce she could almost be in the room with you and in fact the sound all round, orchestra and voices, is a lot better than some of the later operas; much less boxy with a real sense of presence. The second (in stereo) is better still of course, but the difference is relatively slight.

So how else does this compare to the second set, which I lavished such praise on back in October? Well let’s start with the rest of the cast. Fillipeschi is, let’s face it, second-rate, and nowhere near as good as Corelli, his basic tone is thin and whiney and anything that requires any rapid movement finds him lacking, not that Corelli is much better in this respect, mind you, but there is the clarion compensation of his voice. Also I’m afraid I find it hard to join in the general round of praise for Stignani. Though the voice retains its firmness, she sounds too mature by this stage in her career, more like Callas’s mother than the innocent, young priestess she is supposed to be. Considering she was 20 years Callas’s senior at the time, it’s hardly surprising. Nor is her voice anywhere near as responsive as Callas’s, or as accurate, but then whose is? Not Ludwig’s, certainly, but I much prefer her more youthful timbre and her voice blends remarkably well with that of Callas; an unlikely piece of casting that paid off. Rossi-Lemeni’s tone tends to be woolly, but he is an authoritative Oroveso, more so than Zaccaria, whose tones are, however, more buttery.

Callas and Stignani at Covent Garden in 1952


As for Callas, there is no doubt that she is much more able to encompass the role’s vocal demands in this recording than the later one. I do miss certain more tender moments in the 1960 recording. Her entrance into Mira o Norma (Ah perche, perche), beautifully and touchingly understated is more moving than it is here, and in fact the whole duet works better with Ludwig, but when clarion strength and security are required then this set wins hands down. One might say we get more of the warrior in this one and more of the woman in the second. Given the security and power she evinces here, it seems strange that she does not take the high D at the end of Act I, as she did at previously preserved live performances, and as she would do again the following year in both Rome (also under Serafin) and Milan. It might seem a relief that she doesn’t attempt the note in 1960, but here I missed it.


Both recordings are essential of course. No other Norma in recorded history has come within a mile of her mastery of this role, the most difficult in the repertory according to Lilli Lehmann, and the one she sang more than any other. I am willing to believe that Pasta and Malibran were every bit as great, but I cannot believe they would have been better. I am indebted to John Steane yet again for putting things in a nutshell when he suggested that for Norma with Callas, one should go for the second recording, but for Callas as Norma, the first. Personally I’d want both, as the second, for all its vocal fallibility, searches deeper. I would also add the live 1955 from La Scala, the one in which voice and art find their purest equilibrium, and the one I would no doubt  be clinging to if ever shipwrecked on that proverbial desert island.

Callas and Stignani at Covent Garden (Sutherland as Clotilde in the background)