A disparate set of ramblings from a gay man who has been around, and done most things, I've been an actor, singer, dancer and model, and now I'm a writer and tantric masseur. As I get older, there's one tenet I live by. If you want to do something, then do it, because tomorrow may be too late.
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Tuesday, 3 November 2015
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)