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.
Most of my writing is also viewable on www.thegayuk.com
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
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
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.