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.



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