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 as Bellini's Elvira is not to be missed
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.
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.