Tuesday, 8 December 2015

This is where it began - Callas's first commercial recordings



So after six months I finally come to the end and find myself at the beginning, Callas’s first commercial recordings and the 78s that introduced the world to the voice of Maria Callas. The recordings followed a radio concert of the same material (plus Aida’s O patria mia) and were obviously intended to showcase Callas’s versatility, a pattern which was to follow in some of her EMI recitals, like Lyric and Coloratura and the first French recital.

Callas was only 25 when these recordings were made, but they display an artistic and vocal maturity far beyond her years. She first sang the role of Isolde under Serafin in 1947 in Venice, literally sight singing the role at her audition. Serafin, who had conducted her in her Italian debut as Gioconda, was suitably impressed and hired her immediately.

The Liebestod is of course sung in Italian, but it is more than just a curiosity. This is a warm, womanly Isolde who rides the orchestra with power to spare. Note too how easily she articulates the little turns towards the end of the aria. Her legato is, as usual, impeccable, and the final note floats out over the postlude without a hint of wobble.

Callas as Isolde


Norma’s Casta diva and Ah bello a me are sung without the opening and linking recitatives, but the long breathed cavatina is quite possibly the most beautiful she ever committed to disc, and the cabaletta, though it lacks some of the light and shade she would later bring to it, is breath taking in its accuracy and sweep.

But what caused the biggest sensation at the time was the Mad Scene from I Puritani. What was considered a canary fancier’s showpiece suddenly took on a tragic power nobody suspected was there. Qui la voce is sung with a deep legato, the long phrases spun out to extraordinary lengths, but with an intensity that never disturbs the vocal line. Vien diletto almost defies belief. No lighter voiced soprano has ever sung the scale passages with such dazzling accuracy, nor invested them with such pathos, emerging, as they do, as the sighs of a wounded soul. And to cap it all, this large lyric-dramatic voice rises with ease to a ringing top Eb in alt. I have played this to doubting vocal students before now, and they have sat in open-mouthed disbelief. I remember one opera producer friend of mine once telling me that listening to it made him profoundly sad. “I know I will never hear live singing of that greatness in my lifetime,” he confided to me. If ever confirmation were needed of the greatness, the genius of Maria Callas, it is here in these, her very first recordings, and especially in this astonishing recording of the Mad Scene from I Puritani.

For my part, I have enjoyed every moment of my journey from those late recordings, where the genius would flash through to offset the evident vocal problems to these earlier ones where the voice had an ease and beauty that deserted her all too soon. Callas is and remains the pre-eminent soprano of the twentieth century. I know of no other singer who has made music live the way she did. A post on Talk Classical recently discussed underrated singers. I’d be tempted to add the name of Maria Callas, because, to my mind, her genius was inestimable. None of the accolades she has received seem eloquent enough, and I certainly can’t add to them.


60 years after she last sang on the operatic stage, she is still causing controversy, and no doubt always will. Her career may have been short, but was it Beverly Sills who once said, “Better 10 years like Callas than 20 like anyone else?”

Callas's first complete opera recording



Callas’s first ever complete studio recording was made for the Italian firm Cetra in 1952, before she had signed with EMI. The role of Gioconda had furnished her with her Italian debut in 1947, and was the occasion she met two of the most important men in her life, her mentor Tullio Serafin and her future husband Battista Meneghini. Paradoxically she would make her second recording of the opera at the time of her affair with Onassis, and when she was separating from Meneghini.

Callas in ger Italian debut as Gioconda at the Verona Arena


When Callas recorded La Gioconda for Cetra she was still a large lady and at her vocal peak. It was recorded just a couple of months before she made her spectacular debut at Covent Garden in Norma and shortly before her only series of performances as Lady Macbeth at La Scala, a role one wishes had figured more in her career. She then went on to sing Gioconda at La Scala, her last performances in the role until the EMI recording in 1959.

Given the sheer animal power and massive, freewheeling brilliance she could command at this stage in her career, you would think this Cetra recording would, in all but matters of sound, win hands down over the later one, recorded seven years after when her vocal powers were failing, but I’m not sure it’s that simple, and, whilst listening to this one, there were quite a few passages where I found myself hankering after the later recording. True, the singing is often magnificent, and it is easy to be swept away by the coruscating force of her delivery, but I find myself missing some of the refinements she has made by the time of the second recording. This may be a controversial opinion, but this one seems to me to be a series of thrilling highlights, whereas the characterisation on the EMI set feels more of a piece, with a cumulative power I don’t get here, for all the added security of her voice; and actually there are certain, purely vocal moments, she manages better on EMI than she does on Cetra (the pitfalls of Ah come t’amo, the E un di leggiadre section from Suicidio, the whole of the section after she gives Laura the sleeping draught, for instance).

As against that, I should also state that her performance of Suicidio here completely floored me when I first heard it. I had no idea a female voice, a soprano at that, could sing with such passion, could have such powerful chest notes. It was absolutely staggering and one of the things that first turned me on to the genius of Callas in the first place. If I later got to know the opera better from the EMI recording and place that at a slightly higher level of achievement, it is none the less  a close-run thing.
The Warner engineers have done a great job of the re-mastering and it sounds much better than I remember it from my previous CDs, though obviously not so good as the stereo EMI set. One also misses the greater refinement of the La Scala orchestra and chorus.

At La Scala in 1952

As for her colleagues, it is largely a case of swings and roundabouts. Barbieri is a much more positive presence than the young Cossotto as Laura, but none of the men on either of the sets are particularly good. Ferraro on EMI isn’t very subtle, but he certainly makes a pleasanter sound than the awful Poggi. Honours are about equal between Silveri and Cappuccilli, Neri and Vinco. Votto’s conducting isn’t much different in the two sets, and remains some of his best work on disc.


One thing is for sure, Callas as Gioconda is an absolute must, and, regardless of any reservations surrounding her colleagues or recording quality, eclipses every other performance of the role on disc.