Maria Callas (1923 - 1977)
Her Best Recordings in Good Sound

 


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A FEW REFLECTIONS

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The '54-'55 season is sometimes cited as one of her great peaks, but I find it intermittent. As the voice slims a bit further, her control gets spottier, IMO, and even her pitch is occasionally unsure. The first signs of trouble are an increasing wobble that grows conspicuous for the first time -- for me, anyway -- in the Serafin Forza for EMI, made in mid-August of '54. Her artistic imagination grows keener yet and plateaus with a striking Traviata staged for her by Luchino Visconti in May '55. As usual, the best-recorded examples of her singing here are -- frustratingly -- her studio sets of this time rather than the "live" material. They don't fail, though, to reveal the growing steeliness and unsteadiness and pressure in the top, and one quite ambitious recital LP happens to alternate certain truly amazing cuts with, IMO, moments of clearly off-pitch singing.

Then something remarkable happens during the summer of '55, and it surprises me that few Callas books go into great detail on these critical months.

After a Radio Italiana Norma in June, characterized by some remarkable singing in the second half but some pretty pressured and steely moments in the opening scena, IMO, we move on to the EMI studios and some highly imaginative but vocally uneven releases: Madama Butterfly and Aida in August (the less said of her "O patria mia" here, the better)...........and then a Rigoletto in September.........

But the EMI Rigoletto shows Callas sounding fine!!!! -- IMO, anyway.

What has happened?

A look-see in the Jellinek biography reveals some time spent with her teacher, Elvira De Hidalgo.

6. Going by the Rigoletto, teacher and pupil were not just chatting about the weather! Solid hard work is reflected in this release (one of the three finest Rigolettos in the catalogue in any case*, boasting Gobbi's superb artistry in the title role and the always sympathetic Tullio Serafin at the podium): Callas's voice has not entirely regained its former richness, but its ease of line and the apparent economy of breath (sometimes the unsteadiness during the foregoing season has appeared to stem from occasionally gusty breath control and a lack of focus in directing it?), the more forward diction, the easing up on the top, letting the tone spin more freely and steadily, the clearer articulation in intricate passagework, the smoother register breaks -- all this and more makes her EMI Gilda one of her finest outings in the recording studio. Some may point out with justice that this focused, more streamlined singing is just as much a function of interpretation for Rigoletto's naive daughter as it is a reflection of practical vocal trouble-shooting. Well, yes, it's probably partly interpretation, but it's striking that, in the process, certain vocal verites of good singing so characteristic of Callas's best singing in '53-'54 just happen to return in this set for the first time in a year!

And it's not a flash in the pan. A "live" Lucia from that autumn, in Berlin, the fabulous Wallmann Norma already cited, from December, and a revival of the Visconti Traviata the following January (in execrable sound unfortunately) -- all three of these show her warmed up the second she gets on stage, boasting the same forward diction, the same clean tone, the same unpressured passagework, the slimmer but securer top, and so on. It's a brief heady moment where the vocal consistency (if not quite the vocal richness) of '53-'54 is matched to the even keener variety of shading and nuance and imagination heard in '54-'55. The best of both seasons is fused now in this first half of a third one. I feel these few months qualify as Callas's peak.

But alas, it is only a moment.

C) The diction becomes somewhat cloudier, and the registers are sadly becoming more distinct. The top too grows more tenuous, although there are still a few relatively secure nights. Pitch problems become intermittent as well and the legato is not always as flawless as it was, though it's usually respectable at worst. These are the characteristics from February of 1956 (still the age of mono) to 1959 (full stereo).

As with B), there are mini-phases within this general phase. Much of 1956 I find unusually cautious both in style and vocalism. A spotty Barbiere at La Scala, a somewhat contrived Boheme for EMI (I recognize I may stand in a minority there), an EMI Ballo that alternates thrilling moments with "less than majestic" ones (to use John Ardoin's priceless euphemism;-), an unsatisfying Lucia at the Met -- and that about tells the story. I find that, after that incandescent Traviata in January, all later documentation from that year does not alter this equivocal picture, IMO.

There is a turning of the tide in early '57. After having apparently experienced pronounced pitch problems in a '56 series of Met Normas, she smartens up considerably early the next year, giving Covent Garden by far one of the most triumphant Normas of her entire career. Not a note exists of this performance, so we must go by hearsay (she sang Norma at Covent Garden in '52, '53 and '57, of which only '52 survives in reportedly presentable sound in its newest incarnation from EMI). Fortunately, we do have from this same mini-phase of early '57 her first performance ever of arguably the most demanding dramatic coloratura role she ever sang: the title role in Donizetti's Anna Bolena. So her Bolena can possibly serve as a spot-check on what London audiences heard in her Norma that season. No, this Bolena is not quite as sure or as forwardly placed as the Wallmann Norma. Presumably, the '57 Norma wasn't either. But this Bolena is still one of the most satisfying nights in her discography. Granted, she takes her time warming up, proceeds to go sharp on a few high notes later on and loses the tone for a second in the cavatina of her Mad Scene at the end -- flaws we don't hear in the Wallmann Norma. But, by and large -- and particularly considering that Bolena was probably the most fearsome vocal assignment of her career -- she comes through amazingly well. Unfortunately, Maestro Gavazzeni's performing edition is brutally cut, and the sound quality of this broadcast, while hardly bad, doesn't stand up to her commercial sets -- again.

7. Fortunately, her first stereo set comes from this mini-phase: the EMI Barbiere di Siviglia under Alceo Galliera, made in February '57. There are a number of snips made here and there in Rossini's score, but it's not quite the wholesale butchery heard in the "live" Bolena. And it's a treat hearing Callas's Rosina in much better form than the previous year and in splendid sound. One wishes such an introduction -- and in some respects it may be the best-recorded introduction for someone hearing Callas for the first time -- were in some role that plumbed a greater variety of feelings, something closer to the depth of a Norma or a Bolena, than we get in Rosina. There are even accounts indicating that Callas herself was not too enthralled with the role of Rosina (there are similar accounts concerning her and Tosca, BTW). In fact, her Rosina here, while quite fine, does not equal, IMO, her incandescent Gilda recorded in mono for EMI during that ultimate -- and fleeting -- peak in late '55/early '56. But, though the EMI Rigoletto is at least decently enough recorded to qualify for this list of reasonably well-engineered documents of Callas in good form, the sound quality of this stereo Barbiere is so much better as to make comparisons moot. Moreover, if one were to set aside late '55 - early '56, I would feel that the finest mini-phase of Callas's career would be a toss-up between '53/'54 or early '57 -- the date of this well-recorded Barbiere.

After this point, she was still able to maintain this standard in a quite amazing Sonnambula that we have "live" from Cologne the following July. This is only available in O.K. sound, but......

8. ....the EMI Sonnambula made earlier in March with the same forces is better recorded and shows Callas's Amina in almost as good form. No, she is not quite as inspired as at Cologne, but she is still in solid control of what she's doing and we get a fair understanding of her greatness in this opera. It's odd, though, that EMI, after having made the Barbiere in stereo in February, chose to go back to mono for the Sonnambula sessions the next month. Callas herself may be even greater in this role than as Rosina.

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* I would suggest that, as a totality, only the Warren/Cellini Rigoletto and Bastianini/Gavazzeni one (stereo) fully equal the Gobbi recording.

 

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CARMEN -- FROM COMEDY TO TRAGEDY

ENRICO CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

FRANCO CORELLI (1921 - 2003) -- RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS

DON CARLOS -- RANDOM JOTTINGS

DONIZETTI AND BRINKMANSHIP

GREATEST SINGER?

THE TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)

MEISTERSINGER ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

RECALLING ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)

PARSIFAL ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

HISTORY OF OPERA IN MINIATURE

RICHARD TAUBER (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

VIOLETTA IN LA TRAVIATA

PARTIAL OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD

IL TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

UPCOMING SINGERS

 

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The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797 - 1847 NEW BOOK

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