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

 


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After all this, exhaustion and considerable vocal unevenness is the order of the day.

There are still occasional mini-phases where she catches the "spirit", and the results are perfectly exciting. But such mini-phases are briefer and more fleeting than ever.

Fortunately, they do include a brief surge of strength in late '57/early '58 when she tops her earlier Ballo in maschera of the recording studio with, again, a Wallmann staging at La Scala, in Dec. '57. Here, although the clarity of the instrument is not what it is in the Bolena or the EMI Barbiere, her top is still in pretty good control, and one feels she finally achieves what she wants to in this opera, a feeling her studio outing does not give me, frankly. Yes, the studio Ballo is better recorded, but this "live" Ballo is clear enough to be enjoyable enough to qualify as my personal favorite of all the Ballos in the catalogue, since both Di Stefano in the principal role and Bastianini happen to be in superb form as well. Also in December, we have the most compelling video document extant of her artistry: a telecast of a "Casta Diva" sung at a RAI studio. Although there are one or two somewhat abrasive sounds here, this is, for the most part just as compelling as the "live" Ballo a couple of weeks before. We are especially lucky to have this filmed document of Callas in an excerpt from one of her most celebrated roles, sung pretty near peak form for those years.

Also around this time, she finally achieves, in early '58, the triumph at the Met that had eluded her in '56 -- "I can't believe it finally happened", Sir Rudolf Bing said the evening she triumphed in Traviata. Unfortunately, SFAIK, not one Met performance from these fleeting days of triumph survives, only the pallid '56 Met Lucia cited earlier. But an accomplished Traviata from Lisbon does survive from around this time. It's been released by EMI in so-so sound and also features Alfredo Kraus. A much better sounding release direct from Lisbon radio's own archives was issued briefly by RDP, and this source is now available on PEARL.

Later in the same season, a hostile Scala audience, furious with her for having walked out, badly indisposed, after the first act of a Rome Norma that January, was ready to boo her off the stage when she returned for a repeat of her most arduous role, Anna Bolena! They were ready to let her have it at the slightest sign of vocal mishap. Callas under the microscope in her most terrifying role! Miraculously, nothing went wrong, the first act proceeded without vocal mishap, the second act was positively inspired, and, wonder of wonders, the audience exploded with enthusiasm at the end after having been ready to lynch her! I sometimes think of this moment, where Callas sang successfully her most difficult role before a completely hostile audience, as her last real hurrah at La Scala. Yes, she appeared in a few more Scala revivals after this, but this kind of unequivocal triumph was never hers again. From now on, at least at La Scala, it was only the occasional succes d'estime.

Unfortunately, not a note survives of this '58 Bolena (so we are fortunate we have her opening in the role in early '57), nor is there a single commercial recording of any kind whatsoever during this late '57/early '58 mini-phase.

Her next commercial recording is not until September of '58. At this time, she makes two recital discs: an LP of Verdi arias, followed by an LP of bel canto Mad Scenes. I find the Verdi disc another spotty affair, although it includes an effective enough "La luce langue" from the second act of Verdi's Macbeth.

9. The Mad Scenes disc is something else again. It comprises Imogene's closing scena from Bellini's Il Pirata, Ophelie's Mad Scene from Thomas's Hamlet -- and, finally, her only commercial documentation of her Anna Bolena: the entire closing scene and possibly the thirty most difficult minutes of singing in Callas's entire repertoire. Her achievement in this Bolena scene is not quite as authoritative as her rendition at the close of her early '57 performance at La Scala (the first time she sang it). But it still shows greatness, IMO. Best of all, this recital was made in stereo.

This LP is the harbinger and the only commercially recorded souvenir of a now typically brief but strong mini-phase extending into January of '59.

In late '58, her singing withstands successfully the stress of numerous interviews and phone calls in the wake of being fired from the Met. We can hear this heartening resilience in a "live" Medea (somewhat distantly recorded) with Jon Vickers, where, on the very day of her firing(!), she is on top of her game for the most part, even though there are some slight signs of fatigue (not egregious) in her last scene.

Severe warmup problems take away somewhat from her Gala debut at the Paris Opera that December and an otherwise successful Pirata at Carnegie Hall the following January. But, for both evenings, once she really gets going in the second half, she is again worth hearing.

The second half of the Paris Gala consists of a fully staged Tosca Act II, which was fortunately televised and is the second most satisfactory video document we have of her. The sound, as with so many "live" documents, is not exactly splendid...........but this is at least listenable enough to afford one an aural/visual experience of Callas's artistry that comes close to what experiencing her in the hall must have been like. It is not quite as incendescent as that RAI "Casta Diva", but it is important for preserving Callas in full costume acting up a storm with her eminent colleague, Tito Gobbi. This is available on an EMI DVD.

The non-commercially-recorded January Pirata at Carnegie Hall is distinguished by a strong reading of Imogene's confrontation with her husband and the final Mad Scene -- all in the second and final act, be it noted. After that evening, uncertainty again.

A coda to this overall phase C comes in the summer of 1959.

After making an equivocal Lucia recording in stereo earlier that year, she embarked on a concert tour through Europe and a few Medeas at Covent Garden. Then, at a concert in Amsterdam in July, she momentarily found her youth again. Somehow, in the midst of divorce proceedings (Meneghini, her husband, was out and Aristotle Onassis was in), she appears to have held on to this temporary resurgence, at least if we go by......

10. .........her EMI Gioconda made two months later (Sept. 5 - 10). Here, though without the full voice or the full control of '55/'56, she still maintains basic vocal discipline in this demanding dramatic soprano role. And she does more than that in the last act. Here, one has the feeling -- as at the Wallmann Ballo -- that everything she wants to apply to this music is called on successfully. She has an image in her mind of how the music should go, and that image seems faithfully and thoroughly rendered on disc. If the repeat Bolena in 1958 in front of an angry mob can be considered Callas's last true hurrah at La Scala, then the last act of this Gioconda is arguably Callas's last hurrah in the recording studio. Callas herself fully understood the significance this recording had and particularly the autumnal value of that final act: "It's all there for anyone who cares to understand or wishes to know what I was about." This Gioconda, her Mad Scenes disc from the year before, and the studio Barbiere from '57 are probably the most useful introductions to her artistry, if one is restricting oneself to stereo.

D) Finally, in the closing years of her career, we have an even darker, but even less malleable, instrument, the top almost always uncertain, the register shifts more pronounced than ever, the diction particularly occluded. Now, even the flexibility is affected and the pitch more unsure than ever. This phase extends from 1960 to her farewell from the operatic stage in 1965 when she was only 41 years old (she was to go on an extended concert tour with Di Stefano during the early 1970s).

Some well-recorded LPs, all in stereo, were made during these years, and in fact her complete Carmen is quite strong (recorded in 1964) as an artistic achievement as well. But even the Carmen does not truly match the sense of "dare" and inspiration heard in the ten recommended items from the 1950s.

Hoping [poster #2] and others may find this useful,

Cheers,

 

-- Geoffrey Riggs

 

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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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THE COLLECTOR'S GUIDE TO OPERA RECORDINGS & VIDEOS | REVIEWS: BY OPERA TITLE BY COMPOSER THE COLLECTOR'S GUIDE TO BOOKS ON OPERA | FAVORITE OPERA LINKS

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