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titleMaria Callas

By Joel Kasow

lettrineecember - Despite an effective career which did not even last 18 years, Maria Callas will probably go down in history as the most important singer of the second half of the 20th century. What made her unique in her time was her attention to verbal nuance and matching gesture. Yes, there were singers who trod that path a few decades earlier, but plentiful aural and visual documentation is lacking for Lotte Lehmann, Claudia Muzio or Rosa Ponselle, to name just a few. And while we can hear Callas in almost all her roles and at various stages in her career, the plentiful photos unfortunately do not compensate for the skimpy live visual coverage. Callas is an artist who needed the stage to come to life; even if she brought fascinating moments to almost all of her studio incarnations, listening to some of the "unofficial" versions allows us to appreciate the artist at her full worth. It is worth considering what made Callas so special at a time when Renata Tebaldi and Zinka Milanov were in full triumph at the Metropolitan Opera. Both Tebaldi and Milanov possessed a lushness of voice which was never a Callas attribute, but neither of them had a coloratura technique that enabled them to tackle Bellini or Donizetti (despite Milanov's attempts at Norma) or had the knack of uttering a line unforgettably, as the often-cited ma in Una voce poco fa or much of Tosca or La Traviata.

1. Bellini: Norma
With two official EMI versions and five complete live recordings, Norma is at the top of the Callas hit parade, but choosing a single version is a nightmare as each has its virtues, based on the state of the soprano's voice or the surrounding cast. On balance, our choice lies with the first studio recording where the balance between vocal health and emotive quality is as good as one can get for this artist. Cast includes Ebe Stignani, Mario Filippeschi and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, conducted by the venerable Tullio Serafin.
EMI 5 56271 2 (3 cds) - recorded in 1954


2. Bizet: Carmen
A recording which may not be one's first choice for a performance of Carmen, but it is Callas at her best: the range is comfortable for her in 1964, the rest of the cast is French to the core and Callas lives the role, as her last act makes clear, without ever having sung it onstage. Cast includes Nicolai Gedda, Andréa Guiot and Robert Massard, conducted by Georges Prêtre.
EMI 5 56281 2 (2 cds) - recorded in 1964

3. Cherubini: Medea
One of the first things we must accept today in listening to the Callas resuscitations is the lack of philologic concern in the interests of presenting a drama. Medea suffers the most, with its use of the Lachner recitatives, but what Callas does with them is extraordinary. Here we must turn to one of the pirate versions, but the choice is not easy: either the Scala premiere conducted by Leonard Bernstein, or the Dallas performance with Teresa Berganza and Jon Vickers or Covent Garden with Fiorenza and Vickers, both of the latter conducted by Nicola Rescigno. Ultimately, it is the Dallas that wins the day for the slightly less monolithic version chosen by Rescigno so that Medea regains some of her humanity.
Melodran 26016 (2 cds) - recorded 6 November 1958

4. Donizetti: Anna Bolena
Despite a few earlier revivals, it was only Gavazzeni's version for Callas and Giulietta Simionato which pushed Anna Bolena into greater prominence in the Donizettian canon. Despite cuts amounting to at least 25 percent of the music, this is essential Callas as she gives us the woman betrayed by all those surrounding her. If you want to hear the difference between the studio and a live performance - this version began life as a pirate until EMI jumped into the breach - just listen to the way the final scene sounds on the recital disc (EMI 5 66459 2) and here in the theater, despite the many nuances which grace the studio performance. While Rossi-Lemeni was already into his wooly-sounding phase, Gianni Raimondi holds up the tenor honors. It is for Callas and Simionato that we will continue to listen to this disc despite some of the more musicological performances since.
EMI 5 66471 2 (2 cds) - recorded 14 April 1957

Anna Bolena

5. Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Mad Lucy is another recurrent heroine in the Callas sweepstakes, but there is one performance above all that captures the genius of Callas: Berlin, 29 September 1955 with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. What is already impressive on the first studio recording with Serafin and Giuseppe di Stefano is raised to levels that few were willing to accord the composer at that time. Everyone is in a state of grace and Karajan clearly does not feel the least demeaned by conducting what until then was considered little more than a coloratura vehicle. Cast also includes Rolando Panerai and Nicola Zaccaria, and once again EMI places us in its debt by recovering this essential issue from its original pirate status.
EMI 5 66438 2 (2 cds) - recorded 29 September 1955

Lucia di Lammermoor

6. Puccini: Tosca
Although not the opera she performed most often, Tosca was indelibly associated with Callas from the time of her first recording with Giuseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi and Victor de Sabata, one of the greatest opera recordings ever made. Clearly De Sabata is responsible for generating the same electricity one would have found in the theater, while the combination of two of the greatest singing actors of our time remains a classic.
EMI 5 56304 2 (2 cds) - recorded in 1953


7. Rossini: Il Turco in Italia
Once again Gavazzeni performed a service by restoring to circulation Rossini's Pirandellian comedy, alas with many of the disfiguring cuts that were then considered necessary to render the music palatable to an audience. Callas shows that comedy is also within her grasp, and she is partnered by Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, the ageless Mariano Stabile as the Poet, an exotic-sounding Nicolai Gedda shorn of most of his music and Franco Calabrese. Essential for an understanding of the Callas magic, even though more recent recordings are musicologically sounder.
EMI 5 56313 2 (2 cds) - recorded in 1954

Il Turco In Italia

8. Verdi: Macbeth
What should have been a cherished role for Callas was one she sang only early on in her career. Her dispute with Rudolf Bing over performance schedules deprived the Met of her mature command of the role but allowed Leonie Rysanek to establish herself as one of New York's most cherished prima donnas. In 1952, with Victor de Sabata, we can at least hear Callas in a complete assumption of the role. Fortunately, she overcomes the dismal sound of what was once a pirate recording and we are left once again bemused by EMI's lack of foresight in neglecting to record Callas in the repertory to which she was suited, instead asking her to perpetuate the standard repertoire. Cast includes Enzo Mascherini, Ginno Penno and Italo Tajo.
EMI 5 66447 2 (2 cds) - recorded 7 December 1952


9. Verdi: La Traviata
Traviata was at the heart of the prima donna's quarrel with Tullio Serafin who chose another soprano for a recording of the opera when Callas was prevented from participating by a legal technicality. EMI has once again had recourse to the unofficial legacy by reissuing (in 1981) a 1956 performance from Lisbon and, more recently, a 1955 Scala performance (EMI 5 66450 2). Despite the interest of the former, it is the latter which retains our interest, for it is Carlo Maria Giulini at the helm, long before his tempi became sodden, with the perpetual di Stefano and Bastianini as partners. Unfortunately, perhaps the most complete performance is from Covent Garden in 1958 with Cesare Valletti and Mario Zanasi, both pretty much forgotten today but worth (re)discovery. Nicola Rescigno conducts in a manner that belies his tepid reputation.
Melodram 26007 or Verona 27054/55 or Virtuoso 2697292 (2 cds) - recorded 20 June 1958

10. Verdi: Il Trovatore
Another role Callas rarely sang onstage, but one which she illuminates and shows that in her own way she can rival the sublimity of Milanov in Act IV. That she and Karajan have restored the Act IV cabaletta so that the scene retains the shape Verdi gave it is another plus, but it must be said that Verdi had to be crazy to have written a single scene with "D'amor sull'ali rosee", followed by the "Miserere", the customarily omitted cabaletta, and then a lengthy duet with the baritone. In any event, the entire fourth act is unforgettable, despite the lack of any other interpreter at the same level as Callas. Fedora Barbieri's Azucena is in incomparable vocal health as in her earlier recording with Milanov and Bjoerling and Warren, while di Stefano is somewhat out of his depth as Manrico. Rolando Panerai is sufficiently intelligent to know he is miscast but does his more than considerable best to convince us otherwise. But it is the conductor and prima donna who give us an unforgettable lesson.
EMI 5 56333 2 (2 cds) - recorded August 1956

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