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Callas at the seashore.

Callas at the seashore.

Dear hearts, it is the Labor Day holiday here in the States, and my long weekend looks like this: four articles (one a review of a LONG book), many pitches, and a sizable (and tricksy) editorial project.

As you might expect, I shall also be snarfing quite a bit of iced coffee and Diet Coke.

Wherever you are, I hope that your weekend looks more like the picture in this post. (Callas at the seashore in full maquillage, with pearl earrings, a fresh manicure, and an impeccable chignon: The diva’s life is hard indeed.)

I will be back on Wednesday, 5 September. In the meantime, why not revisit a post from Maria Callas’s birthday week chock-full of Rossini goodies?

Bon week-end à tous !

Maria Callas as Armida II

Maria Callas portrayed the title rôle in Rossini’s Armida three times in 1952, and it remains one of her most celebrated assumptions—in the opinion of some, the only true Callas “revival.”

The sound in this clip is dim and distorted, but it still allows us to feel the ferocity of Callas’s portrayal.

Last year I posted Callas’s 1954 concert recording of “D’amore al dolce impero” from Armida; in the archives you can find the 1952 performance along with many examples of Callas’s way with the comic Rossini.

There is more Rossini here, too. Buon compleanno, Maestrissimo !

Maria Callas in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell

If I counted correctly, Gioacchino Rossini celebrates his fifty-fourth birthday on 29 February.

I was lucky enough to hear Guillaume Tell at Caramoor in 2011. Is there any music more beautiful than its finale ultimo? I think not.

(I believe that this performance took place soon after 9/11. Tears, tears, tears. Lots of tears, even now. Here is the finale in French. See Philip Gossett on the wherefores of Muti’s Italian Guillaume.)

Maria Callas recorded “Sombre forêt” from Guillaume Tell in Italian in… well, I’m not sure exactly when. John Ardoin says December 1963 or April 1964; Frank Hamilton says April 1963.

Can any of my learnèd readers shed light on this issue?

She also sang the aria in Athens during the war years, taught it at Juilliard, and recorded it c. 1961.

In any event, Ardoin quite likes this performance, praising its “elastic” phrasing, beautiful pianissimi, and “flow and lightness.” The recording has begun to grow on me, even though Callas’s voice often sounds threadbare.

Maria Callas in Rossini’s Barbiere

In The Callas Legacy, John Ardoin compares Callas’s 1957 studio recording of Il barbiere di Siviglia with her unhappy outing as Rosina in 1956 at La Scala: “Although there are still a number of alterations within vocal lines…, she now sings the part with more of a mezzo-soprano character.”

Perhaps so, but I confess that the upwards transpositions really bother me, and that I strongly prefer a lower voice in this rôle.

What do you, my learnèd readers, think?

P.S. Sorry for the skimpy posts this week: I am nursing a shoulder sprain. I posted my review of the Metropolitan Opera’s latest revival of Ernani at Verdi Duecento. (Hvorostovsky is so sexy as Don Carlo [be still my beating heart], but why must he bark whenever he sings Verdi? Argh.)

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Rossini.

Maria Callas in Rossini’s Semiramide

Though Rossini’s Semiramide was not part of Maria Callas’s stage repertoire, she sang the opera’s show-stopping aria “Bel raggio lusinghier” during her Athens years, in the recording studio (several times), and during her 1963 concert tour.

She also sang it in 1956 during a RAI concert in Milan, the performance I offer you today. As I recall (and I don’t have the book handy), John Ardoin wrote that, in his opinion, Callas rarely or never got the measure of this aria. Still, compare Callas with Joyce DiDonato and Cecilia Bartoli (both of whom I greatly admire), and I think that Callas clearly comes out on top in terms of vocal mastery and even (if you will pardon the obscure reference) sprezzatura.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Rossini here and in the blog archives.

Maria Callas in Rossini’s La Cenerentola

Maria Callas sang the final rondò from Rossini’s La Cenerentola during her Athens years, and she returned to it in 1961–64, for recordings and a concert tour.

This performance is from Hamburg in 1962. While some of Callas’s highest notes are glassy and/or wobbly, she sings the runs and fioriture so beautifully, so musically—and so differently from the little-engine-that-could delivery (Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff.) that we sometimes hear today. (No naming names, okay?)

Hear Callas in other music by Rossini here and in the blog archives.

Maria Callas as Armida

Back in 2010, I posted “D’amore al dolce impero” from Rossini’s Armida as sung by Maria Callas in 1952 at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Today’s performance is from a December 1954 concert. While not perhaps up to the superhuman-and-beyond standards of the Florence iteration, it remains a staggering bit of singing.

Twice Maria Callas nearly recorded this aria commercially: in 1954, for her Lyric & Coloratura Arias album; and in 1960 under Antonio Tonino. The 1954 recording never happened, but I have read (not sure where) that a session or two indeed took place in 1960. Does anyone know what became of that material?

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Rossini here and in the blog archives.

Happy birthday, Maria Callas

Darling readers, Friday is Maria Callas’s birthday. Since I will be on the road, the celebrations are staring early!

Callas as a baby.

Callas as a baby.

Maria Callas was born in New York, New York 88 years ago, on 2 December 1923.

The wee moppet shown in the photo grew up to be the disquieting Lucia, the ferocious Medea, the diaphanous Amina, the heartrending Violetta, and the sublime Norma who haunts our dreams even now, nearly half a century after her final performances in opera.

I wrote about the uncertainty surrounding her birthdate in my essay “Re-visioning Callas,” and also discussed some of the reasons why she remains a controversial figure.

But this week, in honor of her birthday, let’s sidestep the feuds and the minefields and toast Maria Callas with a glass or two of champagne. (Those of us who don’t imbibe can raise a coupe of Martinelli’s or rosewater.)

To my mind, the musical equivalent of champagne is Rossini, so a short Callas and Rossini playlist follows at the end of this post. I also include “Les feux d’artifice” from Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna, which is based in part on Callas’s life. I’ve written elsewhere about why I think that Prima Donna may paint a mawkish and misleading picture of Callas’s days in Paris. All the same, I think that it is a loving and beautiful tribute to her.

In Italian, we say cent’anni (“a hundred years”) for someone’s birthday, but this expression is redundant and inadequate in Callas’s case, because she is immortal. Mutatis mutandis, the final verses of Ovid’s Metamorphòses come to mind:

And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that has power only over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies,—vivam—I shall live.

Il turco in Italia: Selections one, two, and three.

Il barbiere di Siviglia: Selections one and two.

Rufus Wainwright, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent

Maria Callas and the carnal body

A knowing smile from La Callas.

A knowing smile from La Callas.

Today’s clip: Maria Callas and Nicola Rossi Lemeni in a duet from Act I of Rossini’s Il turco in Italia, recorded in 1954. Hear Callas in other music by Rossini.
The medium at work in opera performance… is the carnal body, the Urmedium of the live speech act.
Michelle Duncan

Callas as Fiorilla and Kundry

Richard Wagner’s Parsifal had its world premiere in Bayreuth on 26 July 1882, 129 years ago.

The earlier incarnation of this blog featured Callas in Wagner’s Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde. Today’s clever YouTube clip juxtaposes two performances that Callas gave in Rome in 1950, as Fiorilla in Rossini’s Il turco in Italia and Kundry in Parsifal.

Try to imagine in our times, say, Waltraud Meier as Fiorilla and Cecilia Bartoli as Kundry. Reflect, too, that Meier has been singing for thirty-four years and Bartoli for twenty-four—whereas Callas’s “big” career, as she called it, lasted from 1947 until 1965, a scant eighteen years.