Today, then, Maria Callas’s 1963 recording of Marguerite’s Air des bijoux. Walter Legge recalled that Callas had to repeat the last dozen bars of the aria for the better part of three hours in order to come up with an acceptable ending. But if those final bars are dodgy, the rest of the aria is a marvel, gossamer light and sparkling with quintessentially French charme.
Callas sang this aria during her Greek years and also taught it at Juilliard.
“Entendez-vous dans les campagnes / Mugir ces féroces soldats ?”
A periodical from 1855 relates that someone criticized Auber and French music in Rossini’s presence, thinking to curry favor with the Swan of Pesaro. Rossini’s reply was both waggish and wise:
Do not undervalue French music. It has its merits. Certainly, it is not Italian; neither is it German; but it is all the better for that. It is lively, gay, expressive, witty, intelligible, charming; in one word, it is French.
A friend very kindly gave me a ticket for last night’s premiere of the new staging of Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera. I had hoped to write up a short “formal” review but cannot, because of impending travel and also because I take no joy in crafting stroncature.
Where to begin?
My friend speculated that the set was somehow acoustically unkind to the singers, and I think that he may be correct. I heard what I know as René Pape’s voice only once, when he was singing from one particular spot downstage during the church scene.
Jonas Kaufmann is intelligent, sensitive, a wonderful actor, and—let’s be real, folks—a Kravattentenor or, perhaps, a baritone. Either way, Faust is not a rôle for him.
After reading the profile of her in The New Yorker, I had no idea what Marina Poplavskaya had accomplished to deserve that kind of attention. Having heard her in Traviata and Faust, I still have no idea. She was ghastly as Marguerite. Worse, the otherwise worthy Yannick Nézet-Séguin slackened the tempos, thereby prolonging the agony of hearing her out-of-tune mewling and shrieking. And yet, under one of those wicked come-scritto hacks, Poplavskaya can sing splendidly. Was she indisposed Monday evening?
(Whatever her foibles, Angela Gheorghiu can be counted on to deliver the goods vocally.)
Russell Braun, a great favorite of mine, was at his best in Valentin’s death scene, when his voice finally bloomed. (Nota bene: He was downstage and off to the side then.) Michèle Losier was a fine Siébel.
I admired a number of small touches in the staging: the shell-shocked veteran who went berserk when a camera flash went off; the woman who waited in vain for her husband or son to return from the front; Marguerite’s panicked drowning of her newborn in the stoup/lab sink.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: excellent, though much too inclined to indulge the singers. (The slowest bits practically moved backwards. Nota bene: If the neutrino thing pans out, we will all be able to move backwards, and I will at long last get to meet Machiavelli. Fingers crossed.)
Finally: “Lively, gay, expressive, witty, intelligible, charming.” None of the above. Not French.
Look, we blog curators welcome most any traffic, but this? Of late, similar Google search strings from all over the world (and not only from necrophilic Canucks) have shown up in my log. Thanks a lot, Terrence McNally.
More sketchiness: The complete track list from Angela Gheorghiu’s so-called Homage to Maria Callas is now available. Let’s see how the musical selections relate to Maria Callas, shall we?
Arias from Medea and Il pirata: Fine. Both, pace my colleague Robert Seletsky, were important Callas revivals.
Arias from La traviata: An important Callas rôle. But, honestly, just how many times does Mme Gheorghiu need to record this music?
Arias from I pagliacci, La Wally, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Samson et Dalila: Callas recorded them but never sang them in public. What’s more, she never approved the release of the Samson aria, which was issued posthumously.
Arias from Faust and La bohème: Callas sang the Faust aria during her Greek years and recorded it, but never otherwise sang it in public. She recorded the Bohème aria twice (Puccini recital and complete Bohème) but never sang it in public.
Aria from Andrea Chénier: She sang it once during her Greek years, once for EMI, six times in Chénier at La Scala (not by any account her shining hour).
Aria from Le Cid: She recorded it for EMI and sang it a handful of times (four or five) in concert.
“Duet” from Carmen: Oh, do not get me started. But hardly a Callas speciality.
Someone enlighten me, please: Where is the “homage” to Maria Callas in all this? And again I ask: What need does Angela Gheorghiu, an artist of substance, have to stoop to this flimsy and cynical exploitation of the memory of Maria Callas?
It would have been relatively easy to put together a plausible homage to Callas: arias, say, from Armida and perhaps Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice (and maybe even the Stradella San Giovanni Battista); some Wagner (why not “La morte di Isotta” or “Ho visto il figlio” from Parsifal?); Vestale, Bolena, Ifigenia, Sonnambula (all or some) to represent the Visconti stagings besides Traviata; different Verdi (Macbeth? Vespri? Ballo?); and some of the bravura material (the Proch variations, Dinorah, Lakmé, or some such). In truth, the bravura material is probably beyond Gheorghiu at this point, but I think that she could handle the rest beautifully.
From Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes, ed. John Ardoin:
The aria should be light and always have a sense of motion. Watch carefully the acciaccature. Some are below the principal note and some are above; we must hear the difference… The phrase “m’enivre” up to A should open like a flower… “Comme un trésor” returns again as a scale, and it must be exactly in tempo…
What gossamer lightness Callas brings to this aria despite her vociaccia (“big, ugly voice”), as Renata Scotto put it—and how lumbering and earthbound acclaimed Juliettes of today sound by comparison!
Maria Callas recorded “Je veux vivre” under Georges Prêtre in April 1961.
After she broke with her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Maria Callas led a peripatetic existence with Aristotle Onassis. Paris, though, quickly became a center of her life. She moved there (first to Avenue Foch and eventually to Avenue Georges-Mandel), and it became her artistic base, too, for both recordings and her few remaining stage performances.
(Incidentally, I just listened to an interview in which Callas claimed to have burned much of her clothing and costumes before leaving Milan, showing just how serious she was about breaking with the past and establishing a new identity at that point of her life.)
Callas also began exploring the French repertoire in the early 1960s. During her “big” career, she had sung relatively infrequently in French: one “Depuis le jour” in 1954 and Ophélie’s mad scene just shy of twenty times in 1958–59. While she had sung music from French-language operas by Verdi, Meyerbeer, and others during that time, she had always opted for Italian translations. Her EMI French recitals and complete set of Carmen from 1961–64, then, represented a new–and, sadly, abortive–direction in her career.
This 1963 recording of “Il était un roi de Thulé” from Gounod’s Faust shows Callas’s eloquent and graceful way with French music and gives hints of what she might have accomplished as Berlioz’s Didon, Massenet’s Charlotte (which she supposedly considered recording and performing in the years before her death), Poulenc’s Elle and Madame Lidione, and similar parts.
Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for [women] more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. —Adrienne Rich