Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore is a rôle that stayed with Maria Callas for a long time. We know that she sang an aria or arias from the opera as early as 1940 in Athens. She portrayed Leonora on stage some twenty times between 1950 and 1955, at Mexico City, Naples, La Scala, Rome, Covent Garden, and Chicago. (Her Manrico in Chicago was the great Jussi Björling, who reportedly pronounced her Leonora “perfection.”)
Leonora’s Act IV scena was in her recital repertoire throughout the 1950s, and she recorded music from Il trovatore as late as 1965. She also taught arias by Leonora and Azucena during her Juilliard master classes.
The musical selection today is substantial: Leonora’s twenty-minute scena from Act IV of Il trovatore, from Callas’s 1956 EMI recording under Herbert von Karajan, with Giuseppe di Stefano as Manrico. Callas and Karajan supposedly did not have an easy relationship—and it’s no stretch to imagine the meeting of those two egos as a kind of gigantomachia. Still, Callas did some of her finest work under Karajan’s baton, in the EMI Butterfly, the Berlin Lucia, and this Trovatore.
Both Verdi and Callas are near the top of their form in this dark and grandiose music, so there is little that one can say. Just listen and give thanks.
Whether set down then (around the time of her final appearances in staged opera) or in 1969 (following a long period of inactivity and Onassis’s marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy), the recording is impressive. Yes, Callas ducks a few high notes (and has fleeting and rare-for-her trouble with pitch), but the music is some of the most difficult that Verdi wrote for the female voice. Even without allowing for EMI’s close and unforgiving miking, Callas shows superb control of dynamics, shapes the music with exquisite grace, and manages to give the scene true Verdian slancio while maintaining an introspective mood.
What a pity that EMI never saw fit to record complete Verdi rarities with Callas. The Philips recordings under Gardelli and others are wonderful to have, of course, but the female casting is often weak. What if Callas had turned her attention to such an undertaking instead of that wretched tour with di Stefano?
So, Amy Winehouse. Did you know that, back in 2008, the Daily Mail claimed that she imitated Maria Callas’s appearance? “[Winehouse’s] retro look of thick brows, heavy black liquid eyeliner and rouge lips appear [sic] to be inspired by the soprano’s iconic style which is almost identical.”
I have no idea whether this is true, or whether the late Ms. Winehouse even knew of Maria Callas. Still, others saw similarities. In an interview with PlanetOut, Linda Ronstadt said:
If I believed in reincarnation, I would firmly believe that Amy Winehouse is the reincarnation of Maria Callas. Maria Callas is such the ‘grand lady,’ and Amy is such a guttersnipe, and they both are so demonically talented.
Linda Ronstadt, by the way, is a huge Callas fan: “She’s the greatest chick singer ever. I learn more about bluegrass singing, more about singing Mexican songs, more about singing rock-and-roll from listening to Maria Callas records than I ever would from listening to pop music for a month of Sundays.”
I know many people who romanticize mental illness—who refuse to take medication for their conditions because “it will take the edge off [their] art.” I would counter that dead people don’t make art, edgy or otherwise. I know that gossipmongers expect booze or drugs to have killed Amy Winehouse. Their assumption may prove to be correct—though I urge everyone to remember that bipolar disorder itself, untreated, makes sufferers dramatically more vulnerable to addiction and all kinds of self-destructive behavior.
Along with mental illness, premature death is often romanticized—Bellini! Chopin! Mozart! To which I say: Verdi. Michelangelo. Tony Bennett—who turns 85 years young in August and has done so much surpassingly beautiful work since overcoming his own troubles with substance abuse some thirty years ago.
In the end, I think that the parallels between Amy Winehouse and Maria Callas are no more than skin deep. The producer Walter Legge sometimes wrote unkind things about Maria Callas and was ever the self-serving pig, but I believe that he was fundamentally correct when he wrote that Callas’s artistic decline coincided with her separation from Meneghini: “Her life with him had been built on community of interests, mutual respect, Spartan domestic economy, rigorous self-discipline and hard work.”
Read that last bit again: “rigorous self-discipline and hard work.” Twenty-hour days spent rehearsing Sonnambula with Visconti and Bernstein; years of rigorous dieting to transform herself into a vision of elegance. That—not “genius,” not madness, and certainly not self-harm in its many lurid varieties—is what made her Maria Callas.
Yes, Callas died before her time and may have had her own problems with pills at the end. Nonetheless, nearly half a century after her last appearances in opera, we’re still taking about her, still listening with awe to her considerable recorded legacy, still marvelling at all that she achieved between 1947 and 1965. What has Amy Winehouse left us? Two CDs, a few dozen unreleased tracks, and sickness at a life and an immense talent squandered.
To all who idealize mental illness and its many victims, I say go to hell.
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.
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