Archive - August, 2011

Aida smackdown

[W]e must not let ourselves lose sight of Verdi’s model, for “O terra addio” is a full cabaletta. It is slow, to be sure, quite unlike “Sempre libera” or “Di quella pira,” but there are many examples of slow cabalettas, such as the famous one that concludes the duet between Edgardo and Lucia at the end of the first act of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, “Verranno a te sull’aure”… Verdi matches the cabaletta structure exactly: Aida sings the melody; Radames repeats it, with Aida providing accompaniment; priestesses pray to the gods during the middle section; and the theme is then repeated by both characters in unison.
—Philip Gossett, “Verdi, Ghislanzoni, and ‘Aida’: The Uses of Convention

The quote from Dr. Gossett’s article has nothing to do with this particular performance of the final duet from Aida, but I re-read the article recently and wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention.

I confess to you that, a few days ago, I listened to this 1955 EMI recording of Aida, led by Tullio Serafin and starring Richard Tucker, Fedora Barbieri, and Tito Gobbi along with Maria Callas, and followed it quickly with another famous set and a handful of excerpts. Dare I confess in questa santa sede that I found the Callas recording wanting, for all its many virtues?

So how about a little smackdown? Ponselle and Martinelli (1924), Pertile and Giannini (1928), Caballé and Domingo (1974), Freni and Carreras (c. 1979). (There are other performances, perhaps more acclaimed and famous, but these are the ones I like best.)


Callas in Andrea Chénier

While we’re on the subject of “Callas’s favorite repertory in the verismo genre,” here she is singing, in performance, “La mamma morta” from Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, an aria that she may have sung as a student, but that she never revisited after these early 1955 performances of Chénier at La Scala.

Compared with her studio recording of the aria (used to great effect in Philadelphia), Callas sang with starker and less subtle colors in the house. (She often remarked on the need to scale down in the recording studio.)

Antonino Votto conducts, and Aldo Protti is Gérard.

Salvatore Licitra

Salvatore Licitra

Salvatore Licitra

Sad news from Italy: the tenor Salvatore Licitra, 43 years old, is in hospital in Catania following a motorbike accident. Reports suggest that he has suffered head injuries and is in extremely grave condition with a guarded prognosis.

Please send prayers or “good vibes” to Mr. Licitra and his loved ones. Youtube offers many clips of Licitra in Verdi, Puccini, and other music.

New offences of affections old

And just what “effect” would that be?

Effect: a change that is a result or consequence of an action or other cause; used to refer to the state of being or becoming operative; the extent to which something succeeds or is operative; a physical phenomenon, typically named after its discoverer; an impression produced in the mind of a person.

Those are the definitions for “effect” given by my laptop’s dictionary widget. What do you think this “Callas Effect” is to which this forthcoming EMI release refers? Could it refer to the boosting of EMI’s bottom line that comes with every slicing, dicing, and reissue of the Callas catalogue, for good or ill?

Also, Superconductor reports that Angela Gheorghiu’s latest CD is entitled Homage to Maria Callas. (Thanks to my darling friend JRD for the tip.)

The disc features the Romanian soprano singing some of Callas’s favorite repertory in the verismo genre, including arias from Puccini’s La bohème, Catalani’s La Wally and “La mamma morta,” the aria from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier made famous in the movie Philadelphia.

I’m not sure whose language that is—the blogger’s, EMI’s, or someone else’s. I would point out, though, that

  • verismo” is a supremely ill-defined term (much like “bel canto”), and seeing it bandied about is always a bad sign;
  • Callas famously claimed not to care for late ottocento repertoire (she called Ponchielli “on the borderline of decent singing”); and
  • while Callas did record the arias mentioned, she sang them very rarely outside of the studio (the Chénier aria during one six-performance run of the opera in 1955; the Wally aria never; and Bohème arias by Mimì and Musetta a scant handful of times in concert between 1958 and 1963).

Most distressingly, the CD apparently will include a digitally-concocted duet of Callas and Gheorghiu in the Habañera from Bizet’s Carmen.

I have always found Angela Gheorghiu to be an admirable singer and performer. (As I recall, I’ve heard her in Traviata, Rondine, Simon Boccanegra, Roméo et Juliette, Elisir, a best-forgotten Act II of Tosca [a rare failure], and on several other occasions.) The reasoning behind her nauseating personal publicity has always eluded me (the cloying nonsense with Alagna most of all), and said publicity seems to me unworthy and, indeed, offensive given the high level of artistry she has never failed to exhibit when I have heard her sing.

As for her supposed shortcomings as a professional, I have no idea which reports may be true and which made up out of whole cloth. First-hand accounts by people who sing alongside her run the gamut (that is, they’re actually rather run-of-the-mill for the wacky world of opera).

Why, then, this stupid, stupid, STUPID idea of a potted “duet” with Callas? Can EMI not move product without Callas? (I mean, wouldn’t, say, Andrea Bocelli or Lady Gaga do just as well? BTW, I love the Ga, so don’t diss her.) And why Carmen of all things—a rôle that Callas never sang on stage—for an alleged homage to her?

None of this, to be sure, should be construed as dismissing Gheorghiu’s singing on the forthcoming CD, which I anticipate enjoying. But I suspect that the disc is more an homage-to-desperate-marketing-weasels-at-EMI than any kind of tribute to Callas.

The post title comes from here. Hear Maria Callas sing arias from La Wally and La bohème.

Rhinestone-studded glasses II

Callas without the rhinestone-studded glasses.

Callas without the rhinestone-studded glasses, 1956.

You readers are the best (though I knew that already): Nina Foresti, curator of La Callas e i Falsi (a highly recommended site), kindly wrote with the information that the image I posted earlier this week was taken at a Red Cross ball in February 1956. Nina suggests that Callas recycled a Mexico City Traviata costume for the occasion.

Nina also enclosed the image I offer today, which shows Callas in a somewhat better light, agreed? What’s more, Nina reports that “it was Carnival, and Callas wished to exaggerate.”

It has been a bit of a shambolic week, no? Here in New York, we have had an earthquake; a hurricane is supposedly headed this way; and this blog (along with my Verdi and personal sites) was down for more than twenty-four hours. I leave you, then, with some ostensibly merry music: the brindisi from Verdi’s La traviata, which Maria Callas recorded in 1953 with the tenor Francesco Albanese under the baton of Gabriele Santini.

A good (and safe, and dry) weekend to all!

Callas in jeans

Maria Callas in jeans, with Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Maria Callas in jeans, with Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Okay, so it seems that Maria Callas wore blue jeans more or less as well as President Obama, and less well (sorry, incorrigibles) than Jackie O.

The photo is from a post about the new book by Dacia Maraini, La seduzione dell’altrove. I believe it was taken in Sénégal or Côte d’Ivoire.

Read more about Callas and Dacia Maraini.

P.S. I didn’t even feel the earthquake. Having lived through the quake of ’89 in San Francisco, may I say to my fellow New Yorkers: You’re all sissies.

Callas and Pasolini

In this 1971 interview, Pier Paolo Pasolini speaks a little of Callas (towards 6:11). The conversation is wide-ranging, but the immediate context is a question about the people Pasolini most likes—uneducated, illiterate people, he says. The interviewer then asks, “What fascinated you in Maria Callas?”

I’m fascinated by the total violence of her feelings. When she feels something, it’s never a little, mediocre feeling, something understated; when she feels something, she feels it totally, without restraint. It’s this richness of feeling, above all, that I like in her.

The clip is entitled and makes reference to “Timor di me?”, one of the poems that Pasolini wrote about Callas, which takes its title from the scena in Verdi’s Il trovatore.

Read more (lots more, in fact) about Callas and Pasolini. The clip in today’s post includes Callas’s 1958 Paris performance of the Trovatore scene; hear it, as well, in her magnificent 1956 recording of Trovatore conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Rhinestone-studded glasses

Callas in rhinestone glasses.

Callas in rhinestone-studded glasses.

Milanese who saw Callas on the street in the early 1950s recall pizzeria-waitress hair styles and vulgar, rhinestone-studded glasses.

At her best, however, and apparently only when she relied on the advice of others, Maria Callas manifested a dramatic beauty…
David A. Lowe, “Diva Assoluta: Life, Art, Legacy

Ouch. Not even the most cruel drag queen has ever come up with a more hideous getup! Callas seems an eccentric old woman out on the town in every bit frippery she has accumulated over the years. (I have no date for this image but reckon it was taken c. 1954.)

I found this image at Maria Callas Daily, a new-to-me Tumblr blog. The curator sets greater store than I by the Omero Lengrini story, but there are many rare and fascinating images to browse through. (If you read Italian, please visit La Callas e i falsi for a devastating critique of accounts of Callas’s supposed pregnancy.)

So, Callas looked beautiful “only when she relied on the advice of others.” This from a writer whose intent is to rescue Callas from the “fairy tales and very trashy fiction” that usually represent her. Depending on which chronicle you read, the “others” who made her appear beautiful are usually de Hidalgo, Visconti, Biki, or Alain Reynaud.

The rhinestone-studded glasses were ghastly, to be sure, but can you imagine anyone making an analogous claim about Cary Grant or Fred Astaire? Like the many writers who chalk up Callas’s musical genius to “instinct” (and not dogged and exhausting hard work), Lowe seems to deny her agency and self-determination.

Do we agree, at least, that neither de Hidalgo, Visconti, nor anyone else dieted for Callas? And let’s not get into the various theories involving tapeworms, thyroid hormone, or other monkey business: Meneghini, Stancioff, and others describe Callas as adhering to a regime that is basically Atkins avant la lettre, with abundant meat and salads and very little starch.

Callas and Jacqueline Kennedy

Jacqueline Kennedy at the Met

Jacqueline Kennedy at the Metropolitan Opera for “Tosca” in 1965.

Jackie went backstage after Maria’s return performance at the Met, as Tosca, in 1965. According to Heymann’s biography, Jackie said to Maria, “You were magnificent,” and Maria responded, “You are magnificent, too.” What does this anecdote teach us? That Maria and Jackie, parallel deities, once intersected in actual space; that they traded pat praise; that Maria acknowledged Jackie’s stature as a performance artist (her star turns included JFK’s funeral).
Wayne Koestenbaum, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon

With hindsight and raw partisanship, I look at this photo and think: She looks so predatory, as if she’s moving in for the kill. She’s so overdressed. (And aren’t Jackie’s opera gloves eerily similar to the ones that Callas-as-Tosca wore in Act II of Tosca? A student of history, Jackie probably knew very well that, in early opera, the real show was often the nobility in the audience.)

I am reading and very much enjoying Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn, an impulse grab from the new non-fiction shelf at my local library. This morning, I awoke before dawn and was afraid to open my eyes, expecting to find Callas at my bedside, ready to castigate me.

Thankfully, goddesses don’t bother with peons like me!

Much to my surprise, I discovered reading the book that someone I’ve known for decades worked with Jackie and took tea at her Fifth Avenue apartment. My friend has never mentioned any of this—most likely out of discretion and modesty or, perhaps, knowing that I am on Maria’s side.

More on Callas and Jackie anon.

Callas as Medea

You know very well that at the beginning of the [twentieth] century Médée was occasionally sung by Mazzoleni, who had a peach of a voice. Well, yes, they clapped [sic] her, but that was about it. There were not the cultural and historical demands which have enabled us today to say: at last I’ve heard Cherubini’s Médée as I’ve always imagined it should be.
Rodolfo Celletti

Robert Seletsky and others claim that Callas’s importance for the revival of neglected works has been exaggerated, that Rossini’s Armida was “the only true Callas ‘revival.’”

Mr. Seletsky, with whom I have corresponded, is a scrupulous and exceedingly well-informed writer, and his arguments cannot be dismissed out of hand. Still, I think that this particular assertion is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees, as Celletti’s remarks demonstrate.

(That said, Médée, Schmédée: the mishmash that Callas sang has little to do with Cherubini’s wondrous score!)

On a separate note (as it were): So many people continue to claim that Callas “lost her voice” as a direct result of her weight loss. To which I say: Listen to how she sang—fearlessly, unsparingly—and tell me how she could not have damaged her voice!

This snippet from Medea is from Dallas, 1958. Read more about Callas as Medea in opera and cinema.

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