May 2012 bring you and yours all blessings of health, abundance, serenity, success, and love. Καλή χρονιά! And if you don’t mind something tacky (but wonderful), listen to this.
(The musical selection here has been posted before: the brindisi from the 1953 Cetra Traviata with Francesco Albanese as Alfredo and Gabriele Santini conducting. Thank you to a perceptive reader for pointing out my error: this is Callas and Alfredo Kraus in the 1958 Lisbon Traviata. I had intended to post the Cetra version but copied the wrong code. My mistake!)
In these days leading up to the turn of the year, the mind turns to drinking, right? (I myself don’t imbibe, but I do my best to be a festive and inclusive hostess.)
It’s time then for drinking songs—in this case, a drinking song gone terribly wrong, from Act II of Verdi’s Macbeth. You know the situation: Lady Macbeth sings a brindisi. Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and begins to rave. Lady Macbeth resumes her song, drained of merriment, and the revenant once again visits her terrorized husband.
There is little to add about the white-hot performance of Macbeth from which today’s excerpt is taken. It opened the 1952-53 season at La Scala; Callas’s Macbeth (Enzo Mascherini) and maestro (Victor de Sabata) are in inspired form; and she shows us once and for all why it is a mistake to cast as Lady Macbeth PEOPLE WHO CANNOT SING. (I’m not going to name names, but I have in mind past and future interpreters of the rôle at the Metropolitan Opera. ’Nuff said.)
Yes, I know what Verdi wrote, that in Macbeth “some passages must not even be sung, but acted and declaimed in a veiled, dark voice.” It was hyperbole, intended to draw searching and alert performances from prima donnas. It was not a blanket authorization for shrieking and caterwauling.
I believe (please correct me if I’m wrong) that this performance of “Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma was given on 31 December 1957, just before the infamous “Rome walkout.”
The audio and video quality are poor, and Callas seems to be in middling, rather wobbly voice (though that may be a result of the dodgy sound). Days later, to borrow a word from a newspaper report of the time, she “outraged” all Italy by withdrawing from a gala performance of Norma in the presence of the Italian president, Giovanni Gronchi. The brouhaha effectively marked the end of her career in Italy and, indeed, of her most important artistic achievements.
Not Maria Callas but Leontyne Price in Adam’s “O Holy Night” (“Minuit, chrétiens”) from A Christmas Offering (1961), one of the most glorious recordings of holiday music (indeed, of any kind of music) ever made. Miss Price sings with the Wiener Philharmoniker under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.
(If you are feeling especially brave, check out Rufus Wainwright’s performance of the same carol. Needless to say, I love it. Sancta Rufola, ora pro nobis.)
I wish all who keep Christmas a happy, healthy, peaceful holiday! Posts resume after Santo Stefano.
I hope that I did not miss something very obvious, but the only Christmas-related music sung by Maria Callas that I came up with is the love duet from Act I of Puccini’s La bohème, which takes place on Christmas Eve.
So, if you will forgive the profane concerns of Rodolfo and Mimì (and the bellowing of Giuseppe di Stefano), here is “O soave fanciulla,” recorded for EMI in 1956 under the direction of Antonino Votto. (You are on your own for Act II, also set on Christmas Eve.)
Hear Maria Callas in other music from La bohèmehere and in the blog archives. (The archives include Carlo Bergonzi’s performance of “Che gelida manina,” another aria sung on Christmas Eve, and one of my desert-island recordings.)
One of Maria Callas’s most obscure recordings, and one that is in perfectly atrocious sound, is her March 1951 RAI broadcast of the Variations on “Deh! torna, mio ben” by Heinrich Proch. She sang the piece again later that year in Florence. By some accounts, she also wished to record it in 1954 under Tullio Serafin for her Lyric & Coloratura Arias recital, but the maestro put the kibosh on that idea.
Some lovers of vocal music go into raptures over this piece and Callas’s performance (what we can imagine of it, anyway). I’m not among them, but as a great man once said: Whatever gets you thru [sic] the night.
If you would like a better idea of what this music actually sounds like, there are many performances on YouTube, including one by Edita Gruberová.
Update: For my most exacting readers, from Ardoin (The Callas Legacy, third edition):
Proch’s variations on “Deh! torna, mio ben” are yet another remnant from Callas’s study with de Hidalgo in Greece. Callas long retained an affection for this once popular coloratura showcase and wanted to record it, but Serafin objected to its admittedly slight musical value… Incidentally, those who own de Hidalgo’s Fonotipia recording will find many interesting parallels between teacher and student, a coincidence that does not arise in other arias they recorded in common.
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.
The staging by Richard Jones does not flinch at the horrors that persist even in the bowdlerized version of the tale told by Humperdinck and his librettist (and sister) Adelheid Wette. At the same time, the director’s vision is alienated but not alienating, and we in the audience care deeply about the title characters, portrayed movingly and with comic panache by Kate Lindsey and Aleksandra Kurzak.
And Robin Ticciati? Years from now, I will be able to say that I was there at his Met début. What a lush, gorgeous, and unfussy reading of a score that, before Friday, never did much for me.
P.S. My editor found parts of my review “over the top,” but check out the headline that he wrote. And, I mean, I prudently omitted to mention the vagina dentata and all. Sheesh!
In a Los Angeles Times interview, Paulo Szot mentioned Maria Callas as a major influence on him: “I couldn’t understand what she was singing about—I was a teen who didn’t speak Italian—but her pain, her feelings, would come through so strong in a spectacular way. I didn’t care whether her voice was pretty or not; I was captivated by her power to communicate.”
Playwrights Chuck Mallett and John Muirhead, who also live in Australia, apparently knew Maria Callas, who had designs on their needlepoint rendition of her as Tosca.
From Zevio comes news that the Callas relics (photos, documents, books, recordings, and “objects”) donated to the city by Giovanni Tanzi are still awaiting the museum that the city administration had promised him. In the meantime, Zevio (where the Meneghini family had a home or homes) goes on proclaiming itself “la città della Callas.”
Yesterday I posted Callas’s performance of “Signore, ascolta!” from her 1954 Puccini Heroines recital, and today I offer you Liù’s final aria, “Tu che di gel sei cinta.”
Just for fun, let’s compare Callas’s recording with performances by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (from the 1957 EMI Turandot with Callas in the title rôle) and by Renée Fleming (from a 2010 concert).
Is it me, or is the pitch suspect in one or more of these clips?
To my mind, Callas is the most (apparently) “simple” and “spontaneous” of the three. I find that Schwarzkopf sings carefully but beautifully, while Fleming for me is much too much the sophisticate for Liù.
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