I have posted this selection before: Maria Callas singing “La vergine degli angeli” from Verdi’s La forza del destino, an excerpt from her 1954 EMI recording of the opera with the La Scala forces under Tullio Serafin.
I post it again because a great Verdian, Pierluigi Petrobelli, has died. So many great Verdi scholars have passed away in recent years, including John Rosselli and Julian Budden, while others (William Weaver in particular) are not doing well.
Learning this morning that both Petrobelli and the singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla had died hit me hard. Dalla was so full of life and love that many of his fans, including me, somehow thought that he would live forever.
You may know some of his songs as performed by Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, but Dalla himself sang them best. Two songs for those who don’t know his work: “Caruso” and “L’anno che verrà.”
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.
Today, in keeping with the French theme we have going on (Thomas and, yes, Rufus Wainwright!), I offer you her studio recording of the same aria, made in 1954 under the direction of Tullio Serafin.
John Ardoin, whom I find to be fair and perceptive in his evaluations of Callas’s work, finds this recording cautious, less free, and with “off-center notes” compared with the concert performance, which he deems “stronger in every sense.”
What do you think? For my part, I do not need to hear this music more than, oh, once a decade, but I find the performance staggering. Natalie Dessay sings this music splendidly (I don’t know whether the clip is pre- or post-vocal surgery), but Callas—an Isolde! a Turandot!—seems to toss it off with even greater disinvoltura.
Meneghini and Callas backstage after her 1956 Met début.
L’Arena, a Verona newspaper, yesterday offered an update on the ongoing saga of the Callas Museum planned for Zevio, the Meneghini family’s hometown.
The first paragraph reads:
The projected museum devoted to Maria Callas will become a permanent exhibit, pending construction of a true exhibit space in Villa Meneghini and provided that the local parish agrees to it. [The parish are] owners of the building, inherited from Giuseppina, the mother of the entrepreneur Giovanni Battista Meneghini, ex-husband of the celebrated soprano.
This sounds to me like the now-typical Italian modus operandi of delay, deferral, and paralysis. (It wasn’t always so!) In any event, the article also offers details about the items to be displayed:
The development was announced… as part of the ceremony during which the Kalos Association turned over to the city the Callas relics acquired with funding from the province at the December 2007 Sotheby’s auction. They include correspondence, notes, personal documents, bills, photographs, newspaper articles, and two dresses worn by the operatic superstar: a pink kaftan and a chocolate-colored day dress crafted by Biki, the soprano’s favorite Milanese couturière.
In a nutshell: I liked it more than I had anticipated. Some of my positive impression was due to the remarkable cast assembled by New York City Opera (what’s left of City Opera, anyway), led by Melody Moore.
There is much more to be said about the Callas angle of Prima Donna than my word count allowed. You will have to wait for my book to read it. In the meantime, do catch Prima Donna if you can.
As shown on the DVD cover, Rufus Wainwright dressed up as Verdi for the 2009 world premiere of Prima Donna in Manchester. Forgive me: I will presume to speak for the great man and say that Verdi would have been mystified, even appalled, by a yarn as tiré par les cheveux (mix that metaphor!) as the one in Prima Donna. Furthermore, the opera’s musical idiom—the nothing-succeeds-like-excess opulence of the Want albums with heaping dollops of Debussy (and even Philip Glass) mixed in—could not be more different from the terseness of the “severe, farouche” Verdi. (Hat tip to Sir Isaiah Berlin for the adjectives.)
That said, there is a lot of love and a lot of beauty in Prima Donna, and I look forward to seeing and hearing it again.
In 1961, Maria Callas set down for EMI an exceedingly ambitious program of French arias that ranged from Gluck’s Orphée (as reworked by Berlioz, yes?) to Massenet’s Le Cid, comprising both coloratura showpieces and arias for mezzo-soprano and contralto.
My own favorite of the lot, “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, was not even released during Callas’s lifetime because of her evident difficulties in supporting the aria’s lowest phrases. Nonetheless, to me it is a performance of matchless, silken allure. You can hear Dalila’s three arias in the blog archives.
Today’s selection is Philine’s “Je suis Titania” from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon (1866). As far as I know, Callas sang this aria only three times: twice in 1951 (in Italian) and for the 1961 EMI sessions.
Michael Scott in Maria Meneghini Callas offered a memorable critique of this performance: “As we hear in her EMI recording of the Mignon polonaise, the perfection of her coloratura remains, like the Chesire Cat’s smile, when the voice itself has practically disappeared.”
What do you think of Scott’s evaluation? Many find his book praiseworthy, but I struggle with it because of the author’s sometimes vicious tone (“Up close, after a performance, all I could remember is how much acne and dandruff her Violetta had.”), and also because on page after page (after page!) he pounds home the same basic point: that Callas lost her voice along with her weight.
He also yammers on about the great “responsiveness” of her voice, as if her musicianship were somehow not the fruit of active intelligence and dogged hard work but nothing more than a reaction. (Google Books tells me that Scott uses “responsive” and “responsiveness” only about two dozen times, but that seems on the low side to me.)
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