To the best of my knowledge, Maria Callas never sang anything from Verdi’s Falstaff. It is an ensemble opera, and she was very much the prima donna even as a girl. What’s more, Falstaff for the most part is not a score that can be excerpted for didactic purposes, so it’s understandable that de Hidalgo and other teachers apparently never had her study it.
All the same, Falstaff had its world premiere 119 years ago today at La Scala, and this occasion, for me, trumps even Maria Callas (gasp!). Please visit Verdi Duecento to celebrate Falstaff’s birthday.
In The Callas Legacy, John Ardoin compares Callas’s 1957 studio recording of Il barbiere di Siviglia with her unhappy outing as Rosina in 1956 at La Scala: “Although there are still a number of alterations within vocal lines…, she now sings the part with more of a mezzo-soprano character.”
Perhaps so, but I confess that the upwards transpositions really bother me, and that I strongly prefer a lower voice in this rôle.
Though Rossini’s Semiramide was not part of Maria Callas’s stage repertoire, she sang the opera’s show-stopping aria “Bel raggio lusinghier” during her Athens years, in the recording studio (several times), and during her 1963 concert tour.
She also sang it in 1956 during a RAI concert in Milan, the performance I offer you today. As I recall (and I don’t have the book handy), John Ardoin wrote that, in his opinion, Callas rarely or never got the measure of this aria. Still, compare Callas with Joyce DiDonato and Cecilia Bartoli (both of whom I greatly admire), and I think that Callas clearly comes out on top in terms of vocal mastery and even (if you will pardon the obscure reference) sprezzatura.
Maria Callas sang the final rondò from Rossini’s La Cenerentola during her Athens years, and she returned to it in 1961–64, for recordings and a concert tour.
This performance is from Hamburg in 1962. While some of Callas’s highest notes are glassy and/or wobbly, she sings the runs and fioriture so beautifully, so musically—and so differently from the little-engine-that-could delivery (Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff.) that we sometimes hear today. (No naming names, okay?)
Tomorrow, 27 January, is the anniversary of the death of Giuseppe Verdi. Please visit Verdi Duecento to see footage of his funeral and to hear his music performed by Rosa Ponselle, Ezio Pinza, and Riccardo Muti.
Maria Callas recorded the bravura “Merci, jeunes amies” from Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes in Italian (as she always sang this opera) in 1954 for her Lyric & Coloratura Arias recital. She had had a huge success with the opera in Florence in 1951, which led to her official La Scala début later that year.
Along with Giuseppe di Stefano, Callas directed the opera in Torino in 1973. She and di Stefano set down a Vêpres duet in 1972-73 for Philips (best left unheard) and included the same duet in their recital tour. And she taught music from the opera at Juilliard and devoted at least a half-dozen recording sessions to Hélène’s other great aria between 1960 and 1969.
Setting aside that pinched (and unwritten) final high note, there is not much to say about this performance, which sparkles with all the youthful joy one would expect from a girl on her wedding day. (Things end very badly in Vêpres, but at this moment Hélène is enjoying the calm before the storm.)
A splashy new production of Massenet’s Manon is due to open this spring in New York, so I have been revisiting performances of music from the opera by Callas and others.
In 1963, Callas made her second recording of French arias, this one produced by Michel Glotz. In The Callas Legacy, John Ardoin wrote that “Callas’s break with [Glotz] in 1965 coincided with the beginning of her exile from the stage.” Do any of you dear readers know the specifics of this “break”? The material I have read by and about Glotz is cagey on this point.
In any event, from Manon, “Adieu, notre petite table.” Callas sang this aria only a handful of times: in the recording studio under Georges Prêtre, in concert twice (in 1963 and 1965), and twice during her “comeback” (or “farewell”) tour in 1974. Ardoin rightly notes that she ducks the B-flat by omitting the first part of the recitative. That said, while the aria does not make extreme demands on the voice, Callas sings it beautifully, with exquisite control of dynamics and phrasing. (All of the singers I know, by the way, report that soft, tapered singing is vastly more difficult than simply letting it rip.)
Callas’s 1965 television performance of the aria is all over YouTube, though none of the versions I auditioned allowed embedding. See and hear it here. That clip, incidentally, was uploaded in honor of Frank Hamilton, whose Callas performance annals and other research materials are invaluable. A friend published a tribute to Hamilton, who died in December.
Helena Matheopoulos has written a book entitled Fashion designers at the opera. The Los Angeles Times reports: “Matheopoulos attributes the rise in collaborations to ‘a revolution’ in which fashion has become spectacle and opera—post-Maria Callas—has embraced ‘dramatic credibility’ and replaced ‘the fat ladies of yesteryear’ with singers who ‘look as beautiful as they sound.’” Alas, this is nonsense. Opera singers (some of them anyway) have always banked on looks: Lina Cavalieri, for example, billed herself as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” and even Caruso, so often invoked as a pure vocal phenomenon, took great pains over his acting and costumes. What’s more, as I recall, Karl Lagerfeld is utterly dismissive of Callas’s fashion sense in the 1982 Avant-scène devoted to her—though this may reflect French pique over Callas’s loyalty to the Milanese Biki more than anything else.
The Brescia edition or section of Il Corriere della Serareports on Callas myths that have sprung up in Sirmione, the hometown of Catullus, where Callas and Meneghini had a villa: for example, that Callas is buried in the cemetery of via Colombare and that Meneghini scattered her ashes in the Benaco (which, I take it, is another name for Lake Garda). Apparently there is a new exhibition space named for Callas as well as a restaurant that bears her name.
This excerpt, the opera’s final scene, is from the January 1956 La Scala Traviata. Carlo Maria Giulini conducts; Gianni Raimondi is Alfredo and Ettore Bastianini is Germont.
As mentioned earlier, I have been listening a lot lately to Traviata recordings. Netrebko and Fabbricini both have many virtues, but they gasp their way through the opera’s last act in a very intrusive and disruptive way. This kind of “realistic” touch, though, is utterly alien to Verdi’s aesthetic.
Callas’s every phrase in this scene is limp with bone-deep weariness (excepting that white-hot ”Ah! gran Dio, morir sì giovine”), but un-musical and anti-musical devices have no place in her expressive arsenal.
Il trovatore turns 159 years young today! Its world premere took place on 19 January 1853 at the Teatro Apollo in Rome.
Please visit Verdi Duecento to hear a choice sampling of Trovatore performances, including Maria Callas (with di Stefano and Karajan) in Act IV, Scene 1. Callas portrayed Leonora on stage some twenty times and reportedly sang one of the Trovatore arias at her 1945 Metropolitan Opera audition.
While you are at Verdi Duecento, you can also hear Callas in Ernani and Nabucco.
I am listening a lot to Verdi’s La traviata these days as I write an overview of Traviata recordings. (By the way, have you ever heard a better “Di Provenza” than this one? Dodgy Italian and all, I think I prefer Ots even to Schlusnus and de Luca. And, heavens, Sergei Lemeshev! Count me among the lemeshistki. How dreamily, too, Vishnevskaya repeats “Parigi o cara.”)
In any event, Maria Callas: Among her Traviata sets, my favorite is the 1958 Covent Garden recording, and the high point for me is the duet with Germont. I love it for its small touches: the shocked and desperate edge with which Callas sings mai (“never”); the resigned and wounded way she repeats è vero (“it’s true”); that infinitesimal pause (noted by John Ardoin and others) before she utters the word pura (“pura”); and the gentle, almost blanched timbre she summons throughout.
John Steane quotes another critic (whose name I failed to jot down) on Callas’s “Dite alla giovine”:
[It is] the moment of decision on which the whole opera turns… By some miracle Callas makes that note hang suspended in mid-air; unadorned and unsupported she fills it with all the conflicting emotions that besiege her. As she descends to the solo, which opened with a sweet, distant mezza voce of extraordinary poignancy, the die is cast.
Here is a long excerpt from the Violetta-Germont scene. Mario Zanasi is Germont, and Nicola Rescigno conducts.
(Sorry for your having to click through, but embedding is disabled for the clip.)
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