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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Maria Callas - The Complete Puccini Studio Recordings
rec. 1953-65
EMI CLASSICS 2158942 [15 CDs]
Experience Classicsonline

This collection of Puccini recordings by Maria Callas (1923-1977) was issued, alongside many others, in the one hundredth and fiftieth anniversary year of the composer’s birth. Puccini was born in Lucca. His father and forebears were musicians, a circumstance that owed much to the town’s long and strong association with sacred music. Whilst the composer had a struggle for his first operatic work to be staged, Maria Callas had early stage exposure. She was born in New York of Greek parents in 1923. In 1937 at age 14 she returned to Greece for her musical education, and sang the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana in a student production when only 15 years old! She joined the Athens Lyric Theatre singing the name part in Tosca, the Fidelio Leonore, and Santuzza again. However like Puccini she struggled for recognition, often singing roles far too heavy for a young voice. It was not until 1947 singing La Gioconda in the vast Verona Arena that she attracted attention and was engaged by the conductor Tullio Serafin to sing Isolde (in Italian). In 1949, having sung Brünnhilde eleven days earlier, she sang Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani in Venice. To learn and perform two operas of such diverse fach in such a time-scale was a formidable achievement of intellect and vocal skill.
 
No singer in the twentieth century has aroused as much controversy as Callas. Some have criticised her coloratura as lacking brilliance, although her Violetta in La Traviata was much admired. Whilst the undoubted sour and curdled notes of her later career were a trial, her acting and ability to characterise and identify with a role, on stage and on record, are indisputable. She never sang a lot of Puccini on stage where Verdi and Bellini’s Norma were dominant. Nonetheless, in the various Puccini heroines she undertook on record, she created unique interpretations. It is perhaps as Puccini’s eponymous Tosca that she is now defined in the minds of many. This is due to the recording she made in 1953 alongside Di Stefano and Gobbi at La Scala with the theatre’s redoubtable Music Director, Victor de Sabata (CDs 1 and 2). Also contributing is the fact that it was her last stage role, at Covent Garden on 5 July 1965 in Zeffirelli’s memorable production. A stereo version of Tosca was her final studio opera recording (CDs 14 and 15). Act two of that production is available on video and illustrates Callas’s consummate acted portrayal even allowing for frayed top notes. The surprise in this collection is that it includes not only Callas’s two studio versions of Tosca, but also a live recording of the January 1964 performances from Covent Garden!
 
The 15 CDs are presented in slipcases within an elegant hinged cardboard presentation box (at around £30 in the UK, more expensive in the US - $100). The associated booklet has full casts and recording details as well as a 2008 essay titled Callas and Puccini by Tony Locranto. This is given in English, German and French. The first CD as well as act one of her first recorded Tosca also contain all the libretti in PDF format with translations in the same languages. Callas’s Puccini studio interpretations are listed and reviewed below in the sequence of their recording dates.

Her vast recorded legacy started when Dario Sorio of Cetra issued her first recordings derived from radio performances in Turin. He signed her for three other opera recordings. Only two were ever made as bigger predators, including Walter Legge of Columbia-Angel, now EMI, were circling. Fate took a turn in Legge’s favour when Sorio moved to Angel Records, the American arm of EMI, its relationship with RCA Victor having come to an end. After an assiduous courtship Callas followed Sorio, and Legge had his artist; Callas signed an exclusive contract in July 1952. Legge also signed the tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano and baritone Tito Gobbi to constitute a core triumvirate with Callas for many of the complete opera recordings that he and the soprano were to set down together over the next dozen or so years.
 
By the time of the contract with Legge, Callas was making considerable waves in the long neglected bel canto repertoire. She had broken into international recognition singing Norma in South America in 1949. It was to be her calling card at Covent Garden, La Scala and the Met, whilst her portrayal of the title role in Lucia de Lammermoor caused waves around the operatic establishments in the early 1950s. This became her first recording under her new Columbia/Angel contract combining use of the La Scala theatre with its august orchestra and chorus. This did not prove possible for three of the first five operas recorded as the sessions were scheduled during the theatre season. However, in August 1953 came the first recording in the La Scala theatre itself, Puccini’s dramatic Tosca.
 
CDs 1 and 2. Tosca. (1900)
Recorded August 1953. Teatro alla Scala, Milan.
Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Victor de Sabata [43.12 + 66.22]
 
Recorded complete, anecdote and legend surround the recording and particularly the number of re-takes the perfectionist de Sabata and Legge demanded. Although when first issued, the performance was not greeted with the unalloyed joy, it has since become recognised as one of the all-time recorded greats. By absolute standards, none of the three principals is vocally perfect. Callas herself does not always sustain a perfect legato, Gobbi has raw patches in his tone and Di Stefano is stretched at climaxes. However these failings are more than adequately compensated for by overall strengths. Di Stefano sings with ardent lyrical beauty in his great solo pieces (CD 1 tr.4 and CD 2 tr.21) and particularly in the Act 3 duet with Tosca (CD 3 trs.22-25). No Scarpia on record has been so threatening, or snarled so effectively, as Gobbi; his taunting of Tosca in the church, prior to the Te Deum, is chilling (CD 1 trs.15-16). But, above all, what makes this performance truly great is Act 2, where Gobbi and Callas, as they did in so many theatres, act off each other (CD 2 trs.1-17). The sparks of the drama, aided by the orchestral tension built up by de Sabata, really fly. There are moments of involvement and identification of singer and of a role rarely caught on a recording. In my view it is the vocal acting and dramatic tension developed in Act 2 that justifies the iconic status of this recording (see review).
 
CD 3. Puccini Arias.
Recorded September 1954, London
Philharmonia/Tullio Serafin [45.14]
Manon Lescaut
Il quelle trine morbide [2.56]
Sola, perduta, abbandonata [5.53]
Madama Butterfly
Un bel di vedremo [4.34]
Con onor muore [3.44]
La Bohème
Si, mi chiamano Mimi [4.48]
Donde lieta usci [3.32]
Suor Angelica, Senza Mamma [5.35]
Gianni Schicchi, O mio babbino caro [2.34]
Turandot
Signore, ascolta [2.30]
In questa reggia [6.24]
Tu che di gel sei cinta [2.50]
 
In June 1954 diva and producer Legge were back in the La Scala theatre for Pagliacci, Serafin again the conductor. This was followed two months later by the first of five Verdi recordings that were made over the next twenty-seven months. But it was to the different clime of Watford Town Hall that Legge took Callas for her first two recital recordings, again with her trusted mentor, Serafin.
 
On the Puccini disc her rendering of Donde lieta usci from La Bohème is to die for. It’s in the manner in which Callas conveys Mimi’s feelings as she tells Rodolfo to collect her belongings and she will send the concierge to collect them (CD 3 tr.6). The flip side is that I find her Si. Mi chiamano Mimi less convincing, being too forward in her manner for the tentative girlish Mimi (tr.5).
 
Hr characterisation in the two arias from Madama Butterfly (trs.3 and 4) is excellent. Also noteworthy is her singing of Liu’s two poignant arias from Turandot – they tear at the heartstrings (trs. 9 and 11). In marked contrast her rendering of In questa regia is unsteady. Callas never sang Mimi on the stage whilst her Turandot was heard widely in Italy a few years before this recording. Of particular interest is how Callas manages the varied tessitura of Senza mamma and the lighter O mio babbino caro (trs.7 and 8) whilst being wholly convincing in both. Perhaps the best-characterised singing on the disc is to be found in the manner in which she conveys Manon’s desolation in Sola, perduta, abbandonata (tr.2).
 
This early recital disc shows Callas’s affinity with Puccini as well as finding her in commendably fresh voice. It also reflects her affinity with the composer’s writing.
 
CDs 4 and 5. Madama Butterfly (1904)
Recorded August 1955
With Nicolai Gedda, Lucia Danielli
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Herbert von Karajan [68.54 + 69.43]
 
It was two years after her recital discthat Callas returned to Puccini with this recording of the composer’s most penetrating portrayal of the female psyche. In 1955 Callas was queen of La Scala appearing in no fewer than six productions. With the likes of Giulini, Bernstein and Karajan on the theatre rostrum, and Visconti producing, it must have been a memorable season. In the two years Callas had shed over twenty-five kilos of weight. To her singing status at La Scala, Callas added other facets of the diva lifestyle and behaviour. With her newly svelte figure she began to be concerned about the social circles in which she moved. Her picture appeared regularly in the newspapers other than in the review pages.
 
Callas had made a happy association with Karajan with whom she had worked to great acclaim in Lucia di Lammermoor and Legge matched the pair for the summer recording of Madama Butterfly with Nicolai Gedda as Pinkerton. Callas only ever sang the role on stage three times. Together with Karajan she creates a very individual performance representing Butterfly’s evolving maturity, her soon to be dashed joy and the move to her destiny, in a manner few have equalled. To achieve this she adopts a light, even white, vocal tone for much of the role, only adding more colour at particularly fraught moments especially in act two in the portrayal of Butterfly’s delusion. Regrettably on one or two high notes Callas pushes her voice too far, her tone becoming stretched and thin. This was to be a recurring pattern as her lifestyle began to influence her vocal capacity though it never affected her ability to convey a character in a wholly individual way. This is the strength of her very personal portrayal of Butterfly. Most regrettably the rest of the cast are mediocre and Gedda is a serious disappointment for me.
 
CDs 6 and 7. La Bohème (1896)
Recorded August-September 1956
With Giuseppe di Stefano, Anna Moffo, Rolando Panerai
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Antonino Votto [53.03 + 52.52]
 
It was another year before Callas returned to recording Puccini. She recorded the role of Mimi in La Bohème under Votto a mere fortnight after completing the vocally heavier Il Trovatore Leonora under Karajan. Both recordings were made in La Scala. The second sessions of La Bohème on 3 and 4 September were followed immediately by a five day studio sequence when she recorded Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera as Legge rushed to fill his company’s catalogue with Decca and RCA competing strongly in the LP stakes. These three roles are distinctly different in colour and make diverse demands on the soprano, particularly the Trovatore Leonora which tends towards the spinto end of the lyric voice.
 
Like her Butterfly, Callas’s Mimi is very individual. It was a role she never sang on stage. That seems no limitation and her assumption is very appealing with little sign of vocal strain and a better interpretation of Si, mi chiamano Mimi than on the Puccini recital disc above (CD 6 tr.7). She appears particularly comfortable alongside Di Stefano, her usual partner, as Rodolfo. The two blend well in O soave fanciulla (CD 6 tr.8) and the pairing allows Callas to draw on her full range of vocal emotion in act three (CD 7 trs.1-5) and also as the dying Mimi (trs.13-14). Panerai is a better Marcello than he was as Luna in Trovatore whilst Moffo, in one of her earliest recordings, is an appealing Musetta.
 
CDs 8 and 9. Turandot (1924)
Recorded July 1957
With Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Eugenio Fernandi and Nicola Zaccaria
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin [76.57 + 41.03]
 
The year 1957 was an amazing one for Callas. It started in February in London with a stereo Il barbiere di Siviglia, continued the following month at La Scala with La Sonnambula and concluded with near contiguous sessions to set down the title roles in Puccini’s Turandot and Manon Lescaut. Her availability in the recording studio was perhaps a reflection of her reduced theatre commitments with her socialite lifestyle more conducive to recitals.
 
Callas had made a big impression in the title role in the early 1950s before concentrating on the bel canto repertoire. However by the time of her first recital disc, CD 3 above, her In questa reggia shows signs of strain. Her high notes are not easy on the ear. That said, Callas invests the Princess with just the right balance of cold frigidity and imperiousness to give a balanced perspective on the character and the plot. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Legge’s wife, in her only recorded collaboration with Callas is an unidiomatic and rather bland Liu (CD 8 trs.13-16 and CD 9 trs.4-6). Eugenio Fernandi, too little heard on record, is a fine Calaf with a clear ringing voice in Nessun dorma (CD 9 tr.2). Nicola Zaccaria is a moving Timur whilst the veteran Serafin draws dramatic climaxes from the La Scala orchestra.
 
CDs 10 and 11. Manon Lescaut (1893)
Recorded July 1957
With Giuseppe Di Stefano 
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin [76.25 + 44.12]
 
Less than a week after the Turandot sessions, and again with Serafin on the rostrum, she recorded the composer’s Manon Lescaut. Like Mimi in La Bohème this was another role that Callas never sang on stage. I do not know how far Serafin prepared her, but it comes over as one of the best of her Puccini interpretations. She varies her vocal tone and nuance as Manon evolves from the flighty fickleness of act 1, through being Geronte’s rich self-centred mistress of act 2, to her desperation and desolation in the final scene. It is particularly in the last act, with her ability to act with the voice, that Callas is able fully to convey Manon’s emotional state in Sola, perduta, abbandonata (CD 11 tr.12). Giuseppe Di Stefano is in good form as Des Grieux and ardent in the act two duet (CD 10 tr.18).
 
CDs 12 and 13. Tosca. (1904)
Live Recording. Covent Garden. London. 24 January 1964
With Renato Cioni. Tito Gobbi
Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Carlo Felice Cillario [41.52 + 67.13]
 
This recording is the surprise package of this collection and inevitably it must be compared with the studio recording below. There are two plus points that hit me straightaway. First is the greater drama in the performance. This owes much to the idiomatic conducting of Carlo Felice Cillario. Whilst no De Sabata - and few were - he points the music and moves the opera along, supporting his singers to the last beat in an exemplary fashion. The frisson of a live performance is present from the opening dramatic chords. There are a few intrusions of applause and stage noise. Renato Cioni’s silver-toned Cavaradossi whilst not having Bergonzi’s tonal beauty, is fully involved and a vital part of what must have been a great evening.
 
Gobbi and Callas sing to and off each other in act two in a manner one would be lucky to see in the theatre but which is well caught here. Yes, the listener has to allow that Callas’s Tosca is not the vocal assumption of the La Scala recording, but the soprano knows how to husband her resources. She does so with admirable professionalism to the extent that one has to listen to her, not the performance, to notice. Singing in the large theatre Gobbi is a little more raw-toned than in the Paris recording, but the compensation is the dramatic bite and verbal nuance of his phrasing. Act two was caught on camera in black and white and has been issued on DVD with the sheer drama of the interaction of the two being spine-tingling to view as well as to hear. If I have any regret about this collection, it is that EMI did not buy the rights on that recording and include it here. But then some people are never satisfied!

CDs 14 and 15. Tosca (1904) (Second studio recording)
With Carlo Bergonzi, Tito Gobbi
Paris Opéra Chorus & Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Georges Prêtre
Recorded Salle Wagram, Paris. December 1964 and January 1965  [43.10+58.68]
 
After hearing the live Covent Garden performance the Paris recording lacks a lot of vitality. This owes much to Prêtre’s flaccid conducting and perhaps also to the resonant acoustic. In direct comparison between the two, Callas is not as involving or even as vocally secure in the studio. Certainly the act two confrontation between her Tosca and Gobbi’s Scarpia does not have the impact of the live recording, although the baritone covers and colours his tone to advantage. Bergonzi’s singing of Dammi I colori …Recondita armonia (CD 14 tr.2) and E lucevan le stele (CD 15 tr.14) are very pleasant on the ear for one of the tenor’s fans. Otherwise the live recording has it by several lengths.
 
Robert J Farr
 


 


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