Maria Callas (1923-1977) has become a legend, an iconic figure
that has transcended the mere world of opera. There are movies,
plays and other artistic outputs, which have been inspired by
her voice and life. The latter was as convoluted as an operatic
plot, and ultimately rather sad during her final years. Even
while she was still alive, her fame was that of a movie not
an opera star. All this poses a particular problem: How does
one write objectively about a legend? What can I write about
Maria Callas that has not already been written? I cannot add
anything but I can say what I think and that is what I tried
to achieve with this review.
I never heard Maria Callas sing live, for the simple reason
that I had not been born when she was at the peak of her powers.
This, I think, presents me with a clear disadvantage in the
appraisal of her artistry. One thing seems clear: that she was
a brilliant actress. This is not so easy to perceive in a purely
audio disc! Therefore, I decided to watch the EMI Classics DVD
originally filmed when Callas sang at the Royal Opera House
in 1962 and 1964. The highlight is the famous Act 2 scene of
Tosca, which takes place between Scarpia and the heroine.
This scene is perfect testimony to Callas’s brilliance as a
dramatic actress. You really hang on her every gesture, expression
and word. With her, you feel Tosca’s pain and rage. The acting
is magnificent. As for the voice, I was a little disappointed.
I thought she was screaming rather than singing in the highest
range of her voice. Some of the top notes came across as forced
rather than natural. I actually appreciated Tito Gobbi’s singing
of Scarpia more than I did that of Callas as Floria Tosca. Still,
the scene is very powerfully played and it is easy to grasp
why audiences were so responsive to her artistry. She takes
you on an emotionally intense ride that will leave you almost
exhausted. Perhaps, when the film at the ROH was made, her voice
had begun its decline. As an actress she is memorable; as a
singer, she is not at her most peerless. I am rather glad to
say that the singing is of a higher quality on this CD.
Callas had a unique voice. There are not many opera singers
whom one instantly recognises when one listens to a recording
but Callas is definitely in that category. Her voice is not
beautiful or warm but it is distinctive: It is full of drama
and with some spectacular flights of coloratura. Although her
legato technique is by no means perfect it is one of the best.
While her phrasing is not always refined, her singing on the
present CD is consistently outstanding most of the time.
Verdi Heroines and Mad Scenes, as detailed in the notes,
was digitally re-mastered from two LPs, which Callas recorded
in September 1958. This was at a time when she was still singing
those roles on stage. The first LP was a selection of pieces
by Verdi from some of his most famous operas: Ernani,
Macbeth and Don Carlo. The scenes from Donizetti’s
and Bellini’s operas included in this CD were taken from the
second LP. Interestingly, these are not the ones for which Callas
was better known. These were not in the league of her signature
roles. These were not up there with her Bellini Norma
or I Puritani. Instead, she sings here from Donizetti’s
Anna Bolena and from Bellini’s Il Pirata.
In Verdi, Callas is at her very best in the pieces from Macbeth.
This is particularly so for the first Nel di della vittoria
where she gives a vibrant andexhilarating performance. Her youthful,
sparkling coloratura is as scintillating as champagne. In Surta
è la note from Ernani, her head-notes are a touch
forced but the delivery is enthralling and exciting. These are
followed by Tu che le vanita from Don Carlo.
Here her astonishing dramatic powers come fascinatingly across.
She delivers the piece with strong, compelling emotions but
is simultaneously moving, poignant and exquisitely sad and tender.
It cuts through the heart and if you are caught on a sad day,
she will make you cry.
Verdi is followed by Donizetti’s Anna Bolena where
she sings the full scene at the end of the opera as Anna is
taken to the scaffold. This scene lasts approximately twenty
minutes. Anna’s tragic end is powerfully sung and her innocence
is convincingly conveyed. Callas’s singing is visceral, moving,
excruciating. This is an innocent woman suffering, being terribly
wronged; you will feel it, as if you were yourself on the scaffold.
The contrasting emotions and overwhelming feelings are compelling
but finely balanced. It never becomes sentimental or tearful.
The final piece in the CD is Oh! S’io potessi from
Bellini’s Il Pirata. Her singing is again energetic,
dynamic and compelling. The darker tones of her voice are effectively
showcased in these two final pieces. They become particularly
appealing though again some of the top notes are too forceful.
The wobble, which her voice developed and which became notorious
later, is in some instances already noticeable. You can hear
it in the final moments of the scene from Il Pirata.
However it had not yet become intrusive and it does not interfere
with the quality of the performance. Callas’s tone was not beautiful
or harmonious; it lacked warmth. She did not possess the subtlety
or the classical beauty of line and elegant refinement of a
Renata Tebaldi. What she had was something rarer: An unmistakeable
star quality, an impressive range and a dramatic power that
to this day make her unique and immediately identifiable.
The original recordings of Verdi Heroines and Mad Scenes
were done at the peak of Callas’s powers and they do her justice.
The sound of the digitally re-mastered CD is of excellent quality
and a wonderful tribute to a truly legendary voice. Whether
one is a Callas admirer or not this is a disc that will enrich
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at