MARIA CALLAS - Life and Art
A documentary including music of Puccini, Bellini, Rossini, Bizet, Mascagni and Donizetti
EMI CLASSICS DVD DVDA 7243 4 92247 9 color/black & white "stereo" TT: 75 min.

Concert in Paris December 19, 1958, with Tito Gobbi, baritone; Albert Lance, tenor; Louis Railland, tenor; Jean Paul Hurteau, bass; Jacques Mars, bass; Chorus and Orchestra of the Paris National Opera Theatre/Georges Sebastian, cond. Excerpts from Norma, Il trovatore, The Barber of Seville and Tosca
EMI CLASSICS DVD DVDA7243 4 92503 9 color/black & white, mono TT: 91 min.

Hamburg Concerts of May 15, 1959 and March 16, 1962, with the NDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicola Rescigno and Georges Prêtre. Excerpts from La Vestale, Macbeth, The Barber of Seville, Don Carlo, Il pirata, Le Cid, Mireille, Carmen, La forza del destino and La Cenerentola
EMI CLASSICS DVD DVDA 7243 4 92245 9 black & white, mono TT: 119 min.

A film by Gérald Caillat
EMI CLASSICS DVD VIDEO 7243 4 77831 9 color/black & white, mono TT: 57 min.

Music of Montsalvatge, Obradors, Guridi, Schubert, Donizetti, Mozart and Rossini, with Gerald Moore, pianist. BONUS: Gerald Moore accompanies Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Julius Patzak, Hans Hotter and Christa Ludwig

The Maria Callas legend continues even more than a quarter-century since her death in Paris in 1977 at the age of 53. All of her recordings, studio or live, are constantly in demand regardless of her vocal problems.EMI has repeatedly reissued them repackaged and they continue to sell. Callas' voice technically seldom was in good form, with a lack of control in the upper register and often she produced sounds that were downright ugly. However, dramatically she reigned supreme among sopranos of her time. She knew how to play an audience as evidenced on these EMI DVDs. In the concert performances her face is remarkably expressive, her stage presence commanding.

The first DVD, Life and Art, is a documentary including television and newsreel interviews. Those interviewed talking about Callas include her long-time friend and musical partner Giuseppe di Stefano, conductor Carlo Maria Giulini and producer Franco Zeffirelli. There are some performance interludes, but not many, We do have a bit of the Covent Garden 1964 Tosca, along with excerpts from Norma, The Barber of Seville, Carmen, Cavalleria Rusticana and L'elisir d'amore. Also there is, perhaps unwisely, an excerpt from her 1974 final concert tour with Di Stefano, a time when little remained vocally, although her showmanship remained. Playing time on this DVD is about 75 minutes; one wonders why more performances weren't included.

La Callas...toujours is a complete concert presented at the National Opera Theatre in Paris December 19, 1958, her first appearance in Paris, with the Paris National Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Georges Sebastian. It was a gala occasion, one of the main social events of the year before an glittering audience anxious to hear her after earlier problems that year which included her famous walk-out of a Rome performance of Norma. Several excerpts from Norma open the program including a shaky Casta Diva, and Ah! bello a me ritorna, followed by D'amor sull' ali rosee and Miserere from Il trovatore. Una voce poco fa from The Barber of Seville is followed by the complete second act of Tosca in which she is joined by Tito Gobbi. DVD notes state this was their first stage appearance together in this opera—although their famous recording was made in 1953. (The famous Covent Garden performance would come in 1964, included on another DVD). Australian tenor Albert Lance, who often sang in Paris, is a creditable Cavaradossi with a ringing Vittoria!, after which he sings the rest of his role in French. No question, this is an exciting performance of this music by everyone concerned; don't look for vocal beauty from Callas. Her singing is tenuous, sometimes squally, but she emotes every minute of the music most effectively, and the audience gives her a standing ovation after Vissi d'arte—even though vocally it is nothing special. Much applause is included throughout, but, surprisingly, not much after Tosca. The black and white photography generally is adequate, aside from a few camera jolts and some ill-advised views of the back of the conductor's head and views of the music score at several points when we should be looking at the singers.

The next DVD offers Callas in two concerts from Hamburg, May 15, 1959 and March 16, 1962, with the NDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicola Rescigno and Georges Prêtre (l962). The first features arias from La Vestale, Macbeth, The Barber of Seville, Don Carlo and Il pirata. Callas had a cold at the time of the first concert, evidenced by some vocal difficulties, but she always is aware of the music's drama, expressed in her expression and movement. In the second concert, she sings arias from Le Cid, Carmen, Ernani (Surta è la notte, Ernani involami—but not the cabaletta), La Cenerentola and Don Carlo. Again there's no question of the dramatic impact of these performances, but no one could say that she produces beautiful sounds. Undistinguished performances of overtures by Gounod (Mireille) and Verdi (La forza del destino) add nothing except playing time to the DVD and may easily be skipped.

Maria Callas at Covent Garden, 1962 and 1964 contains excerpts from two British telecasts. The first was November 4, 1962 when she participated in a gala concert singing Tu che le vanità from Verdi's Don Carlos, and the Habanera and Seguidilla from Bizet's Carmen, with the Royal Opera House Orchestra directed by Georges Prêtre. She was at her best vocally in these performances, as she was in the second act of Tosca telecast February 9, 1964. This was after a series of six performances of a new Covent Garden production by Franco Zefferelli. Tito Gobbi is Scarpia, Renato Cioni, Cavaradossi, with Carlo Felice Cillario on the podium. Of all four DVDs mentioned here, this is the one that shows Callas at her finest.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf - A Self-Portait is a film by Gérald Caillat of the life and career of Schwarzkopf narrated by the soprano "in her own words" at the age of 80. Unfortunately there isn't much to be seen from her performances. Aside from a complete Porgi, Amor from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, we have only tantalizing bits and pieces of Carmen, La Bohème and Der Rosenkavalier. Doubtless more films exist and it's odd more weren't included, as this production is less than an hour's duration. As Schwarzkopf narrates, there are many street and country scenes, unidentified. There are some intriguing comments about how easy it was to work with Karl Böhm, but she had various "problems" with Herbert von Karajan. She discusses the difficulties of performing during the war, and, at considerable length, meeting her future husband, Walter Legge, who did to much to promote her career via recordings. Nothing is said of her affiliation with the Nazi Party. It is documented that in 1935, when 19, she became Fuhrerin of the Nazi Party's student organization with a responsibility as ideological leader to ''keep an eye on other students.'' In 1938, she applied for Nazi party membership and later became a member of Goebbels's Reichstheaterkammer, working in the propaganda ministry. In a letter to the New York Times in 1983, after her party affiliation was confirmed, Schwarzkopf wrote that party membership was "no more significant than belonging to a labor union," and stated, as did Tosca, "Vissi d'arte" - I lived for art."

Teresa Berganza's DVD is a total delight in every way. Born Teresa Vargas in Madrid in 1935, after initial studies at the local conservatory she won the first prize in singing in 1954. Shortly afterwards she made her debut in Madrid, had a successful European concert tour and soon became famous as an interpreter of Mozart and Rossini as well as music of her native country. On this DVD, filmed from 1960 to 1967 mostly in France, Berganza gives definitive performances of music of Falla, Montsalvatge, Obradors and Guridi, as well as arias from The Marriage of Figaro and La Cenerentola with Eugen Jochum conducting. The "bonus" on this DVD is considerable: excerpts from pianist Gerald Moore's British TV series featuring famous singers he often worked with, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Julius Patzak, Hans Hotter and Christa Ludwig. all in top form except Patzak who was 61 at the time of this telecast. It's unfortunate more isn't included on this DVD (total playing time: 82 min). But what is here is treasurable indeed.

R.E.B. (March 2004)