|Listening to these
three Callas preservations has been like homecoming for Ulysses. Between
November 1, 1954 -- her American debut in Norma with the newly
formed Lyric Theatre of Chicago -- and Tosca at the Met on March
19, 1965, I heard at least one performance of every role she created on
North American opera stages. In addition to Norma and Tosca, there were Lucia
di Lammermoor, Violetta in La traviata, Elvira in I
puritani, Leonora in Il trovatore, Madama Butterfly, and
Medea. Plus, sadly, one of those globe-circling “farewell”
recitals with Giuseppe di Stefano, mine on March 2, 1974, in the Chicago
Civic Opera House.
Back in 1953, anonymously, without recompense pro bono opera, I wrote the press releases that ignited a stateside firestorm until the Lyric was obliged to hire a union publicitor, the now-legendary Danny Newman. (He was my nominee, by the way, rather than a local hack-flack who played Spoletta to veteran colleague Claudia Cassidy, the dominatrix of Chicago music, theater, dance, and sometimes even film as chief critic of the Tribune for a dozen years).
By the time Maria made her 1954 debut (we knew one another well enough to be on a first-name basis, although hardly as well as John Ardoin knew her later on in Dallas), she’d slimmed down, reportedly from 210 to 140 lbs., and implemented a glamorous makeover. As Norma, however, both in dress rehearsal and on opening night, her voice hadn’t the amplitude or bravura heard on the early Cetra LPs that were my introduction to her singing a year earlier, or on EMI/Angel’s Lucia di Lammermoor, I puritani, and mono Tosca conducted by Victor de Sabata - all recorded and released before her arrival in Chicago. There was already a “beat” in altissimo that became a tremolo later on, and before the end a wobble. There were register shifts, too, although she could sing a chromatic scale from chest to top without a break, without shifting gears.
Her vocal artistry was unique from that first moment in Lawrence Kelly’s living room: it really was he, as one of the Lyric’s founding triumvirate, who lobbied for Callas to be their debut-season diva, whereas Renata Tebaldi was Cassidy’s candidate (“why” is a long story that’s never been printed, too long for here). Callas’ vocal artistry has remained unique in my experience ever since, not that it was always beautiful - indeed the sound could be outright ugly on numerous later occasions - but because it projected a glowing and infallible musicianship by the most instinctive actress seen onstage in more than 60 years of theater-going (25 of them as a paid theater critic) -- or for that matter on film, any film.
Her characterizations were so vivid that, after we’d visited a few times, I came to believe she was reincarnated without much time-off between lives. One-on-one, her private persona was middle-class, haphazardly educated (although penmanship was as beautiful as her characterization of Violetta in Act 2). She was nasally plain-spoken - at one moment an almost giggly teenager, then suddenly a cut-to-the-chase gossip. She mistrusted most persons outside of music, but the one she let herself trust most, and love - Aristotle Onassis - betrayed her as cruelly as Pinkerton abandoned Butterfly. I owe the woman’s memory a chapter in a book that persons keep nudging me to write, but I keep putting off, sometimes to reminisce here.
Which brings me to these three releases, all seriously flawed in one respect or other, beginning with an incomplete Norma from Trieste on November 19, 1953 (93 minutes that have survived, assembled on an Argentinian disc that combines CD-audio with CD-ROM graphics). This was her 51st performance in a role she would sing 88 times before a final performance at Paris in May 1965. It was the first of four Trieste Normas conducted by Toscanini’s one-time assistant, Antonino Votto, a kind of Italian Karl Böhm, which is to say able, but missing the lyrical thrust of Tullio Serafin, who led Callas’ first recording of the role for EMI the following spring, when La Scala’s choral and orchestral forces were crowded into the Cinema Metropol (and you wondered why the acoustic sounded boxy).
Her Trieste colleagues included two costars of Callas caliber - the Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff as her Druid father, Oroveso, and Franco Corelli as Pollione, her two-timing Roman paramour (only his second performance in the role, but the most elegant Pollione who ever partnered her Norma). Elena Nikolaidi was vocally matronly as Adalgisa, Norma’s errant handmaiden, yet serviceable, with two par-for-the-provinces comprimari. Sound is primitive -- often distorted to the extent of sounding pre-electric, with sudden drop-outs -- assembled from sources obviously private, most likely off the air (and believe me, postwar RAI was no BBC, Swedish Radio, Deutsches Rundfunk, or even Radio France). Eventually you get an idea of what the entire performance may have sounded like, if you’re old enough to have heard these artists in person. But I shudder to think what young, unindoctrinated, digitially zombified listeners will think, listening to a Norma that has body-parts as well as teeth missing.
Those with gimmicks on their PCs (Adobe Acrobat is an essential), or home-theater paraphernalia, can see relevant pictures and read pages of data. But a better introduction to Callas is Tony Walton’s biovid (one of several shown from time to time on PBS). Callas in Trieste was still a hefty, full-voiced dramatic soprano as well as a seasoned artist, a Norma to be reckoned with historically. But one who later on surpassed herself interpretively, if never again with the full vocal armaments she commanded before losing weight precariously.
Eleven days after Divina CDs’ Norma, Callas sang her first Medea at La Scala - a five-performance run between December 10, 1953, and January 6, 1954 (plus three Trovatore Leonoras in Rome, December 16-23). Starting at the Florence May Festival in 1953, she sang Medea 31 times, the last two at La Scala in May 1962. Her Milan debut in the role was the third time she had opened a new season there, an honor grudgingly granted by her nemesis, the intendant Antonio Ghiringhelli. The previous ones -- I vespri Siciliani in 1951 and Macbeth in 1952 -- had been conducted by de Sabata, postwar La Scala’s stellar music director. He suffered agonizingly from arthritis, however, and 10 days before Medea had to withdraw.
On short notice Leonard Bernstein (then guest-conducting in Italy) took over, fascinated by the challenge although he too was ailing. He suggested cuts in Luigi Cherubini’s 1797 score, originally a French opéra-comique (meaning spoken dialog in this Grand Guignol transformation of Euripides’ tragedy). Franz Lachner had orchestrated the dialog as recitative in 1854 (as Ernest Guiraud did for Bizet’s Carmen later on), but because of its musico-dramatic demands Médée remained pretty much a mystery-novelty until Callas was persuaded to take up the role in Italian. Medea is actually a gory forerunner of Norma, wherein Bellini substituted Druids and Romans for Euripides’ abandoned Colchean princess and faithless Argonaut husband. Bellini’s libretto, however, ultimately tenderized a heroine both traduced and abandoned. While each protagonist has two children, Norma spares hers; Medea kills them as the ultimate revenge, after first incinerating Jason’s new bride Glaucis in a magic cape.
Five years later, on November 6,1958, she re-created the role in a new production at Dallas (where Kelly and conductor Nicola Rescigno retreated, after the Chicago Lyric’s ruling triumvirate splintered). Callas’ first Texas Medea, costarring Jon Vickers as Jason, remains the most indelible in my memory-book. A pirated recording exists if you can find it (I have a three-cassette edition on Legends, going back a while, in fact a long while); so does at least one from Covent Garden, where the production was transferred for seven performances in June 1959. Somewhere, I’ll risk a guess, both of Callas’ two Dallas repetitions in November 1959 were preserved, by which time such piracies had been polished to a high degree by Texans. Unfortunately, Medea had been boxily recorded at La Scala in September 1957 -- not a good Callas year -- with a mediocre supporting cast (although Renata Scotto sang Glaucis), and a very tired Tullio Serafin conducting in place of Nicola Rescigno, who led her finest ones at Dallas and London. Mercury released it in the U.S.; EMI/Columbia did the disservice abroad. Along with Cetra’s La traviata of 1953 (to complete a contractual obligation), Medea is the poorest of Callas’ commercially recorded complete operas.
In partial atonement, Golden Melodram’s “Callas Edition Live” from La Scala on December 10, 1953, is the best-sounding of the three CD omaggi in the headnote above. Indubitably it is the RAI broadcast, cleaned up and for the most part noiseless, although a couple of climaxes distort, especially Medea’s final scream of vengeance. Even so, I haven’t heard this particular performance sound better, with Fedora Barbieri in verismo voice as Medea’s handmaiden Neris. Gino Penno, enjoying one of the 10 good years in a career cut short by illness, sang a stalwart Jason; Maria Luisa Nache was properly maidenly as Glaucis, and Giuseppe Morelli contributed a utilitarian King Creon, who errs in letting Medea remain 24 hours to visit with her children (and make a torch of his daughter before killing the kids).
What’s surprising is the degree to which Medea was depicted as merely shrewish by director Luchino Visconti and conductor Bernstein. Callas, although vocally unsteady during the first act, was blood-curdling in a slasher-film way, but several of her opening-act outbursts sounded tigerish rather than sinister. Coming from Bernstein I can’t say this surprised me; his career-long appetite for overstatement, for melodramatic gestures, produced a gripping but musically anachronistic performance. Visconti’s options, however, remain dismaying even today. The later Medea that director Alexis Minotis created for Callas in Dallas -- repeated in London, and re-directed in a subsequent “new production” at La Scala -- transported one to the realm of tragedy. Chills and horror were indigenous, but Minotis alchemized them with Rescigno’s complete cooperation.
I had reviewed a Callas concert in Chicago in January 1958, and worried that vocally she was losing it. After Medea in Dallas I needed to tell her, as well as write, that her recovery was superhuman. Still in her red wig and blood-smeared costume, with makeup smudged by perspiration, she called out to everyone within earshot: “So, Roger, I’m losing my voice, eh?” I assured her otherwise, and promised to eat crow for the rest of the week. “Crow?” she asked suspiciously, “What does that mean, crow?”
A year or so later I heard Madga Olivero sing Medea in the same Dallas production at Kansas City, and she was heart-wrenching (vocally in control, too, of a taxing and atypical role, age notwithstanding). But Callas had been unearthly: her rejection by the man she loved (for whom she betrayed her people to help him steal the Golden Fleece) was as desperate as the decision to commit crimes of vengeance when he remained deaf to her entreaties. Not even in the second act of Tosca was she more poignant, or more trapped in betrayal. Golden Melodram’s remarkable transformation of 1953 source material is a documentary treasure, but those Dallas/London versions remain the Golden Fleece (and furthermore restored part of Medea’s second-act aria that Bernstein had cut, in a George Abbott moment, one supposes.)
Tosca on July 5, 1965, the other audio-video CD-ROM from Buenos Aires, was Callas’ farewell not only to the role (which she claimed not to care for) but to the operatic stage. It was an opera she’d already sung as a teenager in Athens during the war, but not as an adult until 1950. After that there were 33 more - 18 of them in the last two years of her career, at London, Paris, and New York City (plus a 1964 remake in stereo for EMI - troppo tarde, too late). She was scheduled to sing four performances at Covent Garden in the early summer of 1965, but had fainted before she could finish a Paris Norma on May 29, and was obliged to cancel all but one Tosca - a Royal Opera House Benevolent Fund benefit, attended by the Queen, Prince Philip, and the Queen Mother.
Divina Records says this is the only complete recording on CD of Callas’ farewell to the stage - compiled from pirate-tapes made in the audience. Sound is depressingly poorish: for example, at Tosca’s entrance in Act 3 (track 12), the pitch suddenly rises and the acoustic alters. During some stage action in Act 1 (probably shtick by the Sacristan), a man close to the mike chuckles; and there are bits of conversation preserved along with loud prompter-cues. But you get a semblance of Callas’ Tosca and Tito Gobbi’s still-incomparable Scarpia (later on, when his voice got leathery, he began to overact grotesquely). Most startling is Callas’ “Muori, muori dannato” after stabbing him - muted rather than snarled (as we’d heard for more than two decades on the Scala recording), and as such a dozen times more credible in terms of character. Her singing voice is thinnish, reedy, desperately screechy on the final B of “Vissi d’arte,” and mercifully smothered by the orchestra at the end of Act 3 before her leap from the parapet. George Prêtre conducted idiosyncratically, yet was tenderly courteous to the diva whispered to be his current affaire (Onassis by then had set his sights on the Widow Kennedy).
Renato Cioni was a likeably boyish Cavaradossi, and the comprimari all contributed to Puccini’s gilding of Sardou’s original melodrama. And while the opera may be ramshackle, the damn thing sticks in the memory, like celery between one’s molars hours after eating. Surely Tosca is better stuff than Joseph Kerman’s dismissal of it as “a tawdry little shocker” (an epithet I’d assign instead to Cavalleria rusticana, or Salome). But it demands a heroine and villain of equal voltage, and here you get enough from both to reward the subtleties that accrued in Callas’ portrait of a jealous diva, and Gobbi’s lip-smacking police chief who plots to bed her. Still, for all-out singing, stick with Callas of 1953 with di Stefano, Gobbi, and maybe the best conductor Tosca has ever had.
By way of wrapping up, there are no librettos in any of these slim packages. You can buy them if you don’t already have one or more, but that adds to the price of what are, I’d say, indefensibly full-priced CDs. Callas, though, makes her fullest impact when you know every word she is inflecting.
As for that Odysseus simile at the start, I hadn’t played one of her recordings since I bought the last batch of concert reissues on Virtuoso, Laserlight and Gala, competently transferred and bargain-basement priced. I once had everything of hers on vinyl except Il pirata, but have been satisfied to live with the audiovisual memories of her great moments. Callas performances on stage from 1954 to 1965 remain more real to me than persons I see shopping, walking dogs, dining out...whatever...every day. I am grateful to Melodram and Divina, even with serious demurrers, for reminding me to be grateful that I lived when I did, heard what I heard, and have the genes and good luck still to remember.