Trieste. Nov. 19, 1953 (with Franco Corelli, Elena Nicolai and Boris Christoff, Antonino Votto, cond.  Buenos Aires, June 17, 1949 (with Nicola Rossi Lemeni and Fedora Barbieri, Tullio Serafin, cond.  Buenos Aires Concert, July 9, 1949 (with Nicola Rossi Lemeni, Tullio Serafin, cond.  Rome, Jan. 2, 1958 (with Franco Corelli, Miriam Pirazzini, Giulio Neri and P. de Palma, Gabriele Santini, cond.

GOLDEN MELODRAM GM 2.0040 (F) (3 CDs) (ADD) TT: 193:53

  Not counting two commercial recordings for EMI/Angel, Callas sang Norma 90 times in eight countries between November 30, 1948 (at Florence), and May 29, 1965 (at Paris, where the last act was canceled because of her illness). Of these I heard three - her U.S. debut at Chicago on November 1, 1954, the repeat on November 5 (plus the provo generale on October 31), and her New York Met debut on October 29, 1956. In the spring and summer before Chicago, she recorded her first Norma, I pagliacci, La forza del Destino, and Il turco in Italia in La Scala, then two solo albums in London: Puccini arias and “Coloratura-Lyric.” Tullio Serafin conducted all but Turco.

Significantly, and too soon damagingly, she shed more than 60 pounds during that period by ingesting a gelatin capsule containing a tapeworm. It required surgery later on to remove the head from her intestine wall; by the time the “cure” was successful, her weight had dropped from more than 200 lbs. (the figures vary, but 214 is fairly constant) to 110-115. When she stepped off the plane in Chicago, her transformation from the photos in hand was dumbfounding. Cosmetic surgeries in subsequent years, both facially and bodily (not counting the abortion of Onassis’ out-of-wedlock child, only recently verified), made Callas a glamorous creature as well as the most controversial singer of her era, perhaps of the entire 20th century. Yet nothing about her artistry as a musician or as an actress was controversial: she reigned supreme in the world -- although the single film she consented to make, Pier-Paolo Passolini’s Medea in 1970, verged on graffiti. He surrounded her with beefcake in costumes as abbreviated as censorship would allow - amateurs, deliberately, who could neither act nor even seem at ease. Callas was trapped, a sacrificial victim although no longer young (in fact 46), much less a virgin. Fortunately the film, at once fascinating and repellent, had scant exposure.

As for Callas in 1954, glamorously garbed to go with her new physical dimensions - 140 lbs. she herself estimated, but then Maria was a tall woman, at least 5'9" (perhaps 5'10" - at 6'1" I could look her in the eye when we stood together) - she was riveting even during the dress reheasal sung full voice. Composer Vittorio Giannini and Giorgio Polacco, a Toscanini-class conductor but never legendary, sat together and wept when she sang “Son io” in Act IV, and the confession that followed. Pollaco had conducted the reigning Normas between Wars, both of them named Rosa -- Raisa and Ponselle -- while Giannini was the younger brother of Dusolina, a celebrated Norma abroad. Zinka Milanov took up the role when she returned to New York from Yugoslavia in 1943, her pitch under control and her vocal registers welded, yet she sang Norma at the Met - her house away from home in the Great Northern Hotel (on West 57th Street) - only 12 times, plus four more on tour. Her fans still coo about the fabled pianissimo, creamy tone and seamless technique. But she wasn’t an actress, even in ‘40s and ‘50s opera, before directors became dictators, and her musicianship was pedestrian. The only Milanov Norma I heard had all the right notes and words but no sense of specific emotional or dramatic relevance. Milanov was a singer. Callas was a singing actress, non pareil in her century. At the latter’s Met debut, Milanov made an ostentatious entrance just before lights-down, to prolonged applause and “bravas” from the faithful, which she milked like the farmer’s daughter.

But let me go back two years before Callas’ Met debut -- in a tacky old production with tacky old costumes, conducted by Fausto Cleva, an in-house routinier, when she didn’t find her true voice until Act III, after the Times and Herald Tribune critics had left to file overnight reviews. Both 1954 Chicago performances were transfixing, if disconcerting. In that tunnel then called the Civic Opera House (today the Lyric), her voice sounded smaller than one heard from discs, especially the first Cetra LP of arias including “Casta diva” and its bravura cabaletta. Nor did I ever hear, in the seven Callas roles I was lucky enough to eye-witness, the amplitude of voice that dominated a 1950 Mexico City ensemble in the Triumphal Scene of Aida, capped by an impromptu, fortissimo E-flat-in-alt. Or, getting down to the business at hand from Golden Melodram, the amplitude heard in these 1949 excerpts from Buenos Aires, which include Bellini’s Overture twice, and arch-Druid Oroveso’s “Ite sull colle, o Druidi” likewise twice. From this woman who had sung Turandot and Isolde earlier on, one somehow expected a Mediterranean Brünnhilde.

I envy those who heard the early Callas, beginning with her postwar debut at the Verona Arena in 1947 as Gioconda. Thereafter she barnstormed up and down Italy, even crossed the Atlantic to South America, before La Scala reluctantly cast her as Aida in April 1950. But the Scala, Tebaldi’s temple with Toscanini’s behind-the-scenes blessing, didn’t rehire Callas until music director Victor de Sabata overrode the animus of general manager Ghiringhelli. He conducted her in I vespri Sicliani in December 1951, followed by her first Milanese Norma in January 1952. (In Mexico City, Callas sang three spring seasons [1950-52] with a scratch orchestra and hack conductors but with all-star colleagues in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which had a marble proscenium, cross my heart, and some of worst acoustics in the Western Hemisphere.)

The three June 17, 1949 excerpts in Buenos Aires validate early praise for Nicola Rossi-Lemeni’s half-Russian basso (although it didn’t last as long as Callas’ voice). She was limited to “Io fui cosě” with the a vulgar-sounding Fedora Barbieri as Adalgisa. But 69-year-old Serafin’s leadership of the Teatro Colón orchestra had a rhythmic thrust never heard again on discs, certainly not in either of his EMI Normas with Callas. For his protégé to cut loose, however, we need to go to excerpts sung three weeks later, on July 9, at a concert honoring President Juan Perón. But must wait through two radio announcements, an exciting performance of the Argentinian National Anthem (with Ettore Panizza conducting, another Italian worthy eclipsed by more celebrated competition), again Serafin and the Overture, then the choral “Norma, vieni.” Although she was off-mike until “Sedizione voci,” a lovely “Casta diva” and a thrilling “Ah bello” did her justice. There’s already a hint up top of the beat that widened as years passed and weight dropped, but Callas at 25 was vocally phenomenal, and furthermore a commanding musician coached in the role by Serafin (who had done the same for Ponselle before she sang Norma at the Met in 1927). In passing, Serafin was the Met’s principal conductor from 1924 to 1934; returning to Italy he spent the next nine years in charge of the Rome Opera. One final surprise from Buenos Aires: recorded sound is remarkably clean for its vintage (Met broadcasts at the time were never as open or finely balanced, and Italy -- well, on to Trieste and a 1953 RAI recording that suggests the orchestra was playing into an acoustic horn!).

The November 19, 1953 broadcast was conducted by Antonino Votto, Toscanini’s assistant at La Scala until the Old Man got roughed up by Mussolini’s thugs for hiring a street-band to play the Fascist anthem, whereupon Toscanini boycotted Italy until 1946. Votto, who worked often and well with Callas at Scala and in other houses, proved a real colleague in that Trieste performance -- the most extensive excerpts on these discs, embracing all four acts. Oroveso was the ebony-voiced Bulgarian scene-stealer, Boris Christoff, in full-voice prime, singing in exaggerated Italian but Lord, what a voice. Pollione was Franco Corelli early on in his career -- vocally a phenomenon in his own right, with a baritonal low register, albeit melodramatic (Callas’ subtlety amplified his excesses). Elena Nicolai, the Bulgarian mezzo, sang a companionable Adalgisa. But the star was Callas, riper, more yielding expressively, the pulse on top more audible but not yet pronounced, nor did she risk a diminuendo at the end of “Sedizione voci” before a thoroughly lovely and never perilous “Casta Diva.” (Face it: part of Callas’ witchery, her ensorcelment of an audience, was the anticipation that something might go wrong, and if it did, could she rescue herself?) Considering how prehistoric the orchestra sounds, the voices are solidly captured and immediately recognizable. Despite sonic overloads, in Act IV especially, there are real chills -- like Norma’s threat to Pollione who has been captured by the Druids, “In mio man, alfin tu sei” (“at last I have you in my grasp”). In Chicago a year later she advanced on Pollione, Mirto Picchi, with a clutched hand, as if to grab and pulverize his crown-jewels. Instinctively he jumped backwards, taking a stake with him.

Which brings us to January 2, 1958, when President Gronchi (if I recall the name correctly) was in attendance at the Rome Opera. Although Callas had advised several days earlier that she was feeling sub-par, the management neglected to engage a cover. When she was unable after Act I to continue (an “abbassamento di voce” she explained later), the rest of the performance was canceled. By that time Callas was the object of an international media frenzy, and a scandal erupted. What astonishes me 40-odd years later is the security of her voice, its warmth and apparent fullness in the first act, after a few unsteady moments at the onset of Bellini’s killer recitative, “Sedizione voci.” She even negotiated a perfect diminuendo at the end, previously unmatched in surviving broadcast snippets, or on the first EMI recording. Pollione again was Corelli, by then more seasoned, although he didn’t have much to do in Act I, and Adalgisa was that underrated mezzo, Miriam Pirazzini, who rose to the sense of occasion. Giulio Neri’s Oroveso was not in the Christoff/Rossi-Lemeni league, but sufficient (Melodram’s program note, in Itaglish, says that “some months later he suddenly died through a heart attack during a fly to London ...”). Roman sound is the best on these three discs, albeit still mono -- but this was Italy, remember. How they ever developed the Lamborghini, Alfa-Romeo and Olivetti remains a conundrum if not an oxymoron. Gabriele Santini’s conducting was pedestrian -- compare his overture to either of Serafin’s on disc 2, and learn what a mere repetiteur is.

Conclusion? Callasites will surely want it. Likewise Norma mavens (not including Milanovians). But I want a good CD transfer of La Scala’s 1955 opening night, when Callas sang a Norma that critics and admirers alike consider her supreme performance on discs, irrespective of origin. As in Chicago a year before, Giulietta Simionato sang Adalgisa, while Del Monaco was Pollione and the young Nicola Zaccaria Oroveso. Their conductor? Votto.