A tribute to Maria Callas
Monday, December 2, 2013
John Steane pays tribute to the great soprano (Gramophone, November 1977)
Like the Ancient Mariner, I seem to hear two voices in the air. One of them is already questioning: ‘Was she really as great as all that? I mean, was she really?’. The other, more than faintly unctuous, says: ‘Oh, but of course you had to see her’. To the second voice I think the future will answer, ‘We didn’t but we can’. And that will be true: her singing acts, as surely as if her voice had eyes and arms for expression and gesture. In this, too, the first questioner has part of his answer. The soul is in the sound, and it has achieved a kind of earthly immortality through the gramophone, which thus reaches the end of its centenary year in an unanticipated mournful splendour.
At this point in a broadcast tribute there would be a record. The printed page can do better than that: it can secure two minutes silence. We play our records and enjoy them, but often the best times are when we replay them inside our heads silently. It is only the great artists who make these silent records; that is one of the ways by which we know them. Callas made many. A Sicilian girl is suffering in a last attempt to hold her lover: ‘rimani ancora… come cacciarla, coos tu puoi?’. A Roman prima donna at the end of her endurance cries ‘non posso pie.’ A druid priestess is suddenly overwhelmed by her feelings as a mother: ‘Ah no, son miei figli’. A cold Chinese princess warms with mystical love for a long dead ancestor: ‘ava dolce e serena che regnavi… in gioia pura’. A slave-girl in the court of the Pharoahs pleads to the gods for a little kindness or for death: ‘spezzami il cor, fammi morir’. A seamstress in Paris makes arrangements for her few personal belongings: ‘involgi tutti quanti…’. The moments are brief and they pass through the mind in random supply, but they are many and precious and permanent.
Suppose we now try to do the other thing: not to recall the familiar but to banish it and listen as for the first time. Suppose we were back in 1949 hearing that very first Parlophone 78 rpm record by which many came originally to know her. Suppose also that the name on the label was not Maria Meneghini Callas, so unfamiliar and unmanageable then, so heavy with associations now. It might have been, let’s say, Medea Angelini Gallos, and here it is on R30043 (3/52) (now available on Warner Classics 2564 698772) beginning to sing from I Puritani: ‘O rendetemi la speme’. It is a mature voice, and it has immediately a very personal way of feeling through portamento, of withdrawing and then warming with new fullness. In the aria, ‘Qui la voce sua soave’, the tone is not pretty or rich but the phrases are well bound, and there is intense pathos, rarely overt (no gulps or sobs), but then pressing with a full heart upon the crescendo in the words ‘Ah mai pie’. Turn the record over for the cabaletta and we find that it carries unexpectedly a smile and a gracious sadness. There is always shading and vitality. There are sighing chromatic scales such as we have never heard before, and at the end, from this lyric-dramatic voice, a bright, firm and well-sustained E flat in alt. No doubts can exist about the answer to the questions of that first voice – it is supplied by the very first record.
It was the first of a wonderful series. John Ardoin’s book on Callas’s recordings, The Callas Legacy, lists 27 commercial recordings of complete operas and 10 independent recital records. There is also in existence a large number of broadcast performances which, as Ardoin makes plain, are invaluable in the way they bring us closer to Callas in the theatre and enable us to trace how a role developed under different conditions and in the different phases of her career. But for most collectors the classic EMI recordings will remain their principal source for knowing Callas, and especially those made with Walter Legge as producer in the great days of her career. The two recordings of Norma perhaps come foremost (EMI 966 7092 and 586 8342); then Tosca (EMI 966 8152), La bohème (EMI 556 2952) and Madama Butterfly (an intensely moving portrayal, with Karajan conducting, EMI 456 3982); the Verdi operas such as Aida, Rigoletto (EMI 456 4542) and Un ballo in maschera (all with Tito Gobbi); the searing Gioconda; the joyful Turco in Italia (EMI 729 0802). A little afterwards came her Carmen (EMI 966 7172), which was fiercely impressive. And there were also those later recital records, in which the greatness would always flash out to hide for a while the evident vocal deterioration.
The voice did deteriorate of course, and it had its troubles from the start. The marked break between registers may have been both a symptom and a cause; many people will reckon they know just what went wrong, and no doubt their opinions will differ widely. To the majority of listeners the most unpleasing effect was the loosening of texture, producing a wide, slow vibrato on high notes. There was also a loss of body in the voice. I remember a collector of old records talking to me probably about 20 years ago in disparagement of all modern singers. ‘All?’ I asked. ‘Yes, all’. ‘What about Callas?’. There was scarcely time for the penny to go into the slot. ‘Isn’t it a tragedy!’ he replied.
Well, that is one way of looking at it (and it can certainly be tragic when other singers try to imitate Callas). But she seems to me to be a cause for rejoicing. She came upon the scene when the mainstream of 19th-century grand opera was beginning to be rediscovered and revalued by serious musicians, and she provided, among singers, the most compelling and effective demonstration of depth and nobility in places which had seemed superficial and even cheap. She encouraged public and management to explore; she inspired singers to act and to attend to recitative as they would to aria. Most important for us now, she herself learned to act with the voice and to concentrate so much of humanity within that voice that her recordings continue to enrich our experience like the masterpieces of portraiture in our galleries. Her great years as an artist, like the span of her life, might have lasted longer. But the life is over and the artist flourishes.