Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor

  • Lucia di Lammermoor, '(The) Bride of Lammermoor'

For many years this live performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, recorded on tour in Berlin in 1955 with Callas, Karajan and members of La Scala company, was one of the most prized of all unauthorized sets, offering those of us who weren't there a chance to sample a sensation and discover why some normally robust critics were robbed of sleep for a week by the experience. EMI have now obtained the rights to this recording and in many respects it is a set that can lay claim to being the most representative—the most vivid and searching—of all extant recordings of Callas in this, one of her most famous roles.
The fact that the performance is live, rather than studio-bound, is crucial in a single key respect. Callas is herself transformed by the experience. In the very act of playing Lucia on stage she completely becomes her in mind and spirit. And she does this in a way that was never quite the case in her two EMI studio recordings: either the earlier and the better of the two, the 1953 Florence version (reissued on CD in 1987) or the perceptibly over-the-hill 1959 London recording (reissued in 1989). The live version brings with it some technical limitations which I mention below, but it is not without its advantages, not least in the crucial matter of perspective. In this Berlin recording, Callas herself is often more naturally 'placed' than is the case in the 1953 Florence set, where the close microphoning favoured by EMI's Italian production team tends to rob the singing of mystery and allure. (Walter Legge, who had signed Callas for Columbia but who didn't supervise the recording, later described the Florence hall as ''antimusical and inimical'', and insisted on delaying the Lucia until the better produced and more 'revelatory' I puritani was recorded and released.)
It must be said that the engineers of Sender Freies Berlin, whose tapes are here digitally remastered by EMI, were enormously helped in all this by Karajan's production. Franco Zeffirelli recalls: ''He arranged everything round her. She did the Mad scene with a follow-spot, like a ballerina, against black. Nothing else. He let her be music, absolute music.'' It was, Zeffirelli argued, the only way to produce Callas whose musical command and command of gesture obviated all need for fabricated play-acting. Callas's was not a Lucia that needed to flutter about the stage like a demented dove.
Musically and dramatically, the relationship between Callas and Karajan was symbiotic, as it was later to be in their 1955 recording of Madama Butterfly (reissued by EMI on CD, 10/87). As a result, Callas's portrayal of Lucia is here deeper than ever it was. In this performance, the depth of her love for Edgardo, and her trust in him, are so overwhelming that when she is shown the fabricated letter of betrayal the shock is monstrous. We hear this not only in her enunciation of the words ''Me infelice! Ahi! La folgore piombo'' but in the Larghetto that follows where she seems already to have passed beyond this world. The Mad scene is not so much presaged at this moment; spiritually, this is where it begins, just as with Callas's Medea where we know, psychologically, the precise moment when she resolves to sacrifice her children's lives.
In the Mad scene itself, the lines are longer than in the Florence recording, the phrasing subtler, the gradations of tone more unerringly placed. And the voice is in generally excellent shape. Reviewing the performance in Opera in December 1955, Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote: ''I dare say she will never sing better than she does now; there is Greek resin in her voice which will never be quite strained away; she will never charm us with the full round ductile tone of Muzio or [Rosa] Raisa or Ponselle. But she has sudden flights, dramatic outbursts of rocketing virtuosity, of which even those more richly endowed singers were hardly capable.'' In the opening scene by the fountain, in fact, it is the grain in Callas's tone—the Greek resin—that helps give the performance its disturbing visionary power: more Graham Sutherland than Joan.
As a study of Lucia herself this performance is well-nigh unsurpassable. As an account of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor it has its dated elements, of course. In the first place, it is heavily cut. Not quite as heavily cut as the 1953 recording conducted by Serafin (Karajan gives us more of the Act 2 finale) but pretty much an old-style 'Lucy Lammermoor Show'. And this is exacerbated by Karajan's impatience with the music for the comprimario roles. Poor Luisa Villa, singing the role of Lucia's confidante Alisa, is rushed off her feet, and the hapless Arturo sounds more than usually uptight. Nor does Karajan always accompany the co-principals, Panerai and di Stefano, with the kind of sympathy he so obviously lavishes on Callas. With Callas the tempos are just, the lines are long, and the rubatos are infinitely subtle and intense. Edgardo, by contrast, is confronted by some exceptionally slow tempos. Even more than usual, he is treated as a figure straight out of Victorian melodrama, with Karajan and di Stefano treating the final scene among the tombs as pure Grand Guignol. But di Stefano copes. Panerai, by contrast, is strained by some of the tempos, though it has to be said that the role of Enrico seems to lie awkwardly for him. That being the case, one wonders why on earth Karajan allowed him to launch into a roughly taken and vulgarly sustained high G at the end of the first section of ''Cruda, funesta''. Gobbi (1953) is grander and altogether more assured, but he is also blander than Panerai (Cappuccilli, 1959, is blander still). Judged purely as singing, Panerai's Enrico is something of a nightmare, but as a dramatic performance—Enrico as a devilish spur to the tragedy of Callas's Lucia—it is something of a tour de force. It is also worth noting how Karajan manages to invest Donizetti's apparently innocuous accompanying figures with a tremendous viciousness and feline power in many of Enrico's exchanges with Lucia.
EMI have done the performance proud both in their packaging and in the physical brilliance of the remastering of the tapes for CD. These are the cleanest, brightest and most articulate transfers we have yet had. But there is a rather large snag. On the original tapes there is a good deal of residual distortion where Lucia, Edgardo, or the solo flautist are both close and at the very top of their registers. Transfer to LP tended to mop up this high-frequency distortion, and the somewhat attentuated CD transfers I have heard from one of the unauthorized issues achieve the same effect. Initially, I thought this a disaster from the EMI set, particularly as the worst example of all comes in the big cadenza at the height of the Mad scene. In fact, one gets used to it and I have stopped skipping on to the start of the cabaletta. But it must be a case of caveat emptor; there are collectors who may prefer the more dimly transferred, and poorly packaged, rival sets.
My other quibble with EMI, and it is a tiny one, is their rather parsimonious way with the applause. Mostly this makes excellent sense, but one of the performance's most remarkable features is the encoring of the great Sextet in Act 2. To judge by rival transfers, the encore is a clear concession to the need to retain public order in the opera house and in the streets of Berlin beyond. EMI, though, fillet the applause to a 15-second dribble, making the reprise sound like an act of gross self-indulgence on the part of the artists. Many would agree, I suspect, that there are times in a live recording when the sideshow should be retained, though I gather that only video would convey the evening's most astonishing sideshow—Callas's consummate art in remaining half in character whilst she took ten minutes of solo curtain calls after the Mad scene. With or without visuals, though, this is the Lucia of a lifetime.'

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