The Maria Callas Collection
''If Callas's portrayal of Lady Macbeth did not exist in sound, it would be difficult to determine from the reviews just what her performance was like on the opening night'', notes Henry Wisneski in his study of Callas, The Art Behind the Legend (New York: 1975). I quote this, not as a rebuke to the critics who assembled to hear Callas's Lady Macbeth in La Scala, Milan on December 7th, 1952 but as a reminder that the truth about Callas the artist rests in her extraordinarily extensive recorded legacy.
The fact that the tenth anniversary of her death is in the process of bringing about the re-release of nearly 40 complete opera recordings or recital records from the EMI archives alone is of great significance to the musical world which might otherwise be dreading a further flow of documentaries, profiles and memoirs from the adoring and the mischievous.
Callas's recorded legacy impinges on us at various levels, not merely that of detailing a great and complex career. It offers, for instance, an intuitively astute critical gloss on much of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century Italian operatic repertory. And it is also an active source of inspiration to others. When John Mortimer recently asked Graham Greene what he did to get himself started on a novel, Greene replied: ''I always read a book by Henry James. That gets me in the mood and makes me feel it's worth struggling.'' And Katia Ricciarelli has said much the same kind of thing about Callas. ''Don't believe those sopranos who say they don't listen to Callas's reocrds'', she is quoted as saying in David Lowe's recent Callas As They Saw Her (Robson Books: 1987). ''All sopranos get up in the morning, pour the orange juice and coffee, and then settle down to listen to Callas's recordings to try to learn from them''. And so it is with musicologists, critics and amateurs. Over the years I have learned as much about the roles Callas sang—dramatically, psychologically, technically—than would be possible from a sheaf of learned theses or a dozen performances by sweeter-voiced and better-tempered rivals.
Reissues on CD of Callas's recital records and complete recordings began in 1985 with the legendary La Scala recording of Tosca conducted by de Sabata and promise to continue well into next year with such classics as the Callas/Karajan recordings of Il trovatore and Madama Butterfly, the 1953 Lucia di Lammermoor, and the Lisbon La traviata. In the meantime, we have a collection of previously unissued material, some of it live; two Verdi recitals, one indispensible, the other recommendable only to the most conscientious collectors of Callasiana; and a two-record album, 'As seen on TV', which, for all the oddity of its editing, promises to introduce Callas and the repertory she sang to a larger, newer, and perhaps younger audience.
First, the record of unpublished material, which includes three items from live concert performances in Athens and Amsterdam and half-a-dozen items retrieved from the stock of recordings—some already issued, some held in reserve, some cross-edited, some abandoned—accumulated by EMI in studio sessions throughout the 1960s. Since Callas was famous for reacting to the advice of colleagues, not to mention the stimulus provided by the performances of her rivals, variant performances of single arias hold great potential interest. Her interpretations were never arbitrary; equally, nothing with Callas was a foregone conclusion.
That said, it is reasonable to conclude that the best of the 1960s material has already been issued. The previously unissued 1969 recordings—arias from I lombardi, Attila and I vespri siciliani—are interesting in as much as they confirm the kind of work Callas was doing on her voice at the time, stabilizing the thinning top register and rematching tones and registers lower down the scale. Odabella's romanza from Attila is particularly fetching and makes a moving end to the record; but it would be idle to pretend that this re-make of Elena's ''Arrigo! ah parli a un core'' comes anywhere near the 1964 recording (republished in ''Verdi Arias'', Vol. 1, below) with its broader tempo and its generally formidable command of the 21-note-wide tessitura. Wisneski dubs the 1964 version one of Callas's most intimate and deeply felt on record, and so it is.
The Rossini items parallel those made with Rescigno in 1964, first issued on Columbia SAX2564 (3/65, nla—due shortly for reissue on CD). These earlier, 1961 recordings are often sweeter-toned and more limpid-sounding, though it is difficult to determine whether it is attributable to the state of the voice, interpretative intent, or Tonini's limp conducting. In the aria from Guglielmo Tell Callas does not erase memories of Muzio, one of her own favourite singers and there appears to be trouble with a poltergeist in the adjoining studio. Callas's 1960 Semiramide is alluring but comparatively conventional by comparison with the altogether more regal, more ferocious, more desperate, more emotionally wayward woman she presents us with in the 1964 ''Bel raggio''. The two performances highlight aspects of character previously explored by Rossini in Armida, another famous Callas assumption, and underline for us not only Callas's special affinity with Rossini's Colbran-inspired roles but also a wonderful ability to penetrate beneath the bel canto surface to the woman the subtle mechanics of the bel canto method so variously evoke.
It used to be argued (and the hoary old argument turned up again, in Opera of all places, in June) that Callas wasted her talent on too much slight music and too many fragile heroines. In fact, not only did she show immense technical skill in handling the whole range of the Colbran/Pasta repertory—turns, appoggiaturas, trills and portamento deployed with a musicality, taste, rhythmic accuracy and dramatic flair that no one in recent times has consistently rivalled—she also interpreted the music in a way that could have led to a wider public understanding of the Rossini/Donizetti/Bellini repertoire had she and her most talented rivals given us more opportunities for comparative study of key roles than they in fact did.
The extract from Rossini's La Cenerentola is a telling example of Callas's insight into music which critics, misunderstanding the music themselves, have often accused her of singing unsympathetically. In Rossini Callas was said to lack lightness, charm and good humour; but she must have sensed that La Cenerentola, like much else written by the allegedly easy-going Rossini, is far from benign. It is a pity Callas never sang Cenerentola on stage where she might have printed the work's semi-serious, tragi-pathetic nature indelibly on the public imagination. In the closing scene recorded here, it is, not surprisingly, Cenerentola's reconciliation with Magnifico and the ugly sisters that haunts the imagination in her performance. Her Cenerentola has a Cordelia-like intensity (both characters belong to the same stock of fictional archetypes) whilst her fourfold repetition of ''Tutto'', like Cordelia's ''No cause, no cause'' or Lear's fivefold repetition of ''never'' carries a burden of emotion that cauterizes the terrible wounds that Magnifico's earlier treatment of her had opened up. As Teodora Celli wrote of Callas's Medea, one of her greatest roles: ''She went beyond the notes, directly to the monumental character of the legend, and she handed it back with devotion and humble fidelity to the composer''. Again, with La Cenerentola, it is the later, previously published recording which is the more imposing, but this earlier recording is cherishable for the greater beauty of the coloratura display allied to the sketch of the impersonation that was to come.
In 1958-9, Callas recorded and several times publicly performed the great final act scenes for Imogene in Bellini's Il pirata and Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlos. She had sung Il pirata at La Scala in 1958, at the height of her powers as a Bellini singer and at the height of a confrontation, not entirely of her making, with La Scala's Intendant, Antonio Ghiringhelli. The brilliance of her impersonation of Imogene was widely acknowledged as was her studio recording of the finale scene (recently reissued by EMI on CD CDC7 47283-2, 6/86). The 1959 Holland Festival performance is, if anything, even more sensitive and thrilling. This was the concluding item in the recital and seems vocally and dramatically freer than the Don Carlos scene, which lacks presence when compared with the—admittedly, more vividly recorded—studio version of September 1958 (see below as part of ''Verdi Arias'', Vol. 1).
As for the Athens Festival Tristan und Isolde Liebestod, it is phenomenal. Like her Elisabetta in Don Carlos, though in another style and dimension, Callas's Isolde is an essay in the triumph of will over despair. It is the blazing affirmation of a brave, desperate, vulnerable and partially overwhelmed woman. Playing it in my music-listening room was an eerie experience since I have on the wall someone else's Isolde: Aubrey Beardsley's ''ravenous insect'' (Peter Conrad's phrase) of 1893. The Callas recording seemed first to rebuke Beardsley's vision, then destroy it, and I wouldn't have been surprised to come down next morning to find the poster foxed and shrivelled.
Starting this record of unpublished material with the Liebestod was a stroke of genius by someone, because it is the one item which begins on the voice; and if there is one incontrovertible fact about Callas it is that her voice was unmistakable, instantly recognizable. To meet it head on, so to speak, is still one of the most thrilling experiences opera has to offer.
''Verdi Arias'', Vol. 2 is memorable for Callas's superb account of Desdemona's Act 4 vigil. Elsewhere in this second volume she is often out of voice or out of character. Again, it is touching to hear what she could achieve in 1969 in the two items from Il corsaro and there is plenty of dramatic thrust in the 1964 Il trovatore scene; but go to the complete set of Il trovatore, soon to be reissued, to catch Callas's genius at its most elemental.
''Verdi Arias'', Vol. 1 is altogether finer and it, too, is dominated by a great Shakespearean sequence. Callas was born to sing Lady Macbeth—Verdi's famous letter on the role seems to anticipate her every characteristic, including some that may be thought less than flattering—and it is impossible not to thrill at the chilling triumphalism of the early arias or the infinitely subtle dramatic intelligence and complex vocal mastery in the Sleepwalking scene. No wonder Toscanini wanted to direct her in the work. He never did; but here, as elsewhere, Rescigno proves to be a most reliable accompanist.
The long Don Carlos scene is comparably fine in its presentation of a variety of moods and it is marvellous to have glimpses of Callas's Abigaille and Elvira (from Ernani), roles she never recorded complete. The remaining four tracks are made up from 1960s Paris sessions, tardily issued on LP in 1972. There is some sour tone in Giselda's aria from Act 2 of I lombardi but Elena's ''Arrigo! ah parli a un core'' is, as already mentioned, magnificent and Callas realizes the start of Act 2 of Un ballo in maschera even more powerfully here than on the complete recording (CD CDS7 47498-8, 8/87), ''l'orrido campo'' ( ''fearful place'') as much a landscape of the mind as the place in which Amelia distressingly finds herself.
Callas's Aida was not to everyone's taste but one is bound to thrill to this recording of ''Ritorna vincitor!'', the line of ''Numi, pieta'' gloriously intact despite the terrific sense of agitation with which the scene is invested. Rescigno told John Ardoin that this recording happened by accident after a break in an edgily unsuccessful recording session, during which Michel Glotz mischievously played a recording of ''Ritorna vincitor!'' taped the previous day by Regine Crespin. So incensed was Callas by a performance that was, to her perception, so dramatically misguided, she asked if the parts were still in the studio and proceeded to make the recording in a single, blazing take. One can believe the story; the performance still rivets sense.
When these recordings were finally issued in 1972, Andrew Porter, writing in these columns, concluded: ''I love this record: for Callas's command of line, of declamation, of rhythm, of dramatic and musical sense''. He then added, in words which still help define her enduring appeal, ''Whatever she does comes to life''.
It is a judgement that is confirmed by the 24 items on Stylus's ''The Maria Callas Collection'', where only the Countess's ''Porgi amor'' from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro hangs fire. This collection also starts on the voice, with Butterfly's ''Un bel di'', a splendid start, offset at the very end by a rather shaky account of part of the Mad scene from the 1960 Lucia di Lammermoor. Mid-way there are some classic Callas items. There is the Shadow Song from Meyerbeer's Dinorah, sung with scintillating tone and the most beguiling shadings in the echo music; and there is a performance of the Bolero from I vespri siciliani which will delight the casual listener with its charm as surely as it will please the connoisseur, who will relish both Callas's sense of dramatic context and her special mastery of the taxing trills, runs, portamentos and legato effects. she sings in Italian and adds an unwritten top E but the performance is in all other respects definitive.
I mentioned dramatic context, and it is a pity that Stylus omit not only texts but any form of brief commentary on each item. Without this it is impossible fully to comprehend Callas's masterly characterization—not to mention her subtle sense of narrative perspective—in something like the Butterfly aria. Not that we always need the words. Callas's Carmen seems self-explanatory, and no number demonstrates better than ''O mio babbino caro'' her ability to invest simple music with a more than usual charge of emotion. The ''Ave Maria'' from Otello is similarly self-explanatory, as is ''Casta diva'' from her second recording of Norma, a performance that suggests a state of inner spiritual calm which Callas could appropriate imaginatively but not always in reality in her own troubled life.
Sources for the Stylus collection seem rather indiscriminate. ''Vissi d'arte'' comes from the complete da Sabata recording (there is no Tosca on Callas's 1954 Puccini recital) but Rosina's cavatina from Il barbiere di Siviglia is taken from the rather dull Serafin recital record and not from the complete set under Galliera (CD CDS7 47634-8, 6/87), where after a series of disappointing trial runs Callas finally produced the kind of unforgettable Rosina of which only she was capable. The other problem with the Stylus collection is the random (if quasi-chronological) running order. Side 1 of the set is all pre-1956 mono material but Rossini hardly sounds well wedged between two Puccini arias, nor does a third Puccini aria sound well after a rather similarly piece by Catalani. Side 3 is devoted to French music but the arrangement of the tracks generally makes continuous listening difficult for expert and tiro alike.
In the end, after any sustained bout of listening to Callas, one comes away conscious of the frailties and inequalities, but infinitely reassured by the quality of her singing and the insights she almost invariably brings. Having begun this review by mourning the blandness of some writing about Callas, let me end by quoting a fine summarizing statement written by Cynthia Jolly in the wake of Callas's 1954 La Scala performances of Lucia di Lammermoor under Karajan: ''Callas's supremacy among present-day sopranos lies in no mechanical perfection but in a magnificently tempered artistic courage, breath-taking security and agility, phrasing and stage-poise: and in a heart-rending poignancy of timbre which is quite unforgettable.'' Certainly, it is difficult to think of a singer in our time who has inspired so many people—fellow singers, fellow musicians, her public—and who risked and achieved so much.'