Well, of course I’m referring to the one and only Maria Callas, the Greatest Soprano in the History of Opera, “Prima Donna Assoluta” and all that nonsense. I know some critics who absolutely detest her voice and won’t even listen to her. Ironically, Callas was among those who didn’t think very highly of her voice, which she described as “sulphuric,” preferring the silvery timbre of her rival, Renata Tebaldi. But typical of Callas, she made the comparison work in her favor. “My voice is a crude instrument of unknown manufacture played by a virtuoso,” she once said. “Tebaldi’s voice is a Stradivarius played by an amateur!”
To a certain extent, however, the comparison was fair. Without a strong conductor to draw her out, Tebaldi didn’t give very much, and even with a strong conductor she generally went flat on her high notes (listen, for instance, to the 1950 Verdi Requiem with Toscanini or the 1958 TV production of La Forza del Destino with Molinari-Pradelli). In addition, from about 1957 onwards her voice took on a gray quality that made her sound matronly, though she was only 35 years old. I have only three Tebaldi recordings in my collection: the very early (1951) performance of Spontini’s superb but seldom-performed Fernando Cortez, the 1962 Deutsche Oper Berlin video of Otello with Hans Beirer, and the 1967 studio recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo. The second of these shows her maintaining good pitch throughout the performance (miraculous!) and the latter is not so bad in terms of the “grayness” of the voice.
But to return to Callas: it was a strange voice and one that clicked in and out of wobble and tonal allure throughout her career. Some days she was tremulous, other days she sounded acidic and nasty, other days she was dead on pitch and/or could project a tonal allure that escaped her most of the time. Remember that when she came back from Greece to New York around 1947, she auditioned for two major operatic tenors who were then teaching in that city, Giovanni Martinelli and Giovanni Zenatello. When she sang for Martinelli the voice was out of sorts. He recommended that she study assiduously for two or three more years and then come back. When she sang for Zenatello, the voice was locked in and sounded fantastic…so much so that the veteran tenor, then 71 years old, sang along with her in a scene from La Gioconda and then hooked her up with conductor Tullio Serafin, who became her mentor. You just couldn’t tell what she was going to sound like from day to day.
She also was not always the best or most dramatic singer in a lot of repertoire for which she is considered “classic.” To my ears, she never really gave 100% in her performances of Il Trovatore, although she is pretty good on the commercial recording, and her voice simply wasn’t the right quality or heft for either Norma or Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. As for Tosca, one of her “signature” roles, she actually didn’t like it very much, but for me her 1953 studio recording—though the best sung—is one of the least interesting dramatically. I much prefer her late stereo recording with Carlo Bergonzi as Cavaradossi, although my favorite of all her Toscas is the live Convent Garden performance from the year before.
But no one was better at creating and sustaining “the Callas mystique” than Callas herself. She almost whimsically came to think of “Callas” as a brand, something independent of her real self, something she had to sustain and promote. Thus she traveled with a band of sycophants, played the Prima Donna, flashed her eyes and glared at interviewers and fans alike. It was part of a grand put-on; but when the time came to decide whether she wanted to continue singing as a mezzo-soprano and give up the high range, she couldn’t go down. Neither could she give up singing entirely and become a stage director, as her good friend Tito Gobbi suggested. For Callas, being “the greatest soprano in the world” was more than a calling, it was her identity, and when she simply couldn’t deliver the goods any more, she crawled up inside her Paris apartment and…died. It’s a sad story, but in a sense self-fulfilling because she couldn’t escape the Callas creature she herself helped create.
The main thing most Callas fans don’t realize, because most of them don’t know about divas who preceded her, was that although Callas was a fine artist she was not unique or the first to do what she did. Antonina Nezhdanova was a soubrette-coloratura who sang her roles with dramatic feeling, as was Pierette Alarie. Rosetta Pampanini was a superb vocal actress whose recording of Madama Butterfly is justly considered a classic, and in fact better than Callas’ recording. Likewise, what Gina Cigna did in Aida (two live performances, my preference being the Met broadcast with Giovanni Martinelli), Norma, Turandot and La Gioconda is very similar to Callas, and in my view Maria Caniglia (Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino and Andrea Chenier) was a much more exciting singing-actress than Callas. Licia Albanese’s Mimi in La Bohème was better than Callas’, and Magda Olivero’s Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur and Violetta are far better than Callas’. And oh, yes, for a brief period of time there was also Anita Cerquetti, the great Montecosarian soprano, whose Norma, Aida, Donna Elvira in Ernani and Gioconda were easily the equal of Callas in interpretation and far better than her vocally.The one field in which Callas was a pioneer in the 20th century was in injecting some drama into bel canto operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and La Sonnambula, with two caveats: she often slithered through downward coloratura passages without bothering to sing every note separately as she should, and she had a bad habit of distending phrases to show off her breath control while imparting a downward portamento to certain held notes. But by the late 1950s Anna Moffo and young Renata Scotto were already surpassing what Callas did in these operas, too. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that Callas shunned any modern opera like the plague, and in fact refused to sing any British or American opera because she didn’t like singing in English!
Callas gained her legendary status due to her ability to sing such dramatic roles as Isolde, Kundry and Gioconda on the one hand and bel canto roles like Lucia, Adina and Rosina on the other. In between she sang some of the great classic roles in the Gluck-Spontini mold that, in my view, represented her greatest contributions to opera, such as Iphigenie, Medea and Giulia, as well as the mainstream Italian roles, Gioconda and the Verdi-Puccini axis. What her legion of fans neglect to notice is that she sang these “huge” roles in small operatic venues where she didn’t have to push the voice very hard. I heard here in person once, at one of her Master Classes at Juilliard, and was surprised by her voice. What surprised me was this: the basic size of her voice was average lyric soprano, but she had this metallic (sulphuric) “core” to the voice with a “halo” of suffused sound (ambient beauty) that hovered around it…almost a mixture of two different voices. I would say that 99% of her recordings, even (perhaps most especially) her EMI commercial recordings, never captured this sound. You can only hear it on two performances, the studio recording of La Sonnambula and the live 1959 Covent Garden performance of Medea.
In preparing this recommended Callas list I’ve chosen some recordings in which she is heard at her very best, and her surrounding colleagues are also mostly heard at their best, but not all would be recommended versions of those operas above all others. A few, yes, and I will simply list them here and reserve a detailed description for my list of those operas within their time and class; but several are really just “Callas recordings,” meaning that they are highly recommended for her fans but not necessarily first choices for those specific operas in your collection.
VERDI: Macbeth / with Enzo Mascherini, baritone (Macbeth), Gino Penno, tenor (Macduff), Victor de Sabata, conductor / EMI Classics 66447
A great performance by the three principals listed above and conductor de Sabata, whose pacing and shaping of the work is superbly ominous and has real backbone, but the stereo recording with Sherrill Milnes, Fiorenza Cossotto, and conductor Riccardo Muti is even better acted, just as well sung, and in stereo to boot.
GLUCK: Iphigenie en Tauride / with Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo (Diana), Anselmo Colzani, bass (Thoas), Nino Sanzogno, conductor / Opera d’Oro 7085
A performance in Italian of Gluck’s great classic, with Callas and Sanzogno driving the opening scene hard, as I prefer to hear it, but in this opera it is Pylades and Orestes who are the stars of the show, not Iphigenie, and Francesco Albanese (Pylades) and Dino Dondi (Orestes) are pretty miserable. Worth hearing for its historic value and Callas’ Iphigenie, but that’s all. The best recording is the one with Carol Vaness, Gösta Winbergh, Thomas Allen and Riccardo Muti on Sony-CBS.
SPONTINI: La Vestale / with Franco Corelli, tenor (Licinio); Ebe Stignani, mezzo (Gran Vestale); Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass (High Priest); Antonino Votto, conductor / La Scala Records 1
Despite the fact that this is a truncated performance with barely adequate sound—there is a low-level hum that runs throughout, and although the orchestra is recorded perfectly the voices sometimes sound a bit tinny—this is only one of two really great recordings of Vestale (the other is the performance in French, also abridged, with soprano Michéle Le Bris, mezzo Nadine Denize, tenor Robert Dumét, bass Jacques Mars and conductor Roger Norrington on Ponto PO-1038). Franco Corelli, whose later proclivity to drag out every high note as if it were the last he would ever sing, was a much cleaner tenor in 1954, and Votto’s conducting is splendid. An interesting historical footnote: Arturo Toscanini was in the audience.
DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor / with Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Edgardo); Rolando Panerai, baritone (Enrico); Herbert von Karajan, conductor / EMI Classics 66441
Despite the fact that it’s in mono sound, and a lve performance at that, this is still my favorite Lucia, and Callas is only a part of the reason. The soprano is in great voice here and delivers one of the most moving performances of her life, but she is aided by conductor Karajan, who combines Italianate lyricism with a dark, brooding Germanic quality that greatly enhances Donizetti’s fluffy operatic souffle. The only other recording of this opera that I like, though not as much as this one, is the studio performance with Anna Moffo, Carlo Bergonzi and conductor Georges Prêtre on RCA.
PUCCINI: La Bohème / with Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Rodolfo); Rolando Panerai, baritone (Marcello); Anna Moffo (Musetta); Anntonino Votto, conductor / EMI Classics 66670
As Callas’ Trovatore, Ballo and Norma are overrated, her Mimi in La Bohème is underrated. Votto conducts the opera rather slowly, much like Sir Thomas Beecham the same year (1956), but whereas the Beecham Bohème is considered classic the Votto Bohème generally only appeals to Callas fanatics. This is a shame. She seldom sang more purely or more affectingly, and although I still like Albanese’s Mimi a bit more this is certainly a haunting performance. More to the point, her supporting cast—di Stefano, Panerai and Moffo—are miles above Björling, Merrill and Lucine Amara on the Beecham recording in terms of characterization. My preferred Bohème recordings are the live performance with Ileana Cotrubas, Luciano Pavarotti and Carlos Kleiber and the studio recording with Kiri te Kanawa, Richard Leech and Kent Nagano, but as a “historic” Bohème, this one has it all over any other mono performance.
BELLINI: La Sonnambula / with Cesare Valletti, tenor (Elvino); Eugenia Ratti, soprano (Lisa); Leonard Bernstein, conductor / EMI Classics 67906
The 1957 studio recording catches the sound of Callas’ voice better than this 1955 live performance from La Scala, but if you listen to opera because it is sung drama you won’t get very much out of that version. Here, spurred by conductor Bernstein, tenor Valletti and a live audience hanging onto every note, Callas and company make you understand something that is often lost in modern performances of this opera: that 19th century audiences actually considered La Sonnambula a dramatic work. If Callas was not, as so many claim, the ultimate Norma, she was certainly the ultimate Adina of recorded history, in line with the role’s creator, soprano Giuditta Pasta, who could actually bring tears to the audience’s eyes every time she sang the role. Callas was also in excellent voice for this performance; 1955 was obviously a good year for her.
VERDI: Rigoletto / with Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Tito Gobbi, baritone (Rigoletto); Tullio Serafin, conductor / EMI Classics 0825646340958
This isn’t my favorite historic Rigoletto; that honor goes to an incendiary live Met performance from December 1945 with Bidú Sayão and Jussi Björling in top voice and baritone Leonard Warren absolutely, positively devastating as the cursed jester (conducted well by Cesare Sodero). One reason why this recording doesn’t sit well with me is di Stefano, who pretty much slops up the music of the Duke, particularly the end of Act 1, Scene 1 where he is supposed to be singing in counterpoint but instead sings on the beat, thus ruining the music’s effect. But Callas proved what Toscanini was getting at in 1943 and ’44, when he performed the last act of this opera with sopranos who were famous for singing Leonora and Aida, Gertrude Ribla and Zinka Milanov. Milanov was more famous, but Ribla did the better job. Yet since Toscanini didn’t record the whole opera with Ribla, this is the one that proves his point, that Gilda doesn’t need to be sung by a light soubrette and in fact probably shouldn’t. In later years both Margherita Rinaldi and Christine Schäfer recorded the role, but only Schäfer captures the tragic sadness of the character as well as Callas does here. Again, it’s not a benchmark recording of the complete opera but a benchmark recording of the soprano role.
CHERUBINI: Medea / with Jon Vickers, tenor (Giasone); Joan Carlyle, soprano (Glauce); Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo (Neris); Nicola Rescigno, conductor / ICA Classics 5110
Although for sheer, overpowering drama, the Houston performance of this opera given the previous year is more intense, I personally prefer this version for two reasons. For one, Callas “builds” her character more subtly and skillfully, not really blowing up until her last scene; and for another, the sound quality is superb, almost as good as the studio recording for Mercury but with a better supporting cast. One must also say a word here about the edition used. This is not Cherubini’s original Medée as presented in French at the Paris Opéra—for that experience, you must have the recording by soprano Jano Tamar, mezzo Magali Dalmonte, tenor Luca Lombardo and conductor Patrick Fourmillier on Nuovo Era, which will also have you on the edge of your seat. This is the performing edition that Callas helped create back in 1953 with Leonard Bernstein, in which certain music was scraped away to focus in on and intensify the drama. Also, for a prime example of what Callas really sounded like in person this June 1959 performance is Exhibit A.
PUCCINI: Tosca / with Renato Cioni, tenor (Cavaradossi); Tito Gobbi, baritone (Scarpia); Carlo Felice Cillario, conductor / EMI Classics 62675
No, I don’t like Tosca very much. I concur with the late musicologist Joseph Kerman, who called it a “shabby little shocker.” But in this performance, given at a time when Callas was being betrayed by her lover, Aristotle Onassis, and evidently lived vicariously through the character in getting even with him during the stabbing scene, this is a hair-raising experience. The reason I choose it over the studio recording from a year later is because she was in absolutely horrible voice for that later version, whereas she is in surprisingly good form here. Also, it is my opinion that Cioni gives more as Cavaradossi than Bergonzi.
BIZET: Carmen / with Nicolai Gedda, tenor (Don José); Robert Massard, baritone (Escamillo); Georges Prêtre, conductor / EMI Classics 56281
Nicolai Gedda isn’t in very good voice on the Callas Carmen (it was recorded in Paris during a summer heat wave, and no one was really comfortable), and yes, there have been other interpretations as good as hers since, but no one before Callas got as deep into the character as she did. The downside is that she, too, was in mediocre to poor voice for these sessions, but if what you’re looking for is a commanding, sultry Carmen, a non-nonsense woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, this is your meat.
So, there you go. This is my take on Maria Divina. Of the above recordings, I’ve gotten rid of some of them from my collection as better recordings supersede them (Macbeth, Rigoletto, Iphigenie, Bohème and Carmen), but if you want to understand the essence of Callas, these are the recordings to hear. She was a moment in time, a meteor who streaked across the operatic sky, burned out and disappeared, but although she cannot always be enjoyed she should not be forgotten. She had her faults, but she had her good points, too.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley