1.12.10

Χρόνια Πολλά!

Maria Callas was born in New York on 2 December 1923. She went to rest in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on 16 September 1977.

In this age of sottish and soulless starlets who pass for divas, Maria Callas still stirs the heart and fires the imagination of those who love opera. She is immortal.

Read “Re-visioning Callas.” Please also read my tribute to Maria Callas on the thirtieth anniversary of her death.

24.11.10

Callas in New York

The Italian Cultural Institute in New York has announced a Maria Callas exhibit, “A Woman, A Voice, A Myth.” The exhibit is scheduled to open on 2 December, Maria Callas’s birthday. Right now, eight days before 2 December, the ICI offers no information on the time or venue.

Quoting from the ICI’s website:

On exhibit shall be the original stage costumes, outfits, jewelry, photographs, and unpublished documents belonging to the unforgettable soprano Maria Callas. The exhibit will be accompanied by archival footage and music.

I will keep you posted as I learn more. I imagine that this is an iteration of one of the travelling exhibits that have been making the rounds in recent years. In some cases, as Nina Foresti has observed, costumes that seem to have little or nothing to do with ones that Callas actually wore have been exhibited as “Callas costumes” (select the link and keep scrolling down). I don’t know whether they will be part of this exhibit.

22.11.10

Callas in Meyerbeer

Today, 22 November, is the feast of Saint Cecilia, the patroness of music in several Christian churches. “Cecilia” was one of Maria Callas’s names. By one account, “Sophia Cecilia” were the names on her birth certificate, and “Maria Anna” or “Anna Maria” were added when she was baptized. In her childhood in New York, Callas was known mostly as “Mary.”

“Ombre légère” from Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, which Callas always sung in Italian, was part of her concert repertoire from 1949 to 1957. She often programmed it in conjunction with dramatic arias, to showcase her versatility. It’s silly music, but Callas sings it with her customary fierce exactitude, and its intricacy and sparkle somehow seem appropriate for a feast day. This version is from Callas’s 1954 Lyric and Coloratura Arias recital for EMI. Tullio Serafin leads the Philharmonia Orchestra.

17.11.10

Callas in Ballo III



At Verdi Duecento, I posted some very interesting comments by Gabriele Baldini about Un ballo in maschera.

My thoughts naturally turned to Maria Callas, and I decided to revisit one of her “late” (post-Meneghini) recordings: Amelia’s Act III aria, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” from Ballo. Nicola Rescigno conducts, and the recording was made in April 1964.

I have two thoughts about this recording. First, if it is true, as some claim, that a “secret son” of Callas and Onassis died only three years before, then recording this aria must have been extremely trying for Callas.
I shall die, but first grant me the grace of pressing my only son to my breast. And if you deny this last favor to your wife, do not deny it to the pleas of my maternal heart. I shall die, but let his kisses console (the torment) inside me, now that the last of my fleeting hours has come. His hand will reach out over the eyes of his mother, killed by his father, whom he shall never see again!
Second, Callas is in splendid voice. Her tone is drenched in sadness, and her phrasing, while eloquent, seems so natural and inevitable.

I do have my doubts about the very last sovracuto. (Does anyone else find that it sounds spliced in?).

Still, what a pity that Callas would withdraw from the stage about a year later, and that her pride would not allow her to go on singing if she was no longer mistress of Norma, the most cruelly taxing of rôles.

I’m not dead yet!


Dear friends, I am sorry that it has been so quiet around here! I have been busy readying the launch of Verdi Duecento. My intent is for Verdi Duecento be the English-language online hub for Verdi’s two-hundredth birthday, which is coming up in 2013.

(Please visit the site, and let me know what you think! I worked so hard on adapting the code and the design that I made myself a zombie. That said, I think that Re-visioning Callas will migrate to WordPress later this year.)

I will be back later today with a post about Maria Callas! Thank you for your patience!

26.10.10

Callas in Parsifal II



Yesterday we heard “canonical” Callas, in Bellini; today we turn to “marginal” Callas. (Does such a thing exist?)

Maria Callas sang the rôle of Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal only five times, in 1949 and 1950. One chronicler says that she was to have sung it at La Scala in 1956 instead of Giordano’s Fedora.

Kundry seems to me a rôle that Callas could have sung comfortably into the 1960s, one that might have been a plausible comeback vehicle even as late as the 1970s (when she had reportedly signed on to sing Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther at the Opéra de Paris). One sticking point, I suspect, is that the opera is called Parisifal, not Kundry, though Parisfal is a cipher and Kundry is the character who draws us—well, draws me—to this opera. Another is that, by the 1960s and 1970s, the tradition of singing opera in the audience’s lingua franca and not in the work’s “original” language had been lost.

In The Newly Born Woman by Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, we read of Kundry:
We learn that she has been damned ever since, in a mythical time, she laughed at Christ’s passage—accursed laughter that she will carry within her until the end of time. She is the feminine counterpart of the Wandering Jew, assigned by Klingsor to the young Parsifal in order to seduce him. She thinks she will succeed in this by speaking the name of his mother, but the other’s chastity prevents their coming together and permits him to “save” Kundry at the moment of the spell of Good Friday… She is the madwoman who names, who names the mother; she is also the laugh that disperses, that is the symbol of sexuality whose act is what is forbidden in this opera. It is also she who wounded Amfortas; her laugh keeps a wide gash bleeding…
Have you ever heard a sexier-sounding Kundry?

Hear Maria Callas (and Giacinto Prandelli) in other music by Wagner.

25.10.10

Callas sings Bellini II



In late 1957, Maria Callas sang a concert at the Dallas Civic Opera that included arias from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Bellini’s I puritani, Verdi’s Macbeth and La traviata, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

Many claim that Callas’s voice was in precipitous decline in 1957, but neither her hair-raising Dallas program nor her supple, easy singing therein support that claim. The Dallas concert itself was not recorded, but the rehearsal was, and she sang the Puritani mad scene with her customary pathos and flair (the downward runs in particular sounding like cascades of diamonds). What’s more, she ended the scene with a huge high E-flat.

Her singing here—with a trusted colleague and friend, Nicola Rescigno, and without the pressure of a “gala” audience—to me suggests that Tito Gobbi was perhaps right. He opined that Callas, “desperately nervous” and a “vulnerable, lonely, elusive” creature, never lost her voice but lost her nerve.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Bellini.

12.10.10

Joan Sutherland, 1926 – 2010



With all due respect for her as a human being and as a singer who, in one way or another, contributed to the so-called “bel canto revival,” the late Dame Joan Sutherland has never been an artist dear to my heart—this despite the fact that she was a knitter.

I own only two recordings by Joan Sutherland: The Decca Turandot conducted by Zubin Mehta, and the EMI Don Giovanni led by Carlo Maria Giulini. That neither is conducted by Sutherland’s husband, Sir Richard Bonynge, is not a coincidence.

Sutherland’s studio-only Turandot is a staggering achievement. No one—not Nilsson, not Turner, certainly not Callas—sings this music with greater ease. In fact, no one else sings Turandot with ease, period. Sutherland, instead, seems to possess limitless reserves of power. The pearly brightness of her sound is that of the moon, with which Turandot is so strongly identified, and it gives her principessa an otherworldly mystique. Her capitulation to Calaf, too, is beautifully and movingly sung.



(Oh, Alfano! And poor Puccini! But I digress.)

In his recollection (more precisely, character assassination) of Maria Callas, the EMI producer Walter Legge recalled:
[S]he flew into London for the dress rehearsal of Sutherland’s Lucia, insisted we sit with her, had herself photographed with the new prima donna, and then took us off to lunch. Seated, she stated: “She will have a great success tomorrow and make a big career if she can keep it up. But only we know how much greater I am.”
I think that Callas was correct.

As a young singer, Joan Sutherland undertook small rôles in operas starring Maria Callas: Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the sacerdotessa to Callas’s Aida. When Joan Sutherland sang alongside Maria Callas as part of the 1958 centenary gala of Covent Garden, it was as an emerging star. She was only three years younger than Maria Callas.

8.10.10

Callas in Ballo II



Some months ago I posted an excerpt from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, the opera in which Maria Callas opened the 1957-58 La Scala season. As I indicated then, this triumphant Ballo came at a time when Callas’s career was beginning to unravel, though she was in superlative form during the Ballo run.

Today, as part of Verdi’s birthday week, I offer you a trio from that same Ballo, which was conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni. In truth, this particular moment in the performance is a bit shambolic, with a few false entries and the like, but it is white-hot and very exciting.

Along with Maria Callas as Amelia, the selection features Giuseppe di Stefano as Riccardo and Ettore Bastianini as Renato.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi.

7.10.10

Maria Callas dada



This video by Richard Move features Barbie and Ken “acting out” dialogue from the Italian-language voice track of Pier Pasolini’s film Medea, which starred Maria Callas.

The video was shown at the University of California, Irvine, as part of an exhibition curated by Martha Gever, VIDEO DADA. From the UCI website:
…VIDEO DADA surveys the Internet’s amalgamation of popular culture and art, calling into question the difference between the two.
I am drunk with fatigue today and half convinced that this is a hallucination born of too little sleep.

Besides, I would have Barbie “play” Anna Netrebko.

Happy viewing! Read more about Maria Callas and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

6.10.10

Callas a mari usque ad mare


The 500 most recent visitors to Re-visioning Callas represent all of the continents!
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Thank you for your support, and viva la Divina!

Maria Callas as Aida



Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida left Maria Callas’s stage repertoire in 1953, but it was an important opera for her during the early part of her career.

As a student and young professional in Athens, Callas frequently sang Aida’s arias, "Ritorna vincitor!" and "O patria mia." She offered music from Aida at her La Scala audition in 1947 and first sang in the house (albeit not as an official member of the company) in Aida in 1950. All told, she portrayed Aida some three dozen times and on three continents between 1948 and 1953 and also made a complete recording of the opera for EMI in 1955.

The opera’s final scene, today’s selection for Verdi’s birthday week, comes from a 1953 Covent Garden performance, part of Callas’s second-to-last run of Aida. While Kurt Baum is a coarse Radames, the rest of the company could hardly be bettered, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting and Giulietta Simionato as Amneris. (Incidentally, the sacerdotessa in this Aida run was the young Joan Sutherland.)

The recorded sound is dim and distorted, but Callas’s singing is ecstatically beautiful—dreamy, gentle, and death-besotted in the scene’s opening phrases, in which she makes exquisite use of portamento. To my mind, her performance here equals and, perhaps, surpasses the legendary Ponselle/Martinelli recording of this duet.

(Since it is Verdi’s birthday week, listen also to the version of this scene by Aureliano Pertile, Dusolina Giannini, and Irene Minghini-Cataneo under Carlo Sabajno.)

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi, and hear additional selections with Giulietta Simionato.

5.10.10

Callas in Don Carlo



Maria Callas sang the rôle of Elisabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlos in a single run of performances at La Scala in 1954. Well, more precisely, she sang the rôle of Elisabetta in Don Carlo, though I have no information about the particular edition performed at La Scala beyond the fact that it was in Italian.

She had been scheduled to portray Elisabetta on two other occasions in the early 1950s but cancelled because of illness. (In those years, a Callas cancellation was not automatically a “scandal.”)

“Tu che le vanità” remained a staple in her concert repertoire. She sang it frequently in her 1959 tour and also in her sad “comeback” tour with di Stefano in 1973–74. She also recorded it for EMI under Nicola Rescigno in 1958, the performance I offer you today.

Verdi’s music is at its darkest and most brooding in Don Carlo, now recognized as a supreme masterpiece, but still something of a rarity in the 1950s. Callas’s tone occasionally turns watery (EMI’s brutally close miking doesn’t help), but she makes a grandiose whole of this varied and episodic scena. For all of Elisabetta’s nobility, Callas allows us to hear the young, once hopeful woman now crushed beneath the weight of court intrigues and dynastic politics.

At “la pace dell’avel,” Callas’s Elisabetta looks deep into the abyss, and we along with her.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi.

4.10.10

Maria Callas sings Verdi



On Saturday, 9 October, Giuseppe Verdi turns 197 years young. (Actually, it seems that he was born on 10 October but, as Marcello Conati reports, Verdi himself always celebrated his birthday on 9 October.) This week’s posts, then, will be devoted to music by Verdi.

Maria Callas scored an historic triumph in Verdi’s Macbeth at La Scala in 1952 but never again sang the rôle of Lady Macbeth. About two years earlier, she had sung an audition for Toscanini for a Macbeth that was to have been staged in Busseto, but because of the maestro’s great age and fragile health, that production never came to be. (Some say, though, that Toscanini’s admiration for Callas finally led Antonio Ghiringhelli to offer her a proper contract at La Scala.)

Macbeth was also at the center of two Callas “scandals” of the late 1950s: The dispute with Rudolf Bing that eventually led to his firing her from the Met; and her troubles with Kurt Herbert Adler and the San Francisco Opera. The supposed Macbeth curse does seem to have pursued Callas!

Maria Callas recorded Lady Macbeth’s three great scenes under Nicola Rescigno in 1958, and they are among her finest recordings. Lady Macbeth’s entry in 1958 is less monumental in terms of vocal tone, perhaps, than the 1952 Scala pirate, but it is fiercer, with lashing attacks and a more propulsive quality than Callas had mustered earlier.

Some of the credit for this must go to Nicola Rescigno. I’ve said it before: He was a much underrated maestro, not at the level of a Muti or a Toscanini (who is?), but a sensitive and honorable musician.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi, including video of this same aria sung in concert.

30.9.10

Callas-fan-in-chief II

Readers of this blague already know that President Barack Obama is a Maria Callas fan.

President Obama reiterated his admiration for la Divina in his recent Rolling Stone interview:
I’m not a big opera buff in terms of going to opera, but there are days where Maria Callas is exactly what I need.
The audio selection is the Habañera from Callas’s 1964 recording of Bizet’s Carmen.

Hear Maria Callas in other selections from Carmen.

29.9.10

Callas and Fiorilla IV



Mr. Karl H. van Zoggel, editor of Maria Callas Magazine, published by the Maria Callas International Club, kindly shared with me a recent issue. It includes original articles, interview transcriptions, reminiscences by readers, and a number of rare photos.

One reader, a Peter S., shared these remarks about Callas:
For me, her funniest recorded moment… comes about halfway through [Rossini’s] Il turco in Italia when Fiorilla, being upbraided by her furious husband for her outrageous behaviour, uses what can best be described as “fake weeping” in order to bring him back into line (Mia vita, mio tesoro…). She succeeds, of course.
Mr. S. is quite right: This is one of Callas’s great moments on disc, often overlooked for several reasons—the (relative) rarity of the opera, the shredded edition used for the recording (unacceptable by today’s standards), and the fact that we tend to associate Callas with tragedy and comedy.

Listen closely, and enjoy!

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Rossini.

27.9.10

Maria Callas ailleurs


My learnèd and elegant friend Paolo Bullo wrote a beautiful post to honor the anniversary of Maria Callas’s birth into eternal life.

Se leggete l’italiano, andate direttamente al blog di Paolo. (Attenzione, però: Paolo è una persona squisita ma, a quanto pare, alquanto sàdica in materia di tipografia, almeno nei confronti delle persone, come la sottoscritta, di età veneranda. ☺)

If English is easier for you, my quick-and-dirty translation follows.
For a poor soul like me, it is hard to find the right words to recall Maria Callas today, on the thirty-third anniversary of her death.

Who knows, too, whether poor Callas would have wanted to be recalled by me. I rather doubt it.

On the grounds of manifest incompetence, then, I willingly abstain from swelling the river of words that always overflows on these occasions. Instead, I shall quote her teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo, who described her first meeting with the 15-year-old Sofia Anna Maria Cecilia Kalageropoulos, not yet Maria Callas.

Without a word of warning, Maria began to sing. To speak of this now may bring a smile, because we know now who Maria Callas is, but I discovered it then, at that moment.

I suddenly found myself alert, tense.

For years, in secret, I had been waiting for that voice—no, I had been
seeking it.

It was a meeting destined to happen. I closed my eyes. I heard a violent, riotous cascade of sounds, uncontrolled, but dramatic and moving.


And I close with beautiful remarks by Leonardo Bragaglia from the preface of the most recent edition of his book on Maria Callas, L’arte dello stupore.

Maria Callas’s destiny was unique. Audiences showered praise upon her. She was put on a pedestal by critics both qualified and censorious. The greatest conductors and stage directors respected her, but she was insulted by the charlatans of the illustrated magazines, by pens-for-hire!

All of us, music lovers and musicologists, performers and spectators, remain bewildered and embittered by this. We, too, are insulted.


I adore this photo, because I see in it so much humanity and so little rhetoric.
A reader by the very interesting name of Nina Foresti kindly brought to my attention the Official Maria Callas International Archive.

In terms of look and feel, the site is a real blast from the past (party like it’s 1999, kids!), but it contains much interesting material. I commend it to you warmly, though I have barely begun exploring it myself.

Callas in Los Angeles



A relatively recent addition to the Callas legacy is her November 1958 Los Angeles concert under Nicola Rescigno.

The program included arias by Thomas, Boito, Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, and “Tu che invoco” from Spontini’s La vestale, the opera with which Callas had opened the 1954-55 La Scala season.

While this selection from the Los Angeles concert has the usual problems of distortion and muffled sound that one hears in “live” recordings of the era, it is very interesting because it documents Callas in impressive voice and gives an idea of what her voice sounded like in the theatre, with “air” around it. Unfortunately, she does end the Spontini scene with a high note that is ugly as both vocalism and music-making.

Earlier this year, I posted other material relating to La vestale, including rehearsal photos and footage from the Scala production.

23.9.10

Callas sings Bellini



Vincenzo Bellini, who died on 23 September 1835, not quite 34 years of age, was by some accounts Maria Callas’s favorite composer.

Callas became Callas, if you will, when she performed “Qui la voce” from Bellini’s I puritani for Tullio Serafin in Venice in 1949. He was auditioning her to replace Margherita Carosio, ill with flu, in a run of Puritani due to start in a few days. Serafin reportedly listened to Callas with tears streaming down his cheeks, and then prevailed upon her to learn the rôle of Elvira in less than a week.

At the time, Callas was also singing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre. No soprano in recent memory had sung such vocally divergent rôles—though, as Callas herself often observed, notions of vocal category or Fach were extremely elastic in the nineteenth century when these operas were composed.

(Indeed, Wagner can be sung properly only by singers with impeccable bel canto schooling. The leathery barking and foghorn declamation that we most often hear today in Wagner represent a betrayal of his music.)

Callas’s masterful performance in Puritani, hailed in the Italian and international press, put her on the map as a prima donna assoluta, capable of singing (in theory) any music written for the female voice.

She recorded Elvira’s mad scene for Cetra later in 1949. If I had to choose a single recording to represent Callas’s art, I think that it would be this one—a miracle of expression and musicianship, with countless felicities of phrasing, rubato, and portamento.

The next time that you hear Bellini’s music, remember that he left this earthly life at a pitifully young age. In 1898, Verdi, normally chary with praise and hyperbole, wrote to the French critic Camille Bellaigue:
Bellini, it is true, was poor in harmony and instrumentation, but rich in sentiment and in that melancholy tint that was his alone! Even in his lesser known operas, Straniera and Pirata, there are long, long, long melodies (melodie lunghe lunghe lunghe) that no one wrought before he did… Note, my dear Bellaigue, that I do not intend (G-d forbid!) to pass judgment, only to offer my impressions. You speak with the greatest indulgence of Otello and Falstaff. The author is not complaining…
On this anniversary of Belllini’s passage into eternal life, let us hear his music sung by one of its greatest interpreters.

20.9.10

Maria Callas sings Berlioz

Admirers of Maria Callas love to play “what if.” What if she had never gone on the July 1959 cruise with Aristotle Onassis? What if Elsa Maxwell, that bird of ill omen, had never arrived on the scene? What if Callas had agreed to sing Carmen, Poppea, Charlotte—all rôles that were offered to her after her withdrawal from the stage?

For me, the most painful “what if” is Callas in Berlioz. In 1963, she set down a glorious recording of Marguerite’s “D’amour l’ardente flamme” from La Damnation de Faust. She was not in prime vocal form, but what a feeling she had for Berlioz’s music—the fire smouldering beneath the polished surface, the love for la parole, the sensuality tamed by restraint.

To my mind, a great tragedy is that Callas never undertook Didon in Les Troyens, a rôle that she could have sung well at almost any point of her career (and her retirement), or so it seems to me. And Les Nuits d’été? And La Mort de Cleopâtre?

Well, we can be grateful that we have this beautiful recording.

16.9.10

33 ans déjà

Today is the birthday into eternal life of Maria Callas. She left this earthly realm on September 16, 1977.

I invite you to read my tribute to Maria Callas from 2007.

My knowledge of Greek Orthodox practices is more or less nil, but I understand that it is customary to give alms in memory of the dead. Since Maria Callas was devoted to the Theotokos, “La vergine degli angeli” from Verdi’s La forza del destino seems fitting music and a fitting sentiment with which to remember her.

I think, too, that we can say prayers of thanks for the infinite beauty that Maria Callas brought and continues to bring to us.

Grazie, Divina!

14.9.10

Callas in Cavalleria rusticana



Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was, as far as we know, the first complete operatic rôle that Maria Callas sang on stage—in April 1939, as a fifteen-year-old student in Athens. (As a schoolgirl in New York, she did sing in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.)

Callas sang Santuzza’s big aria, “Voi lo sapete,” several times in Greece and during her 1973-74 concert tour with Giuseppe di Stefano.

Michael Scott, among others, claims to hear stark differences in Callas’s vocalism and general approach between this 1953 commercial set of Cavalleria, recorded when Callas had just begun losing weight, and her recording of Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci, set down about a year later when she was a sylph. Callas’s sound does seem darker and thicker in Cavalleria, though one could argue that the music and the rôle require an earthier timbre.

I’ll post material from Pagliacci aria later this week so that you can compare Callas’s performances. If you want to hear how Callas sang Cavalleria during her tour with di Stefano, there are many excerpts on YouTube, one sadder than the next.

I confess that I have avoided posting material from Cavalleria rusticana because I cannot abide this tawdry, bombastic opera. Giovanni Verga’s novella “Cavalleria rusticana” is a spare and devastating work, and I find that Mascagni’s opera preserves little of its flavor.

Worth noting: Gemma Bellincioni, the first Santuzza, also sang Violetta and Salome. (Verdi heard and admired her as Violetta some twenty years before the Cavalleria excerpt was recorded.)

10.9.10

Callas in Norma III



This is (for now?) the earliest known footage of Maria Callas on stage. It shows her with Franco Corelli, Elena Nicolai, and Boris Christoff in Bellini’s Norma, which opened the season at Trieste’s Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in November 1953. Antonino Votto conducted.

What does the video tell us? First, that production values in provincial, post-war Italy were primitive and, by some feat of anachronistic legerdemain, utterly Monty Python-esque. (Christoff looks very much like the “It’s” man; Flavio and his companions would be right at home in Monty Phython and the Holy Grail; and some of the acting seems to have been inspired by “The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights“.)

Second, it confirms that Callas, as Augusta Oltrabella famously observed, “was an actress in the expression of the music, and not vice versa.” On its own, as pantomime, Callas’s acting was compelling, yes, but not overwhelming. Compare today’s clip with the rehearsal footage from her 1964 Paris Norma. In both, her gestures and expressions are strong and spare—calculated, of course, for the opera house and not for video or film. I do not see a significant difference in her acting from her “fat,” pre-Visconti days and what came later, though I do hear greater refinement in her singing.

What do you think?

See and hear Maria Callas in other selections from Bellini’s Norma.

7.9.10

Maria Callas as Dalila II



Maria Callas recorded Dalila’s three arias from Saint-Saën’s Samson et Dalila in 1961.

I posted “Printemps qui commence” and “Mon cœur s’ouvre a ta voix” earlier; today’s clip of “Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse” completes the trilogy.

Callas’s magnificent command of language and style and the awe-inspiring range of color she brings to this music speak for themselves.

On YouTube, you can hear this aria “from the original vinyl,” whatever that is supposed to mean. (Whether LP, CD, or what have you, they are all reproductions, no? And compressed to death when uploaded to YouTube, n’est-ce pas?)

23.8.10

Callas and Pasolini II

During the trips and vacations that they took together, Pier Paolo Pasolini made several portraits of Maria Callas, sometimes using sea water, stones, sand, and other natural elements.

Following is my translation of the the last section of “La presenza,” another poem that Pasolini wrote about Maria Callas.
Allow the little girl to be queen,
to open and close windows as if in a ritual
respected by guests, servants, faraway spectators.
And yet she, she, the little girl—
if she is neglected for only one moment,
she feels lost forever;
ah, not upon motionless islands
but upon the terror of not being,
the wind streams,
the divine wind
that brings not healing, but ever more sickness;
and you seek to stop her, she who would turn back,
there isn’t a day, an hour, an instant
in which this desperate effort can cease;
you cling to almost anything,
begetting the desire to kiss you.
Please read other posts about Maria Callas and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

20.8.10

Callas in Verdi’s Ernani



Maria Callas never sang the rôle of Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani on stage, though there was chatter in the 1950s of a possible La Scala production. More’s the pity, because she had everything needed by the heroines of Verdi’s youthful operas: Agility, fire in the belly, rhythmic flair, and that feeling of almost devilish energy that separates the true Verdians from the impostors.

(By the way, Verdi, in his letters, wrote admiringly of singers who had il diavolo addosso, “the devil on their backs.”)

Maria Callas recorded Elvira’s cavatina “Ernani, Ernani involami!” in 1958 with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Nicola Rescigno. Some consider the late Maestro Rescigno a hack or a mere time-beater, but I have always admired his conducting. Listen, for example, to the sultry, gorgeous thing he and the Philharmonia make of the brief orchestral introduction to this aria.

I would point out, too, that Callas, never one to suffer fools gladly, trusted and respected Rescigno and worked with him whenever she could. He also seems to have been a lovely human being.

Walter Legge, who had dreadful things to say about Callas’s character, recalled that she was an easy-going colleague, who approved this take of “Ernani, Ernani involami!” on the spot after Legge praised Rescigno’s buoyant, energetic tempi. She sang the aria frequently during her 1959 and 1962 concert tours.

16.8.10

Callas in Mozart



Maria Callas sang only one rôle by Mozart in the theatre: Kostanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. I posted earlier her remarkable performance of “Marten aller Arten” and her reflections on Mozartian style.

In 1963 and 1964, Callas recorded several Mozart arias for EMI, including Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata.” I am without my notes today, but to the best of my recollection, Callas essentially sight-read this particular aria and may have recorded it in a single take. Peter Andry alleges that Callas made the decision to record Mozart in a moment of pique, to show Walter Legge that she could sing his wife Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s repertoire.

Whatever the back-story, Callas (at ago 40) was in fragile voice when she recorded this aria under Nicola Rescigno, though her rigorous musicianship is often in evidence.

Interesting to note: During her Greek years, Callas’s Mozart repertoire included Zerlina’s “Batti, batti” from Don Giovanni and the sublime “Et incarnatus est” from the Große Messe. She returned to “Mi tradì” at a private concert in Geneva in 1970. On that occasion, she reportedly wished to practice singing in front of an audience after some five years away from the stage. The few accounts I’ve read of this concert suggest that it was an unhappy undertaking.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Mozart.

15.8.10

Callas in Il barbiere di Siviglia II



“Una voce poco fa,” Rosina’s cavatina from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, was a Callas favorite. It was part of her repertoire during her Greek years, and she sang it some twenty times in concert during the late 1950s—including the night of the 1958 Paris gala during which Aristotle Onassis reportedly resolved to win her.

While her staged performances as Rosina constituted the biggest flop of her career, Callas’s complete EMI set of Barbiere and this 1954 “Una voce poco fa,” recorded under the baton of Tullio Serafin, are among her very finest recordings, brimming with merriment and sparkling vocalism.

Today, her name day, we remember Maria Callas with this joyous performance.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Rossini.

14.8.10

Callas in La vestale II



Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale (1807), now a rarity, was considered a masterpiece in its day and much admired by Cherubini, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Wagner.

La vestale’s story (about a priestess who neglects her duties for love) and its exalted tone make it a kind of mini-Norma. That said, while Norma and Pollione go to their death on the funeral pyre in Bellini’s opera, Giulia (as Vestale’s heroine is known in the Italian translation of this French-language work) is saved and united with her lover when lightning reignites the goddess Vesta’s sacred flame.

Rosa Ponselle famously sang Vestale before undertaking Norma. Maria Callas, instead, sang Norma first and opened the 1954-55 La Scala season, the first after her dramatic weight loss, in Spontini’s opera, which she sang five times.

Earlier this year I posted rehearsal photos and footage of Callas in La vestale. The first clip in that post includes the aria “O nume tutelar.” (You can also hear Rosa Ponselle’s magnificent version of this aria.)

Today, instead, Callas sings the great scena beginning “Tu che invoco con orror.” This is an EMI recording from 1955, and I think it is one of her very greatest—throbbing with emotion, infinitely varied in color and accent, yet patrician in style. Callas performed this scene in concert frequently during the late 1950s.

The still photo you see in the YouTube clip is not from Vestale; instead, it is from a 1961 rehearsal of Cherubini’s Medea at La Scala.

13.8.10

Maria Callas in Delibes



According to Frank Hamilton’s marvelous annals and chronologies, Maria Callas sang music by Delibes on only four occasions of which we know. During her Greek years, she performed “Les filles de Cadix” and the Bell Song from Lakmé. She later sang the Bell Song twice more, in a 1952 concert and a 1954 EMI recording session.

This clip brings us the “live” 1952 version, with a RAI Symphony Orchestra (of Turin or Rome) led by Oliviero de Fabritiis. The occasion was one of the Grandi Concerti Martini e Rossi, and Callas was to have shared the bill with Giacomo Lauri Volpi (Nicola Filacuridi sang instead). In addition to this Lakmé aria, she also performed music from Verdi’s Macbeth and Nabucco and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

1952 was the year in which Callas’s gifts as a soprano drammatico d’agilità really came to the fore. Her 1952 operas included Verdi’s Vespri, La traviata, and Macbeth; Rossini’s Armida; and Bellini’s I puritani. She also sang the odd Tosca and Gioconda.

Listening to this clip, one has the impression of a voice that could do anything. (It’s not clear to me whether the fleeting unsteadiness one hears derives from Callas herself or from the radio transcription.)

12.8.10

Maria Callas in Madama Butterfly



Maria Callas recorded excerpts from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly under Tullio Serafin in 1954 and the complete opera under Herbert van Karajan in 1955, shortly before she undertook the rôle in Chicago.

If you believe that “Nina Foresti” was Maria Callas, she sang a truncated version of “Un bel dì” on the Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour radio show in 1935.

Callas biographers are divided on this point. Some report that she owned up to being Nina, while others cite her saying that she never sang under an assumed name. Nina’s speaking voice does sound vaguely like Callas’s, albeit mature for an 11-year-old girl. Her singing voice, though, is utterly unlike Callas’s. (And when did Callas ever work in the toy department of a large department store?)

In a 1957 interview, Callas described her young voice as “dark, almost black—when I think of it, I think of thick molasses,” a description that does not match Nina’s timbre at all.

Callas also sang music from Butterfly at the Italian Embassy in Athens during World War II. She returned to this excerpt, Cio-Cio San’s death scene, in her 1963 concert tour and taught it at Juilliard and Osaka master classes.

It was after Callas’s last Chicago performance as Cio-Cio San that the infamous incident with the process server took place.

This performance of Butterfly’s death scene seems to me markedly different from the one she gave a year before, something that happens rarely in the Callas discography. Nicolai Gedda sings the rôle of Pinkerton.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Puccini, and view a snippet of film from her Chicago rehearsals.

11.8.10

Maria Callas sings “Casta diva”



The video shows Maria Callas in the RAI studios of Rome on December 31, 1957, singing her signature aria, “Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma.

This is roughly 48 hours before the so-called “Rome walkout” that effectively ended Callas’s career in Italy and probably contributed more than anything else to her premature withdrawal from the stage.

(Briefly, I am of the opinion that Callas grew increasingly unable to handle the nervous strain of appearing before a hostile press, and that her dismay at Meneghini’s real or perceived mismanagement of her career contributed in no small part to her leaving him for Aristotle Onassis. This is speculation, based on what evidence we have; and all of the people who could confirm or deny my conjectures are long dead. Yes, Callas was in vocal decline by the late 1950s, but her nervous exhaustion greatly amplified the problems with her voice. This post about Callas’s 1957 Ballo at La Scala allows you to read and hear more about why I believe this.)

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Bellini. (Some of the YouTube clips, alas, have been removed since I linked to them.)

10.8.10

Callas and Verdi’s Otello



Verdi’s Otello had little importance in Maria Callas’s career. She recorded the Willow Song and Ave Maria for EMI in Paris in 1963. She also taught these selections (along with Iago’s Credo) during her Juilliard master classes.

In 1972 and 1973, Callas set down for Philips a pitifully tentative rendition of the love duet from Act I of Otello with Giuseppe di Stefano. That recording was kicking around YouTube earlier this year and is best left unheard.

Maria Callas also sang music from Rossini’s Otello on at least one occasion, in Thessaloníki in 1943.

Her rendition of Verdi’s “Ave Maria” is simple and inward, as befits this beautiful aria. The orchestra is led by Nicola Rescigno.

Please listen to Maria Callas in other music by Verdi.

9.8.10

Callas and the Dormition of the Theotokos

In the Orthodox Church, 15 August is a Great Feast: The Dormition of the Theotokos (Κοίμησις της Θεοτόκου) or “The Falling-asleep of the G-d-bearer.”

According to Orthodox teaching, three days following the death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, her body was taken up into heaven to join her soul. To quote from the Wikipedia entry on the Feast:
Orthodox theology teaches that the Theotokos has already undergone the bodily resurrection, which all will experience at the Second Coming, and stands in heaven in that glorified state that the other righteous ones will enjoy only after the Last Judgment.
Maria Callas celebrated her name day on 15 August and all her life was devoted to the Theotokos. She wrote to her Roman Catholic husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, from Buenos Aires in 1949:
The other evening I went with a Greek journalist and a lady to the Greek Orthodox church to light a candle for us and my Norma. You see, I feel our Church more than yours. It’s strange, but it’s so. Perhaps because I’m more accustomed to it, or perhaps because the Orthodox Church is warmer and more festive. It’s not that I don’t like yours, which is also mine now, but I have a strong partiality for the Orthodox Church.
(Okay, that quotation, transcribed when I was insufficiently caffeinated, does not in fact mention the Theotokos, though it shows that Callas was a believer and attached to her religion, albeit not a church goer.)

Early in their relationship, Meneghini made a gift to Callas of a Cignaroli miniature of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph that became a good-luck charm for her. (He refers to this painting as a “Madonnina.”) He reports that they hung a painting of the Madonna by Caroto in their bedroom, and that their favorite work of art was the painting you see above: Tiziano’s “Assunta” at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice (a basilica dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, as the Dormition of the Theotokos is known in the Roman church).

Meneghini also writes that he told Callas, after she took up with Aristotle Onassis:
Now go talk to all your patron saints and ask them for advice, ask them if you are in the right, but also pay a visit to your Madonna in the Cathedral in Milan, the Madonna you saw so very many times, before whom you genuflected and prayed.
The Madonnina (Madunina in the local dialect) who stands atop the Duomo is the symbol of Milan.

In 1960, Stelios Galatopoulos ran into Callas with Onassis making a visit to the island of Tinos, where there is a reportedly miraculous icon of the Thetokos. He wrote that
she appeared to be in the highest of spirits. Dressed simply in black and with a black chiffon scarf decorated with a few sequins over her head, Maria looked much younger than her years and the personification of Greek beauty.
Maria Callas reportedly died with a rosary (the gift of her sister-in-law Pia Meneghini) on her bedside table.

Since Maria Callas celebrated her name day on 15 August, I think that we should, too. I intend to post every day this week in her honor. The musical clip that follows is from Verdi’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata and was recorded in 1964-65, when Callas was in fragile voice, with her “big” career winding down.

Also: Please listen to Maria Callas in music from Verdi’s La forza del destino, including arias addressed to the Theotokos.

6.8.10

Callas and the “envoicing” of women

Composers’ dependence on women is unique to opera. Beethoven piano sonatas can be played by men, and men are capable of playing the trombone or conducting an orchestra, but no boy soprano could ever sing operatic female roles. Women are thus critical in authoring the operatic work as an audible reality; they cannot be prohibited from the work’s production unless (as Britten did) the composer limits himself to an all-male cast. And once they start singing, these women—cozily envisaged as pleasurable objects—will begin creating sound instead.
Carolyn Abbate, “Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women”
I think that Abbate’s point about boy sopranos may hold only for “modern” opera. Isn’t it true that in eighteenth-century Rome, for example, Papal censors did not allow women on stage, and female rôles were taken by boys?

(Let’s not even go near the issue of castrati, and of whether or not they be “boys,” “males,” or what have you.)

The image, I believe, shows Maria Callas as Medea, in the Margherita Wallmann production that opened the 1953–1954 La Scala season. (If you happen to know otherwise, please speak up.)

Bon week-end à tous !

2.8.10

Callas and Fiorilla III

Michael Scott, the founder of the London Opera Society, has an acid tongue and, it seems, the constancy of a streetwalker.

In his liner note for the Naxos reissue of Rossini’s Il turco in Italia, Mr. Scott uses Maria Callas as a stick with which to beat Cecilia Bartoli. He cites the monumentally important Rossini scholarship undertaken by Philip Gossett and others, then remarks:
A recent recording, taking advantage of this scholarship,… suffers from a Fiorilla whose florid singing is full of aspirates [audible exhalations of breath]; so obviously is her voice caught in her throat, the analogy she conjures up is that of a turkey gobbling.
Now that he is in Naxos’s employ, Mr. Scott seems to have discovered heretofore unsuspected virtues in Maria Callas’s performance. In his bitchy, hateful Maria Meneghini Callas (1991), he had written of her Fiorilla:
From the time Callas has lost weight we note the element of contrivance beginning to obtrude in her characterizations. However, spontaneity is essential to Rossini’s style. Although Callas’s Fiorilla may be remarkably different from her Leonora, it lacks charm and does not engage the listener’s sympathy… Exaggerating was the nearest Callas could get to comedy.
Judge for yourself whether Callas’s Fiorilla “lacks charm” or, indeed, whether “in her attempts to refine her characterization she loses sight of the basis of secure vocal emission: a correctly supported voice.”

Her partner in this duet is Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Gianandrea Gavazzeni leads the La Scala orchestra.

Listen to Maria Callas in other selections by Rossini.

30.7.10

Callas-fan-in-chief

November 4, 2008 has been the happiest day of my life so far. I did not think that the United States would elect a black President in my lifetime.

(While I know that it makes for bad karma, I take joy in the purple rage that President Barack Obama—cool, intelligent, magnanimous—stirs up in racists and mouth-breathers. And it’s true: Pretty much all of the people vexed by President Obama are filthy racist cockroaches.)

Along with his many other virtues, President Obama is a Maria Callas fan. He said of his iPod:
I’ve got Jay-Z on there. I’ve got Frank Sinatra on there. I’ve got Maria Callas on there
Hail to the Chief!

29.7.10

You like Callas, you really like Callas

In the past month, lovely Internauts from some three dozen nations and every continent (except Antarctica) have visited Re-visioning Callas, to wit:
Venezuela, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, the Russian Federation, Portugal, Poland, the Philipines, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Namibia, Mexico, Macedonia, Latvia, the Republic of Korea, Italy, Israel, Ireland, Hungary, Greece, Germany, France, Egypt, Denmark, Costa Rica, China, Chile, Canada, Bulgaria, Brazil, Belgium, Azerbaijan, Austria, Australia, Argentina…
Thank you for your visits, and please drop by again soon!

Also, please follow Re-visioning Callas on Facebook and Twitter.

Callas and Dacia Maraini II


Here is another excerpt from Maria Callas’s interview (c. 1969) with Dacia Maraini.
May I ask you something: Do you consider yourself a fortunate woman?

I feel privileged because I’ve had an extraordinary destiny. I am a creature of destiny. Destiny chose me and wanted me thus. I stand outside of myself and watch my life from without. I see myself clearly, and I see others.

As a woman I consider myself unfortunate because I have neither a man’s affection nor the love of children.

Do you feel nostalgia for your childhood?

No. Because it was not a happy childhood.
The sound clip is from Maria Callas’s 1954 recital, Puccini Heroines.

Read other entries relating to Maria Callas and Dacia Maraini.

Read other entries featuring the music of Puccini.

27.7.10

Callas in La Wally

Maria Callas may have had ulterior motives in September 1954 when she recorded “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally.

According to Frank Hamilton’s superb performance annals and indices, this 1954 session marked the only time that Callas sang this aria. Why then? Perhaps because, in December 1953, Renata Tebaldi had opened the La Scala season in… La Wally. By including “Ebben?” and other late Ottocento selections alongside florid arias by Verdi, Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Delibes, Callas may have wished to show that her voice embraced Tebaldi’s repertoire and so much more.

This is mere speculation on my part. It is entirely possible that EMI wished to cash in on the recent Scala opening by including this aria, or that Tullio Serafin commended this chestnut to his protégée. In any event, Callas gives a performance of exquisite melancholy. Her haunting interpretation supposedly inspired, in part, Diva, the 1981 film by Jean-Jacques Beineix.

(Incidentally, while researching this post, I learned that Diva was issued on DVD in the United States in faux stereo, without Beineix’s knowledge or aproval.)

The photo is from late 1954, showing Callas rehearsing Spontini’s La vestale at La Scala.

19.7.10

Maria Callas as Armida



Dr. Robert Seletsky, a distinguished musical scholar, questions the attribution to Maria Callas of a “revival of forgotten repertoire and the performance traditions that accompanied it.”

He notes that many of the works cited to bolster this assertion (including Il Turco in Italia, Il pirata, and Anna Bolena) had been produced in the twentieth century before Callas took them up. He also takes issue with Callas’s “inauthentic” (modernist) approach to early Ottocento opera, entailing cuts, minimal ornamentation, and the interpolation of harmonically disfiguring tonic and dominant high notes.

In Seletsky’s view, Rossini’s Armida, which Callas sang under Tullio Serafin at the 1952 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, can be deemed “the only true Callas ‘revival.’” This YouTube clip, in wretched sound, brings us from that 1952 revival the opera’s most celebrated number,“D’amore al dolce impero.” Callas sings with staggering verve and audacity, and many critics believe that the recording documents one of the greatest nights in her career.

Callas returned to “D’amore al dolce impero” in a 1954 RAI concert and reportedly attempted a studio recording of it in 1960, though to the best of my knowledge no trace of it survives. In recent years, the aria has been taken up by Renée Fleming, Joyce di Donato (on disc only, for now), and others.

Related posts: Maria Callas in music by Rossini

14.7.10

Maria Callas as Dalila



Maria Callas recorded “Printemps qui commence ” and two other arias from Saint-Saën’s Samson et Dalila in 1961.

There is little to say about this performance; one simply wonders at its silken, sensuous elegance. Like many, I find it regrettable that Callas did not explore (at least on disc) the rôle of Dalida in its entirety, Berlioz’s Didon and Cassandre, Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (offered to her by La Scala), and other so-called Falcon rôles.

I posted a few months ago Callas’s recording of “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix.” It was not released until after her death because she struggles to support her lowest phrases. But, again, what a radiantly sexy performance she gives!

By the way, bonne fête nationale to French friends and readers. Vive la France!

13.7.10

Not Callas but Carlo Bergonzi



Carlo Bergonzi, a great tenor and a great musician, was born on July 13, 1924, making him about half a year younger than Maria Callas.

Bergonzi sang only three times with Callas, twice in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958, and in the 1964 EMI recording of Puccini’s Tosca.

With his manly and effulgent timbre, aristocratic phrasing, and heartfelt warmth, Bergonzi was one of the very greatest singers of the twentieth century. Among tenors, only Aureliano Pertile matches him as an interpreter of Verdi.

This performance of “Che gelida manina” is from the complete 1958 recording of Puccini’s La bohème led by Tullio Serafin. Years ago, I heard a program on French radio during which panelists compared performances of this aria. Following this rendition, there was a long silence, after which someone remarked, awestruck, C’est Rodolphe. The hosts played this recording twice more, marvelling at its magical beauty.

Buon compleanno, carissimo Maestro, e grazie per le infinite bellezze che Lei ci ha regalato.

12.7.10

Maria Callas’s funeral



This very elegiac clip shows still images of Maria Callas and, in the last forty seconds or so, film of her funeral at the Greek Orthodox church (cathedral?) on the rue Georges-Bizet in Paris.

The music, I believe, is “In trutina” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which was composed roughly ten years after Maria Callas was born.

Late Callas?



This clip purports to reproduce Maria Callas’s singing in 1976, just over a year before she died. If the date is correct, I believe that her accompanist is Jeffrey Tate. The piece, incomplete, is Beethoven’s concert aria “Ah, perfido!”

Callas’s singing here, while not at the level of her great years, is vastly superior to what it was in the unlistenable Philips recordings of 1972 and the tour with di Stefano.

There is a recording supposedly of a practice session in 1977 which, again, finds Callas in relatively free and imposing voice. (That recording was kicking around YouTube, but I am unable to locate it now.)

If these snippets are accurately dated, then perhaps Tito Gobbi was right when he said that Callas never lost her voice, only her nerve.

What do you think? I find it hard to believe that the gasping, monumentally insecure Callas of the early 1970s could reclaim this much voice—but, again, Callas and many of her associates maintained that, to the end, she could sing well without the pressure of an audience.

6.7.10

Maria Callas, the mute singer

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The man who didn’t make Maria Callas sing…

It wasn’t his choice to take part in the great masquerade that transforms a woman into a female transvestite. In the case of opera singers, this masquerade is so powerful that it can ultimately destroy these (apparently cherished) live marionettes. It wasn’t his choice as a homosexual. In the world of opera, there swirls around divas a world of men who “adore” women, all the more and all the better when they are no longer women, but masks...

The singer, finally mute and yet shown, in her violence and her life. The singer finally set free from her song.
Catherine Clément, “La Cantatrice muette ou le maître chanteur démasqué”
Catherine Clément, the French philosopher and novelist, seems to inspire extreme reactions. Her beautiful screed, Opera: Or the Undoing of Women, is a fundamental, must-read text for me, yet scholarly friends for whom I have the deepest respect dismiss it as rot.

(OT, but please bear with me: For more than ten years, I have been looking for an English-language publisher for my translation of Clément’s beautiful novel La Señora, based on the life of Doña Gracia Nasi.)

Clément’s 1980 essay on Callas and Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Mute Singer; or, the Master Singer Unmasked,” is brief and difficult. The title riffs on Eugène Ionesco’s “anti-play,” The Bald Soprano.

By not making (forcing) Callas to sing in his Medea film, Pasolini, in Clément’s view, avoided the “trap,” the “blackmail” (chantage), inflicted on her by others. In the French-speaking world, this is a familiar theme: Pierre-Jean Rémy, in Callas, une vie (1978), presented the soprano as a victim “forced” to sing first by her mother, then by Meneghini, and so forth.

Incidentally, the issue of Callas and film, Callas in film, is rich and filled with ironies. In Medea, her only feature, Callas not only does not sing but is actually mute for long stretches. Zeffirelli’s Callas Forever shows the soprano mourning her voice, trying (and failing) to bring it back to life. In Fellini’s E la nave va, the dead soprano’s voice is heard only when her ashes are scattered over the sea—as if her voice were being swallowed up by the depths along with her earthly remains.

And then there is the thorny issue, explored by Michal Grover-Friedlander and others, of dubbing. In contrast to French and Anglo-American films, Italian films (even those for Italian audiences) are often dubbed, evincing a blithe attitude toward the “integrity” of voice and person. It is a practice ultimately rejected by the fictional Callas in Callas Forever. In life, though, the Rome Opera's insistence that “nobody can double (dub) Callas” created mayhem for the soprano. (“To dub” and “to double” are the same word in Italian; “nobody can double Callas” are words that Callas cited, with bitterness, a decade after the 1958 Rome Norma fracas.)

There is more to be said, but it is 39°C today, and I need a nap. Back at you real soon.

5.7.10

Cesare Siepi, 1923 – 2010



Opera blogs and Tweeps are reporting that Cesare Siepi has passed away. He was 87 years old (born in 1923, like Maria Callas).

Though Siepi was a regular at Rudolf Bing’s Metropolitan Opera, he sang with Maria Callas some two dozen times, starting in 1948, with four performances as Padre Guardiano in Verdi’s La forza del destino, through the 1958 revival of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at La Scala.

Like Callas, Siepi was a versatile musician: In 1949 alone, he sang Gurnemanz to her Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal and Erode to her Erodiade the younger in Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista.

A handsome man of noble bearing, Siepi was a gifted actor with a plush, ringing voice. His Salzburg Don Giovanni (under Wilhelm Furtwängler) is available on DVD. He was also a supreme Verdian, an arresting Mefistofele in Boito’s opera, and an admired recitalist and interpreter of popular songs in several languages.

A singer’s singer, Siepi was a rôle model for Ferruccio Furlanetto, one of today’s great basses, and for many other younger artists.

According to Wikipedia, Siepi sang professionally into the 1980s and perhaps later.

This musical excerpt is from a 1951 recording of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem led by Arturo Toscanini.

30.6.10

Maria Callas and Cecilia Bartoli

When I last interviewed Cecilia Bartoli, I praised her rendition of “Casta diva,” and she hinted that she might undertake the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma, which is usually assigned to dramatic sopranos these days.
“‘Casta diva’ is a prayer, and the dynamic markings are piano, pianissimo, sotto voce. And since Norma is by Mr. Bellini and not by ‘the tradition,’ I–as an interpreter, as the composer’s servant–simply recorded this aria with a period orchestra and the dynamics that Bellini wrote in his music.”

Bartoli has a point. In the diaphanous playing of Zurich’s Orchestra La Scintilla and the ever-shifting luster and shadings of her voice, one can hear the moonlight and the numinous shimmerings of the forest evoked in Norma’s prayer to the moon goddess.

Would Bartoli ever consider singing the rôle onstage? “It would have to be a Norma not tied to ‘tradition,’ but to the autograph score,” she says. “The orchestras that played in Bellini’s day consisted of 40, 45 musicians. It would be a bel canto Norma–not, let us say, a Wagnerian Norma!”
Cecilia Bartoli sang Norma in concert form last night in Dortmund, with a reprise scheduled for 1 July. My understanding of German does not (yet) allow me to grasp nuances of the reviews, but they seem positive and, in some cases, downright ecstatic.

Google Translator came up with a funny sentence in the Der Westen review: You must overcome the Callas, anyway.

Bartoli, like all performing artists, is self-absorbed. (That is only logical, for without a whopping dose of narcissism, who could undertake such an unforgiving career?) When I interviewed her, she had almost nothing to say about Callas and seemed to think that Callas’s glory days had been the 1960s and 1970s. For Time, Bartoli (or her handlers) wrote a tribute to Callas that consists mostly of bromides.

Nonetheless, I feel that Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez are the two most important heirs of Callas active today. Some scholars excoriate Callas for accepting heavily cut scores and failing to ornament music in an “authentic” manner. (To this I counter: Callas, Serafin, and colleagues were modernists and acted accordingly.) Others, including Rupert Christiansen, argue that the so-called “bel canto” revival grew out of Italian fascism and would have continued without Callas; and that early Ottocento music is hokum, anyway, so who cares? (No need to counter the latter claim: The gentleman’s stupidity speaks for itself.)

Without Callas, can anyone imagine the careers of Bartoli and Flórez, to say nothing of Sutherland, Caballé, Horne, and Sills? Would we have Philip Gossett’s revelatory editions of Verdi and Rossini? (Full disclosure: Philip is a friend.)

When Cecilia Bartoli invokes fidelity to the score and lavishes her musical and expressive genius upon “minor,” forgotten works, she is continuing the work that Maria Callas, Serafin, Luchino Visconti, and their cohorts undertook last century. Her notion of fidelity may differ from Callas’s—and her repertoire and approach certainly owe much to the HIP (historically informed performance) movement—but without Maria Callas, Bartoli’s Dortmund Norma never would have happened.

A coda: In 1957, Maria Callas portrayed Norma in London and sang a very delicate, small-scale “Casta diva” in rehearsal. A colleague complimented her on the approach, and she replied that she considered it the proper way to sing the aria—but that Italian audiences, accustomed to heroic voices, would never stand for it.

In bocca al lupo to Cecilia Bartoli. (In 2006, Bellini brought luck to the Azzurri, but it was Puritani and not Norma. But I digress.) I look forward to reading more about her Norma and to hearing her sing the entire rôle. (Europeans, please let me know if you learn of a webcast!)

Read more about Maria Callas and Norma.

Maria Callas and the voice beyond words

The wind instruments have the vicious property that they emancipate themselves from the text, they are substitutes for the voice as the voice beyond words. No wonder that Dionysus has chosen the flute as his preferred instrument (cf. Pan’s pipes), while Apollo has decided on the lyre… not to mention the mythical connections of flute with Gorgon, and so on.
Mladan Dolar on Plato in “The Object Voice”
The image shows Maria Callas rehearsing Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in Dallas in 1959. The musical excerpt is from her 1953 EMI recording of Lucia.

The flute, of course, is all over the score of Lucia, particularly in the mad scene (where, in most modern performances, it takes the place of the glass harmonica). I recently learned from Wikipedia that the glass harmonica once was believed to cause madness in musicians and listeners. The plot thickens!

28.6.10

Callas and Italian politics, c. 2010

Italian politics makes the prose of Jacques Lacan seem pellucid by comparison, so readers better informed than I are welcome to correct this brief reportage.

Sandro Bondi is a former communist who is now a lackey to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. (Berlusconi’s ongoing attempts to suppress freedom of information in Italy have reached a fever pitch of late.) Even while nominally communist, Mr. Bondi was known as ravanello (“radish”)—red on the outside but white on the inside.

As culture minister for Berlusconi, Mr. Bondi nominated a former managing director of McDonald’s for a position of authority within the ministry. (I am not making this up, alas!) * He also proposed a reorganization of opera house administration that sparked widespread protests, and this is where Maria Callas comes in.

Non zittite l’arte, “Don’t silence art.” Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Maria Callas along with this slogan is the symbol of the group Salviamo i teatri lirici italiani (“Let’s save Italian opera houses”). All of the images in this post come from their Facebook page.

Why Callas? A few hypotheses:
  • Because, given her greatness and enduring fame, she is the icon of opera.
  • Because, after more than half a century, her work at La Scala with Visconti, Zeffirelli, Wallmann, and others still represents a high point of opera in Italy. (Let us not forget: That work was the result of “genius,” yes, and also of lavish spending.)
  • Because, given their nauseous, knee-jerk esterofilia (“anything-but-Italy attitude”), Italians had to choose a foreigner rather than, say, Toscanini, Verdi, or Puccini. (For the record, I do not believe this, but the thought crossed my mind.) **
  • Because, on the contrary, Italians in fact think of “la Maria” as Italian. (Callas, to my mind, was rootless, so why not? Let us pass over in silence the fact that the Italian media more or less destroyed her career after the Rome Norma incident.)
  • Because no “Italian” singer surpasses her in greatness and notoriety. (The careers of Caruso and Pavarotti were more international than Italian; and, without wishing to seem unkind, how many people today would recognize Tebaldi on a banner or t-shirt?)
* By the way, Starbucks will soon open in Italy. I invite my Italian friends and readers to safeguard the art and livelihood of their local baristi and to boycott and protest by all means necessary this despicable, polluting, exploitative multinational.

** A propos of Verdi: Leghisti (racist Italian separatists of the north) have appropriated ”Va, pensiero” as an anthem of “Padania.” (Verdi, you will recall, played his rôle in the unification of Italy.) The maestro is surely turning in his grave at the Casa di riposo; G-d grant that he rise from that grave and scare those idiots to death!