Not Callas but Verdi

This film shows a 1901 funeral cortège of Giuseppe Verdi. I write “a” cortège, because I don’t know whether this is Verdi’s coffin being borne to temporary interment at Milan’s Cimitero monumentale in January 1901, or the coffins of Verdi and his wife Giuseppina en route a month later to the Casa di riposo per musicisti, where they can be visited today.

I think that the film shows the latter, because Verdi’s January funeral, in accordance with his wishes, was austere. He had asked for “one priest, one candle, one cross,” and the New York Times report indicated that his coffin was placed on “a very modest funeral car.” The February cortège, in contrast, was an elaborate state affair.

On both occasions, the chorus “Va, pensiero” was sung—in February, by a chorus of some 800 people led by Arturo Toscanini; and in January, spontaneously, by the assembled throngs.

Maria Callas’s Milan home was not far from the Casa di riposo, but I do not know whether she ever visited the tombs of Verdi and Giuseppina.

Callas in Ballo I

My friend JRD is an arbiter elegantiarum, a beautiful writer, and a fierce prayer warrior. (He is also today’s birthday boy. Joyeux anniversaire, chéri ! I am so blessed to know you.)

His recent tribute to Maria Callas in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera inspired me to post an excerpt from her 1957 season-opening Ballo at La Scala.

Gianandrea Gavazzeni led this incandescent performance. Callas, as you can hear in “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa,” was in inspired form. While her highest note is a touch unsteady, she phrases up to it and back down in a single breath. Her voice somehow tells of both shadows and moonlight, terror and faith.

1957, you will recall, marked something of a turning point in Callas’s career. In the months leading up to this Ballo, she made an emotional return to Greece and was involved in “scandalous” withdrawals from an Edinburgh Sonnambula and from a series of performances at the San Francisco Opera.

In both cases, she pleaded exhaustion, and the exhaustion can be heard in her two summer 1957 recordings, Puccini’s Turandot and Manon Lescaut. (As I’ve noted in the past, the latter was not released until 1959 because of Callas’s misgivings about her form.)

That said, after two months of rest, she returned in late 1957 to give some of the greatest performances of her career: her Dallas concert (in which she is rock-solid up to a high E-flat) and the Scala run of Ballo. Dark storm clouds were on the horizon, though: The Rome Norma “scandal” (in which Callas was blameless but hounded viciously in the Italian press) exploded weeks after this Ballo.

A very kind and very learnèd reader insists that Callas’s vocal deterioration was brought about by her weight loss, but that seems too simplistic an explanation to me. Three years after slimming, she could sing with volcanic power (as in this Ballo) and a mind-boggling range of color and dynamics (as in the Köln Sonnambula, from July 1957). Both performances, not coincidentally, came after periods of relative or complete rest.

It is clear that the punishing—nay, reckless pace of Callas’s early career took its toll. (Two Normas and two Brünnhildes in six days? In modern times, with a modern orchestra and diapason, who but Callas has attempted such folly? Twenty-hour days preparing the Scala Sonnambula? The list could go on!)

Callas herself wrote to her friend Cristina Gastel Chiarelli that she was “irremediably tired” from the time of the Scala Bolena, in 1956. Vocal unsteadiness might be explained by this organic fatigue, compounded by tension (brought about by snowballing “scandals,” which could have been averted by a manager more skilled and less conniving than Meneghini). Exhaustion seems to me a tidy explanation also because, following periods of rest, Callas’s late-1950s vocal form could be quite secure (e.g. the 1959 Gioconda).

What’s more, I believe with Will Crutchfield that Callas’s technique was never quite right—and with Tito Gobbi, who was no one’s fool, that Callas lost her confidence more than her voice. (If those purported 1976 and 1977 recordings are authentic, they, too, support the contention that Callas up to the end of her life could sing well without the pressure of an audience. I will post those recordings eventually, though I am not fully convinced that they are genuine.)

Finally, Petsalis-Diomidis quotes Giulietta Simionato as saying that Callas was aware of her wobble as early as 1950 (long before slimming).

The mystery continues! In the meantime, though, enjoy JRD’s prose and Callas’s stunning singing.


Callas on holiday

Well, more precisely, re‑visioning callas is on holiday. It is Memorial Day in the States: On fait le pont, so posting will resume on or after 1 June.

Here are a few suggestions for your reading pleasure in the interim:

Visit colleagues and friends of re-visioning callas

Visit other Maria Callas sites

Follow re-visioning callas on Twitter

Get to know re-visioning callas opera tweeps on Twitter

Become a fan of re-visioning callas on Facebook

Visit the site of Agnes Fischer, the talented artist who created the image in this post

A presto!

Callas in La traviata II

Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata was among the rôles that Maria Callas performed most frequently (along with Norma and Lucia). On more than one occasion, she remarked that she felt a spiritual kinship with Verdi’s noble, self-sacrificing courtesan.

Callas’s 1958 Covent Garden run of La traviata was her next-to-last encounter with Violetta. She sang two more performances in Dallas and reportedly committed to recording the opera (with a young Luciano Pavarotti) as late as 1968 or 1969, though she ultimately backed out of the project.

The company for La traviata at Covent Garden was strong. Nicola Rescigno conducted, Cesare Valletti was Alfredo, and Mario Zanasi was Germont. Callas was in inspired form—and also exhausted and discouraged following the Rome Norma brouhaha, surgery, and her break with La Scala. A few months later, in fact, during a BBC interview, she raised the possibility of retiring.

The Act II duet with Germont was a high point of the Covent Garden Traviata. As many writers have observed, Callas somehow managed to stop time and distill all of Violetta’s anguish and sacrifice in that hushed, suspended note leading into “Dite alla giovine.” (To paraphrase one of the YouTube comments, we hear not a voice but a soul.)

(I apologize for your having to click through to hear the clip, but embedding is disabled.)


Callas and the voice

The voice, by being so ephemeral, transient, incorporeal, ethereal, presents for that very reason the body at its quintessential, the hidden bodily treasure beyond the visible envelope, the interior “real” body, unique and intimate, and at the same time it seems to present more than the mere body…

The voice is the flesh of the soul, its ineradicable materiality, by which the soul can never be rid of the body.
Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More


Callas in Weber

If I could choose “old” operas to dust off and revive, I might put Weber’s Oberon and Der Freischütz at the top of the list. Through the middle of last century, they were well represented on disc and occasionally staged, and then… nothing. A shame, for they are grand, roiling works that give us a taste of German Romantic opera before Wagner.

Maria Callas sang “Ocean! thou mighty monster” as a young girl and again in the early 1960s. For a developing voice or a worn instrument, this strenuous aria seems a foolhardy choice but, again, Weber’s music was part of the mainstream repertoire in those years.

Callas sang a Freischütz aria in 1938, at her first public concert in Greece. She returned to Weber’s music throughout her Greek years and in 1950 and 1951 concerts in Italy. She took up “Ocean!” for a London appearance in 1962 and for EMI sessions in 1962, 1963, and 1964.

The text to “Ocean!” can be found here. Some have praised Callas for her fine English enunciation in this aria, but as far as I’m concerned, she may as well be singing in Etruscan. (Incidentally, did you know that Callas, in her Greek years, sang Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as well as “On Wenlock Edge” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, both in English?)

I do not know the precise date of this recording (1962–64). Callas is in portentous form, though her high notes are a trial, more or less screams. Still, to quote Bruce Burroughs, a writer sometimes hostile to Callas: “By some mysterious alchemy she was even able to demonstrate how music she could not sing well should ideally be sung.”


Callas in The Venice Adriana

Ethan Mordden writes with insight and panache about opera and the performing arts. Perhaps best known for his study Demented: The World of the Opera Diva, Mordden has also published essays, fiction, and guides to recordings.

Mordden’s novel The Venice Adriana (1998) is a roman à clef depicting Maria Callas. Its narrator is a young, closeted gay man who is sent to Venice in the early 1960s to help write the memoirs of Adriana Grafanas, a much loved and much hated diva in premature decline.

A prized, elusive tape of Grafanas in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur is one plot element (shades of McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata). Others include a love triangle that parallels the story of Cilea’s opera, and the narrator’s sexual coming-of-age. Characters based on Elsa Maxwell and Pier Paolo Pasolini, among others, weave in and out of the story.

I expected to enjoy The Venice Adriana, and I wish that I had something nice to say about it, but it seems to me utter tripe. Its flaws are both small and large, ranging from laughably inaccurate Italian to a deeply misogynistic depiction of Grafanas/Callas, who is vain, superficial, capricious, and cynical (for starters).

The misogyny, alas, makes appearances elsewhere in Mordden’s work. Demented, for example, draws contrasts between performances that are, yes, “demented” (spellbinding, of overwhelming power) and “filth” (bungling, subpar). “Demented” deprives the diva of agency (she is out of her mind, not in control), while “filth” associates her with obscenity, rot, and putrefaction. (Mordden does not claim to have coined these terms, but he did help to fix and institutionalize them.)

Maria Callas recorded the two big arias from Adriana Lecouvreur in 1954. Since I already posted them, I offer you instead “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” from her 1956 recording of Puccini’s La bohème—neither “demented” nor “filthy,” I think, but a thing of sweetness and shy ardor. (Again, those portamenti!)

By the way, this recording was made sixty years (and not fifty, as some sources suggest) after the premiere of Bohème. I learned from Wikipedia that Toscanini’s recording of Bohème is the only recording of a Puccini opera by its original conductor; and also that Sir Thomas Beecham, who led the marvelous de los Angeles/Björling set, worked closely with Puccini on a 1920 production of Bohème.


Not Callas but calcio

This is very off-topic, but some of my best friends are interisti.

Auguri, ragazzi! E onore al Bayern!

Remember this song from 1990? Many prefer Nannini and Bennato, but I think that the English version has the best line.
Time records the victory in our hearts

Callas diplomacy

In the past month, readers from the following countries have visited re-visioning callas:
Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, Sénégal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Notate bene: Both Israel and Iran love Maria Callas.

Forget Clinton, Blair, and the other diplomats: Perhaps Callas, so seemingly combative in life, can bring about peace in our time!


Callas in Louise

Spinning off Callas in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, let’s stay with French opera and listen to her in a rôle that she never sang on stage: Louise, from Gustave Charpentier’s opera of the same name.

This performance from December 1954 marked the first time that Callas sang in public in French (at least during her “big,” post-1947 career). Her command of the language and style were stunningly fine. Yes, the climactic high note is unsteady, but that is often the case in this aria and not, I think, a sign of vocal trouble particular to Callas.

(American singers have done well by this aria, and performances by Dorothy Maynor and Beverly Sills are also lovely.)

Bon week-end à tous !


Not Callas but Puccini

This is off-topic, I suppose, but too good to miss: Courtesy of Aprile Millo, here is about a minute of Giacomo Puccini in his study, in town, and at sea near Torre del Lago.


Callas and “The Sleeping Venus”

“Sleeping Venus,” the painting behind Maria Callas in the photo, is from the French School, c. 1800. It goes up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York on 10 June.

If I understand its description correctly, it belonged to Maria Callas and then changed hands. It was not offered in the 2000 Calmels Chambre Cohen auction of her belongings (at least according to my midnight gambol through the catalogue). Does anyone know whether it was sold at the first auction following Callas’s death?

Callas and Meneghini divided their art collection upon their separation, so presumably this is one of the pieces she claimed. She posed in front of it at least twice (in this photo, c. 1957, and in at least one other, c. 1954). The 2000 auction catalogue shows that Callas owned a number of works on mythological themes—Persephone, Heracles, and the like.

In honor of this French painting—and of a precious baby who recently came into the world (qu’elle soit heureuse !)—I offer you Callas in fragile voice but elegant form in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, a 1963 recording.

“In the house of the voice of Maria Callas”

“In the house of the voice of Maria Callas” is a lovely poem by Steve Orlen, part of the collection This Particular Eternity (2001).

It’s probably unwise (and definitely illegal) for me to reproduce the poem in its entirety, but I offer you its final lines.
…Maria Callas is dead,
Although the full lips and slanting eyes
And flaring nostrils of her voice resurrect
Dramas we are able to imagine in this parlor
On evenings like this one, adding some color,
Adding some order. Of whom it was said:
She could imagine almost anything and give voice to it.


Callas in La vestale

The production of Spontini’s La vestale that opened La Scala’s 1954–55 season marked the first collaboration between Maria Callas and Luchino Visconti.

According to Callas by John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald:
During his research, Visconti took inspiration from the paintings of Appiani, whose imperial, neoclassic style corresponded exactly with Spontini’s music. Colors were cold—“like white marble, moon-struck marble.” Because Vestale is an early nineteenth-century opera and at that time singers came to the proscenium to perform, Visconti had the stage floor built forward…

Many of the gestures Visconti had Callas and [the tenor Franco] Corelli perform were derived from poses found in the paintings of Canova, Ingres, and David.
The clip includes many photographs from the rehearsals, some familiar, others less so. (And, see, Callas and I have two things in common: We are Sagittarians, and we favor poodle pins!)

As it happens, I am engaged in a learnèd and cordial dialogue about Callas’s weight loss and whether it contributed to her vocal decline. In this, the first Scala performance by the “definitively slim” Callas, one hears no sign of vocal distress—though, admittedly, the challenges of “O numi tutelar” concern style and command of legato rather than range and power. (Callas was never “definitively slim”; her weight fluctuated, and she dieted and used diuretics, until the end of her life.)

Her EMI recordings in the months leading up to this performance are inconclusive. Some show a nasty wobble (Forza and the Puccini heroines recital, especially “Senza mamma”), while others find her in utterly secure form.

My interlocutor, like many (e.g. Michael Scott), believes that Callas never had a significant wobble before the weight loss. Colleagues from Callas’s Greek years disagree, and Will Crutchfield wrote that her technique was not quite right even when her voice and figure were at their plummiest. The mystery endures!

Here is an additional video: Silent footage from the Vestale rehearsals and premiere. I love this clip because it is one of the few to capture Callas radiantly, unguardedly happy; and also because it shows a Sikh gentleman entering La Scala (about ten minutes into the footage). In the racist, rabid, ignorant United States of the twenty-first century, that elegant, distinguished man would probably be lynched for being a “Muslim terrorist.” But I digress…


Callas as Lucia II

1952 was a glorious year in Maria Callas’s career. She opened the La Scala season as Lady Macbeth (left), her second consecutive opening night, and also made her London début.

Throughout the year, she kept up a punishing pace and triumphed in some of the most challenging music written for the female voice, including Verdi (Vespri, Macbeth, Traviata, and Rigoletto), Mozart (Entführung), Rossini (Armida), and Bellini (Norma and Puritani).

In 1952, she also sang for the first time in her professional career a rôle that would become one of her greatest achievements: Donizetti’s Lucia.

Callas sang the Mad Scene in a RAI radio concert in February, then undertook her first staged Lucia in Mexico City in June.

The following excerpt is taken from that Mexico City run. A few notes:
  • Lucia’s mad scene here is a virtual duet (with the siffleur).
  • After she withdrew from the stage, Callas remarked, possibly of this very performance: “Absolutely sure, beautiful top notes and all that, but it was not yet the rôle.”
  • She also told Walter Legge that in her younger days, she had sung “like a wildcat.”
I think that Callas’s self-assessment is accurate. While her vocalism in this performance is dazzling, there is an athletic, exhibitionistic quality to it, particularly in “Spargi d’amaro pianto.” To me, she sounds more the local favorite living up to her billing of soprano assoluto, and less the dangerous, deranged bride of Lammermoor.

That said, there is much to enjoy here, in this “germ” of the supreme Lucia that Callas would become.


Callas in La forza del destino

Maria Callas sang Verdi’s La forza del destino on stage only six times, though she performed Donna Leonora’s great arias from the time of her student days in Greece until 1976 or 1977, shortly before her death.

This “Pace, pace, mio Dio!” is a familiar rendition, from her 1954 EMI set under Tullio Serafin. Still, I find that I almost always learn something new each time I revisit one of Callas’s recordings.

What struck me most today is Serafin’s prodigiously slow tempo. Many a singer would take that, along with Verdi’s mostly spare, simple accompaniment, as an invitation to luxuriate in sound for its own sake.

Yet what variety of expression Callas brings to this music. She infuses Serafin’s (seemingly) placid whole with fire and grandezza. Her very intakes of breath tell. Her tone ranges from massive and cutting to the most exquisitely tapered pianissimo. She uses portamento and rubato with taste and imagination. What scorching heat she brings to “Che l’amo ancor” and “Alvaro, io t’amo!” How she colors the different iterations of “fatalità” with rage, awe, resignation, acceptance.

Some claim that the Forza Leonora is a passive, uninteresting character. Yet in this aria, a prayer, Callas conveys so clearly what Massimo Mila described as the distinctive qualities of Verdi’s heroes and heroines:
Defeated, battered by fate, they nonetheless fight to the last with savage energy. They are not elegiac; they are ferocious… They are great souls, of proud and terrible resolution.
When Callas recorded Forza in 1954, she had almost finished slimming. Many believe that her weight loss caused her vocal decline. (Listen to that flap at “invan la pace”—the producer Walter Legge threatened to give away a seasickness pill with each LP side!)

I for one don’t believe that Callas’s weight loss and vocal problems are related. If Petsalis-Diomidis and his many sources in The Unknown Callas can be trusted, Callas had a wobble even as a student in Athens. Nor was her weight loss extremely rapid: According to Meneghini and to Callas herself, she lost 60 or 70 pounds over the course of roughly two years, a healthy and prudent rate.


Callas: Fragile theatrical trailer

Copied and pasted from YouTube: “A monologue with voice off written and directed by Stefano Masi. Francesca Caratozzolo plays the role of Maria Callas and the voice of Jackie O.” (Strange, no, that Jackie, famously silent for decades, should be a vocal presence in this work?)

The YouTube description concludes enigmatically:
Finally they can meet each other in real. But does that theatre a real one? What’s behind the curtain?
What indeed?

The clip seems to be promoting a theatrical monologue about Callas, Marilyn Monroe, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The portentious text contains one possible error: Wayne Koestenbaum and others report that Callas and Jackie did meet, for a handshake and pleasantries, following one of Callas’s 1965 Tosca performances at the Met.

Stefano Masi apparently has created films or videos commissioned by La Scala about Luchino Visconti (available on YouTube).

Does anyone have further information about Fragile? Is it a film, a play, or both?

Once again, I invite you to read Catherine Clément on Callas and Monroe.


« La Callas du music-hall » II

Dalida, the singer and actress who was known in her day as la Callas du music-hall, died by her own hand on 3 May 1987. She was 54 years old.

I wrote about parallels between Callas and Dalida back in January. I had intended to publish this post on 3 May, but I have been drunk on allergy meds lo these many weeks now (sigh).

Dalida here gives what, to my mind, is her greatest performance, of Léo Ferré’s devastating “Avec le temps.”

Yolanda, passionale e generosa, non ti si scorderà mai.

Callas in Bellini’s La sonnambula

This clip of the final scene from Bellini’s La sonnambula is valuable for several reasons—because it features lovely, evocative stills, including lesser-known ones, from Luchino Visconti’s incomparable production of the opera; because it captures Maria Callas in magical form; and because it gives some sense of what her voice sounded like in the theatre, with “air” around it. (Her EMI recordings were close-miked and most unflattering.)

And, yes indeed, she makes a diminuendo on a high E-flat. I believe that this, and the performance as a whole, are what Ethan Mordden would call “demented.”

Rumors persist that video of a complete Cologne Sonnambula survives, surely the saint graal of pirates. Let us pray that it comes to light!


Callas and repetition

A work that the author perhaps did not hear more than once in his [sic] lifetime (as was the case with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the majority of Mozart’s works) becomes accessible to a multitude of people, and becomes repeatable outside the spectacle of its performance. It gains availability. It loses its festive and religious character as a simulacrum of sacrifice. It ceases to be a unique, exceptional event, heard once by a minority. The sacrificial relation becomes individualized, and people buy the individualized use of order, the personalized simulacrum of sacrifice.
Jacques Attali on recording and repetition, in Noise: The Political Economy of Music


Giulietta Simionato, 1910 – 2010

Giulietta Simionato, the great mezzo-soprano from Forlì, one of the most versatile and generous artists the lyric stage has ever known, died in Rome just one week shy of her one-hundredth birthday.

Her funeral will be held tomorrow (Thursday) in the Cappella dei Cavalieri di Malta.

According to Frank Hamilton’s invaluable performance annals, Simionato sang with Maria Callas more than fifty times between 1950 and 1965. Il Sole 24 Ore reports that she sang 132 rôles by sixty different composers between 1927 and 1965. This lovely tribute site lists her repertoire, which comprised operas by Monteverdi and Purcell, Bartók and Menotti.

The video shows Simionato’s remarks following the death of Maria Callas. How elegantly she expresses herself, with what grace and humanity! (Apologies to those who do not understand Italian: Today, I simply do not have the time to translate the clip.)

The musical selection, instead, features Simionato and Callas in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in 1957 at La Scala—perhaps their greatest shared triumph. Last month, I posted an excerpt from Norma with Callas and Simionato.

Let us remember this unique and beautiful artist with joy and gratitude.

Riposa in pace, immensa Giulietta, e grazie di cuore.


Callas as commodity

Maria Callas has been a commodity at least since her Italian début, or perhaps since her mother reportedly urged her to “befriend” occupying soldiers in wartime Athens, or perhaps since her childhood grind of talent contests and the like.

The following links are offered almost without comment. (Horrible as they are, they’re no worse than rubbish bins, I think.)

Callas as healer

In August 1956, [Franco] Zeffirellli wrote a rather curious note to my wife: “Dear Maria, yesterday evening Marlene Dietrich, one of your rabid admirers, spoke constantly of you. She says that in American hospitals they play your records continuously because they have discovered that your voice helps those who are ill, giving them confidence, calming them, and helping them to recover from what ails them. That is not surprising—we have known that for quite a while.”
Giovanni Battista Meneghini, My Wife Maria Callas


Callas is Carmen

The publicity campaign for Maria Callas’s 1964 recording of Bizet’s Carmen proclaimed: “Callas is Carmen.”
[In the Seguidilla, Carmen] replies quietly that she is not speaking, but only singing; moreover, she insists that she is not addressing [Don José], but sings for her own pleasure. These are two crucial distinctions José never grasps: that she may be performing rather than interacting and that he may be irrelevant to her utterances rather than their intended target. Narcissistic bourgeois subject that he most fatally is, he believes in the transparency of language and in himself as the perspectival center of his universe. He thus has no defenses against this woman who is a virtuoso of irony, ambiguity, slippage, decentering and multiple discursive practices.
Susan McClary, Carmen (Cambridge Opera Handbook)


Callas and mortality

Many recording artists are dead, and all eventually will be. Even when they are alive, their submission to waxing (to use the old term) or to entombment in vinyl or polyvinyl chloride is an intimation of immortality, and therefore of mortality… The record listener and the musician—like the stargazer and the star, like a man and his familiar ghost—do not inhabit the same world.
Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel

Not much Callas, mostly admin II

Many thanks to Michael J. Bayly of The Wild Reed for his kind words about this humble blog.

Michael curates a beautiful and interesting site, Callas as Medea, which I warmly commend to you.

In fact, why not check out other excellent Callas sites? (I expect to start posting again soon, but travel, work, and being drunk on allergy meds are eating up my time.)