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.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's a bit 'dangerous' to say that Callas had a wrong technique - or else, she wouldn't sing so much and contribute as no other to operatic history. IMO, Callas had a very 'difficult' voice, and fought bravely to 'domesticate' it. We have to remember that her classification - drammatico d'agilità - was (and still is) very rare, so she probably had to construct it by herself, along the years, with no greater references - since there aren't any recordings of the Primo Ottocento singers.

    Maybe her weight loss contributed a little bit, but I agree with you that this wasn't the main cause. Voice is a direct result of body and also mind, and emotional problems (she had many, unfortunately!) interfere in a drastic way.