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.


  1. A great aria and an awesome performance! Even in Callas's last recording (a bit of La Forza del Destino, "Deh, non m'abbandonar!"), she gives a special interpretation to this character.

    You're right, her weight loss was in a prudent amount of time, but maybe losing all that weight when the singing voice is already structured can affect somehow. (Is there a study about it? There should be!)

  2. And in that "last" recording (if it really is from 1976 or 1977), she sounds vastly better than in the tour with di Stefano. Sometimes I think that Gobbi was correct--that she lost her nerve and not her voice.

    I think that the weight loss = vocal decline story will never go away. Also, so much about singing in general is myth and conjecture. Some say that there is no such thing as the "passaggio"; others say that it exists. Some say that dairy coats the vocal cords or causes mucus; many doctors say this is nonsense. There are many similar examples.

    Along with Simionato (riposa in pace, maestra), I think that singing heavy rôles when she was in her teens damaged Callas's voice. It seems to me that the wobble came and went throughout the years probably depending on her energy, blood pressure, state of mind, etc.