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…


  1. love the video. callas' pose in the photo above is, indeed, very ingres... reminds me of his portrait of madame moitessier which hangs at the louvre.

    baiser, oc

  2. Thank you, dear heart, for your comment. You are one of the elect few, I think, who would recognize that!