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!


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!

Callas and candor

[Her voice], for artistic reasons, can possess a false and insidious candor; it can also possess an authentic candor. At times, her virtuosity can seem inborn spontaneity, as if she surmounted difficulties, step by step, on the strength of instinct alone. Her voice, already dark and even shadowy, can become soft and light, with the iridescence of a soap bubble.
Emilio Radius
Emilio Radius was an Italian journalist of the past century who wrote for Oggi, a popular magazine. I know little about him and would like to learn more.

His essay about Maria Callas in Da Mussolini alla Callas: Ricordi di un giornalista (1961) is one of the best things I have read about her. (What a pairing in the title, though!) The essay bears multiple readings and, at times, layers irony upon irony, metaphor upon metaphor.

The snippet I offer here seems to me relatively straightforward, and also insightful and beautifully written. Oh, to have journalists of this caliber writing today!

The musical excerpt is from the legendary Cologne performance of Bellini’s La sonnambula, with the tenor Nicola Monti.


Callas and Armgart

Oh, I am happy! The great masters write
For women’s voices, and great Music wants me!
I need not crush myself within a mould
Of theory called Nature: I have room
To breathe and grow unstunted.
George Eliot, Armgart (1871)
Armgart is a dramatic poem by Mary Anne Evans, in art George Eliot. The protagonist speaks these words after her triumphant operatic début when, as one critic puts it, “the cage-door of Victorian domesticity was at last flung wide and a seemingly limitless horizon of possibilities lay before her.”

Maria Callas had a fraught relationship with domesticity and the possibilities open to her as a woman in the mid-twentieth century. She described herself as “Victorian” and, if biographers are to be believed, she was very much a submissive, traditional partner to both her husband Meneghini and her lover Onassis.

On the other hand, it seems obvious to me that the hostility Callas has aroused in life and in death has much to do with her strength, will, and ambition. “Nature” made her a poor, obscure, fat woman with an intractable voice; Callas made herself a wealthy, celebrated, glamorous woman with a voice that (for a decade) could do almost anything. While she “breathed and grew unstunted” for a few years, she paid dearly for this relative freedom.

The audio excerpt, I believe, is from Maria Callas’s 1953 Cetra recording of Verdi’s La traviata.

Please see other posts about Maria Callas in La traviata.


Maria Callas in the news

  • Francesco Renga, a past winner of the Sanremo Music Festival, recently recorded a popular song in duet with Daniela Dessì and had this to say about a concert in which he will mix musical genres (emphasis added): “An audience that has never seen an opera, fascinated by the evening’s other guests—Lucio Dalla, Gianni Morandi, Riccardo Cocciante—will be able to understand what’s behind this opera that seems so distant, but in reality is a popular [means of] expression from a few decades ago. Opera was a kind of television ante litteram or like concerts by rock stars that we see now. Maria Callas was a diva just like U2 today.”
  • Old news: In 2007, the Poste Italiane issued a Maria Callas stamp.
  • Giuseppina Grassi, a singer who taught Giuditta Pasta and was reportedly one of Napoléon’s lovers, is now remembered as la Callas delle Prealpi. There is a proposal to name a music library in Varese after Grassi.
  • The Maria Callas rubbish bins that you read about earlier are now a reality. Franco Zeffirelli, to his credit, deems “blasphemous” the juxtaposition of a pop-art image of Callas with “cigarette butts, dirty tissues, banana peels, and chewing gum.”
  • To stay on the subject of trash, Alfonso Signorini, the eminent gossipparo and author of a “novel” about Maria Callas, presided over an evening dedicated to her memory in Sirmione, during which excerpts from his magnum opus were declaimed by the actress Serena Autieri. MilanoWeb.com draws an unkind but telling contrast between José Saramago’s work and Signorini’s “festival of nullity.” (In Italian, this is called a stroncatura, and it’s a beautiful thing.)
  • I have read Signorini’s “novel” and consider it noteworthy only insofar as it may inspire a revival of book burning. From time to time, rumors fly that it will be adapted as a film. (Please, G-d, NO.)
  • Maria Callas’s “mysterious death” was examined on the Italian television show Top Secret, whose producers are apparently unfamiliar with the language of Dante and Michelangelo.
  • A young poet by the name of Alessio Esposito Langella has published a collection of poems, Granelli di sabbia, which includes a poem and/or a drawing (the article is unclear) inspired by Maria Callas.
  • A play about Aristotle Onassis is to open on London’s West End.
  • A costume that Maria Callas wore in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Norma is on exhibit in France. (The image above shows Callas with Simionato during the Norma run.)
  • With thanks to the friend who sent the link: In La Ville-aux-Dames, near Tours, there is a statue of Maria Callas by the sculptor Michel Audiard (scroll down to see it).
  • Maria Callas is one of Rufus Wainwright’s icons, but we knew this.
  • The film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Master Class directed by Faye Dunaway is in post-production, slated to be released later this year.


Giacinto Prandelli, 1914 – 2010

Giacinto Prandelli, a supremely elegant and intelligent artist, died last week in Milan at the age of 96. The obituary from Bresciaoggi includes a photo of him with Ingrid Bergman.

Both a tenor and a musician, Prandelli was esteemed by the greatest conductors of his time, including Arturo Toscanini, Victor de Sabata, and Guido Cantelli. He was Belmonte to Maria Callas’s Costanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at La Scala; and he was Alfredo to her Violetta in 1951 (Bergamo) and again in 1955, after Giuseppe di Stefano abandoned the Visconti staging of Verdi’s La traviata at La Scala.

I don’t know whether Prandelli portrayed Wagner’s Lohengrin on stage, but on disc, as you can hear, he was perfect in this rôle—stately, intensely poetic, possessed of an otherworldly aura.

Riposa in pace, egregio e valente maestro, e grazie.


Re-visioning Callas and word of mouth

One of my favorite bloggers is the best-selling author Gretchen Rubin. In the past, I might have been envious of her success in a really toxic way, but now my attitude is: Why not learn from the best?

So, going forward, I will celebrate word-of-mouth day once a month and ask, with gratitude and humility, that you help spread the word about Re-visioning Callas. You might:
In the meantime, I need to acquire a leopardskin cloche just like the one Maria Callas is wearing in the photo!

Maria Callas and music’s scandal

Barthes understood the erotics of music as an embrace. As such, music is more than meaning. It beats like the heart; it throbs, quivers, tenses, relaxes. Its pleasures occur again and again, a repeatable, not single, ecstasy. If this kind of music making is semantically and experientially akin to the orgasmic—profoundly physical but also exceeding the physical—at a time when music itself as a practice is culturally marked as female, then music’s scandal is still more serious than I have suggested… Barthes’s insight is that making music, unlike “mere” listening, necessarily brings the sensual body “back” into the equation.
Richard Leppert, The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation, and the History of the Body
The photo is by Horst P. Horst, c. 1956. The Lucia duet features Giuseppe di Stefano and is conducted by Tullio Serafin, from Callas’s 1953 recording of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.


Callas and the aural stare

What happens when we watch and hear a female performer? We are observing her, yet we are also doing something for which there’s no word: the aural version of staring… Visually, the character singing is the passive object of our gaze. But, aurally, she is resonant; her musical speech drowns out everything in range, and we sit as passive objects, battered by that voice. As a voice she slips into the “male/active/subject” position in other ways as well, since a singer, more than any other musical performer, enters into that Jacobine uprising inherent in the phenomenology of live performance and stands before us having wrested the composing voice away from the librettist and composer who wrote the score.
Carolyn Abbate, “Opera: or, the Envoicing of Women”
The image shows Maria Callas as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata at La Scala, c. 1955. The sound clip, instead, is from the Lisbon Traviata of 1958, with Alfredo Kraus as Alfredo.

Reminder: A snippet of video footage of Callas and Kraus in La traviata survives.


Callas in La forza del destino IV

Since Maria Callas was greatly devoted to the Theotokos (and celebrated her name day on the Dormition of the Theotokos), it seems fitting to conclude this series of excerpts from her 1954 recording of Verdi’s La forza del destino with “La vergine degli angeli.”

Out of cattiveria, I intended to post Callas’s rendition of the aria side-by-side with Renata Tebaldi’s traversal from Naples (1958), widely considered a milestone. Upon revisiting the two versions, I was surprised at how generally similar they are—and also surprised to note that, on purely vocal terms, I much prefer Callas.

Tebaldi, to my ears, consistently sings just under the pitch (though this may have more to do with the recording than with her). She mewls or croons once or twice (something I cannot abide), and I think that Callas outclasses her in phrasing and dynamics.

Truth be told, I think that for vocal splendor the finest version of “La vergine degli angeli” is the one by Ezio Pinza and Rosa Ponselle. Indeed, that recording of Pinza and Ponselle singing Verdi seems to me to reach some ultimate human limit of beauty, nobility, and genius. Maria Callas herself is supposed to have said, “I think we all know that Ponselle is simply the greatest singer of us all.”

Bon week-end à tous !


Around the world with Maria Callas

Image from LuigiDesign

In the past thirty days, readers from the following nations have visited re-visioning callas:
Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, “Europe,” Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Republic of Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Thanks so much for visiting, and please be in touch!

Callas in La forza del destino III

Donna Leonora’s cavatina from La forza del destino, “Me pellegrina ed orfana,” has an interesting history. There is evidence suggesting that it derives to some extent from the Re Lear opera that Verdi sketched but never completed.

Francesco Maria Piave’s Forza verses hew closely to an aria for Cordelia written by Antonio Somma for Lear, with some differences in meter.

It is tantalizing (and, alas, probably misleading) to think that “Me pellegrina” allows us to hear traces of Verdi’s Re Lear—surely opera’s most painful might-have-been. Whatever its ultimate source, the aria is moody and difficult, made even more challenging by its placement only moments after the curtain rises on Forza.

Maria Callas plumbed the musical and dramatic depths of “Me pellegrina” in her 1954 recording of Forza, capturing Donna Leonora’s tragic stature along with her youth and vulnerability.


Callas in La forza del destino II

Please excuse this personal excursus: A few days ago, I was feeling down about being unemployed. (By the way, I am a whiz in both old and new media, an expert communicator in three languages, an award-winning writer and blogger—and I have an ironclad work ethic. You or your company should hire me!)

Back to my tale: Down, unemployed. A tweep wrote and suggested that I get off the pity pot and listen to Maria Callas in “Madre, pietosa vergine from Verdi’s La forza del destino.

The tweep was right. Callas and Verdi healed me.
Ah, quei sublimi cantici,
Dell’organo i concenti,
Che come incenso ascendono
A Dio sui firmamenti,
Ispirano a quest’alma
Fede, conforto e calma!
“Ah, those sublime hymns and organ harmonies, rising like incense to G-d in heaven, inspire my soul with faith, comfort, and peace!”

Now what does this have to do with you, gentle and patient readers? Listening to this scene reminded me just how great this 1954 recording of Forza is.

I confess that I tend to neglect the set first, because the cuts offend me; and second, because one of the principal singers grates on my nerves. Callas though, is in breathtaking form, as you can hear in this scene.

She somehow captures all of the grandezza of Verdi’s music while remaining human and vulnerable. Listening to her, one is always aware that Donna Leonora is a terrified girl, perhaps still in her teens. Callas sings “Deh, non m’abbandonar” in an inward, pleading pianissimo, builds gradually to an epic, impassioned climax, and returns to a note of humility and supplication at the scene’s end.

While not a church-goer, Maria Callas prayed and was devoted to the Theotokos. Her faith may explain in part for the immense fervor she brings to this scene.

Listen, too, to Callas in “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” posted about a month ago.


Not Callas but LGBT Pride Month

President Barack Obama proclaimed that June 2010 is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month in the United States.

In honor of this occasion, I will tweet a quip, link, or song a day to celebrate our LGBT sisters and brothers.

Please join me on Twitter at @revisioncallas.

Coming soon: A post or posts about Maria Callas and the LGBT community.


Callas and the carnal voice

Despite the central role of the singer’s body in the production of opera and the production of voice, opera studies persists in thinking of voice as extra-corporeal. Carnal voices are either lacking or absent… As for the body of the singer, opera studies has tended to ignore it altogether unless it possesses currency as the object of desire or of a fetish. And when this happens, both the body and voice of the singer become secondary to the affect or erotic desire of the spectator.
Michelle Duncan, “The operatic scandal of the singing body: Voice, presence, performativity”


Giuseppe Taddei, 1916 – 2010

Giuseppe Taddei, one of opera’s most intelligent and masterful performers, has died in Rome. He was 93.

With Herbert von Karajan, Taddei gave two performances that I consider unsurpassed: In the title rôle of Verdi’s Falstaff, and as Tonio in Pagliacci. There are Tonios with more secure tone, but none that I’ve heard equals Taddei in soulfulness or in the natural, telling use of words. (I cannot listen to that performance of the Prologo without crying. That Pagliacci, to my mind, is one of the very greatest operatic performances preserved on disc.)

Taddei is also a splendid Scarpia to the Tosca of Leontyne Price, again under Karajan, and this is only scratching the surface of his discography.

Taddei sang a dozen times with Maria Callas between 1951 and 1958: as Amonastro in Aida, Enrico in Lucia, Gérard in Andrea Chénier, and Germont in La traviata. I find both Callas and Taddei in subpar form in this 1951 Mexico City Traviata, but perhaps that is to be expected given that the conductor was apparently on Quaaludes.

Riposa in pace, insigne Maestro, e grazie per la Sua arte sovrana.

Callas and death I

No one has ever been able to dialogue with death as she did, and her own death resembles a suicide, wrapped in a veil of uneasiness, like something unresolved. But when her time ended, it began again.
Marco Innocenti and Enrica Roddolo, Belle da morire
Belle da morire is a middlebrow book about great female beauties of the twentieth century who (allegedly) came to an unhappy end. The title is hard to translate: Fatal beauties or Beauties to die for, though neither is quite right.

The book trots out all the hoary, dim-witted clichés about female sexuality and its supposed nexus with shame, unhappiness, and death. Maria Callas is one of its subjects, along with a surprising number of women she knew or had met: Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, and (yes) Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

And yet… the snippet I quoted, from the end of the Callas chapter, struck me with its lyricism and stunning turnabout: Callas not as victim but as phoenix (Φοῖνιξ), immortal, triumphant. The Wiktionary entry on phoenix reads, in part:
from Ancient Egyptian Fnkhw (“Syrian people”). Signifies “mythical bird,” also “the date” (fruit and tree), also “Phoenician,” literally “purple-red,” perhaps a foreign word, or from phoinos (“blood-red”).
Splendor, nobility, sensuality, nourishment, life: Callas indeed shares much with the Φοῖνιξ.