Callas and Pasolini II

During the trips and vacations that they took together, Pier Paolo Pasolini made several portraits of Maria Callas, sometimes using sea water, stones, sand, and other natural elements.

Following is my translation of the the last section of “La presenza,” another poem that Pasolini wrote about Maria Callas.
Allow the little girl to be queen,
to open and close windows as if in a ritual
respected by guests, servants, faraway spectators.
And yet she, she, the little girl—
if she is neglected for only one moment,
she feels lost forever;
ah, not upon motionless islands
but upon the terror of not being,
the wind streams,
the divine wind
that brings not healing, but ever more sickness;
and you seek to stop her, she who would turn back,
there isn’t a day, an hour, an instant
in which this desperate effort can cease;
you cling to almost anything,
begetting the desire to kiss you.
Please read other posts about Maria Callas and Pier Paolo Pasolini.


Callas in Verdi’s Ernani

Maria Callas never sang the rôle of Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani on stage, though there was chatter in the 1950s of a possible La Scala production. More’s the pity, because she had everything needed by the heroines of Verdi’s youthful operas: Agility, fire in the belly, rhythmic flair, and that feeling of almost devilish energy that separates the true Verdians from the impostors.

(By the way, Verdi, in his letters, wrote admiringly of singers who had il diavolo addosso, “the devil on their backs.”)

Maria Callas recorded Elvira’s cavatina “Ernani, Ernani involami!” in 1958 with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Nicola Rescigno. Some consider the late Maestro Rescigno a hack or a mere time-beater, but I have always admired his conducting. Listen, for example, to the sultry, gorgeous thing he and the Philharmonia make of the brief orchestral introduction to this aria.

I would point out, too, that Callas, never one to suffer fools gladly, trusted and respected Rescigno and worked with him whenever she could. He also seems to have been a lovely human being.

Walter Legge, who had dreadful things to say about Callas’s character, recalled that she was an easy-going colleague, who approved this take of “Ernani, Ernani involami!” on the spot after Legge praised Rescigno’s buoyant, energetic tempi. She sang the aria frequently during her 1959 and 1962 concert tours.


Callas in Mozart

Maria Callas sang only one rôle by Mozart in the theatre: Kostanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. I posted earlier her remarkable performance of “Marten aller Arten” and her reflections on Mozartian style.

In 1963 and 1964, Callas recorded several Mozart arias for EMI, including Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata.” I am without my notes today, but to the best of my recollection, Callas essentially sight-read this particular aria and may have recorded it in a single take. Peter Andry alleges that Callas made the decision to record Mozart in a moment of pique, to show Walter Legge that she could sing his wife Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s repertoire.

Whatever the back-story, Callas (at ago 40) was in fragile voice when she recorded this aria under Nicola Rescigno, though her rigorous musicianship is often in evidence.

Interesting to note: During her Greek years, Callas’s Mozart repertoire included Zerlina’s “Batti, batti” from Don Giovanni and the sublime “Et incarnatus est” from the Große Messe. She returned to “Mi tradì” at a private concert in Geneva in 1970. On that occasion, she reportedly wished to practice singing in front of an audience after some five years away from the stage. The few accounts I’ve read of this concert suggest that it was an unhappy undertaking.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Mozart.


Callas in Il barbiere di Siviglia II

“Una voce poco fa,” Rosina’s cavatina from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, was a Callas favorite. It was part of her repertoire during her Greek years, and she sang it some twenty times in concert during the late 1950s—including the night of the 1958 Paris gala during which Aristotle Onassis reportedly resolved to win her.

While her staged performances as Rosina constituted the biggest flop of her career, Callas’s complete EMI set of Barbiere and this 1954 “Una voce poco fa,” recorded under the baton of Tullio Serafin, are among her very finest recordings, brimming with merriment and sparkling vocalism.

Today, her name day, we remember Maria Callas with this joyous performance.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Rossini.


Callas in La vestale II

Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale (1807), now a rarity, was considered a masterpiece in its day and much admired by Cherubini, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Wagner.

La vestale’s story (about a priestess who neglects her duties for love) and its exalted tone make it a kind of mini-Norma. That said, while Norma and Pollione go to their death on the funeral pyre in Bellini’s opera, Giulia (as Vestale’s heroine is known in the Italian translation of this French-language work) is saved and united with her lover when lightning reignites the goddess Vesta’s sacred flame.

Rosa Ponselle famously sang Vestale before undertaking Norma. Maria Callas, instead, sang Norma first and opened the 1954-55 La Scala season, the first after her dramatic weight loss, in Spontini’s opera, which she sang five times.

Earlier this year I posted rehearsal photos and footage of Callas in La vestale. The first clip in that post includes the aria “O nume tutelar.” (You can also hear Rosa Ponselle’s magnificent version of this aria.)

Today, instead, Callas sings the great scena beginning “Tu che invoco con orror.” This is an EMI recording from 1955, and I think it is one of her very greatest—throbbing with emotion, infinitely varied in color and accent, yet patrician in style. Callas performed this scene in concert frequently during the late 1950s.

The still photo you see in the YouTube clip is not from Vestale; instead, it is from a 1961 rehearsal of Cherubini’s Medea at La Scala.


Maria Callas in Delibes

According to Frank Hamilton’s marvelous annals and chronologies, Maria Callas sang music by Delibes on only four occasions of which we know. During her Greek years, she performed “Les filles de Cadix” and the Bell Song from Lakmé. She later sang the Bell Song twice more, in a 1952 concert and a 1954 EMI recording session.

This clip brings us the “live” 1952 version, with a RAI Symphony Orchestra (of Turin or Rome) led by Oliviero de Fabritiis. The occasion was one of the Grandi Concerti Martini e Rossi, and Callas was to have shared the bill with Giacomo Lauri Volpi (Nicola Filacuridi sang instead). In addition to this Lakmé aria, she also performed music from Verdi’s Macbeth and Nabucco and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

1952 was the year in which Callas’s gifts as a soprano drammatico d’agilità really came to the fore. Her 1952 operas included Verdi’s Vespri, La traviata, and Macbeth; Rossini’s Armida; and Bellini’s I puritani. She also sang the odd Tosca and Gioconda.

Listening to this clip, one has the impression of a voice that could do anything. (It’s not clear to me whether the fleeting unsteadiness one hears derives from Callas herself or from the radio transcription.)


Maria Callas in Madama Butterfly

Maria Callas recorded excerpts from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly under Tullio Serafin in 1954 and the complete opera under Herbert van Karajan in 1955, shortly before she undertook the rôle in Chicago.

If you believe that “Nina Foresti” was Maria Callas, she sang a truncated version of “Un bel dì” on the Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour radio show in 1935.

Callas biographers are divided on this point. Some report that she owned up to being Nina, while others cite her saying that she never sang under an assumed name. Nina’s speaking voice does sound vaguely like Callas’s, albeit mature for an 11-year-old girl. Her singing voice, though, is utterly unlike Callas’s. (And when did Callas ever work in the toy department of a large department store?)

In a 1957 interview, Callas described her young voice as “dark, almost black—when I think of it, I think of thick molasses,” a description that does not match Nina’s timbre at all.

Callas also sang music from Butterfly at the Italian Embassy in Athens during World War II. She returned to this excerpt, Cio-Cio San’s death scene, in her 1963 concert tour and taught it at Juilliard and Osaka master classes.

It was after Callas’s last Chicago performance as Cio-Cio San that the infamous incident with the process server took place.

This performance of Butterfly’s death scene seems to me markedly different from the one she gave a year before, something that happens rarely in the Callas discography. Nicolai Gedda sings the rôle of Pinkerton.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Puccini, and view a snippet of film from her Chicago rehearsals.


Maria Callas sings “Casta diva”

The video shows Maria Callas in the RAI studios of Rome on December 31, 1957, singing her signature aria, “Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma.

This is roughly 48 hours before the so-called “Rome walkout” that effectively ended Callas’s career in Italy and probably contributed more than anything else to her premature withdrawal from the stage.

(Briefly, I am of the opinion that Callas grew increasingly unable to handle the nervous strain of appearing before a hostile press, and that her dismay at Meneghini’s real or perceived mismanagement of her career contributed in no small part to her leaving him for Aristotle Onassis. This is speculation, based on what evidence we have; and all of the people who could confirm or deny my conjectures are long dead. Yes, Callas was in vocal decline by the late 1950s, but her nervous exhaustion greatly amplified the problems with her voice. This post about Callas’s 1957 Ballo at La Scala allows you to read and hear more about why I believe this.)

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Bellini. (Some of the YouTube clips, alas, have been removed since I linked to them.)


Callas and Verdi’s Otello

Verdi’s Otello had little importance in Maria Callas’s career. She recorded the Willow Song and Ave Maria for EMI in Paris in 1963. She also taught these selections (along with Iago’s Credo) during her Juilliard master classes.

In 1972 and 1973, Callas set down for Philips a pitifully tentative rendition of the love duet from Act I of Otello with Giuseppe di Stefano. That recording was kicking around YouTube earlier this year and is best left unheard.

Maria Callas also sang music from Rossini’s Otello on at least one occasion, in Thessaloníki in 1943.

Her rendition of Verdi’s “Ave Maria” is simple and inward, as befits this beautiful aria. The orchestra is led by Nicola Rescigno.

Please listen to Maria Callas in other music by Verdi.


Callas and the Dormition of the Theotokos

In the Orthodox Church, 15 August is a Great Feast: The Dormition of the Theotokos (Κοίμησις της Θεοτόκου) or “The Falling-asleep of the G-d-bearer.”

According to Orthodox teaching, three days following the death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, her body was taken up into heaven to join her soul. To quote from the Wikipedia entry on the Feast:
Orthodox theology teaches that the Theotokos has already undergone the bodily resurrection, which all will experience at the Second Coming, and stands in heaven in that glorified state that the other righteous ones will enjoy only after the Last Judgment.
Maria Callas celebrated her name day on 15 August and all her life was devoted to the Theotokos. She wrote to her Roman Catholic husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, from Buenos Aires in 1949:
The other evening I went with a Greek journalist and a lady to the Greek Orthodox church to light a candle for us and my Norma. You see, I feel our Church more than yours. It’s strange, but it’s so. Perhaps because I’m more accustomed to it, or perhaps because the Orthodox Church is warmer and more festive. It’s not that I don’t like yours, which is also mine now, but I have a strong partiality for the Orthodox Church.
(Okay, that quotation, transcribed when I was insufficiently caffeinated, does not in fact mention the Theotokos, though it shows that Callas was a believer and attached to her religion, albeit not a church goer.)

Early in their relationship, Meneghini made a gift to Callas of a Cignaroli miniature of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph that became a good-luck charm for her. (He refers to this painting as a “Madonnina.”) He reports that they hung a painting of the Madonna by Caroto in their bedroom, and that their favorite work of art was the painting you see above: Tiziano’s “Assunta” at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice (a basilica dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, as the Dormition of the Theotokos is known in the Roman church).

Meneghini also writes that he told Callas, after she took up with Aristotle Onassis:
Now go talk to all your patron saints and ask them for advice, ask them if you are in the right, but also pay a visit to your Madonna in the Cathedral in Milan, the Madonna you saw so very many times, before whom you genuflected and prayed.
The Madonnina (Madunina in the local dialect) who stands atop the Duomo is the symbol of Milan.

In 1960, Stelios Galatopoulos ran into Callas with Onassis making a visit to the island of Tinos, where there is a reportedly miraculous icon of the Thetokos. He wrote that
she appeared to be in the highest of spirits. Dressed simply in black and with a black chiffon scarf decorated with a few sequins over her head, Maria looked much younger than her years and the personification of Greek beauty.
Maria Callas reportedly died with a rosary (the gift of her sister-in-law Pia Meneghini) on her bedside table.

Since Maria Callas celebrated her name day on 15 August, I think that we should, too. I intend to post every day this week in her honor. The musical clip that follows is from Verdi’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata and was recorded in 1964-65, when Callas was in fragile voice, with her “big” career winding down.

Also: Please listen to Maria Callas in music from Verdi’s La forza del destino, including arias addressed to the Theotokos.


Callas and the “envoicing” of women

Composers’ dependence on women is unique to opera. Beethoven piano sonatas can be played by men, and men are capable of playing the trombone or conducting an orchestra, but no boy soprano could ever sing operatic female roles. Women are thus critical in authoring the operatic work as an audible reality; they cannot be prohibited from the work’s production unless (as Britten did) the composer limits himself to an all-male cast. And once they start singing, these women—cozily envisaged as pleasurable objects—will begin creating sound instead.
Carolyn Abbate, “Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women”
I think that Abbate’s point about boy sopranos may hold only for “modern” opera. Isn’t it true that in eighteenth-century Rome, for example, Papal censors did not allow women on stage, and female rôles were taken by boys?

(Let’s not even go near the issue of castrati, and of whether or not they be “boys,” “males,” or what have you.)

The image, I believe, shows Maria Callas as Medea, in the Margherita Wallmann production that opened the 1953–1954 La Scala season. (If you happen to know otherwise, please speak up.)

Bon week-end à tous !


Callas and Fiorilla III

Michael Scott, the founder of the London Opera Society, has an acid tongue and, it seems, the constancy of a streetwalker.

In his liner note for the Naxos reissue of Rossini’s Il turco in Italia, Mr. Scott uses Maria Callas as a stick with which to beat Cecilia Bartoli. He cites the monumentally important Rossini scholarship undertaken by Philip Gossett and others, then remarks:
A recent recording, taking advantage of this scholarship,… suffers from a Fiorilla whose florid singing is full of aspirates [audible exhalations of breath]; so obviously is her voice caught in her throat, the analogy she conjures up is that of a turkey gobbling.
Now that he is in Naxos’s employ, Mr. Scott seems to have discovered heretofore unsuspected virtues in Maria Callas’s performance. In his bitchy, hateful Maria Meneghini Callas (1991), he had written of her Fiorilla:
From the time Callas has lost weight we note the element of contrivance beginning to obtrude in her characterizations. However, spontaneity is essential to Rossini’s style. Although Callas’s Fiorilla may be remarkably different from her Leonora, it lacks charm and does not engage the listener’s sympathy… Exaggerating was the nearest Callas could get to comedy.
Judge for yourself whether Callas’s Fiorilla “lacks charm” or, indeed, whether “in her attempts to refine her characterization she loses sight of the basis of secure vocal emission: a correctly supported voice.”

Her partner in this duet is Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Gianandrea Gavazzeni leads the La Scala orchestra.

Listen to Maria Callas in other selections by Rossini.