Callas-fan-in-chief II

Readers of this blague already know that President Barack Obama is a Maria Callas fan.

President Obama reiterated his admiration for la Divina in his recent Rolling Stone interview:
I’m not a big opera buff in terms of going to opera, but there are days where Maria Callas is exactly what I need.
The audio selection is the Habañera from Callas’s 1964 recording of Bizet’s Carmen.

Hear Maria Callas in other selections from Carmen.


Callas and Fiorilla IV

Mr. Karl H. van Zoggel, editor of Maria Callas Magazine, published by the Maria Callas International Club, kindly shared with me a recent issue. It includes original articles, interview transcriptions, reminiscences by readers, and a number of rare photos.

One reader, a Peter S., shared these remarks about Callas:
For me, her funniest recorded moment… comes about halfway through [Rossini’s] Il turco in Italia when Fiorilla, being upbraided by her furious husband for her outrageous behaviour, uses what can best be described as “fake weeping” in order to bring him back into line (Mia vita, mio tesoro…). She succeeds, of course.
Mr. S. is quite right: This is one of Callas’s great moments on disc, often overlooked for several reasons—the (relative) rarity of the opera, the shredded edition used for the recording (unacceptable by today’s standards), and the fact that we tend to associate Callas with tragedy and comedy.

Listen closely, and enjoy!

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Rossini.


Maria Callas ailleurs

My learnèd and elegant friend Paolo Bullo wrote a beautiful post to honor the anniversary of Maria Callas’s birth into eternal life.

Se leggete l’italiano, andate direttamente al blog di Paolo. (Attenzione, però: Paolo è una persona squisita ma, a quanto pare, alquanto sàdica in materia di tipografia, almeno nei confronti delle persone, come la sottoscritta, di età veneranda. ☺)

If English is easier for you, my quick-and-dirty translation follows.
For a poor soul like me, it is hard to find the right words to recall Maria Callas today, on the thirty-third anniversary of her death.

Who knows, too, whether poor Callas would have wanted to be recalled by me. I rather doubt it.

On the grounds of manifest incompetence, then, I willingly abstain from swelling the river of words that always overflows on these occasions. Instead, I shall quote her teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo, who described her first meeting with the 15-year-old Sofia Anna Maria Cecilia Kalageropoulos, not yet Maria Callas.

Without a word of warning, Maria began to sing. To speak of this now may bring a smile, because we know now who Maria Callas is, but I discovered it then, at that moment.

I suddenly found myself alert, tense.

For years, in secret, I had been waiting for that voice—no, I had been
seeking it.

It was a meeting destined to happen. I closed my eyes. I heard a violent, riotous cascade of sounds, uncontrolled, but dramatic and moving.

And I close with beautiful remarks by Leonardo Bragaglia from the preface of the most recent edition of his book on Maria Callas, L’arte dello stupore.

Maria Callas’s destiny was unique. Audiences showered praise upon her. She was put on a pedestal by critics both qualified and censorious. The greatest conductors and stage directors respected her, but she was insulted by the charlatans of the illustrated magazines, by pens-for-hire!

All of us, music lovers and musicologists, performers and spectators, remain bewildered and embittered by this. We, too, are insulted.

I adore this photo, because I see in it so much humanity and so little rhetoric.
A reader by the very interesting name of Nina Foresti kindly brought to my attention the Official Maria Callas International Archive.

In terms of look and feel, the site is a real blast from the past (party like it’s 1999, kids!), but it contains much interesting material. I commend it to you warmly, though I have barely begun exploring it myself.

Callas in Los Angeles

A relatively recent addition to the Callas legacy is her November 1958 Los Angeles concert under Nicola Rescigno.

The program included arias by Thomas, Boito, Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, and “Tu che invoco” from Spontini’s La vestale, the opera with which Callas had opened the 1954-55 La Scala season.

While this selection from the Los Angeles concert has the usual problems of distortion and muffled sound that one hears in “live” recordings of the era, it is very interesting because it documents Callas in impressive voice and gives an idea of what her voice sounded like in the theatre, with “air” around it. Unfortunately, she does end the Spontini scene with a high note that is ugly as both vocalism and music-making.

Earlier this year, I posted other material relating to La vestale, including rehearsal photos and footage from the Scala production.


Callas sings Bellini

Vincenzo Bellini, who died on 23 September 1835, not quite 34 years of age, was by some accounts Maria Callas’s favorite composer.

Callas became Callas, if you will, when she performed “Qui la voce” from Bellini’s I puritani for Tullio Serafin in Venice in 1949. He was auditioning her to replace Margherita Carosio, ill with flu, in a run of Puritani due to start in a few days. Serafin reportedly listened to Callas with tears streaming down his cheeks, and then prevailed upon her to learn the rôle of Elvira in less than a week.

At the time, Callas was also singing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre. No soprano in recent memory had sung such vocally divergent rôles—though, as Callas herself often observed, notions of vocal category or Fach were extremely elastic in the nineteenth century when these operas were composed.

(Indeed, Wagner can be sung properly only by singers with impeccable bel canto schooling. The leathery barking and foghorn declamation that we most often hear today in Wagner represent a betrayal of his music.)

Callas’s masterful performance in Puritani, hailed in the Italian and international press, put her on the map as a prima donna assoluta, capable of singing (in theory) any music written for the female voice.

She recorded Elvira’s mad scene for Cetra later in 1949. If I had to choose a single recording to represent Callas’s art, I think that it would be this one—a miracle of expression and musicianship, with countless felicities of phrasing, rubato, and portamento.

The next time that you hear Bellini’s music, remember that he left this earthly life at a pitifully young age. In 1898, Verdi, normally chary with praise and hyperbole, wrote to the French critic Camille Bellaigue:
Bellini, it is true, was poor in harmony and instrumentation, but rich in sentiment and in that melancholy tint that was his alone! Even in his lesser known operas, Straniera and Pirata, there are long, long, long melodies (melodie lunghe lunghe lunghe) that no one wrought before he did… Note, my dear Bellaigue, that I do not intend (G-d forbid!) to pass judgment, only to offer my impressions. You speak with the greatest indulgence of Otello and Falstaff. The author is not complaining…
On this anniversary of Belllini’s passage into eternal life, let us hear his music sung by one of its greatest interpreters.


Maria Callas sings Berlioz

Admirers of Maria Callas love to play “what if.” What if she had never gone on the July 1959 cruise with Aristotle Onassis? What if Elsa Maxwell, that bird of ill omen, had never arrived on the scene? What if Callas had agreed to sing Carmen, Poppea, Charlotte—all rôles that were offered to her after her withdrawal from the stage?

For me, the most painful “what if” is Callas in Berlioz. In 1963, she set down a glorious recording of Marguerite’s “D’amour l’ardente flamme” from La Damnation de Faust. She was not in prime vocal form, but what a feeling she had for Berlioz’s music—the fire smouldering beneath the polished surface, the love for la parole, the sensuality tamed by restraint.

To my mind, a great tragedy is that Callas never undertook Didon in Les Troyens, a rôle that she could have sung well at almost any point of her career (and her retirement), or so it seems to me. And Les Nuits d’été? And La Mort de Cleopâtre?

Well, we can be grateful that we have this beautiful recording.


33 ans déjà

Today is the birthday into eternal life of Maria Callas. She left this earthly realm on September 16, 1977.

I invite you to read my tribute to Maria Callas from 2007.

My knowledge of Greek Orthodox practices is more or less nil, but I understand that it is customary to give alms in memory of the dead. Since Maria Callas was devoted to the Theotokos, “La vergine degli angeli” from Verdi’s La forza del destino seems fitting music and a fitting sentiment with which to remember her.

I think, too, that we can say prayers of thanks for the infinite beauty that Maria Callas brought and continues to bring to us.

Grazie, Divina!


Callas in Cavalleria rusticana

Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was, as far as we know, the first complete operatic rôle that Maria Callas sang on stage—in April 1939, as a fifteen-year-old student in Athens. (As a schoolgirl in New York, she did sing in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.)

Callas sang Santuzza’s big aria, “Voi lo sapete,” several times in Greece and during her 1973-74 concert tour with Giuseppe di Stefano.

Michael Scott, among others, claims to hear stark differences in Callas’s vocalism and general approach between this 1953 commercial set of Cavalleria, recorded when Callas had just begun losing weight, and her recording of Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci, set down about a year later when she was a sylph. Callas’s sound does seem darker and thicker in Cavalleria, though one could argue that the music and the rôle require an earthier timbre.

I’ll post material from Pagliacci aria later this week so that you can compare Callas’s performances. If you want to hear how Callas sang Cavalleria during her tour with di Stefano, there are many excerpts on YouTube, one sadder than the next.

I confess that I have avoided posting material from Cavalleria rusticana because I cannot abide this tawdry, bombastic opera. Giovanni Verga’s novella “Cavalleria rusticana” is a spare and devastating work, and I find that Mascagni’s opera preserves little of its flavor.

Worth noting: Gemma Bellincioni, the first Santuzza, also sang Violetta and Salome. (Verdi heard and admired her as Violetta some twenty years before the Cavalleria excerpt was recorded.)


Callas in Norma III

This is (for now?) the earliest known footage of Maria Callas on stage. It shows her with Franco Corelli, Elena Nicolai, and Boris Christoff in Bellini’s Norma, which opened the season at Trieste’s Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in November 1953. Antonino Votto conducted.

What does the video tell us? First, that production values in provincial, post-war Italy were primitive and, by some feat of anachronistic legerdemain, utterly Monty Python-esque. (Christoff looks very much like the “It’s” man; Flavio and his companions would be right at home in Monty Phython and the Holy Grail; and some of the acting seems to have been inspired by “The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights“.)

Second, it confirms that Callas, as Augusta Oltrabella famously observed, “was an actress in the expression of the music, and not vice versa.” On its own, as pantomime, Callas’s acting was compelling, yes, but not overwhelming. Compare today’s clip with the rehearsal footage from her 1964 Paris Norma. In both, her gestures and expressions are strong and spare—calculated, of course, for the opera house and not for video or film. I do not see a significant difference in her acting from her “fat,” pre-Visconti days and what came later, though I do hear greater refinement in her singing.

What do you think?

See and hear Maria Callas in other selections from Bellini’s Norma.


Maria Callas as Dalila II

Maria Callas recorded Dalila’s three arias from Saint-Saën’s Samson et Dalila in 1961.

I posted “Printemps qui commence” and “Mon cœur s’ouvre a ta voix” earlier; today’s clip of “Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse” completes the trilogy.

Callas’s magnificent command of language and style and the awe-inspiring range of color she brings to this music speak for themselves.

On YouTube, you can hear this aria “from the original vinyl,” whatever that is supposed to mean. (Whether LP, CD, or what have you, they are all reproductions, no? And compressed to death when uploaded to YouTube, n’est-ce pas?)