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.


  1. Bellini was really a true genius, admired even by Wagner - who hated Italian opera. Sometimes I imagine how would his operas be if he died later.

    Today is also the death day of María Malibran, who could be considered "the Callas from nineteenth century".

  2. Dear José Luiz: Thank you for your many comments. For now, I reply only to this one: THANK YOU for letting me know about Malíbran! (Re: Cassandre vs. Didon, I would like to hear both! Imagine her "Adieu, beau ciel d'Afrique, astres que j'admirais...." Oh!