Callas in Parsifal II

Yesterday we heard “canonical” Callas, in Bellini; today we turn to “marginal” Callas. (Does such a thing exist?)

Maria Callas sang the rôle of Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal only five times, in 1949 and 1950. One chronicler says that she was to have sung it at La Scala in 1956 instead of Giordano’s Fedora.

Kundry seems to me a rôle that Callas could have sung comfortably into the 1960s, one that might have been a plausible comeback vehicle even as late as the 1970s (when she had reportedly signed on to sing Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther at the Opéra de Paris). One sticking point, I suspect, is that the opera is called Parisifal, not Kundry, though Parisfal is a cipher and Kundry is the character who draws us—well, draws me—to this opera. Another is that, by the 1960s and 1970s, the tradition of singing opera in the audience’s lingua franca and not in the work’s “original” language had been lost.

In The Newly Born Woman by Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, we read of Kundry:
We learn that she has been damned ever since, in a mythical time, she laughed at Christ’s passage—accursed laughter that she will carry within her until the end of time. She is the feminine counterpart of the Wandering Jew, assigned by Klingsor to the young Parsifal in order to seduce him. She thinks she will succeed in this by speaking the name of his mother, but the other’s chastity prevents their coming together and permits him to “save” Kundry at the moment of the spell of Good Friday… She is the madwoman who names, who names the mother; she is also the laugh that disperses, that is the symbol of sexuality whose act is what is forbidden in this opera. It is also she who wounded Amfortas; her laugh keeps a wide gash bleeding…
Have you ever heard a sexier-sounding Kundry?

Hear Maria Callas (and Giacinto Prandelli) in other music by Wagner.


Callas sings Bellini II

In late 1957, Maria Callas sang a concert at the Dallas Civic Opera that included arias from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Bellini’s I puritani, Verdi’s Macbeth and La traviata, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

Many claim that Callas’s voice was in precipitous decline in 1957, but neither her hair-raising Dallas program nor her supple, easy singing therein support that claim. The Dallas concert itself was not recorded, but the rehearsal was, and she sang the Puritani mad scene with her customary pathos and flair (the downward runs in particular sounding like cascades of diamonds). What’s more, she ended the scene with a huge high E-flat.

Her singing here—with a trusted colleague and friend, Nicola Rescigno, and without the pressure of a “gala” audience—to me suggests that Tito Gobbi was perhaps right. He opined that Callas, “desperately nervous” and a “vulnerable, lonely, elusive” creature, never lost her voice but lost her nerve.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Bellini.


Joan Sutherland, 1926 – 2010

With all due respect for her as a human being and as a singer who, in one way or another, contributed to the so-called “bel canto revival,” the late Dame Joan Sutherland has never been an artist dear to my heart—this despite the fact that she was a knitter.

I own only two recordings by Joan Sutherland: The Decca Turandot conducted by Zubin Mehta, and the EMI Don Giovanni led by Carlo Maria Giulini. That neither is conducted by Sutherland’s husband, Sir Richard Bonynge, is not a coincidence.

Sutherland’s studio-only Turandot is a staggering achievement. No one—not Nilsson, not Turner, certainly not Callas—sings this music with greater ease. In fact, no one else sings Turandot with ease, period. Sutherland, instead, seems to possess limitless reserves of power. The pearly brightness of her sound is that of the moon, with which Turandot is so strongly identified, and it gives her principessa an otherworldly mystique. Her capitulation to Calaf, too, is beautifully and movingly sung.

(Oh, Alfano! And poor Puccini! But I digress.)

In his recollection (more precisely, character assassination) of Maria Callas, the EMI producer Walter Legge recalled:
[S]he flew into London for the dress rehearsal of Sutherland’s Lucia, insisted we sit with her, had herself photographed with the new prima donna, and then took us off to lunch. Seated, she stated: “She will have a great success tomorrow and make a big career if she can keep it up. But only we know how much greater I am.”
I think that Callas was correct.

As a young singer, Joan Sutherland undertook small rôles in operas starring Maria Callas: Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the sacerdotessa to Callas’s Aida. When Joan Sutherland sang alongside Maria Callas as part of the 1958 centenary gala of Covent Garden, it was as an emerging star. She was only three years younger than Maria Callas.


Callas in Ballo II

Some months ago I posted an excerpt from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, the opera in which Maria Callas opened the 1957-58 La Scala season. As I indicated then, this triumphant Ballo came at a time when Callas’s career was beginning to unravel, though she was in superlative form during the Ballo run.

Today, as part of Verdi’s birthday week, I offer you a trio from that same Ballo, which was conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni. In truth, this particular moment in the performance is a bit shambolic, with a few false entries and the like, but it is white-hot and very exciting.

Along with Maria Callas as Amelia, the selection features Giuseppe di Stefano as Riccardo and Ettore Bastianini as Renato.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi.


Maria Callas dada

This video by Richard Move features Barbie and Ken “acting out” dialogue from the Italian-language voice track of Pier Pasolini’s film Medea, which starred Maria Callas.

The video was shown at the University of California, Irvine, as part of an exhibition curated by Martha Gever, VIDEO DADA. From the UCI website:
…VIDEO DADA surveys the Internet’s amalgamation of popular culture and art, calling into question the difference between the two.
I am drunk with fatigue today and half convinced that this is a hallucination born of too little sleep.

Besides, I would have Barbie “play” Anna Netrebko.

Happy viewing! Read more about Maria Callas and Pier Paolo Pasolini.


Callas a mari usque ad mare

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Maria Callas as Aida

Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida left Maria Callas’s stage repertoire in 1953, but it was an important opera for her during the early part of her career.

As a student and young professional in Athens, Callas frequently sang Aida’s arias, "Ritorna vincitor!" and "O patria mia." She offered music from Aida at her La Scala audition in 1947 and first sang in the house (albeit not as an official member of the company) in Aida in 1950. All told, she portrayed Aida some three dozen times and on three continents between 1948 and 1953 and also made a complete recording of the opera for EMI in 1955.

The opera’s final scene, today’s selection for Verdi’s birthday week, comes from a 1953 Covent Garden performance, part of Callas’s second-to-last run of Aida. While Kurt Baum is a coarse Radames, the rest of the company could hardly be bettered, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting and Giulietta Simionato as Amneris. (Incidentally, the sacerdotessa in this Aida run was the young Joan Sutherland.)

The recorded sound is dim and distorted, but Callas’s singing is ecstatically beautiful—dreamy, gentle, and death-besotted in the scene’s opening phrases, in which she makes exquisite use of portamento. To my mind, her performance here equals and, perhaps, surpasses the legendary Ponselle/Martinelli recording of this duet.

(Since it is Verdi’s birthday week, listen also to the version of this scene by Aureliano Pertile, Dusolina Giannini, and Irene Minghini-Cataneo under Carlo Sabajno.)

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi, and hear additional selections with Giulietta Simionato.


Callas in Don Carlo

Maria Callas sang the rôle of Elisabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlos in a single run of performances at La Scala in 1954. Well, more precisely, she sang the rôle of Elisabetta in Don Carlo, though I have no information about the particular edition performed at La Scala beyond the fact that it was in Italian.

She had been scheduled to portray Elisabetta on two other occasions in the early 1950s but cancelled because of illness. (In those years, a Callas cancellation was not automatically a “scandal.”)

“Tu che le vanità” remained a staple in her concert repertoire. She sang it frequently in her 1959 tour and also in her sad “comeback” tour with di Stefano in 1973–74. She also recorded it for EMI under Nicola Rescigno in 1958, the performance I offer you today.

Verdi’s music is at its darkest and most brooding in Don Carlo, now recognized as a supreme masterpiece, but still something of a rarity in the 1950s. Callas’s tone occasionally turns watery (EMI’s brutally close miking doesn’t help), but she makes a grandiose whole of this varied and episodic scena. For all of Elisabetta’s nobility, Callas allows us to hear the young, once hopeful woman now crushed beneath the weight of court intrigues and dynastic politics.

At “la pace dell’avel,” Callas’s Elisabetta looks deep into the abyss, and we along with her.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi.


Maria Callas sings Verdi

On Saturday, 9 October, Giuseppe Verdi turns 197 years young. (Actually, it seems that he was born on 10 October but, as Marcello Conati reports, Verdi himself always celebrated his birthday on 9 October.) This week’s posts, then, will be devoted to music by Verdi.

Maria Callas scored an historic triumph in Verdi’s Macbeth at La Scala in 1952 but never again sang the rôle of Lady Macbeth. About two years earlier, she had sung an audition for Toscanini for a Macbeth that was to have been staged in Busseto, but because of the maestro’s great age and fragile health, that production never came to be. (Some say, though, that Toscanini’s admiration for Callas finally led Antonio Ghiringhelli to offer her a proper contract at La Scala.)

Macbeth was also at the center of two Callas “scandals” of the late 1950s: The dispute with Rudolf Bing that eventually led to his firing her from the Met; and her troubles with Kurt Herbert Adler and the San Francisco Opera. The supposed Macbeth curse does seem to have pursued Callas!

Maria Callas recorded Lady Macbeth’s three great scenes under Nicola Rescigno in 1958, and they are among her finest recordings. Lady Macbeth’s entry in 1958 is less monumental in terms of vocal tone, perhaps, than the 1952 Scala pirate, but it is fiercer, with lashing attacks and a more propulsive quality than Callas had mustered earlier.

Some of the credit for this must go to Nicola Rescigno. I’ve said it before: He was a much underrated maestro, not at the level of a Muti or a Toscanini (who is?), but a sensitive and honorable musician.

Hear Maria Callas in other music by Verdi, including video of this same aria sung in concert.