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.

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