Cher Public

Absolute assoluta

Only because I am a member of the You Can Never Have Too Much Callas School of Opera Listening can I recommend EMI’s new release The Callas Effect.  The beautifully packaged production is the size of a small paperback book and consists of two CDs with 29 arias sung by Callas plus a new 70-minute DVD showing some details of her life and artistry, focusing on her work with the Royal Opera House.  The package also contains a detailed and moving essay by Ira Siff plus translations of the texts of all the recorded arias.  

The trouble is, it’s all been done before with more detail and insight.  While this package might be an excellent holiday gift for someone with a burgeoning interest in the work of Maria Callas, anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of La Divina will likely feel a distinct sense of déjà vu.  Virtually all the CD selections are recycled from the ‘80’s release “La Divina” (which I received as a gift on cassette and played repeatedly until it literally disintegrated) plus a smattering from other previous albums.  The DVD is a pale shadow of the earlier released John Ardoin film and doesn’t even match the A&E television production Callas, Life and Art that has been available for many years.

Still, the CDs are well worth a new visit.  There are a few selections here that I was only marginally familiar with, including a gorgeous “Dov’e l’indiana bruna” from Lakme under the master Serafin where Callas almost seems to employ three different voices to illuminate the changing moods of this piece.

Later there is an astonishingly fresh-voiced “Je suis Titania” from Mignon, with Callas tossing off the high-flying coloratura with utter ease, while bringing an ebullience and joy to the piece that made it much more than an excuse for soprano pyrotechnics.  To hear the voice shift from this aria to Lady Macbeth’s “La luce langue” and Turandot’s “In questa reggia” is to remember in amazement the apocryphal story of Serafin demanding that Callas sing Elvira in I Puritani in a week while she still had two more Brunnhildes to get through.  Was there in our time another artist who could sing with such versatility?

Even the familiar pieces hold wonder.  Who could forget the lightly touched “mmmmm-ma” in “Una voce poco fa”, the interpolated high E at the end of the Vespri Bolero, the frenzy of bloodlust she conveys with the repeated “Cadra!” in “La luce langue,” and the sense of deep, unfulfilled longing that only she could bring to “Ah fors’e lui”, “Vissi d’arte”, “Tu che le vanita”, and “La mamma morte.”  The phrasing, the enormous range of vocal colors, the very personal touch she gave to every lyric are all on abundant display here, fueled by her phenomenal work ethic and studied musicianship.

The one real misstep seems to me a most peculiar rendition of Elvira’s “Mi tradi” from Don Giovanni.  While the notes and the phrasing are there, Callas barrels through it in a very verismo-ish way.  It sounds more like Santuzza than a Mozart heroine.

The DVD is the least interesting element of The Callas Effect.  The familiar film of the 1964 Covent Garden Tosca Act II  is hauled out yet again, and the only other footage shown is the equally familiar 1962 concert.  The DVD commentary issues from a variety of Royal Opera folk, as well as some completely random people labeled as “Opera Connoisseurs” who provide little insight and much fawning.  Mirella Freni and Joyce diDonato add rather general comments.

There is nothing new here, except an interesting story by director John Copley about Callas teaching him new things about the score of Il Trovatore; what he called a cadenza, Callas shows is actually a vital part of the aria itself. There is also an interesting focus on Callas’ acting work and how she used stillness and economy of gesture to tremendous effect.   The most valuable comments come from Tito Gobbi’s daughter Cecilia, who provides some very personal stories. Still, this DVD is definitely Divina 101, and most of the frequently twee commentary runs the gamut from annoying to irritating.  Give it to a newbie.

The best part of The Callas Effect is that it serves as another reminder of how the combination of utter dedication and musical genius made Callas the premiere singing artist of the twentieth century.  The worst part is the feeling that this rather unnecessary release is a marketing ploy to keep the Callas mystique alive through the EMI catalogue, all of which is documented in the accompanying booklet.

  • semira mide

    The “mmmmm-ma” in “Una voce poco fa” is absolutely incredible. Callas was able to convey so many facets of her Rosina in just that one word -- amazing.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Especially in her Paris debut on film where you can see her face change.

      • semira mide


  • Camille

    Does she have a duet with Angie? I’ll certainly buy it if she does.

  • La marquise de Merteuil

    Seems to me “apocraphal” means spurious in this context although it can also mean esoteric as well… if spurious it seems strange since it is fact that she had to learn Puritani on 6 days notice WHILE singing Bruennhilde if her story to Lord Harewood is to be believed …

    • manou


      • Regina delle fate

        Off-topic but RIP Sena Jurinac -- one of the last surviving members of the post-war Vienna Staatsoper ensemble. Doubtless Bill will have reminiscences galore of this great soprano.

        • Bill

          Sena Jurinac, tears well in the eyes when
          remembering her, her luscious voice, her charm,
          as reports from Vienna indicate she died
          yesterday in Augsburg in her 91st year.
          To me one of the most gorgeous lyrical voices
          I have ever heard (along with Seefried and de los Angeles). She had a staggeringly large
          repertoire -- something like 1198 performances
          of 46 roles at the Wiener Staatsoper alone altogether more than 70 roles performed overall.
          Surely one of the greatest opera stars of the
          2nd half of the 20th century -- “die Sena” was
          so beloved in Vienna and always so generous
          in discussing her colleages, her rivals -- Cieca should have a headline about her so we can write further all in a cluster. From her
          first Viennese appearance as Cherubino in the
          first performance at the Staatsoper after the
          second war on May 1, 1945 to her final appearance at the Staatsoper as the Marschallin in 1982 she was truly a legend.

      • oedipe

        Thanks, manou. (All eyes were turned towards you.)

        • bobsnsane

          All of ’em…..

    • k0000

      “Apocryphal” does not mean “esoteric.” And the story isn’t apocryphal; it’s been confirmed from a variety of sources, including from Serafin.

  • perfidia

    I always thought the Callas “Je suis Titania” was too labored. Ardoin’s analysis of it in “The Callas legacy” is spot on. She brings wonderful lightness to some sections, but the high notes are a bit of a trial. But you can only take away from me when you pruy it from my dead, cold hands. There is a broken up, execrable recording of Callas singing the aria in Italian during her fat years, before the fame, and even though it is a shadow, it is absolutely incredible. You can hear the voice that could sing Abigaille just laughing off every hurdle in the aria.

  • I’ve always liked Callas’s “Mi tradi”, which I find to be very excitingly sung. Yes, her Elvira is more forceful than usual but she still portrays the character’s vulnerability, even if it’s that of a wounded tigress.

    • Camille

      This observation was interesting to me so I went to the CD case and dragged down the Callas “Mozart--Beethoven--Weber” album to give it a listen and to check the date of recording: 1963 & ’64. Sounds pretty good for that date and she takes a lot of care in the recitative. The tempo is just taken at a fast clip as often it is conducted that way just to get the singer through the difficulties of the final page or so. It is interesting to hear her sing Mozart, a composer she famously deemed “boring” — I think in one of those master classes and in the presence of Betty Blackhead, nonetheless…? Correct me if mistaken. Perhaps I will try to listen to that Martern aller Arten, so much less rigorous by being sung as “Tutte le torture”. I seem to recall it as very exciting.

      Just in time for La Divina’s soon-to-be birthday — what is it this time, 88?

      • I think we have to be careful about that “boring” remark, if Callas even used that term. She walked it back a good deal in later years when she talked about how she found the performance practice then applied to Mozart (undersinging, little use of vibrato, mostly very slow tempos) uninteresting. There was also the point that an actively performing singer has her own career and repertoire choices foremost in her mind at all times, and the parts that made Callas famous were not by Mozart: thus Bellini and Donizetti seemed more interesting to her because she was actively taking on the challenges of singing them, whereas the Mozart she encounted only as a spectator, and then in a style she didn’t care for.

        There’s a moment in an interview when Callas is asked to compared singing Isolde and Norma and the interviewer indicates that maybe Norma is a more grateful part, and the diva corrects him sharply, saying no, Isolde is a very great role. So I think she did have a somewhat broader appreciation of operatic repertoire than she sometimes takes credit for. However, once she was in a position to pick and choose, she tended toward a subset of the repertory that both showed her off at her best and gave her the satisfaction of singing a beautiful shapely line — something that is perhaps a little more within the singers’ grasp when performing Bellini as opposed to, say, Janacek. (I realize this doesn’t explain Tosca, except perhaps as an indication that even Callas never quite reached the pinnacle when she could sing only what suited her best.)

  • zinka

    If I could hear her live….I would go nuts…or more nuts…
    Name five singers you never heard live and would love to have been there.For me:


    • MontyNostry

      Price (L), Raisa, Caruso, Warren, Kipnis and loads more, of course.

    • Buster

      Meta Seinemeyer, Lotte Schöne, Frida Leider, Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Cesare Siepi, Kirsten Flagstad, Ghena Dimitrova, Maria Callas, Franco Corelli.

      • Feldmarschallin

        you never heard Dimitrova? I heard the Tosca, Lady and Turandot. What I remember of the Tosca was how she just ripped off her gloves which I thought was so unladylike. After the performance she could be seen eating at the Wienerwald! Very large voice and I first heard her in Verona as Lady in 82.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          No, didn’t start going to opera until my early teens in the mid-90s, virtually all in Scotland and London. Not sure when her last appearance at the ROH was, but I’m pretty certain it was before I was switched on to such things.

        • armerjacquino

          I have mentioned before, to CK’s dismay, that I saw Dimitrova as Amneris in Rome in ’93 and I can’t remember a thing about it.

      • MontyNostry

        FM -- I saw that Lady in Verona in 1982 too. Fabulous floated D flat, as I remember. By the time she sang it at Covent Garden a few years later, the D flat was definitely loud, while the entrance aria was so powerful it pinned me to the back of my seat (and I was in the gods).
        Cocky, I I saw her in what I think was her final run of performances at the ROH, as Santuzza around 1990. I remember the way she tipped her head back to release huge (if not very agreeable by that stage) top notes. Probably the best she did in London was a concert Gioconda at the Barbican (with, I think, Domingo and Cappuccilli, and certainly Barbara Conrad) in around 1983.

        • marshiemarkII

          Well that makes three of us then, as I was also at that Arena Macbeth. She was unbelievable!!!!
          One of the greatest operatic experiences,easily. She had everything, size, skillful coloratura, phrasing, sensational in every way. The following year, I was, of course, at her Carnegie debut as Abigaille, and was a tad less fabulous. By 1987, she was second cast to Marton in the new production of Turandot at the Met, and by then there was only the size left. And the top notes were a real trial, screechy and almost hitting a glass ceiling. I gave up on her and never saw her again, until one cold afternoon, we crossed in front of the Empire Hotel, she was wearing furs but still managed to look dowdy.

          • MontyNostry

            It intermittently poured with rain the night I saw that Macbeth, but they hoovered the stage between showers, carried on the performance and managed to complete the show by about 01:30. I think Dimitrova had a rather beautiful face, and she looked tall and stately, but she was rather matronly of manner. Can I put forward five further candidates who have not yet been mentioned? Cebotari, Vallin, Melchior, London, Reizen.

          • marshiemarkII

            Monty wow I was at that very performance, I do remember the rain indeed. And then I went to Rome and came back for more, and saw another Macbeth I think. Also I saw the devil and Bruna Baglioni in Cavalleria, most forgettable of course, don’t even know why I remember now…..I also saw a fabulous Aida with Maria Chiara that Cocky mentioned recently, and she was ravishing, most gorgeous pianissimi, but the voice was kind of smallish for Verona, but so gorgeously Italian. The mighty Cossotto was of course Amneris, though no longer the powerhouse she had once been, still formidable. Not sure if it was all the same year, as I was in Verona several times.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          Cheers for the Dimitrova memories (those of you who actually have them ;-) ). They are pretty consistent with the view I’ve formed from recordings (imagine!) and I’m pretty sure there is nobody truly like her around today, although a review I read of Monastyrskaya’s Aida did invoke Dimitrova’s name. I’m not surprised it became hard and wearing after a time, the sheer energy needed to sustain singing like that is hard to conceive of.

          Incidentally, my one visit to Verona was marred by intermittent drizzle, with the performance constantly stopping and starting. I lasted til about 1am and then gave up. We were only about half way through. No idea who was singing. Think it was about 1998.

          • Nerva Nelli

            I heard Dimitrova in TROVATORE at San Francisco- not a great role for her though as with virtually every Leonora she did quite well in At IV. She was outsung by Cappuccilli and Zajick, not by Bonisolli. ( n.b.: a Verdian Verdi cast).

            At the Met I saw a loud, workmanlike , again LOUD Santuzza. What I enjoyed her in the most was a Turandot there, though a retired Liu sitting nearby (who had sung with Nilsson) told me she did not find that the voice held together very well.

            Wish I had heard Dimitrova at the Verona Arena, where my lone Abigaille was the back-from-retirement-but-not-for-long Maria Parazzini.

    • Ladies: Flagstad, Callas, Nilsson, Rysanek, and Sutherland

      Gentlemen: Del Monaco, Bjoerling, Vickers, Melchior, and Warren

      • Scratch Melchior and replace with Caruso.

        • Scratch Melchior and replace with Caruso.

          Really? Melchior for me is a voice type I assume I will never hear.

          • Yeah, I felt torn about it. And you’re right about him being unique. That’s it. Melchior is back in but Warren is out. I mostly included Warren because his was not a voice that recorded well and I wanted to see how he really sounded. But if I’m going to include a Verdi baritone, Ruffo is the one to have.

    • Arianna a Nasso

      The most X-rated performance on record along with the end of Welitsch’s 1944 Salome finale. You gotta love them!

    • m. croche

      Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, both L. Lehmanns, Marie Gutheil-Schroder, Muzio.

      • grimoaldo

        Francesca Cuzzoni,Giovanni Carestini,Cornélie Falcon,Giulia Grisi,George Grossmith

  • armerjacquino

    Eleanor Steber, Lisa Della Casa, Shirley Verrett, Fritz Wunderlich, Jussi Bjorling.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Your list is so much more subtle, refined and tasteful than mine!

      • armerjacquino

        Well, that’s me to a T. Subtle, refined and tasteful *knocks back lager*

        The next challenge of course would be to find an opera in which all five of one’s singers could appear. My women could do a kickass ROSENKAV but I can’t help thinking that Wunderlich would be wasted as Valzacchi. The only option I can think of for your five would be a VERY shouty DON GIOVANNI. I wouldn’t want to be the person who told Callas she was playing Zerlina, mind.

        • Feldmarschallin

          Wunderlich as the Italian Singer

          • armerjacquino

            But then what would Bjorling do?

          • Buster

            Wanna buy a monkey?

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          I’m thinking Elektra, but I can’t work out how best to organise the ladies since all of them seem closest to Chrysothemis to me. Either that, or Carmen with Ghena and Maria playing Mercedes and Frasquita to Kirsten’s vampish rebellious bird.

          • rapt

            CK, for yours, there’s always Gioconda, with Ghena and Maria alternating as Gioconda and Laura (Flagstad as La C, of course). Or, with suitable transpositions, AJ’s group could perform the subtlest and most tasteful ever version of the same.

          • Flagstad, you know, recorded one small snippet of Elektra, from the recognition scene, I think with Furtwangler. And Dimitrova might have made a good Klytamnestra, as the voice just extended right on down into mezzo range without a big shift of gears, as you can hear in her Amneris. It does seem cheeky to ask Corelli to sing Aegisth, however.

        • manou

          Not so much casting couch as casting coffin then.

          • MontyNostry

            Casting catafalque is more operatic, manou.

      • MontyNostry

        Shirl was a great artist, but she could be deliciously unsubtle when necessary.

    • Bill

      La Clemenza du Tito. Verrett as Sextus, Steber as Vilellia, della Casa as Servilia, Bjoerling as
      Tito and Wunderlich as Annius

    • Krunoslav

      “Name five singers you never heard live and would love to have been there.”

      Two lists:

      People I actually MIGHT easily have heard but missed due to tender age or geography or cancellations (ahem) or whatever: Madga Olivero (I actually could have seen her Boston Met tour TOSCA, but I was studying for an exam, silly fool that I was), Julia Varady (ahem), Alain Vanzo (I had NYCO seats when he sang with the Paris Opera at the Met), Regina Resnik (ahem) and Sena Jurinac (who did not happen to be singing when I was passing through Vienna as a student, in 1980).

      People I obviously could not have heard:

      Chaliapin, Senesino, Schroeder-Devrient, Malibran, Viardot-Garcia

    • Krunoslav

      Eleanor Steber AMINTA
      Lisa della Casa ELISA
      Shirley Verrett TAMIRI
      Fritz Wunderlich AGENORE
      Jussi Bjorling ALESSANDRO

      Eleanor Steber ROSALINDE
      Lisa della Casa ADELE
      Shirley Verrett ORLOFSKY
      Fritz Wunderlich ALFRED
      Jussi Bjorling EISENSTEIN

      Eleanor Steber SUSANNA
      Lisa della Casa EMMA
      Shirley Verrett MARFA
      Fritz Wunderlich GOLITSYN
      Jussi Bjorling ANDREI KHOVANSKY
      [with Tancredi Pasero, Hans Hotter, Leonard Warren and Leopold Simoneau as Dosifei, Ivan Khovansky, Shaklovity and The Scrivener]

      Eleanor Steber JULIE
      Lisa della Casa MAGNOLIA
      Shirley Verrett QUEENIE
      Fritz Wunderlich RAVENAL
      Jussi Bjorling STEVE

      • MontyNostry

        Shirl might have done Carousel after her operatic career had ended, but Queenie (despite the name) is lèse-majesté. Though ‘I just suits me’ is a very sweet number.

      • armerjacquino

        Switch the men and I’ll take that FLEDERMAUS.

        • Krunoslav

          Pondered that- of course, Fritz would be more idiomatic, Jussi better suited to snatches of popular Italian arias…BUT Jussi had a baritonal weight in his voice that a tenor Eisenstein needs and I don’t hear in Fritz’s sound..

          We can add Pavel Lisitsian as Dr. Falke, Herbert Janssen as Frank and (best of all) NO FROSCH WHATSOEVER.

          • MontyNostry

            Talking of Lisitsian, a British critic (who used to hang out on parterre before taking umbrage and disappearing) was recently reviewing versions of Queen of Spades on BBC Radio 3. One of the versions featured Lisitsian as Yeletsky. Said critic, a specialist in Russian music, stated that “Lisitsian is very much an acquired taste” and didn’t even play a sample of his aria. And that was that!

          • Nerva Nelli

            Not very Nice, that!!!!!

          • Amazing! Lisitsian’s rendition of Yelektsky’s aria is da bomb. It doesn’t get better than that.

          • MontyNostry

            Nicely judged, Nerva.

  • enzo

    My list would include:

    Rubini, Malibran, Patti, Caruso and Ponselle.

  • These lists are impossible to narrow down so for the hell of it I’ll just say a singer who I don’t even like much on the basis of creaky recordings: Olive Fremstad. If she managed to get Salome banned from the Met in one performance, it must have been hot stuff, so I’d like to have been there. Also, she went to a morgue to heft human heads around so she’d look convincing carrying JtB’s head around. So it’s all about the story rather than anything I can guess about how the performance went, though….

    Olive Fremstad was magnificent. Her entrance was that of a splendid leopard, standing poised on velvet paws on the terrace, and then creeping slowly down the staircase. Her scene with Jochanaan was in truth like the storming of a fortress, and the scene with the Tetrarch was clearly realized. But it was in the closing scene of the drama that Mme. Fremstad, like the poet and the composer, achieved her most effective results. I cannot yet recall her as she crept from side to side of the well in which Jochanaan was confined, waiting for the slave to ascend with the severed head, without that shudder of fascination caused by the glimmering eyes of a monster serpent, or the sleek terribleness of a Bengal tiger. And at the end she suggested, as perhaps it has never before been suggested on the stage, the dregs of love, the refuse of gorged passion.