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Crowning glory

To imagine that I have anything new to say about Maria Callas’ 1957 performance of Anna Bolena at La Scala is sheer pomposity. Enough ink and pixels (along with some blood and tears judging by the fervency of the Callas Cult) have been spilled. La Scala’s Memories series has released a handsome hardcover book and CD set, commemorating the evening with the original program, essays, libretto, and plenty of pictures.

To say the least, it was an exciting night: a gala with stars, enormous sets, and a major comeback for a neglected bel canto queen. Callas was joined by Giulietta Simionato (Giovanna Seymour), Gianni Raimondi (Riccardo Percy), and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Enrico VIII), with Gianandrea Gavazzeni at the podium.  

The program notes admit that “for some of the voices it was perhaps not a good night, one or two high notes were maybe less controlled,” but that has not stopped this recording from being an important benchmark standard. Quibbling aside, it doesn’t get much better than this.

With its generous thirty or so pages of pictures, this release fills in some holes left by the tragically slim Callas videography. We get pictures of La Divina in action from various angles, the grandiose sets in all their glory, as well as some backstage candids of the cast. The book portion includes the original program notes, written when Anna Bolena had lapsed in the repertoire. A Met simulcast this is not, but we get the idea.

While the packaging of the set radiates luxury, the rest of the contents fail to deliver. The most significant fault is in the audio, which sounds identical to the widely released EMI edition. The sonics are murky, without much sympathy for anything high or loud, and several other available remasters are preferable.

Equally unfortunate are the essay translations, which can be called slapdash at best.  Classical music fans are usually ready to forgive sketchy slipcover translations; this, however, is a hardcover book, not a stapled leaflet. That the Italian essays by Angelo Foletto bulge with facts at the seams of their word count, doesn’t help. The English versions appears to have been punctuated by a francophone, and stylistic inconsistencies, creative spellings, and a pseudo-intellectual tone, make for rather bland reading. It’s best to stick to the pictures.

This is a landmark recording that most opera fans will want in their libraries – but better to forgo the packaging and search out a remaster in better sound. You don’t need frills when you have singing like this.

176 comments

  • You know me, I just HAD to put my two cents over the “assoluta” business. Assoluta means sfogato, basta. That is to say, a dark soprano (or a mezzo-soprano, even) with a typical coloratura extension, up to E flat (a true coloratura is supposed to hit an F). And by proxy it means, of course, a soprano who is really able to do justice to the drammatico d’agilita roles (and we can all name them). So yes, Callas was an “assoluta”.

  • The_Kid says:

    @CF:

    Not being pissy or anything, but I looked up the drammatico d’agilita roles, and came up with:

    Abigaille ( Nabucco , Verdi )
    Gemma ( Gemma di Vergy , Gaetano Donizetti )
    Imogene ( The pirate , Vincenzo Bellini )
    Lady Macbeth ( Macbeth , Giuseppe Verdi)
    Leonora ( Il Trovatore , Giuseppe Verdi)
    Mary Stuart ( Mary Queen of Scots , Gaetano Donizetti)
    Norma ( Norma , Vincenzo Bellini)
    Odabella ( Attila , Giuseppe Verdi)
    Semiramide ( Semiramis , Gioachino Rossini )
    Ines de Castro ( Ines de Castro , Joseph Persians )

    I am not sure if Maria Callas sang/recorded Gemma, Maria Stuarda, Odabella (except for ‘O nel fuggente nuvolo’), Semiramide (except for ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’), or Ines. Also, if we go by numbers, Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland probably sang as many of these roles in equally important venues. So, are they to be called Assolutas, too? How about Eileen Farrell, whose sheer repertoire is mind-blowing? Just wondering!

    • operalover9001 says:

      Sills sang Stuarda, and Norma (only in smaller houses). Sutherland sang Stuarda, Norma, and Semiramide. And yes, people consider them to be assolutas as well. Farrell is slightly different -- she had a huge range of roles, but she never really focused on bel canto roles as much, and the ‘assoluta’ label usually applies to bel canto roles.

      • Clita del Toro says:

        Sills did sing Norma and quite nicely, but she was really not a Norma! I saw her sing the role in Boston in the early 70′s.

    • Clita del Toro says:

      Kid, i don’t get your point. Labels like “drammatico d’agilita” don’t really mean that much. Sfogato, schmogato!

      Btw, Sills had a much lighter voice than Callas or Sutherland. She was a lyric or coloratura who pushed her voice into the heavier roles.

    • kashania says:

      I guess there are two ways of defining a singer. One is to focus mainly on the singer’s voice and ability. And the other is to define the singer by the roles she sang. As Clita points out, Sills sang a lot of dramatic coloratura roles but that doesn’t mean she had the voice of one.

      On another note, there’s composer with the last name of Persians? And he wrote bel canto opera? Must go googling…

      • kashania says:

        Ah, Giuseppe Persiani.

        • Camille says:

          He was either the husband or father (can’t remember which and no time to google) of the soprano Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani, the first Lucia di Lammermoor. All I can remember off the top of my head, dear.

          • The_Kid says:

            ah, the hunt’s afoot…..daddy, hubby, or Chinatown? :P

          • Camille says:

            Oh my! This so alarmed me that I took it upon myself to sort it out.

            Nicola Tacchinardi, tenor and teacher, was her Father, whereas Giuseppe Persiani, composer, was her husband. Upon her marriage to Signor Persiani she appended his name to her own surname, in time honoured diva fashion. A great and important diva of the Romantic Opera era and the creatrix of not only the aforementioned Lucia, but also his Rosamunda d’Inghilterraand Pia de’ Tolomei.

      • Clita del Toro says:

        Right, Kashie.

        Look at Scotto, who was labeled a “lyric-coloratura.”

        Singing roles like Gioconda, Lady Macbeth, Norma and others were a stretch. In that way she was no Callas, who was exemplary in each of them.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Calling Callas an assoluta doesn’t mean there can’t be others. It gets applied to almost anybody who does a reasonable raft of bel canto roles plus a decent smattering of spinto roles -- pretty much anybody who can sing a top e-flat, manage some coloratura tollerably well and come up with enough spinto thrust for Act II of Tosca has been described as an assoluta at some point. I do think the notes above high c are an important part of the definition, which would exclude Farrell. I think in all fairness it can be applied to Callas, Sutherland and Gencer, and you can make a case for Caballe (even though I’m contradicting myself about those top notes there), possibly Sills although as others have said I think she was too light for the label to really stick, and maybe Devia although I don’t think she rouses enough general excitement.

      • Nerva Nelli says:

        “Calling Callas an assoluta doesn’t mean there can’t be others.”

        http://tinyurl.com/7sd33x4

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          Indeed Nerva, I just saw a similar claim about Simone Kermes in an amazon customer review -- somebody has let her record yet another CD, would you believe.

          • armerjacquino says:

            I only realised the other day that the TROVATORE featuring Kermes and the remains of Herbert Lippert is a COMPLETE recording! I thought she’d only worked her special magic on the Act 4 scena.

            God ALONE knows what the Act 1 trio sounds like *shudder*

          • Nerva Nelli says:

            Wow, Cocky,

            This is what happens when the words “diva” and “Callas-like” get applied indiscriminately.

            Kermes, Lippert and — let me guess, Dagmar Peckova as Azucena and Olaf Baer as di Luna?

          • Clita del Toro says:

            I just listened to the Simone Kermes’ D’amor…. from Trovatore. What the F! it’s just too weird. I especially liked the thrilling Miserere. I’d like to hear her Aida and Isolde as well.

          • armerjacquino says:

            Nerva: Simone and Herbert are joined by Yvonne Naef and Miljenko Turk. As Caruso said, it’s an opera which requires the four greatest singers in the world.

          • kashania says:

            Simone Kermes’ D’amor.

            What an absurd thought! When is she supposed to bob up and down?

          • sl says:

            I bet she works those trills!

        • Camille says:

          “chokes with laughter”.

          • luvtennis says:

            We have already mined all the comic gold to be offered by the Kermes Trovatore. You all are just jealous biatches.

            You need to accept that fact that La Kermes is the pre-eminent Verdiana of her day…and on her planet.

            I have it on good authority that Tu Vedrai was staged as a Britney Spears music video, complete with back-up bobbers, er dancers. Music drama will never be the same.

          • Nerva Nelli says:

            Can the Kermes FORZA and BALLO be far behind?

      • The_Kid says:

        Thank you, that makes sense. I’d definitely call Gencer and Sutherland assolutas then! :)

        BTW, is Beatrice di Tenda an assoluta role?

        • Hippolyte says:

          Speaking of Beatrice, Angela Meade is singing the opera at Carnegie Hall on 5 December with Collegiate Chorale--no other casting so far.

          • Camille says:

            Thanks SO much for early notice of this, Hippolyte!!! It will be the first opportunity EVER which I have been afforded to hear this opera! I’ll have to hunt around for my old call me crazy gal, Angeles Gulin, to brush up on it first, though.

            Maybe I should go looking for another—-debate: Joanie or Junie—which?

            Merci autre fois. M. Hippolyte!!!

          • marshiemarkII says:

            Camille Belle, Angeles Gulin!!!!!! now THAT was a HUGE voice, I saw her Met debut! what a tragedy she died a few months later, she was easily twice as big as Dimitrova, and such a warm sound, not the metallic edge of Dimitrova.

            Yes of course I was at Carnegie Hall in 1979 for Montsy, I saw EVERYTHING she ever did in Suck City from 1977 (with a few before such as the Boheme with Luciano in 1976 and the Vespri) until the horrifying Don Carlo in 1985, after that probably nothing (not that she did much more after that in Suck City anyway)

          • Camille says:

            What was La Gulin’s debut role?

            She is also on a recording of Stiffelio, with Mario del Monaco and fairly impressive. I do not know a lot about her except that a friend of mine called her “una pazzarella”. Don’t know the whyfore

            Do you remembde the pandaemonium at the Caballé recital in ’79?

            Oops, we are being OOQ’s and had better stop.

          • peter says:

            Camille, Gulin’s debut (and only Met performance) was as Elena in Vespri. I was there as well and remember it to be one of the biggest sounds I’ve ever heard but it was a mess above the staff.

          • marshiemarkII says:

            Gulin was in Vespri and I think it was a single performance, basque I would have gone for more had there been more (but I am not sure of that). She was pazza alright, like Elizabeth Payer-Tucci and Bianca Berini, but aren’t they all to one degree or another?

            Yes I do recall the pandemonium for la Montsy, I was probably one of the loudest queens doing the howling, as at that point I was one of the fiercest Montsy partisans. At that time there was Montsy, Leonie and Yelena Obtraztsova and no one else….. (no “Greatest Behrens” yet until the sublime Fidelio of 1980 with Jon Vickers)

          • marshiemarkII says:

            basque = becasue ugggggh

          • marshiemarkII says:

            becasue = because, real ugggggggghhhhh!

          • Camille says:

            Thanks, ragazzi! Shame it did not work out with Gulin, though.

            Her daughter, I think Angeles Blanca, is not quite in the same league.

        • Camille says:

          Hi Kid.
          You are certainly a brave one, butting heads with this crowd!!

          I do hope this posts, a book by a Mr. Geoffrey S. Righs on the so-called “Assoluta Voice”. I have yet to read it. A list of very specific rôles is included which is meant to either define or categorise this voice. Let’s see if it prints out:

          The Assoluta Voice in Opera 1797-1847

          Geoffrey S. Riggs
          0 Reviews
          McFarland, 2003 -- Music -- 263 pages
          It is unusual for styles in opera to carry over from one era into another. It would be even more unusual for one eras characteristics to linger two generations into the next. Yet this is precisely what happened during the first half of the nineteenth century, when the intricacies of the fleet bel canto style were combined with the Romantic eras heroic declamation and formidable orchestral emphasis resulting in the creation of the assoluta voice. This work traces the emergence of the impressive vocal writing that resulted from the marriage of the bel canto and Romantic eras. It also covers the uniquely versatile divas who were given the opportunities to make their mark on opera from the time of Cherubini to that of a young Verdi. Here, both the wide-ranging vocalism in the scores themselves and the artists capable of performing this style are referred to as assoluta. Chapters consider Luigi Cherubinis Mde, Gioacchino Rossinis Armida, Carl Maria von Webers Oberon, Gaetano Donizettis Anna Bolena, Vincenzo Bellinis Norma, Donizettis Gemma di Vergy and Roberto Devereux, the time of transition in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Giuseppe Verdis Nabucco and Macbeth.
          Preview this book »

          Good--it did. I do not know by what authority Mr. Righs makes such claims for these specific rôles nor what research he has exhaustively done to pronounce on this literature however there is precious little written as there is, at least nowadays, and therefore appreciated.

          Hope this helps out a little in this discussion and more precisely narrows down the category.

          • Camille says:

            So sorry to mistype Mr. RigGs’ name twice. NOT RigHs!!!

            Butterfingers camillamalafemmina

          • Camille says:

            Oh, and to clarify the opera after Cherubini’s name, a mistake on the webpage and not mme. Butterfingers’, it is his MÉDÉE, not MDE!

          • The_Kid says:

            Mme Camille, that book seems to be very hard to get. The Uni where I work has a pretty nice music library, and the local public library too is wonderful, but I failed to find the tome in either establishment :P

            Also, the role choices seem to be rather odd. Plus, doesn’t he also talk about something called assoluta manque, in which he places Kundry and Odabella? I could never get his logic, really (at least from the Google Books preview).

            I consider Ethan Mordden’s Big Five (ELEKTRA, TURANDOT, NORMA, ISOLDE, THE 4 BRUENHILDES) to be a much more valid yardstick for measuring the diversity of dramatic sopranos, although it favors the Teutonic repertoire over the Italianate one.

          • The_Kid says:

            oh, and here’s a treat for all of us: Hojotoho with impeccable legato, sung by someone who created, of all things, M. Butterfly!

          • operalover9001 says:

            I’ve always found it fascinating how those two Butterflies had such different repertoires -- Storchio sang Mimi, Micaela, and Lodoletta, whereas Krushelnytska (I hope I spelled that correctly) sang Salome and Elsa…

          • Camille says:

            Kid, they probably have it at juilliard book store. They have most everything. I am not entirely convinced by his argument and would like to know more about where his research is based upon and why these particular roles are chosen. Well, Gemma is a bitch of a score, making Lucia look like a piker in comparison.

            Let me know if I can help. I am glad to do so.
            Camille

          • The_Kid says:

            Thanks, Mme. Camille. Very kind! :) Hope this week finds you in the very best of health and cheers.

  • Milady DeWinter says:

    Kid -- you are indeed brave to tackle the “assoluta” topic within these “walls”.

    Not all assolutas are assolutely persuasive as we have seen from the plethora of discussion -- plus the term has somewhat morphed since the days of Mme. Callas, who truly must take pride of place for re-discovering the fach.

    However, if you want to visit a wax museum of vocal assoluta horror at YT,(and who doesn’t occasionally? After all, it’s nearly Halloween) do search Ms. Adelaide Negri.

    Oh, the terror. She actually (allegedly) gave some decent performances at the Met (including a broadcast Norma, which MdW has not yet hear via pirate Cd or Sirius archival) and is (or was)evidently regarded as goddess in her native Argentina.

    And on a more personal note, alas, I am still doctoring the lumbar area with steroids (thank you for asking)and my home computer issues, which I thought had been resolved via three hours of “expert” tech services with Comcast, have not yet been resolved. But the good news is that the service call hinkmaster, (yes, I actually had to get an in-home service call) said all I need is a new ethernet plug’n'play card plopped into the mother board and all should be well.
    MdW

    • The_Kid says:

      MdW: hope your lumbar problems soon become a thing of the past, and cute PC repairmen shower you and your PC with the attention you both deserve. In the meantime, enjoy the “Hojotoho” posted above, while I recover from Adelaide Negri’s Beatrice di Tenda, which, in all honesty, doesn’t seem to be any worse than June Anderson’s.

      • marshiemarkII says:

        Oh, watch out for my dear buddy Grimo, Kiddie, now you are really playing with FIRE!
        Thank God you like the greatest Behrens :-)

        • grimoaldo says:

          It’s ok marshie, I am used to people not liking my beloved June, what my opinion would be of her had I not seen her live many many times I do not know.
          “para el gusto las flores, para escoger los colores”, an expression I learned today!

          • Camille says:

            June sends you her love--

            Check out this video on YouTube:


            I was delighted to have found this as only two years or so before I had seen her sing this role at La Scala and shall never forget it.

          • Camille says:

            Grimoaldo dear—just now I have finished viewing La Junie’s Sonnambula and I must insist you see it at ONCE! [if you haven't already]. The last scene is so affecting and tender, sad and beautiful, that I am sure it was all what Bellini could have wished for.

            Altogether a lovely and lovingly rendered production with everyone holding their weight in worthy fashion. Raul Gimenez (Elvino), Roberto Scandiuzzi (Count Rodolfo), Corinna Vozza (Teresa). Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, 1988.

          • grimoaldo says:

            Thank you for the sweet message Camille, I am so glad you enjoy that video, I have watched it hundreds of times I suppose, especially June’s first aria and the finale. The lady who plays her foster mother looks so perfect!
            I hope you are fully recovered now!
            All best from grim

          • grimoaldo says:

            And while we are on the subject, I really recommend everyone/anyone to check out that first aria and cabaletta Come per me sereno, starts at 16:14, June at her beautiful, stunning best.

          • Camille says:

            I might have known!! Haha! I was so thrilled to find it and to see my much beloved jewel box teatro again, too!!

            Yes, I too thought Corinna Vozza was exceptionally good as Teresa, a comprimaria part but one which must exert so authority and gravitas, as she did.

            I shall return to this gem many a time. The romani certainly did love La Junie, as one can hear on this recording. It makes me remember all those dear old souls I spent many happy evenings in the Galleria with enjoying so many works. How they loved it all and how they were so truly devoted. It was so touching to witness, not to mention, instructive.

        • The_Kid says:

          Whoa, I DO LIKE June Anderson, just not in the BdT I heard. All singers have off days, I guess….and I think the recording was pirated, too. I like her Marie with Alfredo Kraus in “Caregiver of the Regiment” (sorry if that sounds ageist), and her Cunegonde with Christa Ludwig as the Old Lady.
          I like Behrens too, but evidently not as much as you do, MMII. But we won’t open THAT can of worms :P Like some of the ONLY MARIA gang here, I like ONLY BIRGIT in some roles, and I am gonna stick to it! :)

          • Milady DeWinter says:

            Milady de Winter is delighted that the Kid (among other fine folk here) is a fan of Miss Anderson and that she need not dip into her bejeweled evening clutch to dispense any lethal bonbons.
            I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Miss Anderson live during her prime, mostly as Gilda, Lucia, and Violetta, and let me tell you, that voice in the house had a ring that made the chandeliers chez Met tingle with delight. I suspect the Beatrice di Tenda was just an off-night.
            I heard Miss Anderson in an off-night too -- the notoriously ill-advised “Fille du Regiment” production which was revived at Mr. Pavarotti’s insistence in the late 90s, when he was no longer up to the task, even with transpositions. Miss Anderson was not happy to be cast in that disaster, and her performance was singularly lacklustre, more an editorial comment on her part than any diminishing of her astonishing resources. Have you heard her more recent forays as Daphne and Salome (en francais, certainement): astonishing state of vocal preservation.

            MdW can understand, however, that some auditors found a certain, shall we say, “dullness” in Miss Anderson, and in that, she shared a commonality with equally lantern-jawed co-eval, Miss Sutherland, whom I admire vastly, but whose middle and lower range was also inclined to opaqueness and what MdW can only describe as a certain “school-marmish” quality. No big deal, a great artist. Just an observation.

            The effect of Miss Anderson’s performances were sort of a cumulative “wow” -- when she went into full high gear, splendor reigned. And in that, she also shares honors with the only other “serious” coloratura to continue the Callas/Sutherland/Sills line, and that is Miss Mariella Devia. Also a bit on the dull side, but only at first pass.
            Technically every bit the peer of her illustrious predecessors, Devia possessed perhaps the rarest asset of all: a soprano whose tone actually became lovelier the higher she ascended. Without Devia and Anderson (and MdW also acknowledges the contributions of the talented and apparently ageless Gruberova -- but that’s another story), I’m afraid the whole line of accomplished coloraturas with something to say would have vanished.

            The once charming and thrilling Miss Dessay did not truly fit the bill in the Italian repertoire, nor does the still fresh-voiced Miss Damrau.

            And we will not deign to discuss the highly touted but woefully ill-prepared Miss Machaidze as a legitimate contender of anything beyond Musetta lest MdW be compelled to dig into that dangerous evening clutch and cast dire vapors towards the Georgian Geschreistress.
            MdW

          • Camille says:

            Milady De —

            What a capital idea! The bonbons, I mean.

            Now I am wondering whether Connie Corleone styled cannolis could some way be stashed as well, to lob off on misguided Regie directors?

            Thanks. Judith Leiber, here I come.