Stairway to heaven

Once again, beloveds, we approach the Milanese shrine that simultaneously attempted to  cultivate and destroy the career of Maria Meneghini Callas. This great—nay, some say greatest—oracle of opera practiced the dark arts and conjured on the stage of La Scala so that we may all live on with the memories for ever and ever. Someone light a black candle so we can begin!  

I’d like a brief interlude, if I may, so that we can all turn to our textbook for today’s reading. Open that seminal memoir of the great golden age film star, raconteur and fashion plate, Rosalind Russell, Life Is a Banquet, to page 177, where she details being on a pleasure cruise aboard the yacht of Gloria and Loel Guinness in the Aegean Sea.  They happened to make port where Aristotle Onassis and his mega-cruiser, the over-opulent Christina, were also moored. Being the gracious host he was they are invited onboard to join his party. Describing the revelries of the evening she mentions plenty of music and singing and dancing. Ms. Russell then uses these three words together in what I can only assume is the first time in the chronology of human events, “Callas was fun.”

A compilation, magnificently presented by the Teatro Alla Scala Memories series, concentrates solely on the contribution of Madame Callas to the Verdi canon and reminds us that of the 10 roles she interpreted of the great Maestro, nine of them were performed or recorded in the hallowed halls of La Scala.

I admit that the most cynical thought ran through my head as I sat down to listen to this CD: “Why do we need yet another assemblage of Callas arias?”

Then I heard her begin Macbeth’s letter to his Lady and my blood ran cold. How long had it been since I listened to it? You’re transported suddenly to December 7th, 1952, opening night of the season. Victor de Sabata has the orchestra on a low simmer in the pit. Callas declaims the letter in a combination of awe and caution. You can seemingly hear the wheels turning. Then she starts the recitative and almost knocks you unawares. The size of the voice is stunning, to say nothing of the congealed maleficence in its tone. She’s laying down that molten lead legato and the audience is just sitting on their hands waiting for the end of the cavatina. There’s no rushing in the cabaletta and de Sabata is a subtle accompanist and sticks to her like an armed henchman. He even allows for a gentle, and very elegant I might add, slowing in the stretta leading to the final run to her triumphant B natural. She’s incendiary;  I pause to take a blood pressure pill.

The La luce langue” (or as we refer to it in my household,”O don fatale, take one”) programmed next is no less revelatory, especially the repeated, “Nuovo delitto!”, which she reads like a question, the first half-sung, the second half-spoken. Although she made studio versions of all three arias, we have to be grateful we have this one souvenir of the role complete and live.

Next are excerpts from Il Trovatore with Herbert von Karajan and it’s interesting that the liner notes connect the dots between her Lucia and her Leonora.  Considering the conductor it’s easy to understand the juxtaposition. Her “Tacea la notte” has an elegiac line marred only slightly by the parking-space sized spread on the highest note in the cadenza. But the evenness of the ascending and descending scales is impressive. There’s a delicious lightening of the voice in the cabaletta here with the trills perfectly oscillating like shimmering pinwheels in a gentle wind.  The opening of Act IV is next and the recitative hangs suspended in midair at the beginning of “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” with the entire aria rendered in the most exquisite fil di voce. Her passion lurks below the surface, always informing the notes and never taking precedence over them.

Then it’s May 28, 1955 and Giuseppe DiStefano is wooing our Duse as Violetta in the Act I duettino of Traviata.  He’s on his best behavior with Madame and she’s charmingly flirtatious. We get the big Act I scena next and for once “E strano” actually sounds like a question.  I find it most interesting that Carlo Maria Giulini, the king of ‘non e scritto cosi’, allows her to fire off that surface to air missile E-flat in alt at the end of the cabaletta but, considering the audience reaction, you can understand why. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation however,”But Maestro, my public expects me…” Meanwhile it sounds like the Milanese in the audience are renouncing Catholicism for Paganism.

A brief confrontation from the beginning of  Act III of Un ballo in maschera with Ettore Bastianini on opening night of 1957 leads into “Morrò, ma prima in grazia, where Callas sounds like she’s actually got the cello obbligato going on in her chest. After this stunning interpretation, once again the house goes wild.  Amelia was actually one of her strongest live performances and I find her somehow under-appreciated in the part, which makes me happy they’ve chosen the live version for inclusion here.

The remaining arias are all from the studio recordings, including a reminder of her purer than pure Gilda in Rigoletto with “Tutte le feste al tempio,” her tormented Leonora in Forza (“Pace, pace”) and finally a monumental reading of “Ritorna vincitor!” from Aïda, lovingly guided by Papa Serafin.

Although this is a superb compilation, every time I hear Callas I can’t stifle the enormous case I get of the of the “what ifs.” There were so many roles she could have played, all the Hoffmann soprano parts, Trittico, Kundry, Ortrud, Brunhilde, Isolde. Even in the end when the top wasn’t secure what would have been wrong with Carmen or Dalila?

Presented in small hardback book form and rife with photographs that even I had never seen before this is a truly splendid souvenir for the Callas collector or even as a special gift for someone who isn’t familiar with the work of one of the greatest interpretive artists of the 20th century. There’s an opening essay,”Alla conquesta alla voce Verdiana,” which is only mildly translated into English. Dates of recordings are nonexistent in the listings and you have to be your own librarian to put the pieces together. Still I am grateful for the real magic enclosed herein.