Cher Public

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.

  • aulus agerius

    Very entertaining read, PM. Thank You!:-)

  • Rudolf

    Patrick, Thank you much for your “Stairway”. I am sure you are aware that Maria Callas recorded “Carmen” in the studio. And a “Boheme”, too. Lore has it that she sang both, Brunhilde and Isolde, live. :-) Alas, I wasn’t among the spectators.

    • mjmacmtenor

      She started off her career doing dramatic soprano roles, including several Wagner roles (in Italian). These included Kundry in Parsifal, Isolde, and the Die Walkure Brunnhilde. She make her last minute debut in I Puritani while simultaneously completing a run of Brunnhildes. She dropped her Wagner repertoire after this, but she continued to sing the Liebestod in concert and made a magnificent recording of it.

  • Ilka Saro

    Is Callas’ Amelia really underestimated? If so, people are missing a great interpretation.

    When I was 16, I had a summer job working in a Hardee’s. With my hard earned wages I went to the local record store and bought a budget recording of Ballo. At 16, I paid no attention to the cast at all. I wanted to hear the opera, and I bought the recording I could afford. I listened to it quite a bit. I became hooked on the soprano. Again, I really didn’t pay attention to her name, but I would bike home from school as quick as I could so that I could put on that album and hear her sing that trio with Ulrica and Riccardo. Callas had put her spell on me. And she did it with her Ballo Amelia.

    That would have been August of 1977, and Callas died the next month. It sounds silly, but it actually matters to me that I became a huge Callas fan before she died, if only a month before. And it was that Callas DiStefano Gobbi Ballo that made it happen.

    (On the same day I bought that Ballo, I also bought the Christoff-Gedda Boris Godunov, which also became an obsession for me. When I got to college I wound up studying Russian because I was so blown away by the libretto. Let’s just say that opera had a huge influence on my life!)

    • Camille

      You are talking about the EMI recording with DiStefano here, correct?

      There is a live one as well? Did not know that.

      I absolutely LURVED DiStefano on the EMI recording. He never sounded better, in my limited experience of him.

    • Clita del Toro

      I love Callas’ Amelia, both the studio and the Scala, but I prefer the latter. And I prefer it to Zinka’s and Price’s. I don’t think it is underestimated at all.

    • Clita del Toro

      Speaking of Rosalind Russell, I once saw her in the lobby of the old Met and got her autograph.

  • Opera Teen

    The Scala does a great job with these box sets. I have a few of them(The Traviata, which I bought there and the Bolena and Turandot, which my grandfather brought me when he went to Milan). The sound is hit of miss(Turandot sound is quite good but the Traviata is near-inaudible at times) but the books are full of great photos as well as libretti and information about performances of that opera @ La Scala. Glad to hear this is another success in the series.

  • Camille

    My “what if” for La Callas was for a long time the Elektra of Richard Strauss.
    Since then, I have added E.M. of
    Vec Makropolus.

    Think about it.

    And Könegin der Nacht in place of that Konstanze, too. Throw in the Idomeneo Elettra while I’m at it.

    AND the score she took on that fatal summer yacht cruise: La Straniera!

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Janacek has always featured highly on my list of Callas what-ifs, but I think my preference would be to hear some that did happen, but that we don’t have recordings of: the Fedora, the Don Carlos, and the Haydn Orfeo.

      • Ilka Saro

        Does the “what if” extend to doing Janacek in Italian, or do we dream of Callas learning Czech sufficiently to meet her own standards?

        • Camille

          Magda Olivero sang Kostelnicka (alongside the Jenufa of La Bumbarina), but I think in Italian. Please, correct this if mistaken, chiunque sia.

      • Camille

        Oh lord, the Fedora! I had forgotten about it….The imagination reels!

        That is a mystery—how that never have been recorded nor why she never sang it subsequently. I would just love to have heard that!!! Someday, in a crumbling palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venezia, a reel-to-reel tape of it will be discovered and then released to the world. Someday, fifty years from now when I am ashes.

        • Camille

          How that never WAS recorded….

    • Patrick Mack

      Callas as Elektra!
      I just lost consciousness!

      • Camille

        Can you just imagineit?????
        I’ll run fetch your smelling salts.

        It would have caused riots and running in the streets

        Also, come to think of it, too bad she disdained Barber’s intended Vanessa as something too modern for her soundworld. It would have been a fascinating thing.

        • tornado12

          But do you know that if she sang Elektra, it might have been with our beloved Leonie??!?!?!?! Actually I always thought she would have been a marvellous Amme in 1966 just in time for THAT Frau ohne Schatten at the Met. Or Färberin in younger years (my god, that low f….).
          Yes, E. M. would have been amazing. I adore that opera. Every time I hear that “Causa Gregor-Prus” of the beginning, I get goosebumps (and it doesn’t leave my head for two days). And just think of it, we would have had Callas in Spanish!
          “Besa me, Bobo bobazo” (or whatever she says there with Hauk)

    • skoc211

      Didn’t Bing try to get her to sing Queen of the Night?

      I’m positive she would have nailed the F’s. Her E-flats, especially at the beginning of her career, were so solid and so effortless I can’t imagine she’d have much trouble going up that half step. It’s a pity we don’t have any recordings of her going above E natural (though there is some debate about her ’52 live recording of Armida).

      • Camille

        The Proch Variations feature her singing of an F in alt, if I am not sadly sadly misremembering.

        Also, between an E flat and an F there yawns a chasm of an entire whole step. In that region of the dramatic soprano voice that is like jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and landing on the London Bridge, for most of those singers. Maybe I should go hunt down those Proch Variations as I’ve not listened in ages.

        Yes, here they are and from 1951 so there is more of a chance she is capable of executing the fabled and feared F. Let’s have a listen:


        • Camille


          • Camille

            No , only to an E flat.

            There is what looks like another version or so which may yield an F but I can’t go hunting for it now. I checked on the keyboard to make 100% sure.

            Funny, as I do have a recollection of having heard such but long ago.

            • You probably did hear a version of the Proch with “an F,” but I think there was a dub of that radio concert floating around that was mastered a whole step high.

              Bing says he offered Callas Queen of the Night, saying she could lower the second aria a whole step if she liked. She passed on it.

            • Camille

              Oh, that makes sense. I had been wondering if it had been tampered with, in any case.

              Well, another time I will go on a hunt for the elusive FA in alt!
              Like some soaring, brilliant rare bird, I hope I shall find it!

              Yes, I believe that it should be lowered a half-step as it might accommodate a slightly more dramatic edge or timbre to her singing, ever so slight. Justifiable because of the gradual shift upward in pitches and I don’t want to open that smelly old can of worms just now.

              When Sutherland sang it in London, Bonynge lowered it saying, en effet, “It’s just too damn high”. Pardon, I paraphrase.

    • alejandro

      My What-Ifs:

      Don Carlo (I see down below she did this, but I wish there were a recording!)
      Samson et Dalila
      Roberto Devereaux
      Maria Stuarda

      • alejandro

        Oh, and Faust!

        • Camille

          There exists a wonderful recording of her singing just the aria “D’amour, l’ardente flamme” from Berlioz’s Faust which is wonderful.

          • manou

            One of my very favourite arias.

            • Camille

              I am so happy you love it too for I have always been overcome by this rendition and all others pale in comparison, for me.

              She just says it all for us women.

            • perfidia

              And for a lot of us boys too, Camille.

      • Clita del Toro

        EMI should have recorded Macbeth with Callas and Gobbi.

        • alejandro

          Forgive me if I am mistaken, but wasn’t the EMI recording with Rysanek supposed to be for Callas and she dropped out?

          • Camille

            That is an RCA recording.

          • The Conte

            I don’t think so, it was the Met performances by Rysanek opposite Leonard Warren that she was originally meant to be in. I think then RCA recorded Macbeth with Rysanek and Warren.


      • alejandro

        Oh and Werther! And let’s throw Die Frau in there as well. She could have done an Anna Magnani like Faberin!

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    I enjoyed your review, but you write as if she never played Kundry, Brunnhilde or Isolde, whereas of course she did, and there is a recording of the Kundry which is widely available.

    Ever since I first heard the live ’57 Ballo, I’ve singled it out as possibly her greatest available live performance -- for me it beats the ’55 Lucia and the Bolena to the top spot.

    • Ilka Saro

      I almost completely agree. And I have already shown my hand as a huge fan of Callas’ Ballo. But I will put in a good word for the Anna Bolena as well, because it was an artistic revolution. There were other great Amelias in Callas’ time, and cartloads of other notable Lucias since it’s first performances. But there hadn’t been a great Anna since Pasta. Callas brought that opera (and a good many others) and put it back on the map.

  • Lady Abbado

    Teco io sto (Un ballo in maschera) -- Callas, di Stefano, 1957:

    • Camille

      I also adore the magnificent costumes she wore as Amelia. She looked absolutely splendid in them!

      • Feldmarschallin

        Callas looks and sounds stunning in that Ballo and it has always been one of my favorite recordings of her and much better than the studio IMO. Surely one of the best Amelias ever if not thee best.

  • Camille

    About that E flat inexcelsis—
    You know, in those days and well, until the last fifteen twenty years or so, just EVERYone sang that, or at least the ones I heard sing Traviata did. This whole “come scritto” bullshit is mostly the bella scusa for getting out of a quite daunting and usually required interpolation, or not?

    Now, Clita was there to hear Tebaldi’s Traviata and I am sure she wouldn’t go for it. And she transposed it a half or whole tone. But Tebaldi was Tebaldi and a separate case from the rest of the pack, from what I understand of those days. Clita would know, anyway.

    • Clita del Toro

      Tebaldi transposed the Sempre libera down a whole tone at the Met. and I think a half tone on her studio Traviata.
      She certainly didn’t even go for a Db at the Met! LOL

  • Milady DeWinter

    Well if Auntie Mame herself proclaimed Callas as “fun” -- so be it. It almost hard to even type, but I hope she did have some fun.
    There is indeed a beautiful line between her Karajan-led Lucia and the Leonora. I’ve always said Leonora is pure dramatic coloratura, emphasis on “coloratura.”
    If only….if only….
    It never ceases to be a source of wondermennt and chagrin to me that someone somewhere let those Callas Fedoras, Abductions, Turcos go undocumented. As if that “black candle” of fate were indeed at work, because there seems to be an abdundance of her contemporaries whose every note was somehow recorded -- and in decent sound. Ever try to listen to the Scala Alceste or Iphigenia? Even the Andrea Chenier is in fairly bad sound. What WAS up with the broadcast curse on Divina? I still hold out hope for the legendary RAI 1951 concert broadcast with the Proch Variations, Ballo, and “Je suis Titania” to surface somewhere, someday, in fabulous sound.
    And that Traviata is for me, her very best go at the role, pace the Lisbon and London recordings. It’s the jewel in her crown. (And that E-flat is simply a triumph. I will never, never understand Mr. Ardoin calling it “frayed”. It most definitely is not.)

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I agree it probably is her best Traviata, but I have a special fondness for the London ’58, I feel she gets ever so slightly closer to the heart of it, although she is in undeniably better voice at La Scala in ’55.

  • skoc211

    My current Callas “what if?” obsession is the idea of her as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Be still my heart!

    I’ve also been listening to a lot of Massenet recently and the idea of her as Manon, Thais, and Esclarmonde make quite sad she sang so little French opera.

    • Milady DeWinter

      And evidently skoc211, Callas sang the Air du Miroir from Thais more than a few times in her early “Greek career” days. One can only imagine!

    • Ilka Saro

      I wonder what held her back? Her French diction was superb. That Carmen she recorded may have some other flaws, but shoddy French is not among them.

      • Milady DeWinter

        2 things maybe: she didn’t want to show her ankles; she lost the weight, but never the thickish ankles (according to John Ardoin) ;
        and she didn’t really “approve” of Carmen as a person- too sexually “predatory”; I know, I know, but it’s all in the interview with David Webster.

        • Milady DeWinter

          -correction: she discussed the character of Carmen in the Lord Harewood interview. Sorry. Monday grogs.

  • almavivante

    Mentioned in the review are two of the arias from Macbeth. If these are indeed from the 1952 performances, I am curious to know if EMI or La Scala was able to improve the sound, which on my copy of the complete perf on EMI is rather poor (which the CD booklet acknowledges). Not that this takes anything away from La Divina, I was just hoping…

    • The Conte

      If you can find it, the Myto recording of the complete 1952 Macbeth has better sound than any of the EMI releases of that recording.

  • Funnily enough, when I think of “what if” roles for Callas, I never thing German roles. Yes, the pre-weight-loss Callas certainly had the voice and temperament for the heavy Wagner/Strauss roles. But I want to hear her in more Italian/French roles. I want her as all of the Tudor Queens (including the Maria Stuarda Elisabetta). Can you imagine her “Figlia impura di Bolena”? Or Act II of Roberto Devereux? Never mind that slow cabaletta at the end of the opera! In French opera, I would love to have her Cassandre and Didon (especially the latter). She recorded Dalila’s arias but not the entire role, I don’t think.

    • Camille

      No she didn’t and that is a shame.

      Let us luxuriate in her springtime:

      • Milady DeWinter

        And to think she was alternating Fiorilla and Kundry at the same time. Such a shame the entire performance not to be found. Odd cadenza, but so much fresher than the 1954 recording. Perhaps the “live” Scala version has more “zazz” than the studio effort (which is very charming and intimate), but of course, that’s also m.i.a.

  • FragendeFrau82

    Based on your review, I bought this and it arrived today. Looks wonderful and I can’t wait to listen--I will also pencil in the dates you’ve provided.

    However, it says there is a libretto CD included--I can’t find this, only the CD with music. Can you help? is it on the music CD? Thanks again!