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Maria Callas Live: Remastered recordings 1949–1964 (Warner Classics) ★★★★1/2

ABR Arts 27 September 2017

Maria Callas Live: Remastered recordings 1949–1964 (Warner Classics) ★★★★1/2

ABR Arts 27 September 2017

Some singers – a gifted few – have voices that are so sumptuously individual that even one note instantly identifies them to the listener. In opera, Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti have that status, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in lieder, Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong in rock and jazz. But none more so than Maria Callas, possibly the most celebrated soprano in history, who lit up the social pages as much as the opera stage. An often controversial figure during her career (once, at the Met, she was pelted with vegetables during a curtain call), her cult has magnified in the forty years since her death in 1977.

I see Callas as the Lady Diana of opera. Their public lives had many parallels, and Callas too can be seen as a tragic heroine, whose private life disintegrated and who ended sadly diminished, dying alone at the age of fifty-three. Her myth has flourished in the public memory, while her failings have gradually been elided.

The biographical basics are well known: born in New York, raised in Greece, taken under the wing of her Svengali-like husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, whom she left for Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis, who in turn dumped her for Jackie Kennedy. Throughout the 1950s she was the world’s leading prima donna, tempestuous on and off stage, even as her vocal resources withered. That marked decline was ascribed at the time to the extreme weight loss of thirty-six kilograms that made her glamorously chic, and later to a muscle condition, dermatomyositis, which affects the larynx. Callas made her La Scala début in 1950; her final stage appearance was at Covent Garden in 1965. Perhaps the most important factor was that she forced her voice while young, shortening her peak to a scant dozen years or so. In contrast, Joan Sutherland, who protected her voice, stayed at the top for forty years.

Maria Callas La Traviata ABR ArtsMaria Callas as Violetta in La traviata (photograph by Houston Rogers, Wikimedia Commons)It is not widely known that Callas began as a Wagnerian soprano of great promise, a fine Brünnhilde and Isolde. But she could sing any role. While singing Brünnhilde in Venice, she had to learn the role of Elvira in Bellini’s I puritani in six days when the scheduled soprano fell ill. It was an extraordinary feat, and a triumph. Thenceforth Callas concentrated on the diametrically different bel canto coloratura repertoire and was also a great dramatic soprano in Verdi and Puccini roles (Violetta, both Leonoras, Cio-Cio-San, Tosca).

Her studio recordings are often fabulous, but Callas purists always insisted that she was at her best on stage. Opera lovers can now judge for themselves, because Warner has just released a forty-two-CD collection of her live opera and recital recordings. Even more than its 2014 set of her complete studio recordings, this set displays the legendary, definitive Callas. It highlights how, above all sopranos, Callas was a force of nature. Film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli said the difference was what she transmitted to the audience: ‘Every cell of her body was there, palpitating, burning beyond what is expected from a normal singer. She made her emotions explode on stage.’

The new Warner set contains twenty complete operas, twelve of which are doubly precious as Callas never recorded them in the studio, plus five filmed recitals on Blu-ray. All have been delicately remastered, though obviously they do not match modern recordings.

The operas range from a 1949 Nabucco to the Covent Garden Tosca from 1964, including her incomparable Medea and all the great bel canto roles. A welcome curiosity is Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal, sung in Italian in Rome in 1950, while listeners should not miss her astounding high E flat at the end of the triumphal scene in Aida (Mexico City, 1951) or her enchantingly girlish Gilda in Rigoletto (Mexico, 1952).

The recordings also trace her decline. Her 1952 Norma at Covent Garden is thrilling, with consummate control and power. It was her favourite role: she sang it ninety times on stage. Critic Andrew Porter, who credits Callas with restoring serious bel canto operas to the mainstream repertoire, was overwhelmed by that performance. He wrote of her great range and power, her ability to invest coloratura with dramatic and expressive qualities, her wide vocal colours, exceptional dramatic understanding, tones both affecting and thrilling, an imposing presence, and remarkable command of the stage. The occasional harshness and unsteady high notes are nowhere to be heard. By the 1958 La traviata, the famous wobble under pressure is obvious, but this is still a performance of genius, achingly vulnerable and feminine.

Callas’s magnetism is evident in every performance, along with her interpretative genius. What she brought to the stage – an extraordinary intensity of emotional conviction, an unparalleled ability to act with her voice – seemed to grow more pronounced as the vocal frailties developed.

Maria Callas Live box set ABR ArtsMaria Callas Live: Remastered recordings 1949–1964 (Warner Classics)


These recordings show how, more than any singer, Maria Callas brought the characters more to life, infusing them with heart and soul. As the great critic John Steane observed, the incomparable richness of her fusion of singing and characterisation meant that one did not need to see Callas on stage because it is in the recordings. ‘You actually do see her act; you see her as it were on the stage. The sound of her singing was visual.’

Maria Callas Live Remastered Edition (Warner Classics), 42-CD box set, international release 15 September 2017

ABR Arts is supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

The operas

Verdi: Nabucco, conducted by Vittorio Gui (Gino Bechi, Amalia Pini, Gino Sinimberghi). 20/12/1949, Napoli, Teatro San Carlo

Wagner: Parsifal, Vittorio Gui (Rolando Panerai, Africo Baldelli, Boris Christoff). 20–21/11/1950, Rome, Auditorium della Rai

Verdi: I vespri siciliani, Erich Kleiber (Giórgios Kokoliós-Bardi, Enzo Mascherini, Boris Christoff). 26/05/1951, Firenze, Comunale

Verdi: Aida, Oliviero de Fabritiis (Mario del Monaco, Oralia Domínguez, Giuseppe Taddei). 3/07/1951, Mexico, Palacio de Bellas Artes

Rossini: Armida, Tullio Serafin (Francesco Albanese, Mario Filippeschi, Alessandro Ziliani). 26/04/1952, Firenze, Comunale

Verdi: Rigoletto, Umberto Mugnai (Giuseppe di Stefano, Piero Campolonghi, Ignacio Ruffino). 17/06/1952, México, Palacio de Bellas Artes

Bellini: Norma, Vittorio Gui (Mirto Picchi, Ebe Stignani, Giacomo Vaghi). 18/11/1952, London, Royal Opera House

Verdi: Macbeth, Victor de Sabata (Enzo Mascherini, Italo Tajo, Gino Penno). 07/12/1952, Milan, La Scala

Cherubini: Medea, Leonard Bernstein (Gino Penno, Maria Luisa Nache, Giuseppe Modesti). 10/12/1953, Milan, La Scala

Gluck: Alceste, Carlo Maria Giulini (Renato Gavarini, Paolo Silveri, Rolando Panerai). 04/04/1954, Milan, La Scala

Spontini: La vestale, Antonino Votto (Franco Corelli, Enzo Sordello, Nicola Rossi, Lemeni). 07/12/1954, Milan, La Scala

Giordano: Andrea Chénier, Antonino Votto (Mario del Monaco, Aldo Protti, Maria Amadini). 08/01/1955, Milan, La Scala

Bellini: La Sonnambula, Leonard Bernstein (Cesare Valletti, Giuseppe Modesti, Gabriella Carturan). 05/03/1955, Milan, La Scala

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor, Herbert von Karajan (Giuseppe di Stefano, Rolando Panerai, Nicola Zaccaria). 29/09/1955, Berlin, Städtische Oper

Donizetti: Anna Bolena, Gianandrea Gavazzeni (Gianni Raimondi, Nicola Rossi Lemeni, Giulietta Simionato). 14/04/1957, Milan, La Scala

Gluck: Ifigenia in Tauride, Nino Sanzogno (Francesco Albanese, Anselmo Colzani, Fiorenza Cossotto). 01/06/1957, Milan, La Scala

Verdi: La traviata, Franco Ghione (Alfredo Kraus, Mario Sereni, Laura Zannini). 27/03/1958, Lisbon, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Bellini: Il pirata, Nicola Rescigno (Pier Miranda Ferraro, Costantino Ego, Glade Peterson), 27/01/1959, New York, Carnegie Hall

Donizetti: Poliuto, Antonino Votto (Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Nicola Zaccaria). 07/12/1960, Milan, La Scala

Puccini: Tosca, Carlo Felice Cillario (Tito Gobbi). 24/01/1964, London, Royal Opera House

From the New Issue

Comments (4)

  • I heard Callas live on three occasions, twice in recital in Festival Hall, London, and, more importantly, on stage at Covent Garden in the legendary Zeffirelli production of 'Tosca' in 1964.

    On that latter occasion, I was in a stage box with the critic Andrew Porter and his sister Sheila, then working in the PR department at the ROH. Both had heard her in all of her appearances on stage there, I asked Porter if he sensed the voice was in serious decline. He had a clear memory of her previous 'Traviata' and said that, apart from the odd hollow head note and the acknowledged wobble when she sang forte, the impact, musical and dramatic, of those earlier performances, remained undimmed.
    Posted by Leo Schofield
    11 October 2017
  • Thanks for replying, Barney.
    I take your point about the studio Ballo, but you could same about the studio Rigoletto, which is even more of a classic. The Mexico performance is a bit of a mess, to be honest, and sounds under-rehearsed, which is definitely not the case with the live La Scala Ballo, which enjoys better sound as well as a splendid cast. In some ways I prefer it to the studio version, though I do prefer Gobbi to Bastianini.
    In any case, isn't it marvellous that here we are, sixty years after her death, still discussing the art of Maria Callas? The ripple effects were far reaching.
    By the way, I have started reviewing the set on my own blog. Just because I enjoy doing it.
    all the best
    Posted by Philip Tsaras
    08 October 2017
  • Thank you, Philip, for those illuminating remarks, and also the correction about the traviata date. It is written in clear type on the CD cover; I'm not sure how I came to get that wrong. Elderly memory between putting down the CDs and writing it on the computer! I didn't have the space to talk about the sound quality on individual operas, but I note there has been some debate and criticism in various forums that have discussed this set, with some experts saying there are better sources sometimes than the ones Warner used. I am not an expert, and left that debate alone. You also have the advantage of me in, for example, knowing the Dallas Medea.

    You mention a 1957 Ballo at La Scala, but that is contained in the earlier studio recordings set. It may be safe to assume that the stage forces were reconvened in the studio? It is conducted by Votto with Callas favourites di Stefano and Gobbi.
    You list some operas as having poor sound, which is true compared with modern recordings, but I found the Parsifal pretty good. I had it previously on an old Cetra set which was vastly inferior. Basically, your advice is excellent: listen through the mud, and you will be richly rewarded.

    Thanks again for taking the trouble to leave such a considered comment.
    Posted by Barney Zwartz
    02 October 2017
  • Just a slight correction. The Lisbon Traviata took place in 1958 not 1959. This was also the year she sang the role at Covent Garden, a recording of which also exists. However good the Lisbon performance, I can't help wishing Warner had chosen the latter, as it is one of Callas's most profoundly moving performances, and the sound is not bad.
    I have a few question marks about some of the other choices too. Like most Callas aficionados, I prefer the 1955 La Scala Norma to the Covent Garden one, the 1958 Dallas Medea to the 1953 La Scala and the 1957 Cologne Sonnambula to the 1955 La Scala one (also in much better sound). I wonder too why they went for the Mexico Rigoletto, when the studio set is one of the classics of the gramophone, and this Mexico one, both in terms of performance and sound, a bit of a mess. Surely La Scala's 1957 Un Ballo in Maschera would have been a better choice.
    Other than that, the choices seem pretty good, but one should also point out that the Warners aren't always the best choice in terms of sound. In particular Divina Records and Ars Vocalis, small operations though they are, have come up with results that are sometimes better than Warner (Divina's Anna Bolena being a case in point).
    Still, it's good to have these performances more readily available, though casual buyers should be advised that the sound of some of them (Nabucco, La Vestale, Parsifal, Armida, Alceste to name a few) can be pretty intransigent, and requires a good deal of forbearance on the part of the listener. You have to listen "through" the sound, as it were, to the performance itself. If you can do that, the rewards are prodigious.
    Posted by Philip Tsaras
    02 October 2017

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