20 Years of Genius on Disc

Maria Callas—The Complete Studio Recordings 1949-1969
In the span of two decades, Maria Callas’ studio recordings progressed from scratchy 78s to the highest quality stereo pressings.  Ironically, her voice declined in something like the opposite proportions during those same years.  Today, her interpretations of the great soprano roles are considered the finest ever (with rare exceptions) and her stature as an artist has been compared to that of Michelangelo.

As a child, I was aware of Maria Callas the person for two reasons: a friend’s uncle was tenor Jon Vickers, who sang with her to great acclaim, and because I was a precocious Time Magazine reader.  I recall the attention given her master classes at Julliard in 1971, as well as the hubbub surrounding her belated farewell tour in 1973-4.  Back then I did not fully appreciate Callas the artist.

Being a perfectionist, I grew to prefer singers like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Jussi Bjöerling and Kathleen Battle, whose voices were little short of sublime to my thinking.  But there was something about Callas that kept drawing me back: it was the emotive power, which held me rapt despite the ever-present imperfections that were an obvious annoyance even to someone like me.

I still remember the moment the Callas magic struck me fully and irrevocably.  I’d often heard her dramatic gifts praised, but couldn’t comprehend how they would hold up since the recordings were all that were left apart from a few badly filmed performances.  I didn’t understand the praise was not merely for this or that facial expression, as she sang a role on stage, but for something far greater.

It was her Dei tuoi figli from Medea (Tullio Serafin, cond. 1955) that convinced me.  I was so gripped by the singing I had to know what those words meant.  I read along with the libretto (a practice I’d long thought fussy and pretentious—that from a former child Time reader.)  I’d always thought if the music was good, you shouldn’t need the words to understand it.  But her ‘torna me, torna sposa per me!’ carried such depths of pleading and despair I couldn’t shake the feeling I was hearing something greater than truth itself.

In Callas’ mouth, the words leapt to life as I read along: ‘Come back to me, husband come back to me…’  What superb anguish, what exquisite torment!  And then ‘Crudel! Crudel io non voglio che te…’ (‘Cruel one! Cruel one, I want only you…’)  I was swept away.

Arguably, some of Callas’ greatest performances are to be found on her live recordings—drama was so natural to her that she excelled before an audience—but the studio recordings are usually not that far behind in excitement and, frankly, the sound is much better and more intimate, especially with the new EMI pressings.  (The only exception is Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, whose re-mastering seems to have been overdone and sounds more rattly, at least in my speakers, than the recently released Naxos version.)

Anyone wanting a guide through the labyrinth of studio recordings (69 sound CDs, including 22 complete operas—some recorded more than once—plus numerous recital discs, and a final one of photographs and libretti) could do no better than to purchase John Ardoin’s The Callas Legacy, which singer Shirely Verrett called ‘indispensable.’  It’s an intimate and meticulous analysis of virtually every Callas recording released—which are good, which not, which better, which best, and why—and with which I am almost always in agreement.

If I had to list only one favourite Callas recording, it would be the live 1953 Bernstein-conducted Medea by Luigi Cherubini, which is also incidentally one of my two favourite operas (the other being Alban Berg’s Wozzeck).  For obvious reasons, that recording isn’t part of the set under discussion, but a very close second-choice would be the 1960 studio recording of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, once again with Serafin conducting.  It’s one of two studio Norma’s and, for me, the difference is tremendous.

Though many claim to hear only the vocal decline, admittedly setting in rapidly by then, it’s over-shadowed enormously by the breadth and depth of Callas’ characterization of the pagan priestess in love with a man who wants to desert her.  (It seemed to be Callas’ leitmotif as much in her art as in her life.)  In comparison, the earlier version from 1954 (also with Serafin conducting) is strident and stentorian—this before Callas truly learned the difference between studio recording and live performance, which she always acknowledged to be significant.

There’s something Herculean in her struggles, here and elsewhere, as she strives to find the right expression and couple it with a vocal expertise.  (Callas often seems to be trying to marry the fire of spontaneity with a sort of contemplation of the emotions engendered by it.)  Few, if any, of her recordings sound effortless, though ironically some of her more demanding but musically lighter roles, like Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, come close.  Even the slightest of these are charming (Fiorina in Giaochino Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, for instance), though most sound as if they’ve been wrested through some great mastery of the art at considerable effort.

Even those who know Callas’ story, both professional and personal, may feel something like despair listening as the voice deteriorates in the early years of the 1960s, resuscitates briefly in 1964 and 1965 to produce some wonders (a surprising Carmen by Georges Bizet and a recital volume of French arias, among them) only to lapse into silence for another four years.

Yet even in decline, Callas seems to have discovered new dimensions to her voice, while attempting to correct her problems with some serious studying late in the game.  The year 1969 produced her last official studio album, a third volume of Verdi arias partly cobbled together from earlier recording sessions made in 1964-5.  It ends with Ritorna vincitor! from Verdi’s Aida, which Callas no doubt took as a more personal statement.  As brave and victorious as the return may have been, sadly, it was brief.



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