Robert J Farr
, March 2005
"In January 2004, Naxos issued its remasterings of three of Maria Callass first studio recordings. These were Ponchiellis La Gioconda, her very first studio recording of a complete opera, Bellinis I Puritani and Puccinis Tosca. The La Gioconda, like this La Traviata, was recorded under a contract signed with the Cetra label in October 1951. The other two works were the first and fourth recordings she made for the London-based Columbia Records (Angel in the USA) under an exclusive contract signed in July 1952 at the instigation of Walter Legge, head of A and R at Columbia. In my review of the Naxos issue of I Puritani, I stated that the Cetra contract had specified that Callas would record three complete operas for the company. In the event she only recorded the La Gioconda and this La Traviata. I wondered what the third opera might have been. In recounting that history I repeated what had long been the perceived truth, often recorded in print. In his booklet note to this La Traviata Michael Scott, a distinguished biographer of Maria Callas, provides more information. He states that the original contract with Cetra specified four operas, the two referred to and Puccinis Manon Lescaut and Boitos Mefistofele. Scott also corrects my statement that the two operas were recorded in September 1952. It is now clear, and confirmed by research by Ward Marston, the remastering engineer of this issue, that the La Traviata was recorded in September 1953, commencing on 15th and concluded by 20th.
Maria Callas first sang Violetta in January 1951 at the Teatro Communale in Florence. In the next three seasons Callas sang the role at Bergamo, Parma, Mexico City, Verona, Venice and Rome. In all she performed Violetta 63 times. It ranks second only to Norma as the role she sang most often. At the time of these earlier performances she was not the svelte diva that sang the role in Chicago in 1954. By then she had shed 25 kilos of body weight and her portrayal of Violetta’s death from tuberculosis in the final scene was dramatically as well as vocally a compelling whole. Her stage portrayal of Violetta’s plight reached its apotheosis at La Scala in 1955 in the production by Visconti conducted by Giulini. Whether it was weight loss or the life style of the diva after her slimming and divorce, vocal frailties were becoming more evident. Walter Legge didn’t wait until 1957 when he could have recorded Callas as Violetta for Columbia, with her regular recording partners of Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano. Instead, in 1955 he went ahead signing up Antonietta Stella to sing Violetta. Callas was not best pleased! She cannot have failed to realise that good as her performance is on this issue her colleagues and the comprimarios are not in the same class as herself or her regular partners.
As is widely accepted, La Traviata is an opera demanding very different vocal skills of its tragic heroine. They range between the joyous coloratura of act 1 and the more dramatic acts 2 and 3. In the opening party scene Callas adopts an appropriately light vivacious tone (CD 1 tr. 2) until she feels faint. Then she is reflective as she contemplates Alfredo’s declaration of love in E Strano (tr. 8) and pensive for Ah forse e lui (tr. 9) before embarking on the coloratura of Follie! Follie! and Sempre Libera (trs. 10-11). Callas conveys, by vocal nuance, inflection and tonal colouring the various changes of mood that Violetta experiences in that scene. She does so with vocal security and no fear of the high note. There is no thinning of the tone such as was to afflict her singing later. However, the best Callas is to be heard in the drama that unfolds in the last two acts and particularly in the vital duet with Alfredo’s father. We must curse the inadequacy of the singing of Ugo Savarese and yearn for the incisive tone and vocal characterisation of Gobbi. Despite Savarese’s lack of dramatic reciprocation, Callas manages to convey first her scorn of Germont and then her emotions as she agrees to his request to forsake Alfredo and asks that he will, one day, tell his son of her sacrifice (CD 1 trs. 15-21). The emotional impact is overwhelming especially if you are able to follow the words in the Italian or from a libretto. Callas conveys similar vocal skill in an equally vivid way in Teneste la promessa and as she reads Germont’s letter telling her that he has fulfilled his promise and that Alfredo is returning to her (CD 2 trs. 11-12). Violetta knows only too well that it is too late. Francesco Albanese sings her Alfredo here. He sings his Brindisi with some brio (CD 1 tr. 3) and makes considerable efforts at phrasing and vocal sensitivity in both Un di’,felice (CD 1 tr. 5) and Parigi, a cara (CD 3 tr. 15) even if his instrument and slightly dry tone defeat this efforts.. Some of the comprimario roles are very poorly sung. The conductor, Gabiele Santini, gives his singers plenty of space for phrasing at the expense of dramatic impetus. While not having the élan of Kleiber (DG) he is preferable to the lumpy Prêtre (RCA with Caballé) and no more indulgent than Bonynge (Decca with Sutherland).
The overall recording quality is not of the standard attained by Columbia at the same period. However, it is far better than that on the EMI issues taken from Callas’s live performances at La Scala in 1955 and Lisbon in 1958. In both cases Callas’s partners are far superior to those here, whilst the diva’s voice in the Lisbon performances is well past its prime. This issue does have Maria Callas’s portrayal of Violetta recorded at her vocal prime and in reasonable sound. Despite the limitations of her colleagues it is the only realistic choice if you wish to add her superb portrayal to your collection to go alongside whatever other versions you have."