Robert J Farr
, March 2005
"Maria Callass defining roles were Lucia, Tosca and, above all, Norma. She was first admired at Verona in 1947 singing the tragic eponymous heroine in Ponchiellis La Gioconda. This was one of her first complete opera recordings, for the Cetra label, in September 1952 and issued by Naxos in 2004 . More important throughout her career was the role of Norma. Her performances at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires in the summer of 1949 brought her international recognition. She had first sung the role in Florence in the 1947-48 season with Fedora Barbieri as Adalgisa. In the 1949-50 season she sang it in Rome, Venice and Mexico. It was her debut role at Covent Garden in November 1952 and at the Met in 1956. Callass Covent Garden performances, with Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa, caused an eruption of critical approbation in London. In his office at the London headquarters of Columbia Records (Angel in the USA), I dont doubt that Walter Legge, head of Artist and Repertoire, felt like the cat who had found the double cream. He had, in July of that year, signed Callas to an exclusive contract. Over the following ten years she made studio recordings of 21 complete operas, and many recital discs. These constituted the core of the Columbia (later part of EMI) operatic catalogue. Many of these recordings remained in the catalogue, and at full price, for over forty years until the expiry of copyright approached. A number were then issued at mid-price in the Great Recordings of the Century series. Now, working from the finest available LP copies, Naxos is making the recordings available at bargain price as they emerge from copyright restrictions. The restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, with his usual estimable care and skill, achieves a quality of reproduction on these CDs that to my ears is superior to that which EMI, the owner of the master tapes, has thus far obtained. The solo voices are clear and forwardly balanced without depriving the orchestral contribution of its due. Listening to the choral climaxes (CD 1 tr. 2 and CD 3 tr.9) they are commendably free of overload.
The founder, and an editor, of the UKs prestigious Opera Magazine saw the 1952 performances of Norma at Covent Garden. They, and other younger critics who were present, were overwhelmed by the performances of Callas and Stignani in particular. It may be that the reaction to those performances has disproportionately influenced critical opinion of Callas’s recorded legacy, with insufficient weight being given to the serious vocal shortcomings that the singer developed. Without her vivid and vivacious stage presence these shortcomings became all too obvious. In the autumn of 2003, EMI issued a recording taken from those Covent Garden performances. Both Callas and Stignani are certainly in fresher voice than in this studio recording made in April 1954. The supporting tenor is better too. I personally find the disadvantages of the live recording far outweigh the benefits. Despite its limitations, it is to this recording I return to hear Callas’s portrayal of Norma. There is also a stereo remake of September 1960 where the Pollione of Franco Corelli and the Oroveso of Nicola Zaccaria are infinitely better than their barely adequate counterparts on this recording. However, on that stereo remake Callas’s voice is, to say the least, approaching threadbare and insecure, artifice being no substitute for true vocal quality and tonal substance.
Why Walter Legge waited until 1954 to record Callas’s Norma I do not know. She is not in the fresh voice heard in the Lucia recording made fourteen months before and Norma would have been a better bet than the I Puritani he chose for the soprano’s second recording . As the La Scala theatre was in use, for Tebaldi singing Tosca, Legge had to use another venue in Milan. None the less, this recording catches her individual approach to one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire. Norma is the only great bel canto opera to have maintained its place in the roster of the world’s opera houses since its composition through to the bel canto revival of the early 1950s, often with Callas at its centre. In the crux of the opera, when Norma first learns of Pollione’s dalliance with Adalgisa (CD 2 tr. 6) and then intends to kill their children (CD 2 trs. 10-12) the nature of Callas’ interpretation is evident. It is not concerned with beautiful singing in the manner of Sutherland (Decca) or Caballé (RCA). It is a dramatic interpretation, together with the odd vocal flaw, of Norma’s many emotions and situations and is overwhelming in its emotional impact.
The appendices, restored from 78 rpm shellacs by the redoubtable Ward Marston, are well chosen. Particularly welcome are Ezio Pinza’s rendering of Oroveso’s Ite sul colle, o Druidi! (CD 3 tr. 11) and Ah! Del Tebro al giogo indegno (CD 3 tr. 16). They are sung with vocal strength, incisive diction and tonal sonority. They regrettably serve to further highlight what is lacking in Rossi-Lemeni’s singing on the complete opera. I welcomed Pinza’s singing of Raimondo’s aria in the appendices of the parallel issue of the Callas Lucia mentioned above. Naxos could gainfully issue a collection of his singing. I am sure it would find a ready market, as would a collection of Rosa Ponselle in this fach to go with her disc of Verdi arias (Naxos 8.110728). Described as one of the greatest singers of the century, Ponselle had a rich toned, well-covered voice, even over its range. The Met revived Norma, among other roles, for her. It is interesting to compare her singing of Norma’s prayer Casta Diva (CD 3 tr. 13) with that of Callas (CD 1 tr. 10) in respect of movement through the register, use of vocal colouring and overall dramatic effect. Equally captivating is Ponselle with Marion Telva as Adalgisa in Mira, o Norma (CD 3 tr. 16). The role was originally written for the soprano voice. After all, Adalgisa is a young virgin of the temple not Norma’s mother. Putting that matter aside, both this rendering and that of Callas and Stignani (CD 2 tr. 15) constitute fine singing and characterisation. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus in vibrant voice accompanies all the above excerpts. However, when it comes to vibrancy of singing the trio Deh! Non volerii vittime (CD 3 tr. 16) is an example of the Italian tradition in this fach in the inter-war years. Gina Cigna is more vehement and declamatory in style and uses more vibrato than either Callas or Ponselle. With Gui on the podium the effect is viscerally exciting despite it not reflecting, or even respecting, the long flowing cantilena that we now look for in Bellini’s operas. As well as letting us hear other famous singers in this opera, these appendices add richness to the whole re-issue of Callas’s portrayal of a role that was central to her international recognition and like Tosca remained in her repertoire.
Returning to the main focus of this issue: The manner in which Callas colours her voice and the way she moves through the vocal register is very individual and not to every taste. If it is to yours then this Naxos realisation of the 1954 studio recording is in the best sound I have so far heard of this performance and is recommended as such."