, April 2008
The arias on this disc all come from Callas’s 1954 recording sessions for Walter Legge. The sessions were held at Watford Town Hall with the Philharmonia conducted by Serafin, rather than an opera house orchestra. The selection of arias is slightly curious as Callas includes excerpts from Manon Lescaut, La Boheme, Madama Butterfly and Turandot which she would go on to record complete for Legge; whereas the album includes no arias from Tosca which she had just recorded.
This means that the Puccini selection does rather concentrate on roles which Callas either never sang on stage or which are not particularly associated with her. Innocence and girlish charm are not Callas strong points so the processing of naïve 16 year olds must have caused her some pause for consideration. But Callas was a singing actress, so In quelle trini morbidi from Manon Lescaut succeeds in conveying a certain innocence and purity, even if Callas is not girlish, and she matures wonderfully in the second excerpt from the opera.
Un bel di vedremo from Madam Butterfly is equally winning, if a bit generalised, but you can almost hear her taking care. The tone is perfectly controlled and each phrase is beautifully shaped. She makes heroic efforts to rein in her rather uncontrollable wobble. The result is lovely but you can hear the art that has gone into the performance. Other singers, whose fach this more naturally is, can do the aria in a far more naturalistic manner. But Callas is always worth listening to, and she can surprise you with a small phrase. In Tu piccolo iddio she lets go a little more and we hear the passionate, intense, unbridled Callas that we know.
Similarly in the two arias from La Boheme we are conscious of the care which goes into them, but there are lovely moments. Senza Mamma from Suor Angelica is sung in a somewhat freer manner; perhaps she felt less constrained by comparisons with other performers. Serafin takes O mio babbino caro at a remarkably steady tempo but Callas shows no sign of trouble. In fact in this aria she also displays strong control, though her performance is rather lacking in humour.
Whilst Liu’s two arias from Turandot are not perfect and Turandot’s In questa reggia is commanding but not icy enough, Callas differentiates between the two characters in a way that is an object lesson for other recitalists.
So far, I have used the word ‘control’ quite a bit in describing Callas’s performance. But it must be admitted that she is only capable of a certain type of control. She is a singing actress par excellence and her voice is capable of achieving every expressive device expected of it, except for the wobble. This has caused some comment in this recital ever since the discs were first issued.
Puccini’s heroines require Callas to sing out with full voice in her upper register which inevitably leads to a strong vibrato (wobble). The ending of In questa reggia is a case in point ... and the effect was repeated when she recorded the whole opera. In quieter moments she controls it, but in the throes of passion, inevitably the voice gives way. This is nothing new, the Callas wobble is something that I realised I would have to live with if I wanted to listen to her recordings.
But, rather oddly, Naxos’s liner notes - written by Michael Scott, author of Maria Meneghini Callas - make a great deal of her vocal problems; so much so that one starts to wonder why anyone should listen to the arias at all. It is true that Caballé’s Liu and Nilsson’s Turandot both surpass Callas. But Callas brings to everything her familiar intelligence and vocal expressiveness, so if you can get beyond the wobble then there are many lovely things to be heard here.
The Puccini items are accompanied by a selection of arias which formed the lyric section of her “Coloratura and Lyric Arias” recital, Naxos having already issued the coloratura items.
In the two items from Adriana Lecouvreur Callas displays a beautiful sense of line and, frankly, I find these performances lovely; but then again, Adriana has always been a role to flatter sopranos. In La mamma morta from Andrea Chenier she is nearly equally controlled, but more passionate.
The performance of the famous aria from La Wally is perhaps notable for the amount of control that Callas is able to bring to it, reining in the wobble; making it remarkable for technical rather than musical issues.
Finally, in the aria from Mefistofele she brings all her skill in earlier 19th century Italian opera to bear on Boito’s elaborate music. The result shows what she can really do on a good day.
This is by no means a perfect recital. It does not play to Callas’s strengths, but she is never less than interesting. Mark Obert-Thorn’s remastering is admirable and well worth the minimal investment required for the disc. Don’t be put off. If you can get beyond the blemishes - notably the infamous wobble - then there is much else in here as well.