About this Recording
8.110131-32 - DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor (Callas, di Stefano, Gobbi) (1953)

Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was the first complete recording for EMI that Callas took part in, in February 1953; sessions followed performances of Lucia at the Comunale, Florence. Angel published it in the United States in January 1954 and Columbia in Britain in March 1954, but after Tosca and I Puritani, both of which also include her, but were made later. Walter Legge, EMI’s record producer, explains why in a letter to Dario Soria of Angel records. ‘Tosca is so far superior to both Puritani and Lucia that I beg you in your own interests to hold up the other operas until Tosca is published.’ Presumably he was not writing about the operas but about the recordings. It was Callas, however, who made all these recordings, particularly of Puritani and Lucia, and as we see today she continues still to create a demand for them, notwithstanding more than half-a-century having passed and now they are in the public domain.

Legge had been busy in the music business since 1932. By the time these operas were recorded he was in his mid-forties, his taste reflected in London’s concert life, and by recordings throughout the world. Unfortunately, he was not properly appreciative of Callas; he did not make complete recordings of her in I vespri siciliani, Armida, Macbeth, Anna Bolena or Il pirata, all of which he might have done, for in them she enjoyed some of her greatest triumphs. Not until after Legge’s death did EMI feel obliged to poach on the pirates and publish amateur recordings of live performances of some of these operas. That is not to say the recording of Tosca is not outstanding; it includes Callas’s Tosca, Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia, Giuseppe Di Stefano’s Cavaradossi, the chorus and orchestra of La Scala, Milan, but, as di Stefano pertinently observes, ‘the miracle of that Tosca was the conductor de Sabata’. After Callas’s death in 1977 in an obituary Legge acclaims it ‘Callas’s supreme recording ... after nearly 25 years still unique in the history of recorded Italian opera’. Certainly it is ‘still unique’, but ‘Callas’s supreme recording’? If we only had her Tosca how little of her art would have survived. Tosca needs to be sung well but the contribution of the orchestra is quite as important, whereas in Puritani and Lucia it does not signify. Indicatively the recording of Tosca is complete, whereas those of Puritani and Lucia are much abbreviated; whole scenes are not included, some passages have been shortened, second verses of arias and cabalettas deleted, and codas cut. In the 1950s, when the recordings were first published, it was claimed these were made so as to minimise conventions in oldfashioned works, but what they did was enable most of the cast, who had not the technique, notwithstanding remarkable voices, to cope with the music. Being trained by teachers brought up in the age of verismo they could not easily manage the wide range and exacting tessitura required in bel canto opera.

Callas is the exception. The sensation her singing caused when this recording of Lucia was first issued educated critical ears and revitalised florid song. It had long been dismissed. The critic Ernest Newman in 1926 was derisory: ‘Ornaments were only evidences of the bad taste of the singers and the tyranny imposed by them upon audiences, and ... while the vulgar ... may have delighted in them, to the genuinely musical ear, they must have been intolerable’. It was not, however, that ornaments were in bad taste; florid song is common to many different styles of music, occidental and oriental, and long antedates opera. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, ‘coloratura’, as florid song was by then slightingly styled, had become something only fit for birds - in Siegfried literally so, for Wagner has the Forest Bird at first vocalise fioritura and then afterwards add words. By so doing he reminds us, as Paul Henry Lang notes, in Music in Western Civilisation, song is even older than speech. Florid song may no longer feature in opera, yet it is part of an irrepressible natural vocal grammar that spontaneously finds expression in many different musical styles. Recordings preserve jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald exuberantly resorting to mordents, staccati, and even ad libitum cadenzas.

I remember when Callas’s Lucia was first issued throughout the opera world she created one of the greatest furores in a career that for a few years was an unending sequence of furores. As the reaction in his review in The Gramophone of Philip Hope Wallace testifies, he was so carried away that he had to go out in the garden and cool off. Lucia had not then been performed at London’s Covent Garden since 1925, although at New York’s Metropolitan it was still given occasionally, but only by ‘coloratura’ sopranos, a tradition that had been petering out through Amelita Galli-Curci (1882-1963), Frieda Hempel (1885-1955), Maria Barrientos (1883-1946) and Lily Pons (1895- 1976), whose voices, records suggest, only got smaller as their singing got sketchier. Callas executes the florid song with unerring accuracy, and uses a stunning weight of tone and breadth of phrasing. In the cadenza to the Mad Scene, the sudden intrusion of the flute sounds as if she were cavorting with a tin whistle. She brings to Lucia a tragic dimension, creating a precedent with it, something we can be sure never before divined even in the nineteenth century. She imbued it with the dramatic weight of later generations of composers’ works, yet did so without in any way forcing the boundaries of Donizetti’s style. By so doing it enabled her to translate the impact the opera initially had into something comprehensible today. The idea, Flaubert describes in Madame Bovary, of the heroine weeping because she sees herself in the unhappy fate of poor Lucia, is not so ridiculous.

Giuseppe Di Stefano, born in 1921 near Catania, Sicily, had a brilliant but short career. His was one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices of the last century. He began singing light music then, following a brief period of study with the baritone Luigi Montesanto, made his opera début in 1946 as Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon at Reggio Emilia, after which his rise to fame was rapid. In 1947 he appeared at La Scala, Milan, also as Des Grieux, and in 1948 at the Metropolitan, New York, as the Duke in Rigoletto. At first his repertory included Fenton in Falstaff, Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Alfredo in La traviata and Faust, but it did not take long before he began undertaking heavier rôles, like Cavaradossi, Don José in Carmen, Radames in Aida, Canio in Pagliacci and even Alvaro in La forza del destino. Sadly the great years of his career were soon over, and by 1961, trying to make more out of his voice than nature had put in, he made his last appearance at La Scala. From 1944 for HMV he recorded songs and arias, and from 1953 for Angel/Columbia, with Callas, Edgardo, Arturo, Cavaradossi, Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, Canio, the Duke, Manrico in Il trovatore, Rodolfo, Riccardo in Il ballo in maschera and Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

The career of Tito Gobbi (1913-1984), born at Bassano di Grappa in the Veneto, lasted more than forty years. His was a first-class Italian baritone with a characteristic timbre in the Titta Ruffo style. He made his début in 1935 at Gubbio singing a bass rôle, Rodolfo in La sonnambula, but this was a one off, and by the next year at La Scala, he became a baritone. Within a few years his repertory embraced Germont in La traviata, Silvio in Pagliacci, Lescaut, Marcello in La Bohème, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, Ford in Falstaff, De Siriex in Fedora, Baldassare in Cilea’s L’arlesiana and Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur, and he also sang Melot in Wagner’s Tristano and Gunther in Il crepuscolo degli dei, Jochanaan in Strauss’s Salomi and Wozzeck, as well as a sizeable repertory of then modern operas. His international career began after World War II at leading theatres throughout the opera world, undertaking many of what were then famous impersonations, including Rigoletto, Posa, Iago, Renato, Macbeth, Nabucco, Simon Boccanegra, Rance in La fanciulla del west, Scarpia, Falstaff and Michele in Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, both of which he sang on more than one occasion the same evening. In older music, as Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia or Don Giovanni, which he appeared in at Salzburg under Furtwängler in 1950, although his stage presence was imposing, yet recordings reveal his singing was not stylish. Over the years inevitably his voice became less responsive and in the upper range not infrequently he sang flat. As more than twenty films he made show, he was a good-looking man with considerable histrionic skill. His recording career lasted from 1942 and his first 78s for HMV, to LP sets for EMI, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Scarpia, Amonasro, Rigoletto, Renato and Figaro, with Callas, and Falstaff under Karajan, to 1978, when for Decca/London, he sang Chim-Fen in Leoni’s L’oracolo.

Raffaele Arié (1922-1988) was born in Sofia, and sang there first in 1939 in Handel’s Messiah. In 1945, after appearing at Sofia Opera, like other Bulgarian basses, Christoff and Ghiaurov, he moved to Italy. In Milan, like Christoff too, he studied with the baritone Riccardo Stracciari. He possessed a firm and dark, although somewhat throaty basso cantante, and appeared extensively in Europe and the Americas. At La Scala, Milan in 1947 he made his début as the King in the Italian première of Prokofiev’s L’amore delle tre melarancie, and in 1948, at the Fenice in Venice created Trulove in the world première of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. His repertory included Varlaam and Boris Godunov, Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Mefistofele in Faust, Marmeladov in Sutermeister’s Delitto e castigo, Un vecchio ebreo in Saint-Saëns’s Sansone e Dalila, Skula in Borodin’s II Principe Igor, Saviol Dikoj in Rocca’s L’uragana, Ivan Kovanski in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, L’inquisitore in Don Carlo, Il cieco in Pizzetti’s Debora e Jaele, Gremin in Eugenio Oneghin, Jero in Rossini’s L’assedio di Corinto, the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Rodolfo in La sonnambula and Sarastro in Mozart’s Il flauto magico. He made some of the first long-playing records for Decca/London, among them excerpts from Boris Godunov with the original orchestration.

Tullio Serafin (1878-1968), born at Rottanova di Cavarzere, near Venice, was one of the great conductors of Italian opera. After studying at the Milan Conservatory at first he was a violinist in the orchestra at La Scala, Milan, then in 1900 at Ferrara began a career as conductor. Engagements followed in Turin and Rome. Through more than half a century he appeared at Covent Garden, London (1907, 1931, 1959- 60), La Scala, Milan (1910-1914, 1917, 1918, 1940, 1946-7), Colón, Buenos Aires (1914, 1919, 1920, 1928, 1937, 1938, 1949, 1951), San Carlo, Naples (1922-3, 1940-1, 1949-58), Metropolitan, New York (1924-34), the Rome Opera (1934-43, 1962), Lyric Opera, Chicago (1955, 1957-58), and numerous other opera houses in Italy and abroad. His repertory was vast. He conducted conventional and unconventional operas as well as introducing a variety of new works and worked with numerous famous singers, including Battistini, Chaliapin, Ponselle, Gigli, Callas and Sutherland. His recording career was exhaustive and embraced the HMV (1939) Verdi Requiem as well as both Angel/Columbia Normas (1954 and 1960) with Callas.

Michael Scott
is the author of Maria Meneghini Callas

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