About this Recording
8.110300-01 - VERDI: Traviata (La) (Callas, Albanese) (1953)

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata

At the beginning of October 1951 Callas stopped off in New York, on her way back from Rio de Janeiro to Milan, and signed a contract with Dario Soria, President of CETRA-Soria, an Italo-American company, to take part in recordings of La Gioconda, La traviata, Manon Lescaut and Mefistofele. By the beginning of 1953, however, Soria had moved to Angel Records and set up a new outlet for EMI in the United States (its relationship with RCA Victor having come to an end), and whither Soria went so went Callas. In September 1952 she had recorded Gioconda for CETRA but was still contracted to make Violetta in La traviata the following September. Like La Gioconda, La traviata was recorded in Turin. It was published in Italy and the United States in September 1954, but as CETRA did not have an outlet in Britain, the recording did not become available there for several years. I remember how disappointing and frustrating that was.

In the course of her career Callas sang Violetta 63 times; it ranks next after Norma as the rôle she sang most often. Through the eight years it was in her repertory her interpretation changed and developed, rapidly and prodigiously. The first time she undertook it, in January 1951 at the Comunale, Florence, she was a very bulky lady and weighed nearly ninety kilos. Hardly surprisingly there was nothing tubercular about her conception, and the emphasis then was all on voice. Zeffirelli, who was present on that occasion, recalled in an interview, ‘how the audience went mad ... it was sensational, vocally and musically’. In September she sang it in Brazil in São Paulo in company with what would later become familiar figures in EMI’s recordings: Giuseppe di Stefano (Alfredo), Tito Gobbi (Germont) and conductor Tullio Serafin. More than thirty years later, in his autobiography, Gobbi had not forgotten her performance: ‘I cannot believe anyone ever sang that first act as Callas sang it ... I find it impossible to describe the electrifying brilliance of the coloratura, the beauty, the sheer magic of that sound which she poured out then. And with it perfect diction, colour, inflection and feeling.’ Then Violetta was performed by sopranos whose looks may have been fitting, like Mafalda Favero (1903-1981), or had voices of impressive size, like Adriana Guerrini (1907-1970) and Maria Caniglia (1905-1979), or of notable quality, like Renata Tebaldi (b.1922) and Antonietta Stella (b.1929); but for singers in those days, brought up in the age of verismo, it did not matter how Sempre libera was executed, few cared what key they sang it in, or had technique enough to cope easily with the florid measures.

In the course of the next three seasons Callas sang Violetta at Bergamo, Parma, Catania, Mexico City, Verona, Venice and Rome. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was at a performance at Parma with her husband Walter Legge, EMI’s record producer. ‘We ... witnessed a major victory for Callas. As everyone knows, there is no victory in Italy like being acclaimed in Parma in a Verdi rôle! ... I went backstage [and told her] there [was] no point in my singing this rôle again. ... And I didn’t.’ Still, in 1955 when Legge arranged an EMI recording of Traviata, he could not have thought Callas’s Violetta sufficiently a victory to wait only another two years, until her CETRA contract enabled her to make it again, but booked Stella as Violetta. Recordings of Callas’s Violetta from Mexico City survive from 1951 and 1952 and both show her a vocal powerhouse. In the first, at the end of Sempre libera, she makes a sweeping portamento to the high E flat. In the second, perhaps because the performance is a bit of a mess and the conductor lacks any authority, at the end of the act three ensemble, Alfredo, di questo core, she takes the opportunity of completing the upward arpeggio to another high E flat. When she sang it next in Verona that summer Peter Dragadze in Opera called it, ‘the greatest thrill of the season ... an unforgettable experience ... she appears to make no effort to dramatize the situation physically ... [it is] the colour of her voice [that] clearly depicts every emotion and sensation she is experiencing.’ In Rome in January 1953, according to Cynthia Jolly in Opera,. ‘in the first act [she] succeeded admirably if untraditionally, when one remembers the bird-like coloratura Violetta is used to receiving’, but in later acts, some in the audience were ‘enchanted by her sheer [vocal] expertise ... other[s were] shocked by her lack of feeling ... and la voce troppo forte.’ But what she did was take the trouble to look at the score and sing all of what is written, as well as add embellishments and sing different cadenzas in different performances. As we can hear today in this recording, made in September that year with the Rome cast, Francesco Albanese (Alfredo), Ugo Savarese (Germont) and conductor Gabriele Santini.

A year later in Chicago when Callas sang it next, in her first season in the United States, she had reduced her weight by more than 25 kilos. Violetta was the second rôle she undertook after making her début as Norma. James Hinton in Opera thought ‘the idea of Callas mounting a pyre whose construction and lighting she has herself ordered [and] travelling about in a chariot drawn by dragons ... is quite believable [but] lying poor and neglected in a furnished room is too much to ask of any audience’. Not until her next Violetta in May 1955 at La Scala, Milan, when she took part in Visconti’s famous production in two seasons 21 times, did the new svelte Callas metamorphose her dramatic conception. Thereafter she sang it in New York, Lisbon, London and Dallas. I saw her Violetta in June 1958 in London, by which time her voice, like her physique, had become thinner and less substantial than it was three years before. Whether this was of its own volition or because she sought deliberately to use the minimum of voice who can say, but inevitably there soon came a point beyond which it was impossible for her to support her voice sufficiently; she sang only two more Violettas in Dallas at the end of that year. Happily this recording dates from 1953, when she was still in the plenitude of her powers and her instrument matched the size of her figure. It shows her Violetta boldly, brilliantly, as well as dramatically sung.

Francesco Albanese (b. 1912) was born at Torre del Greco near Naples. He was a lyric tenor and made appearances after 1941 at many of Italy’s leading theatres, the San Carlo Naples, the Rome Opera, La Fenice in Venice, the Comunale Florence, La Scala, Milan, and abroad at the São Carlos, Lisbon, Covent Garden, London, the Colón, Buenos Aires, and Kiralyi in Budapest. For twenty years he sang Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Ramiro in La Cenerentola, Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, Jeník in Smetana’s La sposa venduta, Fenton in Falstaff, Ernesto in Don Pasquale, Ismael in Nabucco, Faust, Rodolfo, Giuliano in Charpentier’s Luisa, Wolfgang Capito in Hindemith’s Mathis il pintore, Avito in Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re, Faust, Giasone in Cherubini’s Medea, Pilade in Gluck’s Ifigenia in Tauride and Rinaldo in Rossini’s Armida, the last three of which he sang opposite Callas; of the last two recordings survive of broadcasts.

Albanese’s contemporary baritone Ugo Savarese (1912-1997) was also a Neapolitan. After studying at the Conservatory there he appeared at the San Carlo in 1940 as Schaunard in La Bohème. Like Albanese he sang at many important Italian opera houses. His repertory included Germont, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, Tonio in Pagliacci, Marcello, Gerard in Andrea Chénier, Don Carlo in La forza del destino, Amonasro, Escamillo, Valentin, Alfio, di Luna, Telramondo in Lohengrin, David in L’amico Fritz, Alfonso in La favorita, Carlo in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, Barnaba in La Gioconda, Zurga in I pescatori di perle, the carpenter in Mascagni’s Il piccolo Marat, Belcore in L’elisir d’amore, Sharpless, Giacomo in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco and Simone in Paisiello’s Il duello comico. He made a number of other recordings for CETRA, including Rolando in Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano.

Gabriele Santini (1886-1964) was born in Perugia and studied there and at Bologna before his conducting career began. He took part in seasons at La Scala, Milan (1925-9), Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires (1922, 1924-6), San Carlo, Naples (1934-5, 1941-2, 1948-57, 1959-61), and at the Rome Opera (1929-32) where he was music director (1944-62). He made a number of recordings for EMI, including Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra, L’elisir d’amore, Andrea Chénier, and with artists like Victoria de los Angeles, Gobbi and Christoff.

Michael Scott
is the author of Maria Meneghini Callas

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