About this Recording
8.110325-27 - BELLINI: Norma (Callas, Filippeschi) (1953)

Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)

This recording, first published in November 1954 in the United States by Angel and in Britain by Columbia, and made at the end of April and beginning of May, was the second in the series under the aegis of La Scala, Milan, with its orchestra and chorus. Like the first, another Bellini opera, I Puritani, it was not made at the opera house but at Cinema Metropol; the season was still going on, and Tebaldi was singing Tosca.

Norma is the only bel canto opera to have been given almost continuously through the years at major theatres in Italy, and under Italian sway in the United States and Britain, since its first performance at La Scala, Milan, in 1831. In the days before recording there was a tradition of nineteenth-century Normas, including its creator Giuditta Pasta, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, Maria Malibran, Giulia Grisi, Jenny Lind, Antonietta Fricci, Teresa Tietjens, Maria Vilda, Euphrosyne Parepa and Maria Peri. How their styles may have developed, in response to the then ever-changing repertory, we can only guess. By the first decades of the last century recordings of the aria Casta Diva were made by Eugenia Burzio (1872-1922) and Giannina Russ (1873-1951), both of whom undertook it at La Scala, Milan, and Ester Mazzoleni (1883-1982), who did so at the San Carlo, Naples. Their singing is more an impression than an actual account of the notes, not perhaps because they could not have sung it more accurately but because they were trying to inform music whose style was by then old-fashioned with one better suiting their own time. Their tone is often overly anguished with excessive recourse to vibrato at odds with the basis of bel canto, a suave, shapely and limpid legato, as we read in singing manuals like Manuel Garcia’s L’art du chant (1847). By the second quarter of the twentieth century, when not only singers but their teachers too were reared on verismo, Normas such as Bianca Scacciati (1894-1948), Gina Cigna (1900-2001) and Maria Caniglia (1905-1979) all had big vibratory voices and used a vehement declamatory style better fitting Ponchielli’s La Gioconda composed 45 years later. Their principal concern was conveying the drama and they were careless executing florid music, aspirating it and crashing vocal gears. The German Lilli Lehmann (1848-1929) and the American Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) sang Norma more accurately (at least as recorded) and enjoyed successes with it, but did so only outside Italy and were not part of the tradition.

There are many demanding rôles in the soprano repertory, but few more so than Norma, and certainly none as rewarding. As well as voice it requires the two basic constituents of a great soprano: an accomplished technique so her musicianship can be sufficiently responsive. What makes Callas a great Norma is the range and variety of expression she is able to bring to the music. As she shows from Norma’s first recitative, Sediziose voci, if the voice is correctly trained, then she will be able to bring all the necessary colour, nuance and variety to the declamation. In the aria, Casta Diva Callas shapes the longest phrases with security and poise as they ascend to repeated climactic B flats; we note her subtle use of portamento and how she is mistress of messa di voce, the art that reflects the pulsating yet unbroken flow of the breath. Since it is natural when the voice is correctly produced spontaneously it gives singing light and shade. The aria is a prayer to the moon so it is not too fanciful to hear in the accuracy of Callas’s downward chromatic runs how Bellini composes a musical metaphor for the moonlight slanting through the leaves of the oak tree. Garcia states ‘it retains the gravity of the legato style but continually changes by borrowing from the florid style, juxtaposing sustained notes, with brilliant passages’. Callas shows this off to perfection in her singing of the cabaletta, Ah! bello a me ritorna, when she sweeps up from middle D to high A in one breath with the most adept use of portamento and then lets her voice fall again in a passage of descending semi-quavers like some articulate cello. No such effect is attempted before on records of Celestina Boninsegna (1877-1947), Russ, Ponselle or Rosa Ralsa (1893-1963), nor since on records of Sutherland, Caballé, Scotto or Sills, yet when we read the score phrase-markings indicate it. As Callas herself was always stressing, everything she sang was in the score, and so it was too, but the point is how completely she could sing it.

In the first act duet, Ah! Si, fa, core, there is the limpid tone she employs with Adalgisa in the consolatory passages, then, as her suspicions are aroused, ‘Roma! ed è?’, how she deploys different vocal registers to colour her tone. In ‘Ah! non tremare’, the firmly marked rhythm she uses to express indignation; and in, ‘trema per te, fellon’, how furiously and accurately she accelerates through the rapid downward roulades before leaping from F at the bottom of the stave more than an octave and a half to high C. In the last act, as she rages against Pollione, ‘Si sovr’essi alzar la punta’ through to ‘Mi poss’io dimenticar’ how perfectly she realises Bellini’s instruction a piacere abbandonandosi; the rhythm becomes freer until, at the end, the accompaniment almost disappears. She reminds us of the difference between, as Garcia explains, ‘accelerando and rallentando which require that the accompaniment and voice are together and slow down or speed up the music as a unity, and tempo rubato, which accords the liberty only to the voice’. At the beginning of the finale, Qual cor tradesti how telling is her execution of three groups of semi-quavers on the words ‘Tu sei con me’, ‘In vita e in morte’ and ‘Sarò con te’. Then, in the final scene, Deh! Non volerli vittime, on the repeated triplets, ‘abbi di lor’, each time she utters them more intensely until eventually they become plaintive devices, which she accomplishes musically without disrupting the legato - easier said than sung. By so doing she shows it is through the singing, that Norma works its magic. It is here in the final scene that Bellini rises to the greatest heights of musical invention, one without parallel - pace Verdi - in Italian opera.

The mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani (1903-1974) was a Neapolitan. A typical verismo singer, possessor of one of the most powerful dramatic voices of her day, she began her career at the top in February 1925 at the age of 21 at the San Carlo, Naples, as Amneris. In that first season alone she sang Maddalena in Rigoletto, Glorianda in Marinuzzi’s Jacquerie, Meg in Falstaff and Adalgisa. In only six years her repertory came to include Azucena, the Principessa in Adriana Lecouvreur, Santuzza, Leonora in La favorita, Laura in La Gioconda, Orfeo, Eboli in Don Carlo, Dalila in Sansone e Dalila, Ulrica, Preziosilla in La forza del destino, Rubria in Boito’s Nerone and La gran vestale in Spontini’s La vestale, as well as several Wagner rôles, Gutruna in Il crepuscolo degli dei, Brangania in Tristano and Ortruda in Lohengrin. She appeared at all the leading Italian opera houses, as well as Covent Garden, London, the Colón, Buenos Aires, San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Chicago (though not the Met). When she made this recording, although her voice remains powerful, inevitably time has rubbed off the bloom and she sounds her age. Unfortunately Norma addresses Adalgisa as ‘giovinetta’ (little girl), for Bellini wrote Adalgisa for a lyric soprano, not a dramatic mezzo. Stignani sounds fine in 1939 and 1946 in complete HMV recordings of the Verdi Requiem and Aida with Gigli.

Mario Filippeschi (1907-1979) began studying the clarinet, but not until 1937 at Busseto did he make his first appearances as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and the Duke in Rigoletto. His was a good size typical Italian tenor with firm high notes. He sang throughout Italy, at the San Carlo, Naples, La Scala, Milan, Comunale Florence and the Rome Opera, and travelled to the Colón in Buenos Aires and the Bellas Artes in Mexico City. His repertory included, Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur, Alfredo in La traviata, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Faust, Rodolfo, Arnoldo in Guglielmo Tell, Radames, Andrea Chénier, Calaf in Turandot, Arrigo in I vespri siciliani, Manrico, Faust in Mefistofele, Alvaro in La forza del destino, Radames, Cavaradossi, Gernando and Ubaldo in Rossini’s Armida. The last four of which he sang with Callas and of the last two a recording survives of a broadcast. For Cetra he recorded Arnoldo in Guglielmo Tell, for HMV, Don Carlo, and for Philips, Amenofi in Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto.

Following World War II Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (1920-1991) was one of three important basses in Italy, with Boris Christoff and Cesare Siepi. Half Russian and born in Istanbul, he made his début in 1946 at La Fenice in Venice, as Varlaam in Boris Godunov. In 1947 he went to the United States to appear with a new company in Chicago as Timur in Turandot, and there met Callas, who was to sing the title rôle. It folded, however, before it began. In New York they auditioned with the tenor Giovanni Zenatello, then retired, who was Artistic Director at Verona arena. As a result in August Callas made her Italian début, as Gioconda, and Rossi-Lemeni was Alvise. In 1948 he sang at La Scala Milan and the San Carlo Naples. In 1949, again with Callas, he appeared at the Colón in Buenos Aires. In the early 1950s his career took him to Covent Garden, London, San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan New York, the Paris Opéra and, again with Callas, to the Lyric Chicago. His stage personality was addressed yet he did not establish himself at any of these. His voice had no ring on the tone and was not properly supported; air escaped through it like leaking gas. Although at first he sang Boris, Don Giovanni, Méphistophélès in Faust, Boito’s Mefistofele, Filippo in Don Carlo, Guardiano in La forza del destino, Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Colline in La bohème, Ramfis in Aida, Oroveso in Norma, Giorgio in I puritani, by the mid-1950s he was undertaking buffo and character rôles: Caspar in Weber’s Franco Cacciatore, Dulcamara, Selim in Rossini’s Il turco in Italia, Becket in Pizzetti’s Assassino nella cattedrale and Lazaro di Jorio in La figlia di Jorio, Lunardo in Wolf-Ferrari’s Quatro Rusteghi, Cerevek in Mussorgsky’s La fiesta di Sorocinzi, and Bloch’s Macbeth. He appeared in several world premières and after 1965 became a stage director. For Columbia he recorded Giorgio, Oroveso and Selim with Callas, for Cetra, Filippo, and for Philips, Rossini’s Mosé.

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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