About this Recording
8.111082 - CALLAS, Maria: Portrait (A) (1949-1954)

Maria Callas (1923-1977)
A Portrait

A quarter of a century has now passed since the Greekborn soprano Maria Callas died in Paris, but during that time interest in her has not diminished in any manner whatsoever. Recordings of her live appearances have continued to pour forth from the most unlikely places which, despite varying ranges of sound quality, seem to be lapped up by her adoring public. Furthermore, it is over thirty years since her final concert appearances and almost forty since she left the operatic stage. Her public and private life at the time made the news headlines throughout the world. So, what is it about this artist that continues to fascinate her public? While opinions of her vocal qualities continue to arouse wide debate, what cannot be disputed is the magnetism of her personality in all that she sang. She had that rare quality within a simple phrase to captivate, enthral and excite an audience. As a dramatic stage artist her ability to encapsulate the inner soul of the rôle she was portraying was unique. Sadly all too few visual examples of her live stage performances survive but those that do give fascinating glimpses of her special charisma.

The career of Maria Callas began in Athens in 1938 in concert, her first professional stage appearance in 1942 as Tosca, and she continued to sing in her native country until September 1945, when she went to the United States. She returned to Europe in the summer of 1947 and auditioned for the distinguished Italian conductor Tullio Serafin for the title rôle in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda to be given at the Verona Arena in August that year. She was engaged for five performances, thereby making her Italian début. The success of these performances resulted in Callas obtaining rôles in Tristan und Isolde, Turandot, La forza del destino, Aida, Norma, Die Walküre, I Puritani, Nabucco and Parsifal in places such as Venice, Udine, Trieste, Genoa, Rome, Florence, Naples and Palermo. In the summer of 1949 she made her overseas début in Buenos Aires, followed by Mexico City for the ensuing three years. All the while her star was continuing to rise. She made a last-minute appearance as a replacement for an ailing Renata Tebaldi as Aida in April 1950 at La Scala but in December 1951 made her ‘proper’ début as Elena in I vespri siciliani. She had now finally arrived. Her first London engagement as Norma in November 1952 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, proved a complete triumph and launched Callas on the international scene. From then until the end of the 1950s her reputation and fame remained virtually undiminished. Vocal and personal problems, however, began in 1959, and she temporarily withdrew from performing regularly. Her last stage appearance was in London as Tosca in July 1965 but by then she had moved to singing in concert. Apart from some studio recording sessions in 1969 and 1972, she attempted a final and ill-advised series of concert appearances throughout Europe, North America and the Far East with the tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano during 1973-74 before retiring. She died in Paris in November 1977, aged 53.

As an artist the media loved to describe Callas as a ‘tigress’, an individual very demanding of her colleagues, temperamental and fiery. Colleagues who worked with her, however, recalled a total dedication to her art, a tremendous worker who always strove to attain perfection. Callas was an artist who reinvented music by forgetting what was once called tradition. Her total commitment to her art can be attested, for example, by her appearances during January to March 1949 when she sang six Brünnhildes in Die Walküre, three Elviras in I Puritani, four of Turandot, and four Kundrys in Parsifal. Add to these piano and stage rehearsals and the learning of her rôles. Not only were the operas markedly diverse vocally but also dramatically contrasted. Little wonder her flexibility and adaptability was considered extraordinary at the time. She later reintroduced a number of operas that had fallen out of the regular repertoire.

Maria Callas’s first commercial studio recording sessions were made between 8th and 10th November 1949, when following an initial ‘test’ she recorded the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristano e Isolita, Casta diva and the ensuing cabaletta Ah! bello e me ritorna from Bellini’s Norma, and two versions of the recitative, aria and cabaletta O rendetemi la speme … Qui la voce sua soave … Vien, diletto from the same composer’s I Puritani. These were eventually published in Italy during 1950. It was this latter recording which aroused the wider musical public to her remarkable quality when first heard outside Italy, its British release occurring in February 1952. Her only other recordings for the Italian label CETRA were complete recordings of the title rôle of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (recorded 6th-10th October 1952) and Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata (September 1953).

This 1952 recording of La Gioconda found Callas in resplendent voice and the interpretation has a searing and burning quality to it. Her colleagues afforded her excellent support and her conductor kept everything moving in a positive forward manner. This is one of the best examples of Callas’s voice in its youthful vocal prime. Her delivery of the famous Suicidio aria has a fiery thrust and her use of the chest voice is striking, as is her declamation of the text.

Interest in Callas as a recording artist, however, now went beyond Italy. EMI in London had become interested in securing her exclusive services during 1951. Eventually a contract between artist and recording company was signed, to take effect on 29th July 1952, for an initial period of three years, later extended to 31st July 1957 and again three years later. The initial agreement was for four operas and solo recitals

Before undertaking any major recording with the artist, Callas was to undertake a test recording of her voice. Her first major recording followed shortly afterwards. This occurred during a run of Lucia di Lammermoor which took place in Florence on 25th, 28th January and 5th, 8th February. Her studio recording sessions of the opera was made in between these stage performances from 29th-30th January and from 3rd-4th and on 6th February. This in turn was followed on 24th March by Bellini’s I Puritani, the project being completed by the end of that month. Her next recording project was as a substitute for the ailing mezzo soprano Fedora Barbieri as Santuzza, a rôle she had not sung for ten years. She quickly relearned the part and fitted into the overall recording without a hitch.

Her recording of Puccini’s Tosca, incomparably conducted by Victor De Sabata, remains one of Callas’s finest achievements in the studio. Along with Di Stefano and Gobbi, together with other colleagues and the forces of La Scala, they achieved a landmark in recording history. In sessions held over a period of eleven days, the conductor nearly drove his musicians to exhaustion in his demands for perfection. The musical and technical results in the end completely justify the demands put upon them. Half a century on this recording remains a benchmark version.

The following month Callas made her only studio recording of La Traviata as Violetta. Surrounded by colleagues who did not give her the support the venture required, and with a conductor who failed to inspire, it is a less than adequate overall realisation of a rôle which was to prove an essential element in the following years of Callas’s career. Her contribution, however, is the sole reason for wanting to hear this recording. Even if her interpretation deepened dramatically, vocally she was never as secure as in this 1953 recording.

The year 1954 saw the first of her two studio recordings of Norma, made when she was in her vocal prime. Critical response, however, was sharply divided at the time of the set’s first issue. Some people found Callas’s interpretation of the rôle too flawed vocally and uneven. Others found her sense of authority and understanding of the character outweighed any vocal problems. Later she would refine and develop her reading of the title rôle.

So what we have here on this single disc is a conspectus of rôles that featured strongly in Callas’s stage career. It is perhaps worth mentioning that she performed 46 Lucias, 16 Elviras, 33 Toscas, 13 Giocondas, 89 Normas and 63 Violettas in total. As her colleague and friend Tito Gobbi later commented of Callas in his 1979 autobiography: “She shone for all too brief a while in the world of opera, like a vivid flame attracting the attention of the whole world, and she had a strange magic which was all her own”.

Malcolm Walker

Close the window