About this Recording
8.111275 - CALLAS, Maria: Puccini Heroines / Lyric Arias (1954)

Maria Callas (1923-1977)
Arias by Puccini, Cilea, Giordano, Catalani and Boito


1954 was for Callas an exceptionally busy year as well as appearing regularly at La Scala, Milan, and elsewhere in Italy in five other cities, she made her American début at the Chicago Lyric in November. By this time she had slimmed down and her hair was dyed blonde. She was quickly becoming the most famous opera singer of her day, and her peculiar vocal skills were helping to revive an almost forgotten repertory. Two months before she recorded the first couple of recitals for EMI [Columbia/Angel]. Sessions began on 15 September and lasted until 21 September. One was devoted to Puccini arias, the other to a medley of selections entitled Coloratura Lyric Arias. Unlike her other EMI recordings these were made not at La Scala, Milan, but in London, and not at Covent Garden, but at Watford Town Hall, a suburban venue some twenty miles to the north-west, used by Walter Legge as a recording studio; he produced them. The accompaniment is provided by the Philharmonia Orchestra, Legge's house orchestra, conducted by Tullio Serafin.

There was some initial correspondence as to which excerpts she would include. Among those rejected, which she already knew or had sung, were 'Divinità infernal' from Gluck's Alceste, 'Bel raggio' from Rossini's Semiramide, 'Selva opaca' from Guglielmo Tell, 'Io son Titania' from Thomas's Mignon and Proch's 'Variazione', about which Serafin was particularly dismissive. The Puccini arias include selections from Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica, as well as those from Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and Turandot, but there is no 'Vissi d'arte', presumably because she had already recorded Tosca. Yet in the next three years Legge would persuade her to take part in complete recordings of those four operas. Why then should he have wasted time recording the arias when she might have included Musetta's Waltz Song, which she never recorded but sang in concert later in her career?

Many of the London critics when the Puccini album was issued in December were not slow to note the pronounced wobble. Much of this music calls for her to sing with too great an emphasis on a blown-up sound in the upper middle range, especially on passage notes, like F and F sharp at the top of the stave, whereas in the florid arias she employs the head voice on these, which is easier for her to control. In Suor Angelica's 'Senza mamma' we hear the prolonged wobble on the last note, a sustained A above the stave, and again when she attempts a diminuendo on B flat at the end of Liù's 'Signore ascolta', though as she shades the note from middle into head voice, she does manage better control over it. In Turandot's 'In questa reggia' as she passes back and forth across the break into chest register, on the phrase 'O principi, che a lunghi carovane', we note how responsively her voice reflects the caravan-like rhythm Puccini suggests in the accompaniment. Yet the music is not capable of showing her off to advantage, she has a whole battery of effects it does not call for, and much of the time her singing is too strenuous. The achievements of others, to quote but two, Caballé's Liù and Nilsson's Turandot, easily surpass hers. She must have been aware that something was missing from her Butterfly, for although the following year she recorded it complete and undertook it three times in Chicago, these were the only times she sang it. Both her Mimì and Manon Lescaut, neither of which she ever sang, mistake artfulness for artistry. However, notwithstanding her lack of a sense of humour, as Zeffirelli testifies, in Lauretta's 'O mio babbino caro' she shows how an ironic effect is well within her means; as on the phrase 'ma per buttarmi in Arno', in which Lauretta threatens to jump into the Arno if her father will not let her marry Rinuccio.

Other excerpts include two arias from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur 'Io son l'umile ancella' and 'Poveri fiori'. Callas does not begin the first of these, as does Claudia Muzio (1889-1936) on her recording, with the piece of declamation from Racine which Adriana is rehearsing, she starts with the recitative, 'Ecco: Respiro ancella'. Her interpretation benefits from her remarkably expansive breath span and her control of the line and moulding of the phrases reveal just how expressive it can sound. This piece, untypical of verismo, makes its effect being sung simply. She never sang the music on stage, whereas Magda Olivero (b.1912) who studied it with the composer was still singing it only thirty years ago. A recording of a broadcast she made in the 1960s shows just how expostulatory the verismo style had by then become. Callas did sing in another verismo staple, Giordano's Andrea Chénier, the following season at La Scala; Maddalena's aria, 'La mamma morta', she includes here. Although photographs of her as Maddalena show her looking beautiful in Zuffi's costumes, critic Riccardo Malipiero thought 'she was wasted … in the part.' Certainly it is ill-written and creates special problems for her; at the climax her voice becomes squally and over-driven. It is a pity she does not follow convention by snipping out a few measures before the awkwardly placed top B.

Margherita's 'L'altra notte' she sang that summer in three performances of Boito's Mefistofele at the Verona Arena, the only time she ever did. Although Rossi Lemeni, who sang the title rôle, thought the orchestral accompaniment made it too heavy a part for her, Callas sang the aria in concert many times thereafter. 'L'altra notte' is not especially taxing in range, rising only to a sustained top A and a fleeting B in the cadenza, but the trills and runs make it much more demanding. Here she revolutionises performance practice by not only correctly singing all the written notes, but she also understands implicitly what the dramatic situation calls for in her treatment of the cadenzas at the end of each verse. She makes something quite extraordinary out of these, not only singing them accurately (we note how she resolves the trills to the upper note as written), but also shaping them with her customary rhythmic freedom. Throughout the remarkable length of her phrases, her choice of vocal colours, her command of rubato and her dynamic range reveal much more than one had thought the music contained. It becomes not just a verismo aria, as sung in the fashion of, say, Muzio and Tebaldi: Callas makes us aware it is one of the last Mad Scenes.

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
Author of Maria Meneghini Callas



Producer's Note

Some distortion in loud passages and a few extraneous noises are inherent in the original master tapes, and are not a function of the French LP sources used for the present transfer. Tracks 12 through 16 are the "lyric" portions of Callas' Coloratura and Lyric Arias recital LP; the "coloratura" portions have already appeared as the filler for her recording of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia (Naxos Historical 8.111028-29).

Mark Obert-Thorn



PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut: In quelle trine morbide (Act 2)
Recorded 15 September 1954

PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut: Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Act 4)
Recorded 17 September 1954

PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly: Un bel dì vedremo (Act 2)
Recorded 16 September 1954

PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly: Con onor muore; Tu, tu, tu, piccolo iddio (Act 3)
Recorded 17 September 1954

PUCCINI: La Bohème: Sì, mi chiamano Mimi (Act 1)
Recorded 15 September 1954

PUCCINI: La Bohème: Donde lieta uscì (Act 3)
Recorded 15 and 21 September 1954

PUCCINI: Suor Angelica: Senza mamma
Recorded 16 and 20 September 1954

PUCCINI: Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro
PUCCINI: Turandot: Signore, ascolta! (Act 1)
Recorded 15 September 1954

PUCCINI: Turandot: In questa reggia (Act 2)
Recorded 18 September 1954

PUCCINI: Turandot: Tu, che di gel sei cinta (Act 3)
Recorded 15 September 1954

CILEA: Adriana Lecouvreur: Ecco: Respiro appena … Io son l'umile ancella (Act 1) /
Poveri fiori (Act 4)
Recorded 20 September 1954

GIORDANO: Andrea Chénier: La mamma morta (Act 3)
Recorded 18 and 20 September 1954

CATALANI: La Wally: Ebben? Ne andrò lontana (Act 1)
Recorded 20 September 1954

BOITO: Mefistofele: L'altra notte in fondo al mare (Act 3)
Recorded 17 September 1954

All tracks recorded in Watford Town Hall

First issued on Columbia 33CX 1204 (Puccini) and 33CX 1231 (remainder)


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