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Arthur Baker
MusicWeb International, August 2006

This version of Lucia Di Lammermoor is the first complete opera recording made by EMI with Maria Callas. Recording sessions were made following performances in the Teatre Communale, Florence in 1953 and the recording was issued a year later. Although described as complete the opera is in fact severely abridged as was not unusual at that period. The recording was harsh and in places distorted and there is no doubt that much better recordings with Callas were achieved after Walter Legge became her producer. Naxos claim that their CD corrects many of the deficiencies of the recent EMI edition on CD; I have not been able to check the veracity of this claim but there is no doubt that Mark Obert-Thorn has produced acceptable sound based upon early LPs (and likewise from 78 rpm recordings included in the Appendix on CD No. 2).

This recording is the one that really launched the reputation of Maria Callas as one of the greatest singers of the mid-1900s. Many of today’s younger listeners are surprised at the reputation of Callas and listening to some of the recordings made towards the end of her career, when frankly her voice had deteriorated badly, one can understand the scepticism. In this recording Callas was probably at her best vocally and exhibits a certain fullness that began to disappear with her weight loss a couple of years or so later. The bel canto singing for which Donizetti had written had more or less disappeared and parts such as that of Lucia had been replaced by a light coloratura style that was pleasant to the ear but usually sadly lacking in weight or drama. Callas re-introduced the accuracy and weight of tone required by true bel canto and brought to life the drama of the ‘mad scene’ with stunning effect. She gives a tragic dimension to Lucia which was unknown at the time and which really transforms the opera. Later singers, such as Sutherland have equalled or surpassed Callas in tone but arguably Callas in this recording is unsurpassed in drama.

There is no doubt that Callas is the star of this performance but it would be unfair not to acknowledge the strengths of the all-important male singers - in fact the male voice dominates the action in this opera more than in most – including the final scene which is unusual. Giuseppe Di Stefano who had one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices of his time, is outstanding as Edgardo – as the young lover in the first act, conveying anger in the second and remorseful grief in the third. Sadly when in 1973-4 he accompanied Callas in her farewell tour, both singers’ voices has sadly deteriorated. Tito Gobbi is not generally associated with the bel canto repertoire but sings with uncharacteristic beauty of tone here. Raffaele Arié was a well-respected bass who did not leave many records. He sounds well here as Raimondo, but his part suffers badly in the cuts made in the opera. The supporting singers and chorus are all good and overall the recording has no real weakness vocally.

The orchestra does not play as important a role as for example is found in the operas of Verdi and Puccini. Berlioz had been a little disappointed with the score when he came to London to give the first English performance in 1847 – which included a chorus of 120 singers. However a good conductor is essential for the success of Lucia Di Lammermoor and with Tullio Serafin you have one of the best conductors of Italian Opera of the time; his contribution was all-important to keep the action going. He had a mentoring role opposite Callas and was to conduct many of her performances, both live and recorded.

Highlights from Lucia Di Lammermoor performed by legendary singers

In track 1 of this Appendix we have a contemporary rather than historical alternative to our main performance; the sound and performance is not greatly different but perhaps Robert Merrill is slightly smoother than Gobbi, with the latter having more ‘character’. Track 2 has Amelita Galli-Curci who was renowned as a coloratura soprano giving a take of the part of Lucia – although her top range is impressive, her voice is distressingly thin; Tito Schipa however sounds well.

The sextet from Act 2 is regarded by many as the epitome of operatic ensemble writing and in Track 3 of the Appendix we have an impressive set of singers recorded in 1920, Riccardo Stracciari and Maria Barrientos are especially noteworthy; however in a comparison with Callas, Gobbi etc one would struggle to decide a winner although the recording of the later version shows a greater dynamic range. Ezio Pinza is a much respected bass singer but the comparison of Track 4 with Raffaele Arié indicates that the latter sounds more lyrical and less strained.

Tracks 5 and 6 of the Appendix have Toti Dal Monte as Lucia in the famous ‘mad scene’; she has a good coloratura but is completely outclassed by the weight of tone and drama of Callas here. Alas in Spargi d' amaro pianto Dal Monte’s voice is all over the place.

I am a strong admirer of Beniamino Gigli and was looking forward to hearing Track 7; unfortunately Gigli was perhaps having an off-day in both tone and lyricism - no doubt this is why the track was not published on 78 rpm; here he is thoroughly outclassed by Di Stefano.

If I had to choose the best tenor ever, I have no doubt that my vote would go to John McCormack and this is vindicated in the final track of the appendix where his beauty of tone and control of voice approaches perfection. This draws the set to a great conclusion.

Although a libretto is not provided, there are fine notes written by Michael Scott who is a well-known opera expert. The set is well presented in a double case that actually enables the two discs to be accessed with ease. A lot of work has been put by Naxos into making this set a success and it has paid off.

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, March 2005

""This Lucia di Lammermoor belongs to a group of recordings that Callas made for Columbia in the 1950s. These are now being re-issued by Naxos, the recordings having been cleaned up amazingly by Mark Obert-Thorn.

Though she was signed by Walter Legge, he did not actually supervise the recordings and it shows. The Norma from the same period is distressingly close-miked and this Lucia di Lammermoor has similar problems, though the general acoustic is not quite as bad. Where this Lucia gains over the Norma recording is that here Callas is supported by a fine and balanced cast, so that the whole opera works well as drama in a way that, Callas excepted, Norma does not.

It is this sense of drama which made Callas’s assumption of these 19th century coloratura roles so remarkable. She combined the agility and accuracy of lighter voiced sopranos with a secure feel for the music’s innate drama. At no point do you feel that the elaborate cascades of fioriture are simple decoration. For Callas they have meaning. She has a willing partner in Giuseppe di Stefano as Edgardo. Though his ardent, frank and open-throated singing is not ideal for this music, he has a decent sense of style and line and he is responsive to Callas herself. It should not surprise us that Tito Gobbi makes a remarkably villainous Enrico. I would have liked more suaveness in his vocalism, but he convinces with his sheer commitment.

But of course, the raison d’être for this recording is Callas. In her later recording she has a good supporting cast and both are conducted by Serafin, but in the later set Callas’s voice is in less secure condition. Whilst some compensation for her vocal frailty is offered by her more intense reading of the title role, many will prefer this earlier recording where her voice was more responsive to her will. Her performance is remarkable for its accuracy. For all the inherent instability of her voice on longer notes, all the passage-work is given with laser-like clarity and with a clear feeling for the words.

Where Callas is at her best is in the mad scene. Here she has no need of a glass harmonica to induce an otherworldly atmosphere. You have only to hear her voice at the words Il dolce suono to know that Lucia is in a completely different reality, and throughout this scene her use of tone colour is astonishing.

Too often, though, Callas’s insight must be balanced with vocal frailty and poor recording; this is one of the few where her intentions and the actual recorded results come closest. But for all the remarkable insights offered by her performance, there is something lacking which can only be captured live. On the theatrical stage Callas brought an emotional intensity and vividness to roles that can only be distantly captured on disc. So if you really want to know what Callas could do, then try to get hold of a copy of the 1955 live Salzburg recording, with Karajan conducting.

I must confess to being something of an agnostic when it comes to Callas’s art. I can appreciate her intelligence and insights and will treasure this recording as one of her finest documents. Her singing of 19th century coloratura came as a welcome tonic to the art of performance of this tricky genre. But, for me, there is a sense that in investing every phrase with meaning and inflection, with the amazing clarity of her fioriture, something is lost. She rarely seems to relish the cascades of notes for the simple beauty of the sound; for that I will always return to Sutherland who brings to this repertoire that ability to glory in the sheer physical sound which is worlds away from Callas’s approach.

As a bonus you get a series of earlier recordings of excerpts from the opera which give glimpses of how performance styles have changed over the years. Ezio Pinza gives us two glimpses of his noble Raimondo and Robert Merrill is a suave Enrico. Gigli sings Enrico’s music with a good sense of line but distorts it with unsightly bulges which would be more at home in Puccini; John McCormack, however, displays his wonderful sense of line.

The version of the septet included here includes few big names, but better versions can be heard on other Naxos historical discs. This septet recording suffers from a familiar problem of these early recordings; the soprano voices sound pale and white and contrast alarmingly with the vividly recording male voices. So the popularity of Amelita Galli-Curci’s discs is quite understandable when you compare her recorded voice to that of Maria Barrientos on the septet; Galli-Curci was lucky, the primitive recording process seemed to like her voice and in her duet with Tito Schipa both voices are vivid. Galli-Curci and Schipa sing the music with a lovely lyric grace as does Toti Dal Monte in her mad scene. But for both sopranos, the coloratura is elegant decoration. Beautifully sung as it is, neither soprano gives us a real Lucia; they simply give us a theatrical convention. It is to Callas that we must turn if we want a flesh and blood heroine, vocal frailties and all.

But now that this recording is available at budget price you no longer have to make the awkward decision about which recording to buy. Don’t hesitate: £10 invested in this set is money wisely invested in one of the major documents of singing in the 20th century."

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, March 2005

"Maria Callas broke through to international recognition singing Norma in South America in 1949. In September of that year Cetra issued her first recordings. Derived from radio broadcasts they included the aria Casta Diva from Norma. Whilst Norma was to be her calling card at Covent Garden, La Scala and the Met, it was her portrayal of Lucia that caused waves round the operatic establishments in the early 1950s. Callas’s burgeoning reputation induced Walter Legge, head of Artist and Repertoire at the London-based Columbia label (Angel in the USA) to sign her to an exclusive contract in July 1952. However, Callas was already contracted to record three operas for Cetra. Only two, La Traviata and La Gioconda were ever made, both in September 1952. Violetta in La Traviata was one of Callas’s defining roles, even before the renowned Visconti production conducted by Giulini at La Scala of 1955. Deprived of her Violetta, Legge hurried Callas into the studios for her other crucial roles: Lucia, Tosca and Norma. All were recorded in little over a year together with Elvira in I Puritani and Santuzza from Cavalleria Rusticana.

The Columbia contract was intended to combine the use of La Scala together with its august orchestra and chorus. This did not prove possible for three of the first five operas because the recording sessions were scheduled during the theatre season. This Lucia, the very first in the series, was recorded in the Teatro Communale in Florence, a friendlier recording acoustic than the ever-problematic La Scala. The orchestral and choral forces are under the eloquent baton of Callas’s guide and mentor Tullio Serafin. He had prepared Rosa Ponselle in 1927 as well as Callas for their debuts in the role, and in 1959 he did likewise for Joan Sutherland for her memorable performances at Covent Garden. It was Serafin who persuaded Callas to encompass the bel canto repertoire into her own. He did this at a time when she seemed to be heading towards Wagner (Kundry, Isolde and Brünnhilde) and the heavier Italian roles (Turandot), all of which she had sung in the theatre. Although much is made of Callas’s contribution to the so-called bel canto revival, it owes as much to Serafin’s work with her and others. He had the idiom in his bones as is well illustrated in this recording, and elsewhere on disc. It is evidenced in many ways including his pacing and support for the singers and the moving forward of the drama. In this recording the Florentine chorus may lack the ultimate vibrancy of their La Scala counterparts but they are not far short.

Legge signed Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi as a core triumvirate with Callas for many of the recordings that Columbia were to set down over the next seven or so years. Both make outstanding contributions to the success of this issue. Gobbi with his incisive biting tone is a suitably bullying Edgardo. The listener can easily imagine his young sister, still grieving for her mother, being cowed and browbeaten by him as he seeks to have her marry a rich nobleman and thus stabilise his precarious finances (CD 1 trs. 15-20). As Lucia’s lover, Enrico, Di Stefano gives one of his best performances in the series of Callas collaborations. Not a natural in the bel canto repertoire he subjugates his own inclinations and sings with well-supported tone and elegant phrasing. He is ardent in his declaration of love (CD 1 trs. 13-14) and both agonising and tragic in the final scene as he hears of Lucia’s death and then stabs himself (CD 2 trs. 10-12). Throughout his diction is good, he never forces his tone and his voice is free and ringing in climaxes.

Callas’s performances of Lucia in Italy in 1952 were described as revelatory. Donizetti wrote the part specifically for the role’s creator Fanny Tacchardi, the wife of a rival composer Giuseppe Persiani. Tacchardi’s flexible voice and capacity in florid singing was renowned. Callas’s interpretation is utterly different from Sutherland’s who glories in full-toned flexible singing, with emotions and words coming second. Callas concentrates on the words and the evolution of the unfolding drama. She uses a great variety of colour and tone to portray Lucia’s various situations, emotions and ultimate madness. In the Mad Scene (CD 2 trs. 6-9) she goes through her full repertoire starting with covered, even occluded, half-voice and then moving, via a high girlish tone, into full spinto richness and then clear-toned coloratura with pin-point accuracy and a pure concluding high E flat that runs down my spine. In the totality of her interpretation there are times when a slight tonal evenness between the registers is evident, but unlike in the 1959 stereo remake Callas’s voice does her bidding here.

The Raimondo of Raffaele Arie is a serious weakness. He has neither the sonority, weight of tone nor range of expression that the part requires. Pinza, in the extensive appendices (tr. 13) is an exemplar of how the part should be sung. These appendices are wholly enjoyable although the sextet (tr. 15) has no great distinction. I suspect this version was included because other more glamorously cast versions involving Caruso and Gigli have appeared on complete collections of their 78s. The appendices are extensive because of the cuts made in the score. At 110 minutes this performance is 30 minutes less than Sutherland’s second version (Decca), which is similar in timing to the version with Cheryl Studer in the title role, and Placido Domingo as Edgardo (DG).

Whilst Mark Obert-Thorn has worked his usual miracles to give a well-balanced and easy-on-the ear sound, even he cannot obviate some overload distortion present on the master tapes. The booklet has a brief essay and artist biographies by Michael Scott. There is also an excellent track-related synopsis as well as a detailed track listing. Although this was Callas’s first recording under her new Columbia contract it was not issued until a year later and after I Puritani (No. 2 in the sequence) in November 1953, and Tosca (No. 4) the following month. In contemporaneous correspondence Walter Legge stated that he wanted to rush out the Tosca for the Christmas market, as it was such a dynamic performance. Yet, in an obituary notice for Callas he claimed this Lucia to be her outstanding studio recording! Maybe the fact that it was not recorded with the La Scala forces, and therefore did not carry that imprimatur, was an influence.

Today, for a very modest price, all lovers of bel canto operas and their performance on record can listen and make their own judgement on what was, without doubt, a seminal recording of the genre. For me this is Callas’s finest recording in terms of interpretation allied to security of singing and this re-mastering accords it full justice."

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