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Michael Mark
American Record Guide, May 2009

This is the much-issued 1957 EMI Sonnambula remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn mostly from a first-edition British LP pressing. An excellent job, but not free of distortion and other glitches from EMI’s master tape…But you can’t go wrong with the studio set. Amina Callas style is a multifaceted human being with an incredible variety of phrasing and vocal colors (as La Divina was in each of her roles). Yes, her performance has moments of harsh, shrill notes. That for me isn’t a problem in any Callas recording from the 50s. Callas’s voice could be beautiful until all those painful-to-hear ugly efforts from the next two decades. This heroine is no dingbat; she is a full-dimensional person one cares about.

Monti sings nicely enough, even though he’s a rather stolid chap when compared to the classy Vailetti. Zaccaria is a pleasure to hear; I wish he had more to do. Apart from a shrill Eugenia Ratti, the other singers, including a very young Fiorenza Cossotto as Amina’s foster mother, do their work well. Votto is no dynamo, but he knows how to keep his singers comfortable. As filler, Medea and La Vestale tracks from Callas’s stupendous 1958 Serafin led EMI recital contain phenomenal singing.
Callas was never dull.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, April 2009

This is Callas’s opera with Amina the central character and the one who has the most testing music—and the most grateful. Amina is, to be certain, quite different from Norma—or Elvira in I puritani. There are no histrionics or flashing eyes. Amina is a shy, innocent country girl—and that is exactly what she sounds like in Callas’ assumption. She is light, lyric and girlish and her pianissimo singing is exquisite. There are in fact few other instances in her recorded legacy where she has sounded so free from blemish. Come per me sereno is spotlessly vocalised, the cabaletta Sovra il sen is effortlessly elegant in runs and embellishments, the coloratura spot-on. Only the top note at the end is slightly acidulous. And this is the case throughout the opera. In duet with Nicola Monti the voices blend beautifully. When we reach the final scene Ah! non credea mirarti is heavenly, whereupon one sits breathless in Ah! non giunge when she sails up to that E flat and then makes a diminuendo. Unbelievable!...Nicola Monti, who made Elvino something of a speciality—he also recorded the role with Sutherland a few years later—is also very good. He sings Prendi: l’anel ti dono almost in the Tagliavini class, though the older singer has the ability to colour his voice more expressively. Sometimes on high notes the tone can become slightly pinched, but this is on the whole a worthy account of the role.

Nicola Zaccaria is a reliable rather than superior Rodolfo but he sings Vi ravviso with good steady tone and fine legato. When he sees Amina he radiates warmth and affection and the cabaletta is well sung.

Eugenia Ratti is a bright-toned Lisa, singing with security and lightness. The young Fiorenza Cossotto sings Teresa with characteristic dark-hued expressivity. She had made her La Scala debut in the world premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites on 26 January 1957. This Sonnambula was recorded during the first week of March that year, so she certainly had an auspicious start to her career.

As an appendix we get arias from Medea and La Vestale from a Callas recital made two years earlier. When I reviewed the 13-CD box ‘The Studio Recitals’ some years ago I wrote: ‘the Medea aria offers a lot of acidulous singing but still more easy on the ear than in her complete recording. The three excerpts from Spontini’s La vestale are reminders of a role she sang at La Scala in 1954. Her first tone in Tu che invoco, after the beautifully played horn solo, has an inward lyrical quality that is touching, and this aria, so rarely heard, also finds her in unusually steady voice. Spontini’s dramatic orchestral writing can also be admired in this long scene. Her beautiful legato is shown at its best in both the following arias, of which Caro oggetto especially has a delicious melody.’ 

Ralph Moore
MusicWeb International, February 2009

Votto…conducts with the right lilt and charm. Mono sound is much less of a disadvantage in so light and graceful a piece and Votto delivers gracefully the minimal accompaniment required to the arias and the simple, rustic choruses. He never obtrudes and ensures that the ensemble concluding Act 1 is a highlight.

The raison d’être of this set must be Callas. Hers was never a voice as sheerly beautiful as that of Sutherland or Sills but the compensations are many and it is a pleasure to hear in a role which makes no inordinate demands on her vocal technique beyond its capability. She successfully lightens her voice throughout; it is strange to think that only the following September she would record Turandot [8.111334-35]—not entirely successfully. So many things are right here: the heart-stopping downward portamenti; the lapidary staccati; the subtle variation of vibrato to enhance emotion; the haunting, plaintive cantilena—all these are immediately and gratefully encountered in Come per me sereno and the subsequent aria Sovra il sen. There is little edge or beat except in the stratospheric E-flats at the end of Act 1 and of course in the concluding showpiece Ah! Non giunge—and here, despite the wobble, she amazes with a spectacular diminuendo. Callas creates a vulnerable, infinitely touching Amina, full of pathos—and her characterisation is matched by peerless vocalisation. The last fifteen minutes provide a suitably climactic conclusion to a thrilling performance; this is a great bel canto singer in full flight. Her supporting cast are more than adequate, although some are bettered elsewhere. Many have complained about what they hear as the slightly whining tone of Nicola Monti but I find him perfectly acceptable; he was, after all, thought good enough to partner Sutherland in her first studio recording, too. His voice is of the light, attractive kind probably envisaged by Bellini himself: it is sure of intonation, artfully modulated and produced with a minimum of vibrato. The duet Son gelosa is delightful and he is a model of grace in such phrases as “mio bene”. True, his mezza-voce is not as honeyed as that of Valletti or, especially, Tagliavini but they are all three of the same voice type—with the significant difference that Monti’s high C in Ah vorrei trovar parole is a bit of a bleat and he has far less heft in reserve. Nonetheless, he combines sensitively with Callas and understands the idiom perfectly. A young Fiorenza Cossotto lends distinction to the small role of Teresa and the ubiquitous Zaccaria sings the Count smoothly and nobly; it is only when you hear what Cesare Siepi makes of Rodolfo that you realise what is missing in Zaccaria’s assumption. A blot on the set is Eugenia Ratti’s pert, acid Lisa; hers is the edgy “Minnie Mouse” type of soubrette voice that I can well live without.

A welcome bonus is provided in the form of four “classical” arias performed by Callas in grand, stately, impassioned style. These 1955 recordings find her in fine vocal estate, the voice huge and healthy.

This Naxos re-engineering by Mark Obert-Thorn is, as always, sonically a great success and this bargain issue is worth buying from every point of view: economically, artistically and historically.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

Unlike most of Callas’s other recordings, this one was made in the studio at a time she was the singing the opera on stage at La Scala and with the same cast. As a student she had fallen in love with the role of Amina, a part that sat perfectly in her
vocal range, and offered her the possibility of displaying a whole range of quiet shades in the two famous sleepwalking scenes. Then in the work’s final moments she indulges herself in a sheer explosion of virtuosity. It was a role made for her, and though such great singers as Joan Sutherland have enjoyed much success in the opera, Callas’s supremacy has never really been challenged. Amina’s beloved, Elvino, is sung by the elegant voice of Nicola Monti, who was much experienced in the role and sings the florid passages with the type of fast vibrato that was much in vogue at the time. It has a timbre that blends ideally with Callas in the first scene of the opening act. The bass, Nicola Zaccaria, is an uncommonly fine Count Rodolfo, though the twenty-four year old, Eugena Ratti, has probably too much soubrette in her voice for the scheming part of Lisa. The principal quintet was completed by Fiorenza Cossotto as Teresa, the mezzo, who was to achieve considerable fame, then only twenty-two and was a newcomer to La Scala. The recording was made in Milan’s Basilica di Santa Eufemia, the sound much brighter than Callas’s La Scala discs , though you lose a little in clarity of orchestral texture. Maybe Antonio Votto’s tempos are too kind to his singers, and would have benefitted from a degree more urgency. That was present in Callas’s highly regarded ‘live’ recording with Bernstein, but it was compromised by distortion in climatic moments. The two discs are generously filled with Callas singing an aria from Cherubini’s Medea, and three from Spontini’s La Vestale, all from a 1955 recording with Serefin conducting. A ‘must have’ for all opera lovers.

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