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Henry Fogel
Fanfare, November 2011

…of all the Callas Traviata recordings out there, the Covent Garden performance is the finest from her and her colleagues—and it has now been issued in better sound than any prior version. You cannot be serious about Verdi and not own this recording.

Tim Pfaff
Bay Area Reporter, October 2011

I’m prepared to call it the best available modern recording of Traviata, bar none. The performance comes three months after the more famous “Lisbon” Traviata, and puts that fine performance in the shade.

Remarkably, this marks its first appearance on a label you don’t have to know someone to access, and the new remastering alone is worth the price of admission. …this live one…is in by far the best sound of all of them, with a startling clarity that makes up for some occasional fuzz, and an immediacy to match the urgency of the performance.

Callas…she nails you with an interpretation etched in acid.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, July 2011

It has long been acknowledged that Maria Callas’s studio recording of La traviata, made early in her career for Cetra, does not represent her at her best in what was one of her signature roles. Her portrayal of Violetta was not fully formed, and her supporting cast ranged from mediocre to dreadful. Her live Lisbon performance has become famous enough to be the source of a Terrence McNally play, and her La Scala performances, particularly with Di Stefano and Bastianini, conducted by Giulini, have also reached legendary status. Both of those are available on EMI.

But the truth is that the finest of her Traviata performances to survive in recorded form has always been this Covent Garden version. The balance between strong vocalism and astonishing dramatic insight is as perfectly struck here as it ever was. And despite the starry names of the Scala performance, the younger and elder Germont pair are far more strongly portrayed here. Di Stefano’s gorgeous voice is, to be sure, a unique attribute of the Scala performance, but he never bought into the overall unity of that production (he left it early on) and his singing is an isolated thing of beauty, rather than part of any ongoing drama. That is even more true of Bastianini’s performance—which is unfortunate given the strength of Callas’s portrayal in the big scene between Violetta and the elder Germont. Callas tears your heart out, while Bastianini tickles your ear.

In London in 1958, Callas had the perfect partners. Mario Zanasi may not have as uniquely beautiful an instrument as Bastianini, and it is a bit lighter in sound than we are used to in this role, but he is fully in tune with Callas and the scene between them has never, in my 45 years of listening experience, been more convincingly done. He knows how to use dynamics, color, and phrasing to make his points.

As for Callas, she is a miracle beyond description. As is often the case with her, her best moments are not the famous arias, but in other scenes. Perhaps the finest is that confrontation with Alfredo’s father. The thread of voice, the holding back of the pulse at “Dite alla giovine” is sheer musical and dramatic genius. The crescendo when she sings “Ah! Gran Dio! Morir si giovane” (“Ah, to die so young”) near the end of the opera is an absolute explosion of passion, an outcry of grief that comes from somewhere so deep in her soul that it shatters the listener. From the carefree Violetta of the opening “Brindisi” to that tragic ending, Callas takes us on a journey that is more complex, more complete, and more engrossing than any Violetta in my experience. And if her “Amami, Alfredo” doesn’t break your heart, I would suggest a visit to your cardiologist.

Nicola Rescigno may not be Giulini, but in fact he is far more than a routinier in this performance. He was one of Callas’s favorite conductors, and they knew each other’s musical habits well. This is a superbly conducted reading.

For those who are not familiar with this performance, all I can say is that despite its 1958 monaural sound (apparently not from a broadcast, probably recorded live in the house), and despite what were traditional cuts in that era, this is a necessity for anyone who cares about Verdi and/or La traviata. For those who already have this performance on Myto, the question will be about the quality of this transfer. I spent a lot of time doing direct A-B comparisons, and then also listened to each one through from beginning to end. For me, ICA’s is distinctly preferable. It is true that ICA seems to have cut the high frequencies a bit, but I think that is to the benefit of the recording, as the Myto sounds to me a bit hard-edged, and it wears on you over the length of the opera. On the other hand, the warmer and richer sound of the ICA is a positive both for Callas’s voice and the orchestral sonority. ICA makes the following claim: “ICA Ambient Mastering creates a sense of space and width to a mono, or very narrow stereo, recording. No artifical reverberation is added in this process, so that it remains faithful to the natural acoustic of the original.” I do not know what the “ambient mastering” process entails, but in fact by the end of the opera, I found ICA’s transfer a far more satisfying experience. This is a serious Want List candidate for year’s end. As is normal for specialty recordings like this, no libretto is included, but there are fine notes about the performance.

Ira Siff
Opera News, June 2011

There are seven known audio documents of Maria Callas’s Violetta, recorded between 1951 and 1958. Six are live performances, and one, made in 1953 during her brief association with the Cetra label, is a studio effort. A great deal of attention has been (justly) paid to the legendary production Luchino Visconti staged for Callas at La Scala, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and preserved through 1955 and ’56 broadcasts. The 1958 Lisbon performance, costarring the young Alfredo Kraus, graduated from “pirate” status to legitimacy when, like the 1955 La Scala, it was released officially on EMI. However, a number of Callas’s most devoted admirers find this Covent Garden version, her last recorded Violetta, to be definitive. It is the performance I find myself listening to most frequently—both for pleasure and as an example of the role’s possibilities when teaching young singers.

This set originates from a recording made on the opening night of a series of Traviatas in June 1958. One of the controversial aspects of these performances was the way in which Callas scaled down her voice to portray the ailing heroine appropriately. In some quarters this was interpreted simply as failing vocal resources. While no one would pretend the physically and vocally robust Callas of 1951 had not experienced some diminution of volume, overtone and pliancy in the ensuing years, the magnificent waif onstage in 1958 was hardly voiceless. In fact, aside from one lunge at a pinched high E-flat at the end of “Sempre libera,” there are countless moments during which her sheer singing of the role is better than ever. Critics who got the Callas message, such as Opera magazine’s editor in chief Harold Rosenthal, attended multiple performances, reporting on intricate details of physical acting and turns of phrase that make one wish for a time machine. Meanwhile, we do have this recording.

Act I finds Callas’s Violetta very much at home in her salon, chatting with guests, her lines delivered in an easy, conversational manner. The turns decorated with acciaccaturas in “Libiamo” have never been delivered with more accuracy, elegance and charm, speaking volumes about the allure of the hostess. Cesare Valletti’s Alfredo is an ideal partner in the love duet, youthful and ardent, brimming with passion in his shimmering vibrato. Callas laughs him off with cascades of fioriture but begins to vacillate in the subsequent arpeggiated figures she shades exquisitely with gentle pianos. “Ah, fors’è lui” features haunting and haunted floated A-flats and an expressive reading of Verdi’s written cadenza. “Sempre libera” has plenty of the requisite defiance and sensational passagework. Most impressive is the diva’s solution to the challenge of the series of scales; the topmost one beginning on high D-flat is tossed off pianissimo, turning a possible problem into a spectacular effect—a lesson that could prove useful to at least one Violetta of recent memory.

The pivotal moment of this opera is always the Act II, Scene 1 duet with Germont, here lyrically sung by Mario Zanasi. Violetta’s backbone audibly dissolves, and her colorless reading of “È vero” when Germont points out her inevitable aging is heartbreaking. Time is suspended on the long B-flat that leads into “Dite alla giovine,” and at that juncture one feels Violetta’s chance at happiness slip away. Moment after moment is addressed with this sort of sensitivity—but never in a self-conscious way.

The party at Flora’s gives us an unearthly Callas “Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core,” after a splendid confrontation scene with Valletti, who is thrilling in his denunciation of her. And the final act ranks as one of the diva’s greatest achievements. The frailty in her tone as she wakes embodies Violetta’s weakened state. Callas spoke a number of times in interviews about “a sickly voice” she was trying to achieve for this character, and particularly in this scene. But again, nothing comes off as mannered or planned. The “Addio del passato” is perhaps a shade less perfect than on the Lisbon version, but only a shade. “Parigi o cara” finds her response to Valletti’s verse delicate and not really optimistic. The long crescendo on the high G leading into “Gran Dio! morir si giovane” is searing in its intensity and represents a final defiant stand before “Se una pudica vergine” becomes a series of gentle vapors.

Valletti is an elegant, highly emotional Alfredo. That elegance seems inherited from the vocalism of his stage father, Zanasi, as Germont. (An interesting twist: among the supporting players is Marie Collier as Flora Bervoix. Collier, of course, replaced Callas during the diva’s final run of Toscas—her final staged opera performances anywhere—at Covent Garden a mere seven years later.) Conductor Nicola Rescigno, a frequent Callas collaborator at that time, supports the soprano in every way, without ever sacrificing the shape or direction of the opera. As Callas was an artist who never let either a vocal effect or a mishap alter the composer’s intention, Rescigno could both accompany and lead with assurance. (This is, of course, the edition that was commonly used at the time, shorn of the cabalettas for tenor and baritone.) 

One caveat must be mentioned. All the LP and CD versions of this performance I have encountered have had subtle variations in pitch throughout the performance, sometimes straying almost a half-tone sharp—doubtless originating from the source material. Although the sound on this release is superior to its predecessors, the sharping is still present, and it does occasionally alter the color of the voices. Worth owning anyway? You bet! 

BBC Music Magazine, May 2011


Violetta in La traviata was Callas’s second-favourite role. Her favourite was Norma, of which she made two magnificent studio recordings, and there are several superb ‘live’ accounts too. La traviata was less fortunate. She only made one studio recording of it, and with inadequate partners and feeble conducting it is not a success. There are several ‘live’ accounts, of which EMI has issued two: of those, her greatest performance was undoubtedly with Carlo Maria Giulini at La Scala in 1955, when she was at her absolute peak. But the sound is not good, especially in the second half, and Ettore Bastianini is a dull Germont. The 1958 Lisbon performance is better cast, but also in moderate sound (though much better on Pearl).

This performance from Covent Garden is in better sound that any of the others, and though id has been issued on various labels, this ICA Classics recording is the best I have heard. Even so, it is by no means hi-fi, though it improves as the opera proceeds. The two male leads are both good, Cesare Valetti an ardent yet accurate Alfredo, while Mario Zanasi makes Germont as interesting a character as the music allows, and less wholly detestable than the role often seems.

To begin with Callas is on edgy form, and some of her high notes are strained and incipiently wobbly. But after Act I, in which she still does many wonderful things, her performance is on level which no other soprano compares with. The scene with Germont is overwhelming, and her immense affirmation of love to Alfredo is al almost unbearably intense. In the last Act it is a question of how closely, as a listener, you can bear art to approach life—she sounds as if she is dying, you almost feel ashamed to be witnessing it. This is art at its absolute limit, and a unique document.

Robert Levine, March 2011

My count may be slightly off, but there are approximately seven separate recorded performances of La traviata starring Maria Callas, all but one taken from live performances from 1951 to 1958. Almost every one has its value (I’d rather not hear the first three again—two live from Mexico City, one recorded commercially for Cetra), but the one under consideration here, from London in 1958, strikes me as the finest.

Take away three or four unfortunate high notes and you’ve got an ideal Violetta: we can always sense the fragility of the character beneath its veneer in the first act; the second act introduces us to a woman whose nobility was clearly being concealed by her station in life; and the third act is tragic from start to finish. Callas is secure enough to scale her voice back to a whisper that can nonetheless be heard perfectly and appreciated for the key to the character, and her coloratura is in fine shape in “Sempre libera”.

This is to be all the more treasured when we hear her passion at full throttle in “Amami Alfredo”, and near the close of the opera, when she attacks the high-G that begins the phrase “Gran Dio, morir si giovane” with a combination of such unbridled fear and fierce defiance that it leaves the listener shaking.

Cesare Valletti is her classiest recorded Alfredo (yes, even more-so than Alfredo Kraus), singing with great ardor, impeccable diction, and even an occasional sob in his voice; and baritone Mario Zanasi, always a fine-voiced, under-recorded singer, breathes and feels with her flawlessly in their second-act confrontation and duet. The other singers are good (Marie Collier is Flora!), and Nicola Rescigno, one of Callas’ favorite conductors, does a beautiful job. This set has been available on different labels for a long time, but the remastering here is definitely an improvement in the sound. Don’t miss this one: sonics aside, it’s the only Traviata you’ll ever need.

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