Maria_Callas

From Gina Cigna to Renata Scotto, forty years of Norma in a mini-discography. Part one

It is perhaps superfluous, but I have to get it off my chest: there is no such thing as objective music criticism. Of course there are criteria, but it is not science: after all, you listen to music not only with your ears, but also with your soul and your heart, and you cannot switch them off. Therefore, do not consider my mini discography as an absolute truth and, as far as possible, listen and judge for yourself.

Norma is considered the pinnacle of bel canto, but at the same time, this is a tremendous musical drama that leaves Verdi’s early works quite behind and carries with it the promise of a ‘Tristan’. And although it is a love story and both protagonists die a kind of ‘Liebestod’ at the end, love is not the heroine’s only motivation. She is also a mother, a priestess, a patriot, a daughter and a friend, and to be able to express all these aspects of human feelings, you need to be more than a ‘singer’.




The role of Norma was created by Giuditta Pasta, originally a mezzo, who had trained her voice upwards. Pasta was an exceptionally intelligent singer with a great stage personality and a great voice range but her technique was not optimal, which caused her voice to deteriorate very early in her career. Pauline Viardot (one of the most famous mezzos of her time) once said about Pasta: “She looks like ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci – a ruin of a painting, but it is still the greatest painting in the world”.

Giulia Grisi as Norma


The first Adalgisa was sung by Giulia Grisi, a soprano who also created the roles of Elvira (I Puritani) and Giulia (I Capuletti e i  Montecchi), and who would later become a great Norma herself.

Gina Cigna

In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, Norma was only rarely performed. Opera history mentions only two memorable performances: in 1926 at the Metropolitan Opera (with Rosa Ponselle and Lauri-Volpi) and in 1936 at La Scala, with Gina Cigna.

In 1937, the very first (almost) complete recording of “Norma” was made: with Gina Cigna, Ebe Stignani and Giovanni Brevario, conducted by Vittorio Gui (various labels). the sound is still quite good, although obviously not optimal.

In the opera world there is a general opinion that most (Bel canto) singers before Callas were light, like canaries. This is not true. Just listen to Cigna’s full, dark timbre and to her sense of drama.

Cigna approaches the role from the verist tradition and plays it heavily. There are no coloraturas, but her technique is phenomenal and her top notes firm and pure. However, she is not a real actress, thus her interpretation is far behind that of Callas (among others).

Adalgisa is sung here by the young Ebe Stignani: a beautiful, warm mezzo, much more convincing here than in all her later recordings. Giovanni Breviario is an inferior Pollione, but orchestrally this recording is, together with those of Serafin (Rome 1955) and Muti (Turin 1974), one of the three finest Normas. Partly because of this (and the particularly moving sung ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’) it is well worth listening to.

Gina Cigna and Giovanni Breviario in ‘Deh! non volerli vittime’:


MARIA CALLAS

One thinks Norma, one says Callas. Rightly so, because like no other La Divina has left her mark on this role. Between 1950 and 1964, she was undeniably the best Norma. Perhaps she was the best Norma ever. She sang the role more than 90 times and recorded it twice in the studio, both times under Tulio Serafin.

The first dates from 1954 (Warner Classics 0825646341115). Callas was then at her best vocally, yet this recording does not really captivate me. I find Serafin’s accompaniment downright boring, Filippeschi, despite his beautiful voice, is no Pollione of weight, and Stignani simply sounds (too) old. I also have some comments on Callas’ acting. Her ‘Casta Diva’ seems much more a love aria than an ode to the moon goddess, which it actually should be. But her singing is phenomenally beautiful, with wonderful heights and good trills.

In the autumn of 1960, Callas insisted on recording the opera again. It is claimed that she wanted to make her comeback with it (due to all sorts of scandals, Callas had not sung for nine months). This is possibly true, but it is also very likely that her views on the role had changed so much that she wanted to record it again.

Anyway it is fortunate that she did, because her second ‘official’ Norma (Warner Classics 0825646340842) is in all respects superior to the first. Franco Corelli is probably the best Pollione ever: a real warlord with a very masculine voice. Certain of himself and his appearance, resolute, macho, but also loving and very, very sensual and sexy. No wonder, then, that a young priestess would fall for him. And no wonder that a woman like Norma – strong, beautiful and powerful – continues to love him, despite his betrayal.

Adalgisa is sung by a young Christa Ludwig. Not really Italian, also (for me) a bit too dark in timbre, but with so much empathy that it doesn’t really matter. Callas herself is past her vocal peak and here and there she lets out a painful note, but as an actress she is absolutely unequalled. Here, too, she occasionally wants to “make believe” (the scene with her children, for example), but her intense involvement, her complete understanding and surrender – it is unique. Serafin, too, is clearly much more inspired, although I occasionally have trouble with his tempi. 

Next to these two studio- recordings there are half a dozen radio- and pirate-recordings made from her live- performances. They are from London, Milan and Rome. One of them I will discuss here, because for me, this is the greatest Norma of them all! It is a registration of a performance on 29 june 1955 in Rome (amongst others on Opera d’Oro 7003).


Callas, in wonderful voice, never misses a (top) note, nor a gasp or a nuance. From pianissisimo to forte and back again, from dark to light and open, from glissando to portamento she goes on and on and all this with a great feeling for style and a deep understanding of the text. This is dramatic Belcanto singing pur sang; this is what Bellini must have had in mind.


Mario del Monaco sings a dream of a Pollione. sometimes a bit loud, but he is allowed, because he is a warrior after all. In ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdisti’ he is audibly moved and falling in love again. Their voices melt together in the ultimate love duet which can only lead unto death.


Maria Callas and Mario del Monaco in ‘Qual cor tradisti’:

Serafin conducts it all with feeling for both drama and lyricism and if Stignani still does not convince me, it is only because I want to hear a soprano in that role.

 Holland Festival 1959 or La Divina in Amsterdam

1959 was a good Callas year. In January that year she first sang at Carnegie Hall, where she gave a concert performance of Il Pirata. It was a great triumph. This was followed by a few Medea’s(Cherubini) in London and a short tour in Spain and Germany.

And then the great moment arrived: her long-awaited performance in Amsterdam. Thousands of people gathered at Schiphol Airport to greet her.

Maria Callas arrives in the Netherlands in 1959. On the right: Peter Diamand, chairman of the Holland Festival.



The lights in the Hall were extinguished and all the spotlights were on her as she descended the Concertgebouw steps. Only the musicians of the Concertgebouw Orchestra had lights on their desks, which, according to witnesses, had wrapped the stage in a romantic atmosphere.



Callas was then technically at the height of her powers. She began with a tather cautiously sung ‘Tu che vedi il mio tormento’ from Spontini’s La vestale, but with ‘Surta è la notte’ from Verdi’s Ernani she already let go of all brakes.



The audience went wild with enthusiasm, which stimulated Callas to become even more intense and dramatic in her perfectly intoned reading of ‘Tu che le vanità ‘ (Don Carlo). She finished with the mad scene from Il Pirata, a true tour-de-force.

She gave every note a different colour, her pianissimo was breathtaking and the coloraturas optimal. A true Divina. If only I had been there then!



Spontini, Verdi, Bellini
Live in Amsterdam 1959
Maria Callas, Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Nicola Rescigno
EMI 5626832

I Puritani: mini discography

puritani

It is said of I Puritani that it is a true soprano opera, but that is not really quite the case. Elvira may be the pivot around which everything revolves, she is also one of the most passive opera heroines I know. Everything that happens around her and to her, happens in spite of her; because apart from loving and going mad, she doesn’t seem to be able to do much of anything at all.

It is the bass (her uncle Giorgio) who devises all sorts of plans to steer the action in the desired direction, and for this he is rewarded by Bellini with a most beautiful aria (‘Cinta di fiori’).

Nicolai Ghiaurov:

In order to save the mad soprano from certain death, he asks the baritone to spare the tenor’s life, which ends in a gorgeous duet (‘Suoni la tromba’), a real show-stopper.

Samuel Ramey and Sherrill Milnes:

The tenor also, who in a fit of patriotinic frenzy seems to send the whole thing into disarray, gets to sing a lot of beautiful (and high!) notes.

John Osborn with Mariola Cantarero from Amsterdam 2009:



All these roles require an excellent bel canto technique, with good coloratura, leggiero and legato. And don’t forget a sense of pure drama, because Bellini (and his librettist!) have created a lot of havoc for the poor soprano: first she becomes delirious with joy, then she loses her mind. She then regains it, only to lose it again immediately. Are you still there? Because it’s not over yet: her mind comes back once more and immediately she’s delirious with joy again. Ouch… Fortunately, the opera stops here, because poor Elvira apparently has to repeat such tricks a few times a day


CD’S

JOAN SUTHERLAND

puritani-suth


Elvira, like Lucia, was a showpiece for Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, both of whom recorded it several times. In 1974, Richard Bonynge (Decca 4175882) made a peerless recording of the opera, besides Sutherland, there was the sublime male trio: Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Piero Cappuccilli. Sutherland sounds like a little heap of misery, and her virtuosity knows no limits. Pavarotti still possessed all his glorious long high notes in those days and he pops them out with no effort at all.




MARIA CALLAS

puritani-calls

The recording with Callas from 1953 (Naxos 8110259-60) is weighed down by the fact that Giuseppe di Stefano is totally unfit to sing Arturo. But Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Giorgio) and Rolando Panerai (Riccardo) are excellent, and Tulio Serafin conducts with verve and theatricality. Unfortunately, the score is not complete.


BEVERLY SILLS

puritani-sills

A good (and complete!) alternative is the 1973 recording under Julius Rudel (Westminster 4712072), with a very virtuoso Beverly Sills. Arturo is sung in an extraordinarily beautiful and elegant way by Nicolai Gedda. His approach to the high notes is delightful, and personally I find it very pleasant to listen to him.



Conclusion;  you are best off with the Decca and Westminster recordings. You get all the music, all the high notes and the best male voices. But since Naxos’ recording with Callas is in the budget class, why not buy it! Because of the conductor, because of the bass, but mainly because of La Divina. Because let’s be honest – nobody else can go so deliciously mad.


DVD’S

ANNA NETREBKO

puritani-nebs



It gets more difficult if you want to buy the work on DVD, because I cannot recommend either of the performances I watched without any reservations.

The Metropolitan Opera production, filmed in January 2007 (DG 0734421), is over 30 years old and was originally made for the Sutherland/Pavarotti duo. Perhaps this explains its total lack of personal direction?

There are these monumental tableaux-vivants , in which nobody seems to be allowed to move. The sets are ‘larger than life’ and all the costumes ‘historically accurate’. Anna Netrebko is a very imaginative Elvira. And although she lacks trills, her top notes are there and her presentation (charisma?) is more than convincing.

Both the bass (John Relyea) and the baritone (Franco Vassallo) are reasonable, but no more than that. Eric Cutler (Arturo) has a pleasant timbre and he reaches (albeit with difficulty) the high notes, but it is not really spectacular.

Netrebko sings ‘Deh Vieni al Tempio’ from the first act:

EDITA GRUBEROVA

puritani-grub



But Cutler is much better than the totally miscast José Bros in the fifteen-year-old production from Barcelona (ArthouseMusik 107267). His voice is at least a size too small for Arturo. Edita Gruberova is a matter of taste. I do not like her ‘pussy-mouthed ways’ and I do not really want to watch her, but with my eyes closed there is little to complain about, because yes, she can sing bel canto.

Carlos Álvarez is a first-class Riccardo, but the rest of the cast …. Ah, let’s not talk about it. Andrei Serban’s direction, on the other hand, is truly sublime and exciting, I enjoyed it a lot. A friend I was watching with summed it up like this: Netrebko is for straight men and Gruberova (because of Álvarez) for gays and women, but of course it is not that simple. If only we could cut and paste!



BELLINI-BOX

puritani-box


A 25-cd Bellini box set is an absolute must. For 90 euros only, you get all of Bellini’s operas, two of which (La Sonnambula, Norma) are also available in two different versions. Many well known names too: Callas, Caballé, Scotto, Ciofi, Bernstein…

Most recordings are live and the sound and performance quality vary, but who cares? Among them, of course, is I Puritani, recorded in Catania in 1989, with Mariella Devia as Elvira. In the beginning, she is a bit of a disappointment, but gradually she gets better. Not only does she have all the top notes at the ready, she also brings in a lot of (her own) embellishments, and if that is not part of the art of bel canto, then I don’t know what is.

Mariella Devia:

Unfortunately, the men are not of the same level, although Paulo Washington is a moving and very imaginative Giorgio. A special CD-ROM contains all the libretti. A MUST! (Dynamic CDS 52/1-25)

The battle for Lucia di Lammermoor is far from won

lucia-di-lammermoor-by-gaetano-donizetti-score-cover-first-edition-KFRB72



Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas and Beverly Sills

Lucia di Lammermoor has always been, perhaps even more than Norma, a point of contention between the supporters of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. The performances of both ladies are indeed fantastic and, moreover, totally different. Which of the two should you own? That is not easy. A matter of taste, shall we say?


Joan Sutherland is unprecedentedly virtuoso and her coloraturas so perfect that they hurt. And yet I remain untouched by her. Why? Perhaps because it is too perfect? I do not know. It could just be me.


Lucia Callas

Whatever you choose, you really can’t do without at least one Callas. Try Naxos (8110131-32) with Giuseppe di Stefano and Titto Gobbi, under Tulio Serafin, for although Francesco Tagliavini (Warner Classics 2564634081) is a much better Edgardo, the rest of the cast (including Callas herself!) is much stronger here.


Lucia Sills

Personally, I prefer Beverly Sills (Westminster 4712502), especially when it is a choice between studio recordings. Her portrayal unites the best of both divas: the virtuosity, vocal beauty and pure intonation of la Stupenda and the great acting of la Divina. Not really a great tragédienne (but then, neither is Lucia); she is more like a passive girl child who allows herself to be completely overwhelmed. The rest of the cast (Carlo Bergonzi, Piero Cappuccilli, Justino Diaz) is also at a very high level and Thomas Schippers conducts it all with a firm hand . But what makes this recording really special is the use of a glass harmonica in the mad scene, exactly as Donizetti had originally prescribed it.



Renata Scotto

Lucia Scotto

My most beloved Lucia, Renata Scotto, never recorded the role in the studio. There are, however, several pirate recordings of her in circulation, with Luciano Pavaratti, Alfredo Kraus, Carlo Bergonzi and Gianni Raimondi as Edgardo.

Of these four, the recording with Raimondi is dearest to me, not least because of the very energetic and dramatically balanced direction by Claudio Abbado. It was recorded at La Scala in December 1967 and it appeared on Nuova Era (013.6320/21). Unfortunately, this recording is very hard to find.


Below Gianni Raimondi and Giangiacomo Guelfi (Enrico) in ‘Orrida è questa notte…


Scotto’s interpretation of the tormented heroine is available on DVD (VAI 4418). The production was recorded in Tokyo in 1967. It circulated for years on pirate video, but as the sound and picture quality were particularly poor, the commercial release has made many opera lovers very happy. The sound is a little sharp, making Scotto’s high notes sound even more metallic than usual, but who cares? ‘


Her interpretation is both vocally and scenically at an unprecedented high level. With a childishly surprised expression (my brother does this to me?) on her face, she agrees, albeit not without grumbling, to the forced marriage with Arturo (an Angelo Marchiandi who is hideous in every way).

Below, Scotto sings ‘Il dolce suono’. Who could do it better?!




After her mad scene, you tend to pull the plug, because everything that comes after it can only feel like a cold shower. But you are wrong about that. Edgardo’s two arias, sung by Carlo Bergonzi, will take you straight to (singer’s) heaven.


Afterwards, you can’t help but be a little sad, because where have they gone, yesterday’s singers? Small, tall, fat, skinny, with or without acting talent… None of them was a ballet dancer, but could they sing! And it was through their voices alone that they were able to convey all of the feelings that now require a whole ‘artistic team’. In spite of the cuts that were common at the time, this is an absolute must.

Below, Bergonzi sings ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’



Patritia Ciofi (French version)

Lucia Ciofi


In 1839, Donizetti adapted his opera for Paris and Lucia became Lucie. It is not the language alone that distinguishes between the two versions, for Donizetti tinkered considerably with both the libretto and the music. Alisa (Lucia’s lady-in-waiting) was cut out of the opera and our heroine remains the only woman in an otherwise purely male company, which makes her even more lonely and vulnerable.


Normanno is now called Gilbert and his role has been considerably expanded. His false play and manipulations make him into a key figure and he grows to almost Iago-like proportions. Arturo has also become more three-dimensional as Henri. And although I miss ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ and scenes between Lucia and Raimondo, I must admit that the French version is dramatically much better.

In this recording (once TDK, hopefully still available), Patrizia Ciofi is nothing less than phenomenal as a rather neurotic Lucie, Ludovic Tézier is superb as a villainous Henri and Roberto Alagna is in his element as Edgar. It was (at the time) one of his best roles.

The director duo Patrick Courier/Moshe Leiser rarely disappoint. Their productions are always realistic, embedded in a historical perspective, but with enough of a nod to the present. Moreover, they do what directors are supposed to do: provide a good mise-en-scène and guide the singers in their performance as to appear convincing.


 

THREE LUCIAS OF RECENT TIMES

Anna Netrebko

Lucia Netrebko


Deutsche Grammophon released the Live in HD broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2009 on DVD and Blu-Ray (DG 0734545). Anna Netrebko sang the main role. I never really thought Lucia suited her. Moreover, at that time she was more concerned with showing off than with the soul- searchings of the tragic heroine she portrayed.

l

Piotr Beczala is, as always, a fantastic Edgardo, but all the other singers are fine too. All have an individual timbre, so that in the very homogeneously sung sextet you can also recognise the individual voices.


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Valery Gergiev conducts energetically and really speeds up the orchestra, which sometimes results in breakneck tempi. On the other hand he actually stretches out the ‘mad scene’ (with glass harmonica, bravo!)


Natalie Dessay

Lucia Dessay

Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theatre put its own Lucia di Lammermoor on CD (MARO 512). Natalie Dessay is a gifted artist. She has a beautiful voice of unprecedented height, with which she sings the most difficult coloraturas and fiorituras as if it were nothing. She is also beautiful and can act incredibly well; it is always a pleasure to see her in action.
However, her voice, which is not so big, has its limitations. Scenically, she knows how to hide these through her superb acting, but without visual images, things can go wrong. Which you can hear on this live recording from 2010. Her coloraturas are perfect but empty; they have no substance. This Lucia does go mad but we do not know why. But once she is crazy, she totally makes our heads spin.

Piotr Beczala is, as always, a fantastic Edgardo, but all the other singers are fine too. All have an individual timbre, so that in the very homogeneously sung sextet you can also recognise the individual voices.
Valery Gergiev conducts energetically and really speeds up the orchestra, which sometimes results in breakneck tempi. On the other hand he actually stretches out the ‘mad scene’ (with glass harmonica, bravo!).


Diana Damrau


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Diana Damrau, one of the world’s best and most famous sopranos, seems to be perfect for the role of Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. She sang the part already in 2008 at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Five years later, she delighted audiences in her home town of Munich with her interpretation. The concertante performances were recorded live by Erato, but I am sadly disappointed with the result.


Not that there is anything wrong with Damrau’s coloraturas. They are still impeccable, but to my ears they are empty, without any real substance. In her mad scene, she looks more like the mechanical puppet Olympia from Les contes d’Hoffmann than a woman of flesh and blood.


The male roles are all well cast. Joseph Calleja (Edgardo) sings his role with such ease and flexibility that I am reminded of the young Pavarotti. Ludovic Tézier and Nicolas Testé are perhaps not entirely idiomatic, but their impeccable singing is really not to to be criticized. Even the small role of Normanno is perfectly sung by the excellent Andrew Lepri Meyer.


Jesús López-Cobos’ tempi are remarkable, to say the least. It is stop and go again all the time. Sometimes I do not even recognize the music. It seems as if new embellishments have been added.


The recording itself is also quite unbalanced. It is understandable that the opera could not be recorded in one go, but some things were ‘brushed up’ in the studio and unfortunately we can hear this.

My top three remains unchanged:
1. Renata Scotto with Carlo Bergonzi, VAI 4418
2. Beverly Sills with Bergonzi, recorded in the studio in 1970 (Westminster 4712502)
3. Maria Callas, no matter which one

Conversations with Maria Callas

Callas gesprekken

The talk show with (and about) Maria Callas, broadcast on French television in April 1969, is simply fascinating. Callas, clearly inspired by Jackie O., looks very sophisticated and sweet in her elegant dress. She accepts all compliments with confident modesty, and she doesn’t seem to be bothered by the cigarette smoke that is blown in her face.

With Luchino Visconti she muses about acting, and discusses her latest project: Medea in a film by Passolini in which he acts as well. Captivated she watches the filmed conversation with Elvira de Hidalgo, who, chain-smoking, puts her former pupil in the limelight.

We hear her say what we have always secretly known: she loves Norma and Violetta because of their selflessness. She finds Tosca ridiculous and Carmen horrible: she has no interest in promiscuous women, they do not fit in with her ideal world view.

The conversation is interspersed with fragments and scenes from various operas and concerts. Most of the material is well known, but remains fascinating.

The Callas Conversations – Volume II: L’invitée du dimanche (1969)
Le Monde de la Musique
EMI Classics DVB 38845799

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

Gesprekken met Maria Callas

Callas gesprekken

De talkshow met en rondom Maria Callas, op de Franse televisie in april 1969 uitgezonden is ronduit fascinerend.

Callas, duidelijk geïnspireerd door Jackie O. ziet er zeer sophisticated en lief uit in haar elegante jurk. Alle complimenten neemt ze aan met een zelfverzekerde bescheidenheid, en ze lijkt zich niet te storen aan de sigarettenrook die in haar gezicht wordt uitgeblazen.

Er wordt met geen woord over haar privéleven gerept, haar stem klinkt zacht en straalt een serene kalmte uit.  Af en toe reageert zij uitgelaten, net een klein meisje.  Met Francesco Siciliani haalt ze herinneringen op aan hoe hij haar, geholpen door Tulio Serafin, ontdekt had en haar haar eerste belcanto rollen liet zingen.

Met Luchino Visconti mijmert ze over acteren, en neemt haar nieuwste project: Medea in een film van Passolini met hem door. Vertederd kijkt ze naar het gefilmde gesprek met Elvira de Hidalgo, die, kettingrokend, haar voormalige leerlinge in het zonnetje zet.

Wij horen haar zeggen, wat we heimelijk altijd al wisten: zij houdt van Norma en Violetta vanwege hun opofferingsgezindheid. Tosca vindt ze belachelijk en Carmen verschrikkelijk: zij heeft niets met de promiscue vrouwen, ze passen niet in haar ideale wereldbeeld.

Het programma is gelardeerd met fragmenten en scènes uit verschillende opera’s en concerten. Het meeste materiaal is goed bekend, maar het blijft boeien.

The Callas Conversations – Volume II: L’invitée du dimanche (1969)
Le Monde de la Musique
EMI Classics DVB 38845799

Wat is het verschil tussen terrorist en een diva? ‘Caballé, de muziek voorbij’

Caballe docu

“Allemaal hebben wij buitengewoon veel aan muziek te danken (…) Het is een vorm van expressie die niet zo zeer van het denken als van het voelen komt”. Die woorden komen van één van de grootste zangeressen van de twintigste eeuw, Montserrat Cabballé.

In zijn film Caballé Beyond Music portretteert Antonio Farré de diva*, haar leven en haar carrière, hij spreekt met haar, haar intimi en haar collega’s. In de documentaire zijn er ook veel (archief)beelden te zien en te bewonderen, beginnend met Caballé’s debuut in Il Pirata in 1966 in Parijs.

De film is gelardeerd met leuke anekdotes zoals die, hoe ze een deur kapot smeet omdat men haar niet toestond om vrij te nemen (Caballé wilde de voorstelling van Norma met Maria Callas bezoeken). Hoe ze een generale repetitie in La Scala had stopgezet omdat ze merkte dat het orkest niet goed was gestemd. Over haar debuut in de Metropolitan Opera in New York, de ontdekking van José Carreras (wat was hij mooi!), haar vriendschap met Freddy Mercury ….

Over haar Tosca in het ROH in Londen in de productie die voor Callas was gemaakt. Daar was zij niet gelukkig mee, het voelde niet goed, maar niemand die er iets aan wilde veranderen. Caballé belde Callas op, het was precies acht dagen voor haar dood, en beklaagde haar lot. “Maar natuurlijk voelt het niet goed”, zei Callas. “Ik ben lang en jij niet, ik ben slank en jij niet, ik heb lange armen en jij niet. Zeg tegen ze, dat ze me bellen, ik zal ze overtuigen dat je mij niet bent”.

En zo werd de productie voor Caballé aangepast. “Kopieën zijn nooit goed”, zegt Caballé, en ik ben het met haar eens. Dit is een fascinerend portret van een fascinerende zangeres. Zeer, zeer de moeite waard.

* Londense taxichauffeur: “wat is het verschil tussen terrorist en een diva? Met terrorist kun je onderhandelen”.

Caballé beyond music
Met José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Joan Sutherland, Cheryl Studer, Giuseppe di Stefano, Freddie Mercury, Claudio Abbado e.a.
Regie Antonio A. Farré
EuroArts 2053198

La Divina in Amsterdam

Callas in Amsterdam

1959 was een goed Callas jaar. In januari dat jaar gaf ze haar eerste concert in Carnegie Hall, waar ze in concertante gezongen Il Pirata triomfeerde. Er volgden een paar ‘Medea’s’ (Cherubini) in Londen en een kort tournee door Spanje en Duitsland.

En toen was het zover: haar lang verwacht optreden in Amsterdam. Duizenden mensen verzamelden zich op Schiphol om haar te begroeten.

Callas ariveert

Maria Callas arriveert in Nederland in 1959. Rechts: Peter Diamand, voorzitter van het Holland Festival.

Callas Amsterdam

De lichten in de zaal waren gedoofd en alle schijnwerpers waren op haar gericht toen ze het Concertgebouwtrap afdaalde. Alleen de musici van het Concertgebouworkest hadden lichtjes op hun lessenaars aan, wat volgens de getuigen, het podium in een romantische sfeer had gehuld.

Callas was toen zang technisch op het hoogtepunt van haar kunnen. Ze begon met voorzichtig gezongen ‘Tu che vedi il mio tormento’ uit La vestale van Spontini, maar al bij ‘Surta è la notte’ uit Ernani van Verdi liet ze alle remmen los.

Het publiek werd uitzinnig van enthousiasme, wat Callas stimuleerde om nog intenser, en nog dramatischer te worden in haar perfect geïntoneerde lezing van ‘Tu che le vanità’ (Don Carlo). Ze besloot met de waanzinscène uit La Pirata, een waarlijk tour-de-force.

Een iedere noot voorzag ze van een andere kleur, haar pianissimo was adembenemend en de coloraturen optimaal. Een echte La Divina. Was ik maar toen erbij!


Spontini, Verdi, Bellini
Live in Amsterdam 1959
Maria Callas, Concertgebouworkest olv Nicola Rescigno
EMI 5626832

 

De strijd om Lucia di Lammermoor is nog niet gestreden

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MARIA CALLAS, JOAN SUTTHERLAND, BEVERLY SILLS

Lucia di Lammermoor is altijd, misschien meer nog dan Norma, een strijdpunt geweest tussen de aanhangers van Maria Callas en Joan Sutherland. De prestaties van beide dames zijn inderdaad fantastisch en bovendien totaal verschillend. Welke van de twee moet u hebben? Niet makkelijk. Kwestie van smaak, zal ik zeggen?

Amazon.co.uk: This is Luciano Pavarotti

Joan Sutherland is ongekend virtuoos en haar coloraturen zo perfect dat het pijn doet. En toch blijf ik er onaangeroerd bij. Waarom? Wellicht omdat het te perfect is? Ik weet het niet. Het kan ook aan mij liggen.

Lucia Callas

Waar u ook voor kiest: u kunt echt niet zonder minstens één Callas. Probeer Naxos (8110131-32) met Giuseppe di Stefano en Titto Gobbi, onder Tulio Serafin, want al is Francesco Tagliavini (Warner Classics 2564634081) een veel mooiere Edgar, de rest van de cast (inclusief Callas zelf!) is hier veel sterker.


Lucia Sills

Zelf kies ik voor Beverly Sills (Westminster 4712502), zeker als we het over studio-opnames hebben. Haar portrettering verenigt het beste van beide diva’s: de virtuositeit, stemschoonheid en zuivere intonatie van la Stupenda en het grote acteren van la Divina. Niet echt een grote tragédienne (maar dat is Lucia ook niet), meer een passief kindmeisje dat het allemaal over zich heen laat komen. Ook de rest van de cast (Carlo Bergonzi, Piero Cappuccilli, Justino Diaz) is van zeer hoog niveau en Thomas Schippers dirigeert zeer ferm. Maar wat die opname werkelijk bijzonder maakt, is het gebruik van een glasharmonica in de waanzinscène, precies zoals Donizetti het oorspronkelijk had voorgeschreven.


RENATA SCOTTO

Lucia Scotto

Mijn geliefde Lucia, Renata Scotto, heeft de rol nooit in de studio opgenomen. Er zijn wel verschillende piratenopnames met haar in omloop, met als Edgardo onder andere Luciano Pavaratti, Alfredo Kraus, Carlo Bergonzi en Gianni Raimondi.

Van die vier is de opname met Raimondi me het dierbaarst, niet in de laatste plaats vanwege de zeer energieke en dramatisch evenwichtige directie van Claudio Abbado. Het werd opgenomen in La Scala in december 1967 en is ooit op Nuova Era (013.6320/21) verschenen. Helaas is die opname zeer moeilijk verkrijgbaar, maar wie zoekt….

Hieronder Gianni Raimondi en Giangiacomo Guelfi (Enrico) in Orrida è questa notte..

Scotto’s interpretatie van de gekwelde heldin is wel op dvd beschikbaar (VAI 4418). De productie is in 1967 in Tokio opgenomen. Het circuleerde jarenlang op piratenvideo, maar aangezien de geluids- en beeldkwaliteit bijzonder matig was, zijn er met de commerciële uitgave heel veel operaliefhebbers bijzonder blij gemaakt. Het geluid is een beetje scherp, waardoor Scotto’s hoge noten nog metaliger klinken dan normaal, maar: who cares?

Haar interpretatie is zowel zangtechnisch als scenisch van een ongekend hoog niveau. Met een kinderlijk verbaasde uitdrukking (mijn broer doet het mij aan?) op haar gezicht stemt ze in, al is het niet zonder morren, met het gedwongen huwelijk met Arturo (een in alle opzichten afgrijselijke Angelo Marchiandi).

Hieronder Scotto zingt ‘Il dolce suono’. Doe het haar na!

Na haar waanzinaria krijg je de neiging de stekker eruit te trekken, want alles wat erna gaat komen, kan niet anders dan als een koude douche werken. Maar daar vergis je je in. De twee aria’s van Edgardo, gezongen door Carlo Bergonzi, brengen je regelrecht de (zangers)hemel in.

Na afloop kan je niet anders dan huilen, want: waar zijn ze gebleven, de zangers van toen? Klein, lang, dik, mager, met of zonder het acteertalent… Geen van hen was een ballerina, maar zingen konden ze! En enkel door middel van hun stem konden ze alle gevoelens overbrengen waar je nu een heel ‘artistiek team’ voor nodig hebt. Ondanks de toen gebruikelijke coupures een absolute must.

Hieronder zingt Bergonzi ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’

PATRICIA CIOFI IN HET FRANS

Lucia Ciofi

In 1839 bewerkte Donizetti zijn opera voor Parijs en Lucia werd Lucie. Het is niet de alleen de taal die de beide versies onderscheidt, want Donizetti heeft zowel aan het libretto als aan de muziek behoorlijk gesleuteld. Zo werd Alisa (Lucia’s hofdame) uit de opera geknipt en is onze heldin als enige vrouw in een verder louter mannengezelschap gebleven, wat haar nog eenzamer en nog kwetsbaarder maakt.

Normanno heet nu Gilbert en zijn rol werd behoorlijk uitgebreid. Zijn valse spel en manipulaties maken van hem zowat een sleutelfiguur en hij groeit uit tot bijna Iago-achtige proporties. Ook Arturo is als Henri driedimensionaler geworden. En al mis ik ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ en scènes tussen Lucia en Raimondo, ik moet toegeven dat de Franse versie dramatisch veel beter in elkaar steekt.

In deze opname (ooit TDK, hopelijk nog te bestellen) is Patrizia Ciofi niet minder dan fenomenaal als een behoorlijk neurotische Lucie, Ludovic Tézier prachtig als een vileine Henri en Roberto Alagna helemaal in zijn element als Edgar. Het was (toen) één van zijn beste rollen.

Het regisseursduo Patrick Courier/Moshe Leiser stelt zelden teleur. Hun producties zijn altijd realistisch, ingebed in historische perspectief, maar met genoeg ‘knipoog’ naar het heden. Bovendien doen ze wat regisseurs voornamelijk horen te doen: zorgen voor een goede mise-en-scène en zangers in hun spel goed begeleiden om ze overtuigend te laten overkomen.

OVER DRIE LUCIA’S VAN DE LAATSTE TIJD

ANNA NETREBKO

Lucia Netrebko
Deutsche Grammophon bracht de Live in HD-uitzending van Lucia di Lammermoor die in 2009 door de Metropolitan Opera in New York werd uitgezonden uit op dvd en Blu-Ray (DG 0734545). Anna Netrebko zong de hoofdrol. Lucia vond ik nooit echt bij haar passen. Bovendien was ze in die tijd meer bezig zichzelf te etaleren dan dat ze zich om de zielenroerselen van de door haar gespeelde tragische heldin bekommerde.

Piotr Beczala, toen nog geen grote ster, was de lastminutevervanger voor de ziek geworden Rolando Villazón en het moet gezegd worden: samen met zijn landgenoot Mariusz Kwiecien (Enrico) stal hij de show. De regie van Mary Zimmermann is mooi om te zien, maar voegt eigenlijk niet veel toe. Voer voor de vele Netrebko-fans, maar voor de rest?

NATALIE DESSAY

Lucia Dessay

Het Mariinski Theater van Valery Gergiev heeft een Lucia di Lammermoor uit eigen huis op cd gezet (MARO 512). Natalie Dessay is een begenadigd artieste. Ze beschikt over een pracht van een stem met een ongekende hoogte, waarmee ze de moeilijkste coloraturen en fiorituren zingt alsof het niets is. Mooi is zij ook en ze kan waanzinnig goed acteren; het is altijd een plezier om haar in actie zien.

Maar niet al te grote stem kent echter ook zijn beperkingen. Scenisch weet ze die achter haar acteren te verbergen, maar zonder beeld wil er weleens iets misgaan. Dat hoor je ook op deze live-opname uit 2010. Haar coloraturen zijn perfect maar leeg; het heeft geen inhoud. Deze Lucia wordt gek zonder dat je weet waarom. Maar als ze eenmaal gek is, doet ze je duizelen.

Piotr Beczala is, zoals altijd, een fantastische Edgardo, maar ook alle andere zangers zijn prima. Allemaal beschikken ze over een individueel timbre, waardoor je in het zeer homogeen gezongen sextet ook afzonderlijke stemmen kan herkennen.

Valery Gergiev dirigeert energiek en zwiept het orkest op, wat soms resulteert in halsbrekende tempi. De ‘waanzinscène’ (met glasharmonica, bravo!) rekt hij juist uit


DIANA DAMRAU

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Diana Damrau, één van ’s werelds beste en beroemdste sopranen, lijkt geknipt voor de rol van Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. Zij zong de partij al in 2008 in de New Yorkse Metropolitan Opera. Vijf jaar later verblijdde ze het duidelijk aan haar voeten liggende publiek in haar geboortestad München met haar vertolking. De concertante uitvoeringen werden live door Erato opgenomen en het resultaat valt mij tegen.

Niet dat er iets mis is met de coloraturen van Damrau. Die zijn nog steeds onberispelijk, maar in mijn oren zijn ze leeg, zonder inhoud. In haar waanzinscène lijkt ze meer op de mechanische pop Olympia uit Les contes d’Hoffmann dan op een gek geworden vrouw van vlees en bloed.

De mannenrollen zijn allemaal prima ingevuld. Joseph Calleja (Edgardo) zingt zijn rol soepel en met zo’n gemak dat ik aan de jonge Pavarotti moet denken. Ludovic Tézier en Nicolas Testé zijn misschien niet helemaal idiomatisch, maar op hun onberispelijke zang valt niet veel op te merken. Zelfs de kleine rol van Normanno wordt door een voortreffelijk zingende Andrew Lepri Meyer ingevuld.

De tempi van Jesús López-Cobos vind ik op zijn minst opmerkelijk. Dan wordt er gerend, dan staat de boel weer stil. Af en toe herken ik de muziek niet. Het lijkt alsof er nieuwe versieringen zijn aangebracht.

De opname zelf is eveneens onevenwichtig. Dat de opera niet in één keer op één avond is opgenomen is vanzelfsprekend, maar er werd ook het één en ander in de studio ‘verbeterd’ en dat is helaas hoorbaar.


Na al die jaren is mijn top drie nog steeds ongewijzigd:

1. Renata Scotto met Carlo Bergonzi, VAI 4418.

2. Beverly Sills met Carlo Bergonzi, Westminster 4712502

3. Maria Callas. Ongeacht welke, eigenlijk

 

The stepsisters of Maria Callas

Traviata Callas

Would we still love Callas so much if she had been an ‘ordinary’ happy person, like most of her colleagues? If she had been happily married and had had children, what she so longed for? If she didn’t suffer from bulimia and was not constantly fighting with her weight and body? If she had not fallen in love with Aristoteles Onassis, the super-rich Greek shipowner who left her to marry an even more famous lady? And if she had not lost her voice prematurely? Speculations, of course, but since even the most honest opera lover has something of a tabloid reader it keeps buzzing. People simply love gossip.

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Rumour, success, being in the spotlight, are the most important ingredients in the lives of people who find their lives boring and everyday and lose themselves in the stories of the ‘rich and beautiful’. It should be noted that they feast most on the dark sides of the stories, because there is no greater happiness than sorrow.

Maria Callas was a diva with a true cult status. She owed this not only to her singing, but also to her unmistakable acting talent, her attractive appearance and her, unfortunately, more than tragic personal life.

However great, famous, loved and adored, Maria Callas was, she did not invent opera, nor was she the greatest actress amongst singers. Not all singers were equally gifted actors, but the image of a fat lady standing motionless on stage fluttering only her hands is not at all accurate.

Just think of Conchita Supervia, Geraldine Farrar, Marjorie Lawrence or Grace Moore, but there were more.

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Conchita Supervia as Carmen

Geraldine Farrar as Carmen in a film from 1915:

What Callas truly was, was a pioneer in (dramatic) belcanto, and that happened more or less by accident (consult the DVD The Callas Conversations vol. II). It was a genre that at the time was a little neglected. It was she who gave us back the forgotten operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Spontini, but was she really the first?

There are many more sopranos from the time of Callas who sang at the highest level and deserve to be discussed. The sopranos I am going to talk about were all more or less Callas’ contemporaries and all sang almost the same repertoire (not counting spinto sopranos that sang mainly verist roles, such as Magda Olivero, Carla Gavazzi or Clara Petrella).

These divas missed the chance to be in the right place at the right time. Or: to meet someone who was important enough not only to boost your career, but also to give you a record deal.

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Maria Callas as La Gioconda in 1952

Cynical?

It has always been like this and nowadays it is no different, although we are dealing with another aspect: the ideal of beauty. If you don’t meet it, you can say goodbye to your career in advance – fat people are not even allowed to audit in many theatres anymore and a starting Callas would have absolutely no chance at all now.

 

                                         ANITA CERQUETTI

cerquetti

Her career, like that of Callas, didn’t last long. She was born in 1931 and made her opera debut as Aida in Spoleto as early as 1951 (!). She became – typically enough – the most famous by stepping in for a sick Callas in 1958. While she was still in a production of Norma in Naples, she sang some performances of the same opera by Bellini at the opera house of Rome, instead of La Divina.

Anita Cerquetti sings ‘O re dei cieli’ from Agnese di Hohenstauffen by Spontini:

On the label Bongiovanni (GB 1206-2, unfortunately not on You Tube) you can hear her in the famous ‘Casta diva’ from Norma. For me this is one of the most beautiful performances of this aria ever. Goosebumps.

Cerquetti sings Norma. Recording from 1956:

 

                                     LEYLA GENCER

gencer

Born in 1928 in a small town close to Istanbul, Gencer, just like Callas, has a cult status, even today, but on a smaller scale. She had a Turkish father and a Polish mother, which made her proficient in that language. There is even a pirate recording of her with songs by Chopin in Polish:

Gencer’s real speciality was belcanto. She sang her first Anna Bolena only a year after Callas:

And unlike Callas, she also included the other Tudor Queen operas by Donizetti in her repertoire: Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda.

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Gencer as all three Tudor Queens

Besides all her Bellini’s, Donizetti’s and Verdi’s, and between Saffo by Paccini and Francesca da Rimini by Zandonai, she also sang some of Mozart’s songs. Fortunately, her Contessa (Le nozze di Figaro) in Glyndebourne was recorded and released on  CD some time ago. For the rest, you have to settle for the pirates.

Her round and clear voice – with the famous pianissimi, which only Montserrat Caballé could match – is so beautiful that it hurts. If you have never heard of her before, listen below to ‘La vergine degli angeli’ from La forza del Destino, recorded in 1957. Bet you’re going to gasp for breath?

                                          VIRGINIA ZEANI

zeani

Have you noticed how many great singers come from Romania? Virginia Zeani is one of them, born in Solovăstru in 1925.

Zeani made her debut when she was 23 as Violetta in Bologna (indented for Margherita Carossio). That role would become her trademark. There is a costly anecdote about her debut in Covent Garden: it was in 1960 and she was a last minute replacement for Joan Sutherland, who became ill. She arrived late in the afternoon and there was hardly time to try on the costume. Before she went on stage, she asked very quickly: ‘Which of the gentlemen is my Alfredo?

zeani-traviata

The soprano sang no less than 69 roles, including many world premieres. In 1957 she created the role of Blanche in Dialogues des carmélites by Poulenc. Her repertoire ranged from Handel (Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare), via Bellini, Donizetti, Massenet and Gounod to Wagner (Elsa and Senta). With of course the necessary Verdis and Puccinis and as one of her greatest star roles Magda in The Consul by Menotti:

I myself am completely obsessed with her Tosca, but also her Violetta should not be missed by anyone. Her coloratures in the first act are more than perfect. And then her ‘morbidezza’… Do it for her!

Below her ‘Vissi d’arte’ (Tosca), recorded in 1975, when she was over fifty:

                                           CATERINA MANCINI

mancini

Never heard of her? Then it’s time to make up for the damage, because I promise you a voice out of thousands, with a beautiful height, pure coloratures (all ‘al punto’) and a drama that could make even La Divina jealous.

Mancini sings “Santo di patria… Da te questo m’è concesso” from Attila by Verdi:

Mancini’s career also lasted only a short time. People talked about health problems, but what really happened? The fact is that the soprano, born in 1924, stopped working as early as 1960. Although her name can still be found in 1963, as contralto (!) at the concert in memory of Kennedy.

Mancini made her debut in 1948, as Giselda in I Lombardi. At the Scala she already sang Lucrezia Borgia in 1951. Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini are not lacking in her repertoire.

The Italian label Cetra has recorded a lot with her; difficult to obtain, but so very worthwhile to look for!

At her best I find her as Lida in La Battaglia di Legnano by Verdi. Below a fragment of it:

                                     MARCELLA POBBE

pobbe

Marcella Pobbe may be a bit of an outsider in this list, as she had fewer belcanto roles in her repertoire (Gluck and Rossini, but no Bellini). But the Verdi and Puccini heroines she more or less had in common with La Divina.

Pobbe sings ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ from Il Trovatore:

She also sang a lot of Mozart and Wagner. But what made her really famous is Adriana Lecouvreur from Cilea

Pobbe was exceptionally beautiful. Elegant, elegant, almost royal. And her voice was exactly the same: her singing flowed like a kind of lava, in which you could lose yourself completely. Nobody then thought it necessary to record her. We already had La Divina, didn’t we?

Pobbe sings ‘Ave Maria’ from Otello by Verdi:

Listen below for example to ‘Io son l’umile ancella’ from Adriana Lecouvreur and think of that golden age, which is irrevocably over.

In Dutch: DE STIEFZUSSEN VAN MARIA CALLAS

see also: OPERA FANATIC: road movie met opera sterren

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator