ALBUM TITLE: A film by Tony Palmer
WORKS: The Callas Conversations, Vol. 2 (1969); plus Bellini: Norma – ‘Infranta, sí, se alcun di voi snudarla
PERFORMER: Maria Callas with Pierre Desgraupes & Bernard Gavoty; Paris Opéra/Georges Prêtre
CATALOGUE NO: DVB 38845799 (NTSC system; LPCM mono 2.0; 4:3 picture ratio)
The fascination with Maria Callas clearly continues as we mark the 30th anniversary of her death. Tony Palmer’s documentary, originally released in 1987, was made with admiration but also, more importantly, with knowledge and insight.
The interview subjects were well chosen and they remain informative about a complex artist and an equally complex woman. Among them are colleagues such as Tito Gobbi, Franco Zeffirelli, Carlo Maria Giulini and Giuseppe di Stefano, as well as administrators such as Lord Harewood and Sir John Tooley.
Their commentaries offer important clues to help us build up a picture of a singer who passed, justly, into legend during her own lifetime. They are observant about her artistry and her fallibility as a human being. The price she paid for her art was clearly tremendous, and once she had let herself off her self-imposed leash a part of her was gone for ever.
The comments of John Ardoin, a great expert on her recordings, are particularly perceptive. ‘Gradually’, he says of her vocal decline in the Onassis years, ‘this wonderful machinery she had built up to produce what she did was coming apart.’ Oh, the pity of it. Palmer’s film represents a wonderful overview of its subject and many well-lit close-ups. It’s not to be missed.
More for dedicated Callas fans is the EMI issue of two live interviews conducted with Callas in French (English subtitles included), one of them substantial. The format of the programme with Pierre Desgraupes televised in 1969 is unusual.
Other guests take part in the conversation, notably Luchino Visconti, one of her leading stage directors, and the conductor Francesco Siciliani.
There’s a certain amount of flim-flam, as there is too in a shorter interview with Bernard Gavoty, conducted five years earlier, before Callas had metamorphosed into the iconic grand dame of the last years. But both questioners probe beneath the surface, sometimes uncomfortably so.
Her insecurities are painfully visible. But they were part of her make-up and her story, and in the case of an artist of her stature fully deserving of our attention. Both DVDs includes live performances or rehearsal sequences as part of the package.