Donizetti: Anna Bolena

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Donizetti
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Anna Bolena
PERFORMER: Maria Callas, Giulietta Simionato, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Gianni Raimondi, Gabriella CarturanChorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 7 64941 2 ADD mono
EMI has added to the Callas canon by reissuing these three live recordings. From the indifferent sound quality – uneven to abysmally distorted – one supposes that they were intended for private archives rather than public consumption, but they are none the less an invaluable record of how the legendary soprano sounded on stage.

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The earliest, Macbeth, was made at La Scala in 1952. Callas’s Lady Macbeth (a role she was singing for the first time the night it was recorded) is astonishing: full-bodied, possessed and authentically dangerous both in characterisation and the risks she takes with her voice. If Verdi requested the voice of a she-devil for this role, he has close to it here. Unfortunately the rest of the cast fails to live up to her standards: Enzo Mascherini’s Macbeth is serviceable but uninspiring; Italo Tajo’s Banquo and Gino Penno’s Macduff are robust but undistinguished; and the witches are absurdly squeaky. But Victor de Sabata’s deliberate tempi maintain the suspense, and the audience’s voluble enthusiasm is infectious.

Anna Bolena is also a recording of Callas’s first public attempt (in 1957) at the role, again at La Scala. The performance she gives has great feeling, combining dignity, pathos and tragedy, especially in the defiant yet distracted final cabaletta. Of the supporting cast, Giulietta Simionato’s beautifully modulated Giovanna and Gabriella Carturan’s enchanting Smeton stand out. And the orchestra, under Gianandrea Gavazzeni, creates electrifying tension and atmosphere. But what ought to be an outstanding disc is marred by dreadful sound – muddy and interspersed with weird, unidentifiable interruptions.

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Recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1959, Il pirata is another superb vehicle for Callas’s stupendous talents. Though there is evidence of an unevenness and rawness in her voice, this is more than made up for by the exhilarating pyrotechnics she displays, especially in the celebrated Mad Scene. (An even better version recorded with the Concertgebouw serves as a makeweight.) Overall, though, the performance is let down by a dismally unimpressive tenor (Costantino Ego) and baritone (Pier Miranda Ferraro), intrusive coughing and applause from an audience that has no respect for the orchestra. Claire Wrathall