Maria Callas – The Complete Puccini Studio Recordings

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Puccini
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Tosca, Arias, Madama Butterfly, La bohème, Turandot, Manon Lescaut, Tosca
PERFORMER: Sabata, Serafin, Karajan, Votto, Cillario, Prêtre
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 215 8942

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In addition to the other EMI Puccini sets released this month, this collection is devoted to Maria Callas’s studio Puccini – plus, oddly, a live Tosca. Callas revealed just what depths of character a great singing actress could find in Puccini’s heroines – even the towering Turandot, which she sang on stage early in her topsy-turvy career.

To those of us who never saw her live, her unsteadiness and pitch problems are more evident, but the passion and intelligent detail in Butterfly’s blinkered innocence or Tosca’s tormented instability are all the more riveting, both in her classic Serafin solo recital and in these mostly 1950s Italian recordings. Local casts, unfortunately, are frequently raw Chianti rather than rich Barolo – particularly the oafish Calaf to her icily charismatic Turandot.

Not so Butterfly, with Gedda’s seductive Pinkerton and Karajan’s keen conducting, but Bohème is a lot less riveting under Antonino Votto, with di Stefano a soaring but shallow Rodolfo and Moffo’s broadly drawn Musetta. Callas’s Manon Lescaut is more convincing as doomed demi-mondaine than excited schoolgirl, with fine support from di Stefano and Serafin. Prêtre’s Tosca reappears, but vastly outclassed by de Sabata’s searing 1953 mono version, also with Gobbi but di Stefano a richer Cavaradossi.

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Carlo Felice Cillario’s 1964 Covent Garden version betrays Callas’s fading voice; the televised Act II, on DVD, preserves her performance better. As a whole, this set’s priority is Callas rather than Puccini, so it’s more for aficionados. Michael Scott Rohan