Maria Callas on Emi

WORKS: Norma; I puritani; La sonnambula; Carmen; Lucia di Lammermoor; Pagliacci; Cavalleria rusticana; La Gioconda; La bohème; Madama Butterfly; Manon Lescaut; Tosca; Turandot; Il barbiere di Siviglia; Il turco in Italia; Aida; Un ballo in maschera; La forza del
PERFORMER: with various singers, orchestras & conductors
CATALOGUE NO: (all operas only available separately Ð for catalogue numbers of recommendations see text below)


EMI is marking the twentieth anniversary of Maria Callas’s death with the reissue of twenty complete opera recordings, the majority in mono but remastered mostly to clean and spacious effect, and repackaged with well-illustrated booklets. (The picture researcher deserves a special mention; the production stills showing Callas’s transformation from hefty frump to svelte beauty are fascinating.)

So much has been written about these performances it seems superfluous to add anything more than that many remain unsurpassed: her 1953 Tosca with de Sabata (CDS 5 56304 2) is utterly involving and shockingly dramatic; her Rigoletto with Serafin is absolutely compelling (CDS 5 56327 2); La Gioconda (CDS 5 56291 2) is arguably her best and most electrifying performance on disc (Act IV is unforgettable); and though her Carmen (CDS 5 56281 2) may be let down by rather stolid orchestral playing and a lacklustre chorus, Callas is in many ways the definitive gypsy heroine: fiery, smouldering, manipulative and thrilling.

Whatever the opera, and whoever else is singing – Gobbi, Gedda (her Pinkerton and Don José), Schwarzkopf (in Turandot, CDS 5 56307 2), but usually di Stefano – Callas has a way of dominating a performance. She was a peerlessly theatrical performer, but her geniuslies in the way that despite the vocal pyrotechnics, her style was rarely histrionic; there is never a sense thatshe is singing solely for effect.

For allits power, there is something oddly vulnerable about her voice, an attribute enhanced if anything by the occasional rawness, wobbling or missed note. She was at her absolute best in death scenes (see below). Her tone may seem too robust and her manner too formidable to make her an obvious Mimì, but her Bohème (CDS 5 56295 2) is beautifully judged and utterly convincing (those coughs, those sobs), its final scene as distressing as anything on record.

She was also an unlikely teenage geisha, but her Madama Butterfly (CDS 5 56298 2) ends with a suicide of devastating intensity. And try listening to the final scene of Manon Lescaut (CDS 5 56301 2), ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’, without shuddering.

But Callas was not exclusively a tragedienne, as her sparkling Rossini recordings of Il turco in Italia (CDS 5 56313 2) and Il barbiere di Siviglia (CDS 5 56310 2) make plain. She uses the dazzling fioriture of ‘Una voce poco fa’ in a way that is flirtatious, funny and charming, and her timing is brilliant.

EMI has made some unexpected decisions in what it’s opted to reissue; Franco Ghione’s Traviata, in a live recording from Lisbon that is hampered by terrible sound, rather than Giulini’s (available at mid-price on CMS 7 63628 2); the 1954 Norma with Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa, rather than the 1960 with Christa Ludwig (CMS 7 63000 2); Lucia di Lammermoor with Tagliavini in 1960, not the 1953 set with di Stefano, when Callas was fresher voiced (CMS 7 69980 2), or Karajan’s in 1955 (CMS 7 63631 2).


But whatever the omissions, every one of these discs is worth hearing, each evidence of her enduring status as one of the greatest artistes of all time. Claire Wrathall