Sunday 29 January 2012

CD Review - Callas in La Traviata in London

There are few sopranos who can manage all three acts of Verdi's La Traviata with equal facility. Coloratura sopranos, for whom Act 1 comes easiest, can seem underpowered in the later acts; but sopranos for whom these acts are most suited, can often finish Act 1 with a feeling of  'thank God that's over'. Perhaps indeed Verdi intended some element of desperation here.

Maria Callas's famed success in the role stemmed for the way she applied her intelligence to every aspect of it. But the manner in which she could alter the scale of her voice is an important factor. In Act 1 she fines the tone down to provide pinpoint accuracy. I remember an old voice teacher of mine saying that the word coloratura comes from the Italian for coloured. It is this colouring which is important; not just technical facility but rising beyond it make individual notes work dramatically. And this is what Callas gives us. But the more dramatic set pieces are equally magnificent and profoundly moving.

Of course, all is not perfect. When she puts the voice under pressure in the upper register her vibrato develops into a wobble so pronounced it sounds like a slow trill. And of course, there is her (in)famous tone quality, which can sound as if she is singing with a plum stone in her mouth.

But then, you listen to the way she rises to the big dramatic moments in Act 2, or again the magical way she thins her voice to whiteness at the opening of Act 3, to create a Violetta who us truly at death's door. Peter Heyworth, quoted in John Steane's Singers of the Century 2 (Duckworth: 1999), said of this performance that, 'perhaps the most marvellous moment of the evening, the sustained note before "Dite alla giovine". By some miracle Callas makes that note hang suspended in mid-air; unadorned and unsupported she fills it with all the conflicting emotions that besiege her. As she descends to the solo, which opened with a sweet, distant mezzo voce of extraordinary poignancy, the die is cast.'

Her Alfredo is Cesare Valletti, a lyric tenor who was a pupil of Tito Schipa. He had appeared with Callas as early as 1950. He has a good open tone and a nice degree of elegance in the lighter moment. Though I found him perhaps a little heavy handed in the more dramatic situations, with the inevitable tendency to grandstand. But he provides Callas with a strong partner.

Mario Zanasi, who sang the role with Callas at the Met in February 1958, is an elegant Giorgio Germont. He was a lovely baritone voice which is slightly lighter than some singers in the role. It is a beautifully sung elegant performance, which might lack that last element of dramatic fire that a singer like Gobbi would have brought. But the advantage is that he really sings the role and doesn't bark.

The remaining cast are all anglophone, with Marie Collier strong casting as Flora, Lea Roberts as Anina, Dermot Troy as Gastone, Forbes Robinson as Barone Douphole, Ronald Lewis as the Marchese and David Kelly as the Doctor.

It has to be said that there are ensemble problems between pit and stage; some of the big ensembles are not the Covent Garden chorus's finest moments.

Conductor Nicola Rescigno provides fine support for the singers, giving a naturally paced performance which breathes.

The recording itself does have drawbacks. For much of the time it is remarkable for its clarity, but there is some distortion in the ensembles and at other times. It seems to be a private recording, not a BBC broadcast. The CD booklet by David Patmore suggests that it may have been made in one of the boxes adjacent to the proscenium

The CD booklet includes a detailed track listing and an article by David Patmore.

The recording has been available before but this is its first major release and it has been re-mastered by Paul Baily. Anyone interested in Callas's Violetta should listen to this set as it stand's up well against the others available, the live recordings from Lisbon and from La Scala. Callas always had the potential to be better recorded live and there is a lot to be said for the argument that this recording is aurally one of the most satisfactory and certainly deserves to be heard.

Verdi - La Traviata
Violetta - Maria Callas
Flora Bervoix - Marie Collier
Annina - Lea Roberts
Alfredo Germont - Cesare Valleti
Giorio Germont - Mario Zanasi
Gastone - Dermot Troy
Barone Douphol - Forbes Robinson
Marchese - Ronald Lewis
Doctor - David Kelly
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden
Nicola Rescigno (conductor)

Recorded live at Covent Garden 20 June 1958
ICA Classics ICAC 5006

1 comment:

  1. This has long been my absolute favourite Traviata, for all that Callas is not in such good voice as she was at La Scala under Giulini just three years earlier. The performance has a veracity you won't hear anywhere else. Indeed it is hard to believe that we are in the opera house as it takes us beyond that and confronts real life.
    I would just like to mention, though, that this ICA Classics release is something of a travesty, even somehow erasing the few notes Callas quietly sings as a wamr up during the Act I Prelude (picked up by the microphones but probably unheard by the audience). Ars Vocalis have got hold of the original BBC radio broadcast tapes, complete with commentary and announcements by Walter Greenslade and the result is a marked improvement. I have no idea why this important BBC document has nver received an official release.


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