courtesy of Warner Classics
In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the death of soprano Maria Callas on September 16, 1977, Warner Classics released Maria Callas Live: Remastered Live Recordings 1949–1964. Thus turned out to be what the late General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. would have called the “mother of all historical recording collections,” a box set of 42 CDs encompassing twenty complete opera recordings along with three Blu-ray discs providing video documents of five performances. As readers might guess, it took me quite some time to work through the entirety of this package; and, in the interest of full disclaimer, I must begin by observing that I am not now nor have even been one of those rabid enthusiastic fans of all things Callas. Nevertheless, this is a project that clearly cannot be overlooked; and, as always, it will be up to the individual listener to decide just how rewarding the results are.
My guess is that the first thing likely to be on the mind any reader with even casual knowledge of Callas will be whether or not the collection includes the famous (notorious?) “Lisbon Traviata.” For those unacquainted with the story behind that unauthorized recording or the play by Terrence McNally (called “The Lisbon Traviata”), it concerns Callas singing the role of Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata in a performance at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos is Lisbon (capital of Portugal) on March 27, 1958. So, for the benefit of those holding their breaths, this recording is decidedly part of the collection.
Because the recording was unauthorized, only two thousand albums of long-playing vinyls were pressed, which is why it became as much a cult object as a collector’s item. My guess is that there were even collectors for whom possession was enough. Like many collectors of early jazz, the fact that playing the record would subject it to wear and tear meant that holding the object was more important than listening to it.
Fortunately, that cult status went out the window with the arrival of CD technology. It did not take long for the recording to receive mass production, and it became just another opera recording. So how does the recording hold up to attentive listening? For that matter, how to any of the recordings in this anniversary collection (most, if not all, of which are similarly unauthorized) hold up for those more interested in the music than the legendary Callas personality?
This is where I must disclose my personal skepticism. Across all twenty of those full-length recordings of “live” opera performances, Callas is consistent only when it comes to uneven execution. Whenever there is some baseline reference for pitch, her intonation seldom homes in on it. Furthermore, that inconsistent sense of pitch is magnified by dynamic levels that swing into fortissimo far more often than they register expressively in piano or softer. To be fair, both of these problems may be attributed to inattentive conducting or adverse acoustic conditions in the space being recorded, which would explain why those recordings were never officially sanctioned for production.
Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that nineteenth-century Italian opera is far from my favorite genre, I have to say that it was only through that Lisbon recording that I began to cultivate a serious appreciation of the tenor voice of Alfredo Kraus. Mind you, I have always had serious concerns about how the role of Alfredo Germont is performed after having listened to Niccolai Gedda make an absolute hash of it at the Metropolitan Opera in the late Eighties. To be fair, Gedda had passed his 60th birthday by the time of that performance; but, for better or worse, he managed to keep himself into the game up through his late 70s.
Kraus was not the only “second banana” in this set that drew my enthusiastic attention. Baritone Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia at the Royal Opera House in London in early 1964 provided the key to elevating Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca above the level of cheap melodrama. This makes the two CDs of the performance on January 24, 1964 more than worth the price of admission, as does the black-and-white video of the second act made shortly thereafter on February 9. Of course much of the impact of the video came from Franco Zeffirelli’s direction of the production. However, this just showed that Gobbi was as good at giving Zeffirelli what he wanted as he was in serving up a compelling account of Puccini’s music.
That leaves the one unexpected surprise the occurred while working my way through this collection. That was the September 29, 1955 performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor made at what was then called the Städtische Oper in Berlin with Herbert von Karajan conducting. It was through this recording that I finally developed some respect for Donizetti’s skills through the sextet sung in the second act. Karajan had a solid command in coordinating the conflicted roles of Edgardo (Giuseppe Di Stefano), Enrico (Rolando Panerai), Lucia (Callas), Raimondo (Nicola Zaccaria), Arturo (Giuseppe Zampieri), and Alisa (Luisa Villa). If no one else could coax Callas into being a good team player, Karajan should be credited as the conductor who succeeded where others never really managed.