Maria Callas remastered!

CALLAS REMASTERED: The Complete Studio Recordings

 This box of CDs, ready to be wrapped, comes with the promise you’ll hear Maria Callas as never before. Are you ready?

Warner Classics released recently Callas Remastered: The Complete Studio Recordings, a 69-CD deluxe box set containing all the studio recordings of the complete operas and recital albums Maria Callas made for both EMI/Columbia and the Italian label Cetra between 1949 and 1969.

The great Maria Callas recorded and remastered

The great Maria Callas recorded and remastered

 A labor of love, Abbey Road Studios painstakingly remastered each recording, using the original tapes, in 24-bit/96kHz sound using Bowers & Wilkins 802 Diamond speakers. The box set contains the studio recordings of her 26 complete operas and 13 recital albums, but, more than this, it is conceived as a true collector’s edition: Callas Remastered presents each individual opera or recital CD in its original cover artwork (do you remember the graphic of the front portals of La Scala?). Also within are a 136-page hardcover book with essays, a biography and chronology, rarely-seen photos and even reproductions of letters written by Maria Callas, Walter Legge and other EMI executives. The opera librettos and aria texts are provided on a separate CD-ROM.

 It’s difficult to imagine that there might be opera lovers today who don’t know the art and voice of Maria Callas, but then, when one does the math, the distance in time between her last stage performances / recordings and today is about the same as the distance in time between the likes of Enrico Caruso, Antonio Scotti, Geraldine Farrar, and Giuseppe de Luca and my first season at the Met…so did I know their voices? No way; at least I’d heard of Caruso, but I certainly hadn’t heard any of them on recordings nor did I understand their place in history just yet. Suffice it to say that one’s appreciation for opera’s glorious past is very much enhanced by hearing the voices of, and, if they exist, seeing the films of the legendary artists.

 Maria Callas is the stuff of legend. Not without controversy, of course, not without rivals or detractors. Look, I know folks who couldn’t back then and still can’t warm up to her voice, as if for them the door of discovery, their openness to new experiences, is actually pad locked. Their loss: Callas Remastered illustrates in sound what legend means.

OperaMetro recommends the box set Callas Remastered: The Complete Studio Recordings on the grounds that, though I don’t have the box and therefore haven’t heard all of the remastered CDs, not to mention the time, I’ve heard enough of them to judge their overall high quality. I know most of the original recordings in the box from previous releases on CD and, yes, even on vinyl. Her voice from such a black vinyl platter is the soundtrack as I write this.

But on the greater likelihood that you, dear fan, will want to sample the water before taking the plunge, OperaMetro here recommends the ten best complete studio operas with Maria Callas on the basis of the performances. My draw is mostly from the previous round of the then ‘newly remastered’ CD releases by EMI in the late 1990s. Not bad, but not as good as the new ones.

The first five on my list are, personal opinion, not only the very best of Maria Callas in roles that suited her voice and her intelligence perfectly, but they are also among the best recordings of the operas themselves. In each her colleagues were, for the most part, well suited to their roles so that they complement her performance rather than detract. All listed below are monaural unless otherwise noted.

1. Tosca, recorded in August of 1953. Some call this Tosca the greatest recording in the history of opera. Here is Maria Callas with Giuseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi, all in their prime, conducted by Victor de Sabata. Callas especially is at her absolute vocal peak. The role of Tosca was both a perfect vocal and emotional fit for her, giving her ample opportunity to demonstrate her art of communicating the subtle and not so subtle shifts of Tosca’s intentions, reactions, her varying emotions…it’s all there. This ‘53 Tosca is one of those ‘the-stars-are-aligned, everybody’s got his or her game voice on, everything-comes-together, let’s nail it today, kids’ kind of recordings…If you’re a Tosca fan you should not be without it!

Stats: Callas sang Tosca 53 times in her career; it was her last role at the Met in March of 1965 (the one and only time I saw her) and her last on stage, period, at Covent Garden in July of that year.

2. Un Ballo in Maschera, recorded September, 1956, is, for me, one of the best documents of this middle Verdi opera (rivaled by the Ballo by Beniamino Gigli, Maria Caniglia and Gino Bechi from 1943 or by Jussi Bjoerling, Zinka Milanov and Alexander Sved in the live broadcast of the Ballo from the Met on December 14, 1940). Callas is again with di Stefano and Gobbi, but joined here by the great mezzo Fedora Barbieri, conducted by Antonio Votto. Callas’s Amelia is a deeply troubled soul throughout, as well she should be, rising to abandon in the extended duet in Act II with Riccardo, here sung by Giuseppe di Stefano. Gobbi gives many facets to Renato’s character.

As an aside, sources at Warner Classics tell OperaMetro that they are considering the remastering of Callas’s live-on-stage recordings. If it’s really a go and if they’ve acquired the tapes, seek her live performance from La Scala with di Stefano, Ettore Bastianini, and Giulietta Simionato. It’s wonderful too. Stats: Callas sang Amelia 5 times; the live recording captures her first time singing Amelia on stage, December 7, 1957, a year after the studio recording.

3. Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with di Stefano and Rolando Panerai, conducted by Serafin, recorded in August of 1953, and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci with di Stefano, Gobbi and Panerai, conducted by Serafin, recorded in June of 1954, is the next one.

Cav and Pag are two operas, I know this. But then I also count Wagner’s Ring as one big opera.

What strikes one listening to this traditional verismo marriage is that Callas takes characters often dismissed as simplistic and elevates them to a new level: she projects every word she sings as if she feels it and, as important, she, like Tito Gobbi, is able to express it all with a great degree of subtlety, not grand operatic histrionics. She can be innocent and in love as the Nedda with Silvio or the caged lion as the Nedda who confronts the stalking and spiteful Tonio. Her Santuza deeply suffers throughout. Again her cast cooperates: though a lighter voice than I prefer for Canio, Di Stefano will curl your hair with his manic finale to Pagliacci. Gobbi is a menacing, but also, to a degree, a complicated Tonio. Serafin’s conducting always supports his singers and the drama but never draws attention to itself. Callas sang Santuzza on stage only twice, once in 1938 at age 15, and again in 1944; she never sang Nedda in performance.

Take advantage of the CD-ROM: following the text along with her is very revealing. Singers like Callas and Gobbi, some others as well, Gigli, Olivero, Ferrier, Hotter, Fischer-Dieskau, Baker, Christoff, Hampson…stand apart from their contemporaries because of their attention to the meaning of the words they are singing, but, also important, because of their ability to express these meanings. They seemed to know always what their characters are thinking and feeling in context of the music and the drama. They are ‘directed from within,’ not merely told what to do by someone else. Callas maintained that it was ‘all in the music,’ implying that any singer could to it. Whatever…she obviously listened to the music and did it.

And now for the new sound: the Cav and Pag were the first of the newly remastered releases I sampled. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” my father used to say, one of his many wise sayings, which here translates into: you can’t retrieve information that is not on the original source recording. It’s therefore not surprising that there are still sonic limitations within the aural space, even with the remastering, especially, I find, with the space around the chorus. But the remastering brings the soloists and orchestral details more forward, accentuated here to their full advantage, yet, paradoxically softened. The best analog: the remastered CDs restore the warm sound of the voices as could be heard on an exquisite vinyl release (I used EMI LPs imported from Germany in the late 1970s as my comparison), but without the pits, scratches, surface noise, and turntable rumble one’s listening experience inevitably fell prey to with the old Angel LPs in the old days.

4. and 5. The roles of Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (recorded in August of 1954) and Gioconda in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (recorded in stereo in September of 1959) also play to Callas’s considerable vocal and dramatic strengths. However, these two recordings put her in different company: for Forza, Callas sings with Richard Tucker, Carlo Tagliabue, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Renato Cappechi, Tulio Serafin, her wise mentor, conducts; for Gioconda, she sings with Fiorenza Cossotto, Pier Miranda Ferraro, a young Piero Cappuccilli, and Ivo Vinco, Antonio Votto conducts.

Callas makes Verdi’s Leonora come alive, especially in her big moments: her long scene with Rossi-Lemeni is quite moving; Tucker is a passionate Alvaro. I had only the highlights LP of this Forza, though long since deceased. My remastered complete recording on 3 CDs is already a cherished resident on my shelf. Stats: Callas sang Leonora in Forza only 5 times on stage.

Gioconda was one of Callas’s early stage successes, notably at the Arena in Verona, Italy. These eventually led to a complete recording, her first opera on Cetra in 1952 (also included in the Callas Remastered box). But the 1959 stereo recording has a deeper, more thoughtful Gioconda from Callas, plus better sound and a better cast all around. There is no shortage of high voltage singing, particularly most of Act II, especially with Callas and Fiorenza Cossotto. It was one of the first Callas operas I replaced on CD. The Angel LPs had eventually become unlistenable. Stats: Callas sang Gioconda 12 times on stage, mostly early in her career.

6. Rigoletto, recorded in September of 1955, conducted by Serafin, is important as well, but here Callas ventures into a somewhat new territory. Gilda is a different sort of Verdi heroine, from, say Elvira, Lady Macbeth, even Violetta, etc. Callas gives her signature detailed attention to the text and she very much succeeds in lightening her voice, especially for Caro nome. But she’s not really as vulnerable, not as sweet nor as soft as many Gildas can be. However, this is a must-have recording for Tito Gobbi’s Rigoletto: he completely steals the show (my opinion). In addition to all of the complexities, he expresses the fears and uncertainties of all fathers with young daughters in love. Good that he is strong here: after all, Rigoletto is the title character, one of the great roles in the baritone repertory and Rigoletto is one of the great Italian operas, period. Gobbi is remarkable in all respects. Giuseppe di Stefano’s Duke of Mantua is straightforward and pleasing. Again, it’s an ‘all-the-stars-align, everything-comes-together’ kind of recording. Callas sang Gilda only twice on stage, both in Mexico City in 1952 with Di Stefano.

7. Then there is Bellini’s Norma. It was her most frequently performed role at 84 times, here recorded in stereo in September, 1960.

Back story here: Maria Callas is justly credited with sparking the post-war bel canto revival, in part because her art revealed more depth to her characters, in part because by the mid-50s her performances were big ‘events,’ such that Callas could sell out the house with almost anything, even with the then obscure operas such as Anna Bolena or Il Pirata. And also her recordings of Donizetti and Bellini operas were pretty much the only ones on the shelves until Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge began recording these operas in stereo for Decca in the early 1960s. Followed, you’ll recall, by everyone else.

Given her voice and character, the bel canto repertory with Callas was quite different from that with other artists: the great Joan Sutherland may have had an easier upper range and a more controlled, brighter voice than Callas, but one sometimes got the impression that Sutherland, exciting as she was live in the opera house and on recordings, seemed to be singing the same role in the same unintelligible language.

Callas had recorded Norma in the studio to great effect in 1954. The drawback is that her supporting cast is not strong, prompting collectors to seek the several recordings of her live performances that floated around just beneath the surface of the opera world. But because Norma was a favorite and one of the last complete roles remaining in her performance repertory, Callas and EMI chose to re-record it in stereo. At this point in her career vocal problems only hinted at earlier had become more manifest and her stamina was challenged. Still, Callas conveys the nobility and the tragedy of Bellini’s finest creation. With Callas are a young Christa Ludwig as Adalgisa, Franco Corelli as Pollione, and Nicola Zaccaria as Oroveso; Tulio Serafin conducts.

I comparing the newly remastered CDs of this Norma with the previous EMI CD release of the same recording track by track: the new one brings out details and depth, but also a softens the harsher vocal edges often found on the early CDs.

8. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, recorded in February 1953, was groundbreaking: it was her first studio recording with EMI under the wing of legendary producer Walter Legge and also her first international release on a major label. Callas’s Lucia is not always the prettiest, vocally speaking, but unlike many other singers in the role, she is able to elevate her character to a greater level of tragedy by bringing out shades of meaning to each phrase. Her duet with di Stefano (Edgardo) in Act I is particularly touching and the Mad Scene draws you into her troubled space. Unfortunately Gobbi here is miscast (my opinion) as Enrico. He comes off quite harsh and overbearing.

But keep your eyes open for the live performance from Berlin, September 29, 1955, with Callas, di Stefano and Rolando Panerai, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. It gives real meaning to the word ‘event.’ Stats: Callas sang Lucia on stage 43 times; 7 of these were at the Met in ’56 and ’58. Lucia was her only broadcast from the Met, December 8, 1956.

9. Bellini’s La Sonnambula, recorded in the studio in March, 1957, was sandwiched in between several live performances. The role of Amina has Bellini’s notoriously long vocal lines, suffused with a lingering melancholy, but Callas places her voice properly throughout and also colors each word. Her rendering of Ah! Non credea mirarti, one of my favorites, is poignantly introspective. Poor dear. A young Fiorenza Cossotto is her step mother Teresa, Eugenia Ratti is Lisa, Amina’s rival, and Nicola Monti is Elvino.

Stats: Callas sang Amina in Sonnambula 21 times between 1955 and 1957. Her first Amina on stage, at La Scala on March 5, 1955, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, is a live recording well worth finding. Cesare Valetti is Elvino.

10. I know you’ve been here before doing the list thing: the first nine choices out of ten are easy, but the tenth is really difficult because of course there are maybe seven other operas that could be the tenth choice. Thinking out of the box set, let’s say that you can’t go wrong with any of Callas’s studio EMI recordings of the other operas by Bellini, Verdi or Puccini from between 1954 to 1959, including I PuritaniIl TrovatoreAïdaManon LescautLa BohemeMadama Butterfly, and Turandot.

But wait, there’s more: the box offers also all of her studio aria albums, which contain not only arias from the aforementioned complete operas, but also arias from operas she never performed on stage or recorded. Start with her very first two: the collection of the standard Puccini arias and her second, a mix of late 19th century Italian opera arias and bel canto arias, both recorded in London in span of six days in mid September, 1954. These are the very best. The latter contains La Mamma morta from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, the stirring aria used in the film Philadelphia with Tom Hanks; Ebben? N’andrò lontano from Catalani’s La Wally is haunting, as much because of Serfin’s conducting as because of Callas’s interpretation. And that one, lost on vinyl for some many years, reached out and touched me as no other has. So much to experience, so little time.

Callas Remastered: The Complete Studio Recordings can be purchased online; it is also available at the Met Shop in the Metropolitan Opera House; I haven’t had time to check my other brick-and-mortar sources for classical recordings. Both the box set and the individual operas and aria albums released separately will be available at mid-price. The Met Shop has several of the operas in stock. There is also a single vinyl release of highlights. This will bring it all back!

 She’s the real deal. Trust me.

Happy holidays to you and your family!