Reviewing anything by Maria Callas — let alone a 69-CD set of her complete studio recordings, comprising 26 complete operas and 13 recitals — is a daunting prospect. It’s a little like reviewing a hallowed institution — democracy, maybe. (She was Greek-American, after all.)
The enormity of Callas’ reputation aside, a key challenge lies in finding an apt description for her voice. It is instantly recognisable, of course, but not – to coin a couple of soprano-friendly adjectives – because it is radiant or creamy. Even her most ardent fans (and, nearly 50 years since her last operatic performance, they are legion) will accept that it is not a beautiful voice; or, at least, not beautiful in the conventional sense. That being said, one commentator memorably asserted that Callas’ voice was, in fact, always beautiful because it always expressed the truth.
Callas can produce phrases of soaring grandeur, luminous delicacy and pearly grace
Yes, Callas’ timbre can be metallic, even wiry; her lower registers can ring hollow and her top notes can be strident and perilous, but she can also produce phrases of soaring grandeur, luminous delicacy and pearly grace; just listen to her descending chromatic scale in the cadenza of ‘Casta diva’, which even Joan Sutherland could never quite rival. Such moments remind us that bel canto, a genre that Callas helped to revive and take to new expressive heights, literally means ‘beautiful singing’.
More than that, the voice immediately asserts its striking identity – and never fails to conjure up a visual image of the soprano: a doe-eyed Greek kore whose face was a masterpiece of 20th-century stage design. Yet at the same time its essence is difficult to capture in words, since it can take so many forms. In the course of even a single phrase it can morph and mutate, shifting colour, texture and centre of gravity as it melds with the contours of the notes, text and drama.
All this makes Callas’ art easier to evoke than to describe. Opera nerds will happily dissect each of her recorded interpretations in microscopic detail, but even on a macro level her vocal achievement is baffling in its variety.
As a prima donna assoluta, she commanded repertoire normally allotted to different breeds of soprano – coloratura, lyric, spinto, dramatic (amazingly enough, Isolde’s Liebestod was recorded at the same sessions as Elvira’s filigree mad scene from I puritani, and both heroines were in her stage repertoire at the time) – and even to mezzo sopranos. To draw analogies with contemporary stars, Maria Callas could start off as Natalie Dessay and end up as Elina Garanča by way of Diana Damrau, Anna Netrebko, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Sondra Radvanovsky and Nina Stemme. In the French repertoire alone, though she never sang a role in French on stage, her recorded interpretations encompass the tintinnabulation of Lakmé, the ecstatic floating phrases of Louise, and the sultry colourings of Carmen and Dalila.
The multiple truths of Callas are what Warner Classics engineers have sought to reveal as never before with the monumental Maria Callas Remastered. Warner’s acquisition of EMI Classics in 2013 means that all Maria Callas’ studio recordings, made over the 20 years to 1969, can be united. The celebrated EMI canon is now complemented with the debut recital and two complete operas produced by the Italian label Cetra between 1949 and 1953, when the soprano’s voice was at its most robust and full-bodied.
Callas never quite forgave EMI’s legendary producer Walter Legge for casting another soprano in La traviata
Among the Cetra treasures is her sole studio version of La traviata; it was one of the essential Callas pieces, but it is not one of the operas (La Gioconda, Norma, Lucia di Lammermoor and Tosca) that appear twice in the collection. In the event, she never recorded it for EMI, her Violetta falling victim to a lengthy succession of vicissitudes. In particular, Callas never quite forgave EMI’s legendary producer Walter Legge for casting another soprano (Antonietta Stella) in Verdi’s bestseller in 1955 because she was still restricted by her Cetra contract.
By the early 1960s, the relationship between Callas and Legge was in crisis. Reproduced in the hardback book that accompanies Maria Callas Remastered is a revealing 1963 letter she wrote to EMI supremo David Bicknell. Couched in idiosyncratic, but eloquent English, it is a masterclass in emotional blackmail. A particular sore point is Legge’s decision to cast his wife (and Callas’ ‘very dear friend’), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, in the Verdi Requiem – a work that Callas had assumed was her territory.
Original and best
The wishes of both Legge and Callas herself formed a point of focus for a dedicated team of engineers at London’s Abbey Road Studios, led by Allan Ramsay, who spent many months on the remastering for this edition. On what they describe as a forensic rather than artistic or interpretative mission, they went back to the precious original tapes and also studied the original job file for each recording, the documentation of the opinions and decisions of the producer, engineers and key artists.
Today’s engineers can give free rein to the sounds captured on the original tapes
This is not the first time Callas’s recordings have been remastered, but this new edition benefits from high-definition sound technology that can operate at 96 kHz (sonic range) and 24 bits (resolution), and which produces an astonishingly realistic aural image; and whereas Legge and his team had to make allowances and adjustments for reproduction on LP, today’s engineers can give free rein to the sounds captured on the original tapes. They have made an exception for extraneous noises – such as Vespas passing in the street – and microphone distortion, caused, in certain instances, by the sheer power of Callas’ voice; these blips have been spirited away through judicious application of RetouchTM software – the audio equivalent of Photoshop. Equally, the team at Abbey Road has removed accretions such as the stereo-style reverberation that a previous generation of sound engineers saw fit to apply to the mono, Cetra version of La Gioconda. After all, the opera takes place on the Venetian lagoon, not in someone’s bathroom.
All this scrupulous technical work at Abbey Road puts us in the presence of Callas’s voice with sometimes astonishing immediacy. In fact, it brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘authentic performance’.
This 25-year-old was already a sensitive and thoroughly distinctive artist
It is both illuminating and telling to compare the three versions of ‘Casta diva’ included in the box. Norma, often judged the ultimate soprano challenge, was Callas’ most frequent stage role and she still sets the benchmark for her successors. The recordings of the Druidess’s entrance aria were made in 1949 (for her debut recital, the year after she first sang the role), and in the context of the complete opera in 1954 and in 1960, when she was still only 37. The 1949 version, made for 78s, retains some atmospheric hissing and crackling, but there is no doubting the youthful vigour and assurance of the soprano’s performance – nor that this 25-year-old was already a sensitive and thoroughly distinctive artist. (By contrast, her very first recordings for EMI, two renditions of Donna Anna’s ‘Non mi dir’ from 1953, are uncharacteristically cautious and pallid, but they were never intended for release, being microphone tests for a complete Lucia di Lammermoor.)
By 1954, placed very close to the microphone – almost like a pop singer – Callas sounds more inward and tender, but also very much on her dignity, a priestess who is acutely conscious of her duties. In 1960, at a more fluid tempo and with more space around the voice, Callas, while still hieratically grand, is also more vulnerable and womanly. Her voice has lost its brazen sonority, becoming softer-grained and a little husky round the edges. In just 11 years, this Norma has acquired a lifetime’s experience.
By 1960, Callas’s career had entered some kind of decline, though her celebrity remained phenomenal. In 1959, her affair with Aristotle Onassis had led to her separation from her 63-year-old husband and a radical shift in her priorities.
Recorded in 1958, perhaps the last year of her absolute prime, was the recital known as ‘Mad Scenes’ which includes substantial excerpts from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Bellini’s Il pirata, both huge successes for her at La Scala in 1957-58, but which she never recorded complete. For anyone not completely convinced by Callas, who maybe (despite her inimitably vivid Tosca and profoundly suffering Leonoras) still craves the sensual delight of Leontyne Price or Montsterrat Caballé in Puccini and Verdi, this is a recital to hear.
No other soprano can quite match Callas’ amalgam of vocal substance and personality
Callas owned this repertoire at the time she recorded it – it was certainly outside the sphere of her supposed rival, Renata Tebaldi – and to some degree she owns it still. Though it has since been tackled by a select group of major sopranos, none of them can quite match Callas’ amalgam of vocal substance and personality, virtuosity, scrupulous musicianship (she can really drive the rhythm in a galloping cabaletta), verbal acuity and histrionic thrust. And to top this, the scene from Il pirata evokes an oft-repeated anecdote that affirms her status as the diva among divas.
When she performed the opera at La Scala, she was under attack for her cancellation of a performance in Rome before the President of Italy, and tensions were running high between her and the Milanese theatre’s general manager, Antonio Ghiringhelli. Il pirata’s heroine, Imogene, declaims the words ‘il palco funesto’ – the fateful scaffold. It so happens that the word ‘palco’ is also the word for a box in a theatre. Ever the stage animal, at the opportune moment the fiery soprano gestured pointedly towards Ghiringelli’s box. She ended the performance in triumph. As we listen to Callas’ remastered rendition of the scene, 56 years simply fall away. Even in the absence of crimson velvet and gilded mouldings, it is all too easy to imagine just how Signor Ghiringhelli must have felt.