- 07 Gen 2012
The first “Norma” performed by Maria Callas was in 1948, Florence, “Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Callas was the most prolific Norma of the postwar period, with 89 stage performances (several of which exist on recording), along with two studio recordings (made in 1954 and 1960).
In 1952, Maria Callas made her London debut at the Royal Opera House in “Norma” with veteran mezzo soprano Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa, a performance which survives on record and also features the young Joan Sutherland in the small role of Clotilde. “Norma” was the speciality act of Maria Callas until 1964.
The great turning point in Callas’s career occurred in Venice in 1949. She was engaged to sing the role of Brünnhilde in “Die Walküre” at the Teatro la Fenice, when Margherita Carosio, who was engaged to sing Elvira in “I puritani” in the same theatre, fell ill. Unable to find a replacement for Carosio, Maestro Serafin told Callas that she would be singing Elvira in six days; when Callas protested that she not only did not know the role, but also had three more Brünnhildes to sing, he told her “I guarantee that you can.” In Michael Scott’s words, “the notion of any one singer embracing music as divergent in its vocal demands as Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Bellini’s Elvira in the same career would have been cause enough for surprise; but to attempt to essay them both in the same season seemed like folie de grandeur”. Before the performance actually took place, one incredulous critic would snort, “We hear that Serafin has agreed to conduct I puritani with a dramatic soprano… When can we expect a new edition of “La traviata” with baritone Gino Bechi’s Violetta?” After the performance, critics would write, “Even the most sceptical had to acknowledge the miracle that Maria Callas accomplished… the flexibility of her limpid, beautifully poised voice, and her splendid high notes. Her interpretation also has a humanity, warmth and expressiveness that one would search for in vain in the fragile, pellucid coldness of other Elviras.” Franco Zeffirelli recalled, “What she did in Venice was really incredible. You need to be familiar with opera to realize the enormity of her achievement. It was as if someone asked Birgit Nilsson, who is famous for her great Wagnerian voice, to substitute overnight for Beverly Sills, who is one of the great coloratura sopranos of our time.”
Scott asserts that “Of all the many roles Callas undertook, it is doubtful if any had a more far-reaching effect.” This initial foray into the bel canto repertoire changed the course of Callas’s career and set her on a path leading to “Lucia di Lammermoor”, “La traviata”, “Armida”, “La sonnambula”, “Il pirata”, “Il turco in Italia”, “Medea” and “Anna Bolena”, and reawakened interest in the long-neglected operas of Cherubini, Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. In the words of soprano Montserrat Caballé, “She opened a new door for us, for all the singers in the world, a door that had been closed. Behind it was sleeping not only great music but great idea of interpretation. She has given us the chance, those who follow her, to do things that were hardly possible before her. That I am compared with Callas is something I never dared to dream. It is not right. I am much smaller than Callas.”
As with “I puritani”, Callas also learned and performed Cherubini’s “Medea”, Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier” and Rossini’s “Armida” on a few days’ notice. Throughout her career, Callas displayed her vocal versatility in recitals that pitched dramatic soprano arias alongside coloratura pieces, including in a 1952 RAI recital in which she opened with Lady Macbeth’s “letter scene”, followed by the “Mad Scene” from “Lucia di Lammermoor”, then Abigaile’s treacherous recitative and aria from “Nabucco”, finishing with the “Bell Song” from “Lakmé” capped by a ringing high E in alt (E6).
Although by 1951 Callas had sung at all the major theatres in Italy, she had not yet made her official debut at Italy’s most prestigious opera house, Teatro alla Scala in Milan. According to composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, Callas had substituted for Renata Tebaldi in the role of “Aida” in 1950, and La Scala’s general manager, Antonio Ghiringhelli, had taken an immediate dislike to Callas. Menotti recalls that Ghiringhelli had promised him any singer he wanted for the premiere of The Consul, but when he suggested Callas, Ghiringhelli said that he would never have Callas at La Scala except as a guest artist. However, as Callas’s fame grew, and especially after her great success in “I vespri siciliani” in Florence, Ghiringhelli had to relent: Callas made her official debut at La Scala in Verdi’s “I vespri siciliani” on opening night in December 1951, and this theatre became her artistic home throughout the 1950s. La Scala mounted many new productions specially for Callas by directors such as Herbert von Karajan, Margherita Wallmann, Franco Zeffirelli and, most importantly, Luchino Visconti. Visconti stated later that he began directing opera only because of Callas, and he directed her in lavish new productions of “La vestale”, “La traviata”, “La sonnambula”, “Anna Bolena” and “Iphigénie en Tauride”. Callas was notably instrumental in arranging Franco Corelli’s debut at La Scala in 1954, where he sang Licinio in Spontini’s “La vestale” opposite Callas’s Julia. The two had sung together for the first time the year previously in Rome in a production of Norma. Anthony Tommasini wrote that Corelli had “earned great respect from the fearsomely demanding Callas, who, in Mr. Corelli, finally had someone with whom she could act.” The two collaborated several more times at La Scala, singing opposite each other in productions of “Fedora” (1956), “Il pirata” (1958) and “Poliuto” (1960). Their partnership continued throughout the rest of Callas’s career.