- 24 Feb 2020
Callas is Medea. Of course, she was Tosca and a host of other operatic characters as well, thanks to her uncanny ability to adapt her voice and style to the requirements of a role, but Medea is high among her most complete characterizations. It also was a role she sang often–too often for the health of her voice, especially since she threw herself into it with an abandon that, however overwhelming on stage, had to take its toll. So the question isn’t whether you need a Callas Medea, but rather which one of the five that have been released on a variety of labels.
There are two from 1953–a Florence production led by Vittorio Gui whose “classical” approach dampens the drama, and this one from La Scala that’s the aural equivalent of molten lava. The others are a 1957 studio version led by Serafin, which is enervated by comparison and has a vocally insecure Callas, a 1958 Dallas production, and a 1959 Covent Garden version of the Dallas staging with some of the same principals but without the original’s thrust and power. Of these five, two stand out. The 1958 Dallas is my first choice. Well-conducted by Nicola Rescigno, it boasts a fine Neris in Teresa Berganza, the excellent Creonte of Nicola Zacccaria, and the best Jason of them all, Jon Vickers. Callas’ Dallas interpretation also strikes me as more rounded and complete; this Medea seems more human, less a single-minded hammer of vengeance than in 1953.
But until a first-rate transfer of the Dallas performance surfaces (those I’ve heard have wretched sound) the best bet for the general collector is this 1953 La Scala production in which Callas herself is even more overwhelming. EMI has improved the sound, and while it still sports patches of distortion and an enthusiastic prompter, it’s quite listenable. Anyway, once the music starts, sound quality becomes irrelevant. It’s that good. Leonard Bernstein, in his La Scala debut, was a last-minute replacement for Victor de Sabata, and he puts his personal stamp on the performance, investing the score with an energy that perfectly matches Callas’ and leading a big, Romantic conception that ideally fits the narrative of the spurned woman who kills her children in revenge.
Callas’ voice drips hatred and vengeance. Even when she’s begging the King not to banish her, pleading with Jason for one last day with her children, the bite in her voice tells you she’s play-acting at being submissive. In Dallas, those plaintive moments sound sincere; she’s more the wronged woman conflicted between accepting her situation and inflicting terrible revenge on her lover. Here in Milan, she’s unwavering in her quest for retribution.
If tenor Gino Penno is no Vickers, he’s still a decent Jason. The voice isn’t the most compelling instrument, lacking color and variety, but he makes for a believable character and Callas plays off him well. Giuseppe Modesti is a lighter-voiced Creonte than Dallas’ Zaccaria, and Fedora Barbieri brings a still-fine mezzo and plenty of veteran savvy to the role of Neris. The ill-fated Glauce, Creonte’s daughter and Jason’s ill-fated bride-to-be, is Maria Luisa Nache, who doesn’t make much of an impression. But Callas and Bernstein carry the show, and it’s a great one.
Dan Davis – Classics Today