- 17 Dic 2018
Maria Callas as Armida
Dr. Robert Seletsky, a distinguished musical scholar, questions the attribution to Maria Callas of a “revival of forgotten repertoire and the performance traditions that accompanied it.”
He notes that many of the works cited to bolster this assertion (including Il Turco in Italia, Il pirata, and Anna Bolena) had been produced in the twentieth century before Callas took them up. He also takes issue with Callas’s “inauthentic” (modernist) approach to early Ottocento opera, entailing cuts, minimal ornamentation, and the interpolation of harmonically disfiguring tonic and dominant high notes.
In Seletsky’s view, Rossini’s Armida, which Callas sang under Tullio Serafin at the 1952 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, can be deemed “the only true Callas ‘revival.’” In 1952 – “Armida” full version – Callas sings with staggering verve and audacity, and many critics believe that the recording documents one of the greatest nights in her career.
Callas returned to “D’amore al dolce impero” in a 1954 RAI concert and reportedly attempted a studio recording of it in 1960, though to the best of my knowledge no trace of it survives. In recent years, the aria has been taken up byRenée Fleming, Joyce di Donato (on disc only, for now), and others.
Callas and Fiorilla
During her opening aria, Fiorilla extols the virtues of promiscuity to a group of her friends. Not only does the flirtatious girl have an old husband, she also has a young lover and is soon to pursue the wealthy Turk. No one in Milan needed to be reminded that Callas herself had an old husband and while her fidelity was not in question at the time, she shared other qualities with the volatile Fiorilla. It made for all the more fun.
John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald, Callas
Callas and Fiorilla II
1950 was an epic year in Maria Callas’s career. According toFrank Hamilton’s invaluable chronologies, at one point, in the space of six days (between February 23 and 28), she sang two performances each of Norma and Tristan und Isolde. She was twenty-six years old.
In October, shortly after singing Tosca two evenings in a row and a month before she undertook Kundry in Parsifal, Callas sang the florid comic rôle of Fiorilla in Rossini’sIl Turco in Italia in Rome, an excerpt from which appears above. In 1949, of course, she had won fame for singing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Elvira in I puritani in quick succession.
In her ghostwritten 1957 memoirs, Callas recalled the 1950Turco performances:
While I was preparing myself under the direction of Maestro [Gianandrea] Gavazzeni in Rome to interpret this difficult opera, I had the opportunity to know better Luchino Visconti, who had previously complimented me. I remember my surprise at seeing a man of his distinction sit in attentively at almost all of the rehearsals, which lasted a minimum of three or four hours—and we rehearsed twice a day.
We will never know for sure whether the exploits of Callas’s early years in Italy hastened her vocal decline, but one thing is certain: Her unrelenting activities in 1950 (including a strenuous Mexican season) took their toll on her health. She was forced to withdraw from several high-profile engagements at the end of the year because of an attack of jaundice.
Callas and Fiorilla III
Michael Scott, the founder of the London Opera Society, has an acid tongue and, it seems, the constancy of a streetwalker.
In his liner note for the Naxos reissue of Rossini’s Il turco in Italia, Mr. Scott uses Maria Callas as a stick with which to beat Cecilia Bartoli. He cites the monumentally important Rossini scholarship undertaken by Philip Gossett and others, then remarks:
A recent recording, taking advantage of this scholarship,… suffers from a Fiorilla whose florid singing is full of aspirates [audible exhalations of breath]; so obviously is her voice caught in her throat, the analogy she conjures up is that of a turkey gobbling.
Now that he is in Naxos’s employ, Mr. Scott seems to have discovered heretofore unsuspected virtues in Maria Callas’s performance. In his bitchy, hateful Maria Meneghini Callas (1991), he had written of her Fiorilla:
From the time Callas has lost weight we note the element of contrivance beginning to obtrude in her characterizations. However, spontaneity is essential to Rossini’s style. Although Callas’s Fiorilla may be remarkably different from her Leonora, it lacks charm and does not engage the listener’s sympathy… Exaggerating was the nearest Callas could get to comedy.
Judge for yourself whether Callas’s Fiorilla “lacks charm” or, indeed, whether “in her attempts to refine her characterization she loses sight of the basis of secure vocal emission: a correctly supported voice.”
Her partner in this duet is Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Gianandrea Gavazzeni leads the La Scala orchestra.
Callas and Fiorilla IV
Mr. Karl H. van Zoggel, editor of Maria Callas Magazine, published by the Maria Callas International Club, kindly shared with me a recent issue. It includes original articles, interview transcriptions, reminiscences by readers, and a number of rare photos.
One reader, a Peter S., shared these remarks about Callas:
For me, her funniest recorded moment… comes about halfway through [Rossini’s] Il turco in Italia when Fiorilla, being upbraided by her furious husband for her outrageous behaviour, uses what can best be described as “fake weeping” in order to bring him back into line (Mia vita, mio tesoro…). She succeeds, of course.
Mr. S. is quite right: This is one of Callas’s great moments on disc, often overlooked for several reasons—the (relative) rarity of the opera, the shredded edition used for the recording (unacceptable by today’s standards), and the fact that we tend to associate Callas with tragedy and comedy.
Callas in Il barbiere di Siviglia
Maria Callas portrayed Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at La Scala in 1956. It was one of her two comic rôles (along with Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia), and it was the greatest flop of her career.
The production, a revival, was without distinction and under-rehearsed. Carlo Maria Giulini admitted, “I conducted every performance with my head down so I wouldn’t see what was happening on stage.”
Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (the Basilio) recalled that Callas was “aggressive, a viper,” and treated Barbiere as a prima donna showcase rather than the ensemble piece that it is.
That said, when Callas recorded the opera for EMI in 1957, she had rethought the rôle of Rosina. As John Ardoin writes, the set finds her both “playful” and “sedate,” and Alceo Galliera (a fine, underrated maestro) conducts with brio.
Callas’s exchanges with Tito Gobbi’s Figaro sparkle with complicity and malizia.
Callas in Il barbiere di Siviglia II
“Una voce poco fa,” Rosina’s cavatina from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, was a Callas favorite. It was part of her repertoire during her Greek years, and she sang it some twenty times in concert during the late 1950s—including the night of the 1958 Paris gala during which Aristotle Onassis reportedly resolved to win her.
While her staged performances as Rosina constituted the biggest flop of her career, Callas’s complete EMI set ofBarbiere and this 1954 “Una voce poco fa,” recorded under the baton of Tullio Serafin, are among her very finest recordings, brimming with merriment and sparkling vocalism.
Today, her name day, we remember Maria Callas with this joyous performance.
Maria Callas – “D’Amore al dolce Impero” (“Armida”) – M.° Alfredo Simonetto conducts the Orchestra of RAI, San Remo Casino – Italy – 1954.