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Maria Callas – “Où va la jeune indoue” (“Air des clochettes”) – “Lakmé” – L. Delibes

by Luca

Callas’s voice has been difficult to place in the modern vocal classification or fach system, especially since in her prime, her repertoire contained the heaviest dramatic soprano roles as well as roles usually undertaken by the highest, lightest and most agile coloratura sopranos. Regarding this versatility, Maestro Tullio Serafin said, “This woman can sing anything written for the female voice”. Michael Scott argues that Callas’s voice was a natural high soprano, and going by evidence of Callas’s early recordings, Rosa Ponselle likewise felt that “At that stage of its development, her voice was a pure but sizable dramatic coloratura––that is to say, a sizable coloratura voice with dramatic capabilities, not the other way around.” On the other hand, music critic John Ardoin has argued that Callas was the reincarnation of the nineteenth century soprano sfogato or “unlimited soprano”, a throwback to Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta, for whom many of the famous bel canto operas were written. He avers that like Pasta and Malibran, Callas was a natural mezzo-soprano whose range was extended through training and willpower, resulting in a voice which “lacked the homogeneous color and evenness of scale once so prized in singing. There were unruly sections of their voices never fully under control. Many who heard Pasta, for example, remarked that her uppermost notes seemed produced by ventriloquism, a charge which would later be made against Callas”. Ardoin points to the writings of Henry Fothergill Chorley about Pasta which bear an uncanny resemblance to descriptions of Callas:
“There was a portion of the scale which differed from the rest in quality and remained to the last ‘under a veil.’ …out of these uncouth materials she had to compose her instrument and then to give it flexibility. Her studies to acquire execution must have been tremendous; but the volubility and brilliancy, when acquired, gained a character of their own… There were a breadth, an expressiveness in her roulades, an evenness and solidity in her shake, which imparted to every passage a significance totally beyond the reach of lighter and more spontaneous singers… The best of her audience were held in thrall, without being able to analyze what made up the spell, what produced the effect–as soon as she opened her lips”.
Callas herself appears to have been in agreement not only with Ardoin’s assertions that she started as a natural mezzo-soprano, but also saw the similarities between herself and Pasta and Malibran. In 1957, she described her early voice as: “The timbre was dark, almost black—when I think of it, I think of thick molasses”, and in 1968 she added, “They say I was not a true soprano, I was rather toward a mezzo”. Regarding her ability to sing the heaviest as well as the lightest roles, she told James Fleetwood,
“It’s study; it’s Nature. I’m doing nothing special, you know. Even Lucia, Anna Bolena, Puritani, all these operas were created for one type of soprano, the type that sang Norma, Fidelio, which was Malibran of course. And a funny coincidence last year, I was singing Anna Bolena and Sonnambula, same months and the same distance of time as Giuditta Pasta had sung in the Nineteenth Century… So I’m really not doing anything extraordinary. You wouldn’t ask a pianist not to be able to play everything; he has to. This is Nature and also because I had a wonderful teacher, the old kind of teaching methods… I was a very heavy voice, that is my nature, a dark voice shall we call it, and I was always kept on the light side. She always trained me to keep my voice limber”.
Regarding the sheer size of Callas’s instrument, Celletti says, “Her voice was penetrating. The volume as such was average: neither small nor powerful. But the penetration, allied to this incisive quality (which bordered on the ugly because it frequently contained an element of harshness) ensured that her voice could be clearly heard anywhere in the auditorium.” Yet, paradoxically enough, in “Le Grandi voci”, Celletti states that Callas had not a mere penetrating voice but “a voluminous, resonant and dark” one (“una voce voluminosa, squillante e di timbro scuro”). After her first performance of Medea in 1953, the critic for Musical Courier would write, “she displayed a vocal generosity that was scarecely believable for its amplitude and resilience.”. In a 1982 Opera News interview with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, Bonynge stated, “But before she slimmed down, I mean this was such a colossal voice. It just poured out of her, the way Flagstad’s did… Callas had a huge voice. When she and Stignani sang Norma, at the bottom of the range you could barely tell who was who… Oh it was colossal. And she took the big sound right up to the top.” In his book, Michael Scott makes the distinction that whereas Callas’s pre-1954 voice was a “dramatic soprano with an exceptional top”, after the weight loss, it became, as one Chicago critic described the voice in Lucia, a “huge soprano leggiero”.
In performance, Callas’s range was just short of three octaves, from F-sharp (F♯3) below middle C (C4) heard in “Arrigo! Ah parli a un core” from I vespri siciliani to E-natural (E6) above high C (C6), heard in the aria “Mercè, dilette amiche” in the final act of the same opera, as well as in Rossini’s Armida and Lakmés Bell Song. Whether or not Callas ever sang a high F-natural in performance has been open to debate. After her June 11, 1951 concert in Florence, Rock Ferris of Musical Courier said, “Her high E’s and F’s are taken full voice.” Although no definite recording of Callas singing high F’s have surfaced, the presumed E-natural at the end of Rossini’s Armida—a poor-quality bootleg recording of uncertain pitch—has been referred to as a high F by Italian musicologists and critics Eugenio Gara and Rodolfo Celletti. Callas expert Dr. Robert Seletsky, however, stated that since the finale of Armida is in the key of E, the final note could not have been an F, as it would have been dissonant. Author Eve Ruggieri has referred to the penultimate note in “Mercè, dilette amiche” from the 1951 Florence performances of I vespri siciliani as a high F; however, this claim is refuted by John Ardoin’s review of the live recording of the performance as well as by the review of the recording in Opera News, both of which refer to the note as a high E-natural. In a 1969 French television interview with Pierre Desgraupes on the program L’invitée du dimanche, maestro Francesco Siciliani speaks of Callas’s voice going to high F (he also talk about her lower register extending to C3), but within the same program, Callas’s teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo, speaks of the voice soaring to a high E-natural, but does not mention a high F; meanwhile, Callas herself remains silent on the subject, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with either claim.
Callas’s voice was noted for its three distinct registers: Her low or chest register was extremely dark and almost baritonal in power, and she used this part of her voice for dramatic effect, often going into this register much higher on the scale than most sopranos. Her middle register had a peculiar and highly personal sound—”part oboe, part clarinet”, as Claudia Cassidy described it — and was noted for its veiled or “bottled” sound, as if she were singing into a jug. Walter Legge attributed this sound to the “extraordinary formation of her upper palate, shaped like a Gothic arch, not the Romanesque arch of the normal mouth”. The upper register was ample and bright, with an impressive extension above high C, which—in contrast to the light flute-like sound of the typical coloratura, “she would attack these notes with more vehemence and power—quite differently therefore, from the very delicate, cautious, ‘white’ approach of the light sopranos.” Legge adds, “Even in the most difficult fioriture there were no musical or technical difficulties in this part of the voice which she could not execute with astonishing, unostentatious ease. Her chromatic runs, particularly downwards, were beautifully smooth and staccatos almost unfailingly accurate, even in the trickiest intervals. There is hardly a bar in the whole range of nineteenth century music for high soprano that seriously tested her powers.” And as she demonstrated in the finale of La sonnambula on the commercial EMI set and the live recording from Cologne, she was able to execute a diminuendo on the stratospheric high E-flat, which Scott describes as “a feat unrivaled in the history of the gramophone.”
Regarding Callas’s soft singing, Celletti says, “In these soft passages, Callas seemed to use another voice altogether, because it acquired a great sweetness. Whether in her florid singing or in her canto spianato, that is, in long held notes without ornamentation, her mezza-voce could achieve such moving sweetness that the sound seemed to come from on high. . . I don’t know, it seemed to come from the skylight of La Scala.”
This combination of size, weight, range and agility was a source of amazement to Callas’s own contemporaries. One of the choristers present at her La Scala debut in I vespri siciliani recalled, “My God! She came on stage sounding like our deepest contralto, Cloe Elmo. And before the evening was over, she took a high E-flat. And it was twice as strong as Toti Dal Monte’s!” In the same vein, mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato said: “The first time we sang together was in Mexico in 1950, where she sang the top E-flat in the second-act finale of Aida. I can still remember the effect of that note in the opera house—it was like a star!” For Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, “the most fantastic thing was the possibility for her to sing the soprano coloratura with this big voice! This was something really special. Fantastic absolutely!”
Callas’s vocal registers, however, were not seamlessly joined; Walter Legge writes, “Unfortunately, it was only in quick music, particularly descending scales, that she completely mastered the art of joining the three almost incompatible voices into one unified whole, but until about 1960, she disguised those audible gear changes with cunning skill.” Rodolfo Celletti states,
In certain areas of her range her voice also possessed a guttural quality. This would occur in the most delicate and troublesome areas of a soprano’s voice—for instance where the lower and middle registers merge, between G and A. I would go so far as to say that here her voice had such resonances as to make one think at times of a ventriloquist. . .or else the voice could sound as though it were resonating in a rubber tube. There was another troublesome spot. . . between the middle and upper registers. Here, too, around the treble F and G, there was often something in the sound itself which was not quite right, as though the voice were not functioning properly.
As to whether these troublesome spots were due to the nature of the voice itself or to technical deficiencies, Celletti says: “Even if, when passing from one register to another, Callas produced an unpleasant sound, the technique she used for these transitions was perfect.” Musicologist and critic Fedele D’Amico adds, “Callas’s ‘faults’ were in the voice and not in the singer; they are so to speak, faults of departure but not of arrival. This is precisely Celletti’s distinction between the natural quality of the voice and the technique.” In 2005, Ewa Podles said of Callas, “Maybe she had three voices, maybe she had three ranges, I don’t know — I am professional singer. Nothing disturbed me, nothing! I bought everything that she offered me. Why? Because all of her voices, her registers, she used how they should be used — just to tell us something!”
Eugenio Gara states, “Much has been said about her voice, and no doubt the discussion will continue. Certainly no one could in honesty deny the harsh or “squashed” sounds, nor the wobble on the very high notes. These and others were precisely the accusations made at the time against Pasta and Malibran, two geniuses of song (as they were then called), sublime, yet imperfect. Both were brought to trial in their day. . . Yet few singers have made history in the annals of opera as these two did.”