Maria Callas: "The Callas Effect"
Arias by Bellini, Bizet, Giordano, Puccini, Rossini, Saint-Saëns, Verdi, et al. Notes, texts and translations. DVD documentary only available in the deluxe edition. EMI Classics 0 84356 2, 153 mins. (2 CDs), 70 mins. (DVD documentary), subtitled
EMI's latest Maria Callas package is entitled The Callas Effect, but it might as well be dubbed The Callas Starter Kit. The deluxe edition contains two full CDs of her familiar aria recordings drawn from EMI's library, plus a new, seventy-minute DVD documentary, all housed in a lavish, 123-page hardbound booklet containing texts, translations, photos and an informative, highly personal tribute from singer/director/OPERA NEWScontributor Ira Siff. (EMI has also issued a standard, jewel-case version with condensed notes and without the DVD.) Coming in time for Christmas, it will make an ideal gift for any budding opera fan who wants an introduction to one of the most influential musical figures of the twentieth century. Confirmed Callas buffs, on the other hand, need not feel compelled to add it to their collections.
Although Siff's take on Callas is insightful, the CDs contain no rarities or revelations, and the documentary feels a bit stale. Too many Callas documentaries have preceded it, and the recycled photos and limited film footage available of this diva have become far too familiar.
It's hard to avoid a feeling of déjà vu after repeated viewings of the 1964 Covent Garden Tosca excerpt, grateful though we may be for its existence. That recording, the Lord Harewood interview and the televised Hamburg concert form the bulk of the DVD's film clips. The photos that appear in the film have a large credit emblazoned across each one; one wonders why this was considered preferable to the usual practice of attribution in the final credit crawl. No director can be blamed, as none is listed; there are only producers. (One of them, Jon Tolansky, is also billed as having provided "storyline, script and narration.")
The list of talking heads in this documentary is low on marquee value, but Mirella Freni, Joyce DiDonato and former Royal Opera House stage director John Copley will be of interest to opera fans. Freni explains in halting English how Callas inspired her to try to bring more realism to her performing style; DiDonato, representing opera's future, admits that, for her, "Callas has set a standard of what an opera singer must be that is almost unreachable." Copley relates an interesting anecdote about Callas insisting to him that Verdi did not write a cadenza for "D'amor sull'ali rosee," from Il Trovatore; what Copley believed was the cadenza was, according to Callas, "not a cadenza, but an integral, organic part of the aria." (The subsequent excerpt of that aria from Callas's EMI recording of it does not quite prove her point.)
Most of the other sound bites come from less well-known individuals, primarily British, who worked with Callas at Covent Garden. Reginald Suter, a former ROH stagehand, offers some heartfelt memories of her from a blue-collar perspective. Actresses Jane Evers and Priscilla Pritchard bring up memories of working with her in Tosca; apparently they were supernumeraries. There are also reminiscences from ROH manager Sir John Tooley, tenor John Dobson and a few critics and fans. EMI recording engineer Robert Gooch remembers how she drank an entire tumbler of castor oil to relieve a throat problem, while Tito Gobbi's daughter Cecilia quotes her father as saying that he and Callas were neither acting nor interpreting — they were living their roles.
Nearly thirty-five years after her death, Callas continues to influence the fields of music, theater and fashion, as this package proves. And it's a safe bet that, a few years down the line, yet another documentary will set out to prove what we already know about Callas, dazzling us once again with her presence, style and passion. That film, too, will likely have to recycle the same images and Tosca footage that this one does.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.