Recordings > Historical

CHERUBINI: Medée (in Italian) 

spacer Callas, Carlyle, Cossotto; Vickers, Zaccaria; Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Rescigno. No text or translation. ICA Classics ICAC 5110 

MedeaCD

In June 1958 — one year before this Medea — Maria Callas brought her remarkable Violetta to the Royal Opera House, much of it sung in a delicate fil di voce, reflecting the heroine's fragile state. Speculation in the press was rampant: was the Callas instrument a thing of the past? Any doubt that the soprano had chosen that vocal approach was dispelled when she returned to Covent Garden for this run of Medeas the following year. Callas, then thirty-five, was in firm, spectacular voice — which makes it even more astonishing that within the year her upper register had collapsed and her voice grown alarmingly hollow. This 1959 Medea, therefore, was indeed a magic moment — the arrival of Callas's full artistic maturity, just before the departure of her vocal prime. For that reason, it is perhaps her ultimate Medea, the greatest of the six versions documented between 1953 and 1961. Every Callas aficionado will have his favorite; each option has unforgettable moments, worth the price of the set. This one boasts a terrific supporting cast and BBC broadcast sound, which gives the feel of the theater, while being quite listenable.

Callas always performed Cherubini's 1797 French opera in the 1855 Italian-language version, with the original spoken dialogue replaced with recitatives by Franz Lachner, who trimmed the score. While purists may well bristle, the soprano performs the translation and the recitatives so brilliantly as to make them feel inevitable. Before Medea appears, we hear a classical opera of great quality and skill, the music effectively reflecting the emotions of the characters. Once Medea/Callas enters, we are taken to a different sphere, one in which every note and word is filled with searing intensity. Even Medea's most tender pleas are underlined by that intensity, which translates in those passages into Callas's astonishing legato and beauty of phrase.

Following this performance with a score, one is struck by the seeming impossibility of the title role. Medea's music — beginning with the treacherous aria "De tuoi figli" and continuing through three lengthy duets to the exhausting final scene — often sits in the soprano's upper passaggio and heads north from there. In between, there are numerous plunges into chest voice for dramatic incisiveness. The Callas instrument, which could be recalcitrant, has a bizarre affinity for this role and seems to sail through it. She handles the vocal hurdles with the skill of a technical wizard, while seeming to remain entirely in the moment theatrically. Callas as Medea — the sorceress playing a sorceress.

Jon Vickers, Giasone on two other Callas Medea recordings (Dallas 1958 and La Scala 1961), brings his huge, glorious voice to this rather one-dimensional role, while Nicola Zaccaria — Creonte on the same three documents — offers vocal authority and committed delivery. Joan Carlyle's lyric soprano has the perfect slenderness and point for Glauce's aria of apprehension and presage of Medea's revenge. Fiorenza Cossotto, in the one-aria role of Neris (and what a stunning aria it is!), delivers her music with gorgeous tone, and surprising sensitivity and shading, shedding her propensity for sheer volume.

Nicola Rescigno brings to this performance his experience with, and deep affection for, the piece. His was arguably more taut seven months earlier, when the opera was taped in Dallas on the day Rudolf Bing fired Callas from the Metropolitan Opera; the diva's incendiary performance galvanized everyone involved on that occasion. But Rescigno keeps the dramatic impetus here, while giving Callas and the others room for expression. And the BBC sound quality does more favors for the orchestra than did the microphone planted secretly onstage in Dallas. spacer

IRA SIFF

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6