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Donizetti: Poliuto

CD Button Callas; Corelli, Bastianini, Zaccaria. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Votto. Live performance, December 7, 1960 Myto CD00234 (2)

Recordings Poliuto Cover 1215

LA SCALA'S SEASON OPENER in 1960 was Donizetti’s Poliuto, marking the return to the company of Maria Callas after scuffles with management two years earlier. The choice of a role that was clearly subordinate to Franco Corelli’s Poliuto may have reflected shaky confidence, and the technical demands of Paolina, wife of an early Christian martyr, are nowhere near those of such Callas specialties as Norma, Violetta or Lucia. The audience’s encouragement seems to bolster Callas’s self-assurance, beginning with a loud and prolonged ovation at her first appearance that drowns out the music and forces the soprano to wait for her vocal entrance. 

The superb leadership of Antonio Votto brings out the many Verdian qualities of this neglected tragic opera, and the felicitous Callas–Corelli partnership is reinforced by Ettore Bastianini, as the persecuting Roman ruler Severo, and Greek bass Nicola Zaccaria, as Callistene, high priest of the pagan cult of Jupiter. The 37-year-old Callas was at the height of her vocal powers, surrounded by supportive and friendly colleagues and mining an unremarkable role for every ounce of drama, turmoil and power. It’s a stunning show from all artists, in a performance available on several labels, including EMI. 

Written for 1838 performances in Naples that never happened because of censorship, Poliuto was reworked and given in Paris in 1840 as the four-act, French-language Les Martyrs. The opera as conceived by Donizetti was finally heard at the San Carlo in Naples in 1848, shortly after the composer’s death.

The role of Poliuto suits Corelli perfectly, providing an outlet for his dark, unmistakable timbre, which could convey both heroism and intimacy. Corelli’s quick vibrato and tendency to sob bring a special pathos to Poliuto’s many long, lyrical lines as the character battles romantic jealousy as well as religious persecution. While Corelli’s basic sound rarely varied, he was a master of phrasing and articulation, creating variety more from delivery than timbre. 

Callas combines delicacy and vulnerability with power, particularly in the voluptuous lines of the first act’s high-lying “Di quai soavi lagrime” and the Act II finale, in which she employs her most pathetic sound, growing in conviction and stature, for “Qual preghiera al ciel,” while Corelli’s long lines, “Dio proteggi l’umil servo,” ring out through the thick choral texture. When Callas repeats and echoes this line in octaves, Votto’s broad tempo makes the moment thrilling. Corelli launches the brisk stretto, “Lasciami in pace,” and an Aida-like ensemble—strings swirling around majestic choral lines—is capped by a brief high D from Callas.

Bastianini’s handsome voice and virile singing reveal a molten quality that he could carry up to massive high Gs and A-flats, particularly commanding in the second half of Act I. The confrontation scene with Callas in Act II highlights Severo’s menace and Paolina’s fear, yet each singer is attentive to Donizetti’s notational details, with small notes in place and clearly articulated. Bastianini’s open sound and noble phrasing make much of “Il più lieto,” which Callas answers poignantly in “Ei non vegga il pianto mio.” We hear the prompter hard at work here amid Callas’s pleading, womanly utterances.

As the high priest, Zaccaria’s big moment opens Act III, and the bass’ easy vocal production and nearly imperceptible tremolo enhance Callistene’s recitative and aria, “Alimento alla fiamma.” Corelli and Callas bring consummate artistry to the rest of the act, as Paolina and Poliuto clear up misunderstandings, but when Paolina suggests that the imprisoned Poliuto renounce his Christian faith, his conviction touches her and the couple resolve to die together.

Bonus tracks include the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in live performance from September 9, 1955, under Herbert von Karajan at La Scala, a well-known recording available on several compilations. —Judith Malafronte

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