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Magic Moment

The extraordinary artistic sympathy between Maria Callas and Giulietta Simionato yielded an unforgettable performance of Medea at La Scala in 1961.
by Fabrizio Melano. 

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Erio Piccagliani © Teatro alla Scala

THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY PERFORMANCE I ever witnessed was of Cherubini’s Medea at La Scala, on December 20, 1961, starring Maria Callas. The opening night, on December 11, is well known: the performance has become an essential part of the Callas myth. That night, after some audience members hissed at an unsteady high note in her first-act aria, Callas, on the word “crudel,” went right down to the footlights and held what felt like an endless fermata before flinging a second “crudel” straight at her tormentors. Of course there was not another hiss, and she had the audience under her spell for the rest of the evening. But my memory of what happened at the final performance is more remarkable still.

In 1961, I was twenty-three, living in Rome with a Columbia University fellowship for research on Pirandello. An ardent admirer of Callas, I had managed to meet her through my father, whose position at the New York Italian Consulate brought him official contacts with her husband, Giovanni Meneghini. For the next few years I tried to see her as often as possible, and little by little her kindness toward a young student turned into what I proudly considered a friendship. When I found out she was scheduled to sing Medea, I immediately made arrangements to attend a performance. 

La Scala had surrounded Callas with a stellar cast—Jon Vickers as Jason, Giu-lietta Simionato as Neris, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Creon, and as conductor the young Thomas Schippers. The production was a new version of the excellent one by Alexis Minotis and Yannis Tsarouchis that had already been presented in Dallas and London. I persuaded my sister and three friends
to come up from Rome to see it. The only possible cloud was that, when I reached Callas on the telephone the evening before, she sounded tired and nervous. Only years later did I learn that, after singing on Dec. 14, she had quietly gone into a hospital for a painful sinus operation. 

When the night arrived,we climbed up to the loggione, the last balcony of La Scala. Though we were far from the stage, it was quite an adventure to be up there in the territory of the formidable loggionisti, the real opera-lovers of Milan. They, of course, had their favorites—Callas preeminent among them—but even with the chosen ones, they were inclined to be severely critical. Musical achievements and bravura flights received instant recognition, but momentary lapses never passed unnoticed. All around us, people were discussing the two previous performances—the stormy prima and the smooth seconda—and wondering what this one would be like.

AT LAST THE OPERA BEGAN. Medea’s Act I is skillfully planned: choruses and arias for Glauce, Jason and Creon all build toward the crucial moment of the protagonist’s arrival. Medea’s entrance, well directed by Minotis, revealed her upstage center between two massive columns, a tall figure shrouded by a somber mantle held in front of her face, so that all we could see were two burning dark eyes. Thus she delivered her first lines—“È forse qui che il vil sicuro sta? È qui che amor da gioie ai traditor?” (Is it perhaps here that the coward is safe? Is it here that love gives joy to traitors?). When Creon asked, “Chi sei tu?” (Who are you?), Callas dramatically let the mantle drop to her shoulders as she unleashed the full power of her voice on her answer, “Io? Medea.” On this night, the first lines had her unmistakable sound, and the unveiling was perfectly timed, but as she hit the held “de” in “Medea,” her voice cracked wide open. There was a loud collective gasp from the loggionisti, and Callas herself seemed momentarily stunned. (The note, E-natural at the top of the staff, had never been a problem.) She quickly regained control of herself, and there wasn’t any more noise from the loggionisti, certainly no hissing, but one could feel tremendous tension, as if both she and they were proceeding on the edge of a precipice. 

The act continued with no further mishaps, but it was clear that Callas was feeling her way with unaccustomed caution. Unlike some singers, who mistakenly compensate for vocal difficulties by overacting, she scaled her gestures down to match the reduced dynamic level of her singing. Vickers, her good colleague from the Dallas and London stagings, helped by reining in his powerful voice during their duet. In fact it was a perfectly plausible account of Act I, but not what one would have anticipated from Callas. At the curtain calls she emerged unsmiling, gripping Ghiau-rov’s and Vickers’s hands tightly, visibly afraid of a negative reaction. There was none—only polite applause. 

During the intermission, too anxious to move, I remained in my seat and listened to the conversations of the loggionisti. They were naturally about Callas—the rediscoveries of Bolena, Pirata and Turco; the complete transformation of old favorites such as Traviata and Lucia; the controversial experiments of Barbiere and Fedora. A few people, incredibly, seemed to have attended all 167 of her Scala performances. Sadly, though, the tone was more elegiac than celebratory, as if they already sensed that there would be only two more Medeas, in May and June of 1962. After a while, it became apparent that the intermission was going on far too long. We all expected an announcement that the rest of the performance was canceled. Everyone seemed resigned, not angry; there would be no repetition of the Rome Norma. After all, Callas’s track record at La Scala had been excellent—in ten seasons she had canceled one performance, and the first night of one production had been postponed a few days on her account. I felt responsible for having brought my sister and my friends up from Rome, but it couldn’t be helped. Then, after fifty minutes, and with no announcement, the house lights dimmed.

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Callas lies at the feet of Simionato in Alexis Minotis’s staging of Medea at La Scala, 1961
Erio Piccagliani © Teatro alla Scala

THE PROLONGED INTERVAL had not changed anything. Callas continued singing with great care, and the loggionisti were on tenterhooks, tensing at the approach of difficult notes, relieved when they were surmounted. In the duet with Creon, Ghiaurov, then at the beginning of his international career, was unprepared to moderate the volume at his disposal. When, after his exit, Callas flung herself down on some steps, the despair and exhaustion looked all too real. At this point, Cherubini grants his audience a pause in the inexorable drama—the nurse Neris’s consolatory aria, perhaps the most beautiful music he ever wrote. Giulietta Simionato was in superb voice and could easily have walked away with the opera. Instead, she did something that I will never forget. 

It was obvious from the beginning of the recitative that this wasn’t Neris kneeling by Medea in ancient Corinth, but Giulietta Simionato trying to reach her beloved friend and colleague right there on the stage of La Scala. We all knew what she meant by “Chi mai soffrì si come te?... Di terra in terra devi trista errar, cercando pace senza mai trovarla” (Who ever suffered as much as you?... You must sadly wander from land to land, seeking peace but never finding it). And the personal commitment was unmistakable in “Il cuor mio sol è aperto al tuo dolore; ovunque andrai ti seguirò fedele” (Only my heart is open to your pain; wherever you go I will faithfully follow). 

The solo bassoonist, whoever he was, caught her intention and played the introduction to the aria with unusual poignancy; when Simionato began “Solo un pianto” (At one in crying), it was the merest thread of tone, as if she were whispering to Callas. Every word, however, was perfectly clear up in the loggione, and we realized we were all being challenged when she came to the phrase “Principessa cara e infelice, chi potria rifiutar il pianto al tuo destin?” (Beloved and unhappy princess, who could refuse to cry at your destiny?).… “Infelice! Ben fu la sorte a te crudele!” (Unhappy one! Fate has been especially cruel to you!). Yes, it was Callas whom she was addressing—and yes, she was doing it for us as well. Through my own tears, I could see that others around me were openly sobbing. The orchestra and Schippers remained completely at one with the singer; everything was played softly, and even the conclusion of the aria, marked forte, barely made it to mezzo-forte. When it was over, nobody dreamed of applauding. In the silence, a palpable wave of love and compassion for Callas poured from the auditorium to the stage.

As Callas got up and the music resumed, I could see, through my opera glasses, that her eyes were shining. Buoyed by Simionato and the public’s reaction, she started letting out her voice, audibly gaining confidence as it seemed to respond to her wishes. The loggionisti purred. In the following scene with Jason, Vickers felt he could play with the full sound of his voice—we finally were witnessing a duel of equals. If one or two notes were in less than ideal focus, it hardly mattered. The act ended with a fierce, steady, long-held high B-flat (wise option for the unwritten high C she used to interpolate) and tumultuous applause. Everyone was so excited that the intermission passed in a flash.

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A curtain call for the divas
Erio Piccagliani © Teatro alla Scala

ACT III ROSE TO ANOTHER LEVEL. Using the many colors of a voice made for drama in music, Callas sounded all of Medea’s emotions—terror, pity, tenderness, desperation, murderous rage, steely resolve—unafraid of exploring the darker reaches of the human psyche. It was almost dangerous to witness her savagely beating the floor with her fists to summon the infernal gods, or climbing the temple steps, knife in hand, on the way to kill her children while blazing through Cherubini’s most fiendish music. Visceral power was allied to rigorous control—a balance of the dionysian and apollonian elements. With the final phrases—“Al sacro fiume io vò. Colà t’aspetta l’ombra mia” (I go to the sacred river. There my shade waits for you), she reached a place beyond tragedy.

At the curtain calls, Callas appeared drained but set free, and the cheers from the loggionisti were loudest when she gratefully embraced Simionato. On my way to the obligatory backstage visit, a ritual I generally dislike, I was particularly reluctant, wondering how the complex experience we had been through could be put into words. I knew I would have to try, since Callas hated idle compliments and often complained that people didn’t tell her the truth. Backstage, the line was endless. As I drew closer, I saw her frozen smile and heard that amid the “brava”s and “divina”s, no one was addressing what had happened. Now I really couldn’t think of a single word. But when I reached her she seemed relieved and just looked right into me with those huge eyes. As I pressed her hand, I realized that I didn’t have to say anything—Simionato had already sung for me, for everybody. spacer 

Fabrizio Melano is a stage director based in New York City. 

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