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VERDI: Macbeth

CD Button Callas; Penno, Mascherini, Tajo; La Scala Chorus and Orchestra, de Sabata. Warner Classics 0190295844479 (2)

The Most Beautiful Sounds I Ever Heard.

A sampling of the new Maria Callas live box-set reveals the prima donna at her best.

Recordings Callas Backstage hdl 118
Sound and fury: de Sabata and Callas backstage at La Scala, 1952
Erio Piccagliani/Teatro alla Scala
Recordings Callas Macbeth Cover 118


Critics Choice Button 1015 

IN APRIL 1952, when she sang the title role of Rossini’s Armida under Tullio Serafin at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Maria Callas was just twenty-eight-years old. Her international renown came later. But the febrile applause that greets her first entrance on this recording indicates that, in Italy, she was already a sensation.

This Armida, part of Warner Classics’ new, bountiful, forty-two-disc compendium, Maria Callas Live, makes it amply clear what the fuss was about. She’s astonishing throughout, but especially in the opening salvo of the work’s finale. The sorceress Armida has just learned that her lover Rinaldo is abandoning her, and she responds with a series of runs, turns and octave leaps that would defeat all but the most technically accomplished singers. Callas’s singing here doesn’t register just as a technical tour-de-force but also as a searing portrait of rage. Her voice remains at full, torrential strength through even the most intricate passagework. Each note is sounded as cleanly as if on a piano, her attack giving the passagework, for all of its rapidity, a sculptural quality. Other singers have been as fleet, but none has been able to articulate coloratura with the same astounding force or ferocity. The passage is as phenomenal a two minutes of operatic performance as exists on disc. 

In a role that consists mostly of coloratura, Callas offers an encyclopedic display of the expressive variety that florid singing can achieve. In her Act II duet with Rinaldo, it serves as a means of seduction. The sounds she makes aren’t exactly dulcet: the voice’s resin was a defining quality throughout her all-too-short career. But the way she binds those sounds into shapely, alluring phrases makes mere mellifluousness seem beside the point. “D’amore al dolce impero,” Armida’s showpiece rondo, not only dazzles the ear but demonstrates the sorceress’s supernatural capability for erotic enchantment. Still, Callas makes every bit as overwhelming an effect in the andante central section of the finale, when the writing forsakes coloratura in favor of simple declamation: Armida here has the nobility of a Gluck heroine.

The rest of the cast is significantly less impressive. Armida calls for no fewer than seven tenors; when the Met staged the work in 2010–11, it mustered a uniformly stronger male contingent than can be heard here: the Rossini tenor, in happy abundance in our own era, was thought extinct in the middle of the last century. Francesco Albanese’s lyric approach suggests Rinaldo’s pliancy, but the florid writing is either simplified or simply excised. Gianni Raimondi, early in his career, is double cast as Eustazio and Carlo, and he’s thoroughly likable in both roles. But the leather-lunged dramatic tenor Mario Filippeschi makes such a hash out of the warrior Gernando’s music that one can only be thankful that his Act I aria fell victim to Serafin’s pruning shears.

The Florence orchestra does not sound as polished as the La Scala forces do elsewhere in this collection, but Serafin has the measure of the music. His tempos tend to be statelier than we expect today in Rossini performances, but the whole is wonderfully buoyant, and the synergetic support he gives his prima donna demonstrates why theirs was a momentous collaboration. Previous editions of this Armida have been so congested as to border on the unlistenable; though Warner’s remastering hasn’t exactly made the performance easy on the ears, it has brought a new degree of spaciousness to the sound, allowing us to hear Callas in all her blazing intensity.

Callas sang Lady Macbeth in complete performance only five times, all in the December 1952 Scala production documented here. But the recording explains why all subsequent interpreters of the role have had to contend with her legacy. A forceful validation of her reputation as an operatic actress, it also shows that Callas was, first and foremost, a musician. She achieves her overpowering depiction of malignancy through scrupulous fidelity to the score and her ability to realize the implications in Verdi’s writing.

In her entrance aria, “Vieni, t’affretta,” the sharp attack and articulation of dotted rhythms propel the piece’s polacca rhythm and viscerally set forth the character’s malevolence. In the cabaletta to the Act I duet after the murder of Duncan, when Lady Macbeth dismisses her husband’s trepidations with a series of sixteenth-note figures, Callas demonstrates the same florid technique that she brought to Rossini. But here it serves another purpose entirely, conveying at once Lady Macbeth’s steely resolve, her impatience with her husband and, underneath, pervasive anxiety. The fragile core within the cruel exterior emerges in the sleepwalking scene, which in Callas’s detailed but epic reading is a portrait of a soul unraveled by evil. It’s like witnessing the sudden collapse of a grand and forbidding edifice.

Macbeth is often overshadowed by his wife, which is what happens here. Enzo Mascherini is inattentive to note values, and at climactic moments, such as Macbeth’s horrorstruck reaction to Banquo’s ghost, you wish that he could just pull out more sound. But his work is idiomatic, benefitting from a tangy, thoroughly Italianate frontal resonance. Italo Tajo’s granitic bass makes him an imposing Banquo; in “Come dal ciel precipita,” the tone is firmly knitted to the text. Gino Penno’s forthright rendering of Macduff’s “Ah, la paterna mano” shows Verdi’s canniness in providing a simple, heartrending romanza to contrast with the demonic agitation of the rest of the work. 

Conductor Victor de Sabata’s reading is taut, propulsive and thrilling from first note to last. Orchestral balances are exactly weighted: in the exemplary work of the Scala players, every note makes its effect. The whole has a Shakespearean sweep: the performance makes you realize how thoroughly Verdi captured the Bard’s spirit. The audio quality of this Macbeth in previous releases—save for the adagio of the Act I finale, for which no good source seems to exist—has never been as problematic as that of Armida. This edition, though you would never mistake it for a studio recording of the same era, presents as satisfying a version of the performance as can be wished. —Fred Cohn 

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