After having read all of the interesting postings on Callas, and having
posted one myself, I found myself listening to snippets of her recordings of
Medea, Sonnambula, Lucia, Turco in Italia, Rosina, Trovatore, Forza, and even
I listened to parts of her first EMI Norma, and then turned to the 1960 stereo
version (recorded only six years after the first one).
At the risk of dwelling in redundancy, I think that it can be emphatically
stated the the great lady was singing "in fifth gear" from the beginning to the
end of the 1950's. She was obviously an extremely ambitious woman who in
the very late 1940's and early 1950's, displayed what appeared to be an
invincible vocal arsenal. Her juxtaposition of roles was unheard of (mixing
Puritani with Walkure in 1948!) and her strong baritonal low notes were as
exciting as her stratospheric high E flats. It was pure bravura to interpolate a
top E flat at the end of Act II in Aida (Mexico City, 1952) as well as in
Such vocal feats for a soprano not yet thirty years old was obviously not
advisable. Ditto for her assumptions of Abigaille, Turandot, Kundry, as well as
a few others. After having read this evening that while Callas was singing
Sonnambula in Milan, she was doing Medea in Rome.
The butcher's bill became due in 1959 and 1960 with the stereo recordings
of Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma. Both recordings contain some awesome
work from Callas, and yes, the magic is still there. The voice, however, while
still capable of executing some amazing things, is clearly worn and frayed in
the upper third of her voice.
Some of the arias recorded in the early 1960s (the Samson et Dalila arias,
the Werther Letter Scene, The Damnation of Faust, Beethoven's "Ah Perfido!",
the Carmen and Le Cid arias, etc.) are still quite good, but it's obvious that
there are jagged rocks at the top of the voice, even when she doesn't venture
up there. Several more of the arias (Louise, Romeo et Juliet, Iphegine en
Tauride, Semiramide, Cenerentola, etc) are pretty hard to listen to.
Only my opinion: it's amazing to me that the Callas voice lasted as long
as it did when one considers the hurdles she put it through during the entire
decade of the 1950's. Nowhere is this more evident than in the comparison
between the 1954 and 1960 EMI Norma recordings.
I don't think Callas knew what restraint was. She gave so much of herself
in the 1950's that she simply "emptied the bottle". By age 37, her life's work
was basically done, and it was left to her spiritual children - Joan Sutherland,
Marilyn Horne, Beverly Sills, and even Juan Diego Florez and Joyce diDonato
to carry on the bel canto revival.
I wonder if we'd be hearing operas like Anna Bolena, Semiramide, Il
Pirata, Il Vaggio a Reims, Maria Stuarda, and others had Callas not forged into
the past to launch the bel canto revival. Imperfect voice or not, her work as a
complete artist has made her refuse to be forgotten.