DAVID WILKINS listens to one of the
legends of the 20th Century
EMI 7243 5 20653 2 5
Callas compilations continue to appear both on the mainstream labels
and on the pirates and 'cheapos' that you can find in supermarkets and suchlike
outlets. I would rate this one - of 15 essential tracks remastered at Abbey
Road from original EMI recordings - very highly indeed.
Maria Callas was, first and foremost, a superlative dramatic singer.
She would hardly be a first choice for beauty of tone (especially at the
raw top end of her range) or for beguiling vocal grace and delicacy. For
imagination and sheer engagement, though, she is unrivalled.
Like most admirers who have tried to retain a sense of proportion, I
have had my periods of apostasy when Tebaldi, Caballé and Joan Sutherland
may seem to have had more to say to me. Listening anew to these transfers,
however, I find myself as astonished and moved as ever.
The compilation is, as usual, geared towards the tear-jerking end of
the repertoire with a long-spun 'Vissi d'arte' and an exquisitely affecting
'O mio babbino caro' making their ubiquitous appearances. There is 'Addio,
del passato' from the legendary 1958 Lisbon 'La Traviata' replete with stage
clunking and audience participation but overwhelming in its identification
and pathos. Lace-handkerchiefs can, however, be put aside for the vocal
gymnastics of Gounod's 'Waltz Song' and the disturbingly near-ugly sultriness
of the Carmen 'Habanera'. Though there are no 'turkeys', I could live without
the extract from Gluck's 'Orfeo' sung in French.
Callas didn't think much of modern music. "There's too much noise,"
she said. Anyway, she regarded Cilea (who died in 1950) as quite modern
enough and we have here her languorous 'Io son l'umile ancella' from his
'Adriana Lecouvreur' to make us grateful that she got as up-to-date as that.
Bellini's 'Casta Diva' opens the disc so that we know exactly who we are
dealing with (and why) straight away and part of the 'Lucia' mad-scene ends
the generous measure (74 minutes) with another indelible performance.
She is splendidly accompanied, throughout, by the likes of Karajan, Prêtre,
de Sabata and, of course, her beloved mentor - Tullio Serafin. The package
includes some nice photographs and a lengthy biography and constitutes,
for all its familiarity, quite a bargain.
Copyright © 5 January 2000 by David Wilkins,
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