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Bellini: La Sonnambula / Bernstein, Callas, Valletti

Release Date: 11/05/2002 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 67906   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Vincenzo Bellini
Performer:  Maria CallasCesare VallettiGiuseppe ModestiEugenia Ratti,   ... 
Conductor:  Leonard Bernstein
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala OrchestraMilan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Mono 
Length: 2 Hours 21 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This should be in the collection of every opera lover. The way Callas changes her voice to drain its color when she's the singing sleepwalker has long been admired, as has her fiery full-voiced expressions of joy, tenderness, puzzlement, anger, and yearning.

Here's a La sonnambula that should be in the collection of every opera lover. Many own one of its previous incarnations, for this live 1955 La Scala performance has long been available on pirate LPs--and later on CDs. But EMI's refurbished sound is more natural and production values are higher, including full texts and translations, a luxury beyond the reach of most small labels that specialize in historical recordings.

That's not to say EMI's
Read more transfer yields comfortable listening, unless your idea of "comfortable" includes blasting on climaxes, tape print-through chatter, and a hefty amount of distortion. But such deficiencies were even more pronounced on previous issues, and EMI wisely decided not to take extreme measures in filtering them out. An earlier CD release on Myto minimized the distortion effects, but at the cost of producing an airless acoustic, removing details, and pushing the orchestra farther back, compromising the set's glories. Here, voices are true and the orchestra is full, with details clearly audible--no small matter given Leonard Bernstein's sublime conducting. The first disc is cleaner than the second, with less distortion, though on both discs you also have to accept a lot of clomping around the stage.

So why is this set a necessity, especially since EMI's studio recording of the Callas Sonnambula, recorded just two years later, is still available? One big reason is Callas herself, energized by the live audience at the Scala premiere. She takes more risks than in the studio, and although her "Ah! non giunge" is burdened with an excess of ornamentation compared to the more austere studio version, she's far more exciting here. The way she changes her voice to drain its color when she's the singing sleepwalker has long been admired, as has her fiery full-voiced explosion of joy in "Ah! non giunge", and the way she perfectly expresses Amina's tenderness, puzzlement, anger, and yearning. Those attributes of her remarkable performance are intact here. To them she adds a rendition of "Ah! non credea" taken at a tempo so slow that less gifted sopranos would falter and break. Callas not only brings it off, but does so in a voice that manages to combine the remoteness of the sleepwalker with the warmth of Amina's nature. It's easy to go ga-ga over Callas' voice and big moments here, but perhaps what really makes this interpretation so amazing is the way she weights the coloratura fireworks and trills with meaning, and invests even throw-away lines with poignant emotion. Thus, when the notary asks Amina and her fiancée, Elvino, what gifts they bring each other, the way Callas replies "il core soltanto" ("Only my heart") will bring a lump to your throat.

A second reason why this is a must-have is the Elvino, Cesare Valletti. In the studio recording, Nicola Monti is a good Elvino, but Valletti operates on a far different, higher order of artistry. The voice is perfect for the role, the singing an exemplar of bel canto style. He's the male equivalent of Callas in extracting from his stock figure (the misguided lover) every ounce of feeling. Their duets together are breathtaking, with phrasing that's perfection itself.

The conductor is crucial, especially in bel canto operas, with their long lines and requirements for perfectly judged pauses and rubatos, and Bernstein's leadership is the third reason why this set is indispensable. Just compare him with the routine Antonio Votto on Callas' studio Sonnambula to hear the difference between Bernstein's patience and fire and Votto's plodding. It's a sign of his genius that young Bernstein in 1955, with no prior experience in bel canto conducting, could lead a performance of such stylistic integrity and also add convincing personal touches that make the work come alive. The lesser roles range from good (Giuseppe Modesti as the Count) to below par (Eugenia Ratti's shrill Lisa), but minor flaws and raw sound can't keep this Sonnambula from being one of the all-time great operatic recordings.

Dan Davis, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

La sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini
Performer:  Maria Callas (Soprano), Cesare Valletti (Tenor), Giuseppe Modesti (Baritone),
Eugenia Ratti (Soprano), Gabriella Carturan (Mezzo Soprano), Giuseppe Nessi (Tenor),
Pier Luigi Latinucci (Bass)
Conductor:  Leonard Bernstein
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,  Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1831; Italy 
Date of Recording: 03/05/1955 
Venue:  Live  La Scala, Milan, Italy 
Length: 140 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Language: Italian 

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