Notes and Editorial Reviews
Lucia di Lammermoor
Herbert von Karajan, cond; Maria Callas (
); Giuseppe di Stefano (
); Rolando Panerai (
); Nicola Zaccaria (
); Giuseppe Zampieri (
); Luisa Villa (
); La Scala Op Ch; RIAS SO
EMI 66441 (2 CDs: 119:23
Text and Translation) Live: Berlin 9/29/1955
Apart from her status as a cult figure—and there are, even today, hundreds of thousands of fans who are part of one such cult or another—Maria Callas’s greatest legacy as an artist is not just those she influenced, but those archive recordings that most particularly show her value as a great singing actress. Some of these, such as her performances in Gluck’s
Iphigenie en Tauride
have been surpassed in our modern era even if the particular singers who surpassed her were influenced by her, but some of her interpretations still remain the greatest on record by anyone. Medea and Lady Macbeth are two such interpretations, and so too is this live 1955
Lucia di Lammermoor.
Callas had already recorded the role under Tullio Serafin two years earlier, and although that studio recording had something new and different to say about the opera, in musical and dramatic terms it was not really that much different from the vastly underrated 1942 Cetra recording by soprano Lina Pagliughi and the Turin Opera company, but in this performance Callas and Karajan completely rethought the opera in terms of musical style and dramatic verity, and the results are still unique and stunning.
Granted, this is still the somewhat abridged version of the opera as it had been performed for much of the 20th century. One wonders why Karajan did not open up some of the cuts imposed by tradition, but perhaps he felt that the more concise the opera the more the drama would impress the listener. I know some people who like this performance but not because of Karajan; they feel his conducting is too “Germanic,” and therefore not appropriate for Italian
. I completely disagree. Indeed, half of the greatness of this performance emanates from the podium, and I daresay that Callas should have preserved something of this presentation when she remade
in 1959. By then, Karajan had left EMI for DG, but EMI had Rudolf Kempe in its fold by then, and Kempe’s similarly tragic interpretation of Puccini’s
proves that he was on much the same track as Karajan was in this
The bottom line is that the music unfolds with a much more tragic cast in this performance than in any other, and Karajan’s singers are all on the same page with him, even the often recalcitrant di Stefano, who sings with surprising fervor and a poetic imagination not present in his studio recording with Callas. As for the soprano, she was able at this stage of her career to pull back on the voice and present us with a character more fragile, emotionally and mentally, than usually emerged in the performances of the mechanical twitter-birds who preceded her in this music. We can actually feel the sadness that envelops Lucia, the feeling of inevitable fate that closes in on her and drives her insane. The exposed high note that caps the finale of act II starts off gloriously but then turns into a slightly shrill and edgy sound—the sound of inner pain and turmoil. Make no mistake, this change of timbre on that high note was not an accident of bad breath support. It was an artistic statement of the character’s frame of mind.
I’ve read that 19th-century audiences, especially when hearing such great artists as Adelina Patti in this role, wept openly over the fate of poor Lucia. One can scarcely imagine anyone weeping, openly or otherwise, over the performances of Tetrazzini, Galli-Curci, Pons, or Peters in this role, but we do get caught up in Callas’s Lucia on this recording as in no other. It has been said that Karajan formed his musical concept of this score in part from hearing Toscanini conduct it when the Italian went on tour to Germany with the La Scala opera company in 1929. Listen to the quick tempo, with its ominously snapped bass and cello strings, in the sextet, and you will hear at least one bit that Karajan picked up from Toscanini.
This is, to my ears, the only
mad scene on record that truly presents the character as mad, and not just as a soprano singing bouncy melodies, roulades, and trills. Even Toscanini couldn’t do that much with the music: He told soprano Toti dal Monte, “Don’t worry about mad scene. Is just a vocal recital with the flute.” This mad scene is anything but a vocal recital with the flute. Taken at an almost excruciatingly slow tempo, it shows that Lucia really does become unhinged. My sole complaint here is that Karajan could have brought in a glass harmonica player, as the score requests.
No question, this is an interpretation of
Lucia di Lammermoor
that moves far outside the box, giving us a reason to like Donizetti’s too-often-performed opera as a dramatic vehicle. I doubt if anyone will be able to duplicate this or anything like it again.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley [5/2012]
Works on This Recording
Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti
Giuseppe Zampieri (Tenor),
Rolando Panerai (Baritone),
Nicola Zaccaria (Bass),
Luisa Villa (Mezzo Soprano),
Mario Carlin (Tenor),
Giuseppe Di Stefano (Tenor),
Maria Callas (Soprano)
Herbert von Karajan
Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus,
Berlin RIAS Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1835; Italy
Date of Recording: 1955
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