Notes and Editorial Reviews
Callas had considerable artistic control over her studio recordings. Takes and retakes were done until she was satisfied with the results; occasionally she withheld permission to release the recordings if she felt they did not present her in the best light. Although intended to best represent her artistry, some of the excitement she generated in the theatre was not fully captured in the studio; for that we turn to recordings made in performance. These live recordings present Callas without the benefit of retakes, but give the present-day listener an opportunity to discover what all the excitement surrounding her performances was about. We also have to take what we are given in terms of sonic quality. Fortunately, this is one of the better
ones, both in terms of Callas’s performance and the quality of her costars’ performances; and brought to us in decent sound.
Callas made two studio recordings of Lucia, both for EMI, and both recordings (1953 mono; 1959 stereo) were considered “complete”; but only in the sense that they presented a cohesive story line and were substantially more than a collection of highlights. Both studio endeavors are not full presentations of the score, however. What were often referred to as “performance cuts” were exercised, excisions of scenes and material not considered necessary to the story and eliminated to shorten the running time. Such croppings, especially of works not overly long to begin with, are frequently frowned on today, and more recent studio recordings usually include all of Donizetti’s score.
In addition to the studio recordings, several of Callas’s performances of Lucia in various opera houses have been made available: Mexico City, 1952; La Scala, 1954; Berlin, 1955; Naples, 1956; New York, 1956, and a radio broadcast in 1957. The CD under review is the September 29, 1955, performance from Berlin under Karajan. Along with the two EMI studio endeavors—both with Serafin conducting, this Berlin Lucia is among the best examples of Callas in the role. Like the two EMIs, the opera is shorn of two scenes (the scene between Lucia and Raimondo and the scene identified as “Storm, scene, and duet”) and some commentary by Enrico, Raimondo, and Chorus near the end of the mad scene. However, as a bonus, Karajan and company reprise the sextet; so, if you like it as much as the audience in Berlin did, you get to hear it twice!
Callas’s performance in Berlin is closer in interpretation and vocal quality to her 1953 EMI set than the later stereo recording. She is more vocally secure than in 1959, and in the two years since the earlier studio recording, she has found additional insights into the role. Her voice seems lighter in Berlin than in the 1953 EMI; she’s added an extra measure of innocence and vulnerability to the character. This performance is a splendid record of Callas at her best: the precision and detail of the passagework, the legato, the soft pianissimos, the melting diminuendos, the gleaming high notes.
The mad scene encompasses many moods and shifts in tone. A good singing actress responds to these with changes in vocal color, expression, and volume: sometimes sweet and innocent, sometimes dark and fearful, sometimes ethereal, sometimes tragic. It is more than just a long aria with lots of fioritura; it’s a mini-drama in itself. The mad scene is frequently a favored showcase for sopranos who possess an agile voice and some splendid high notes. Callas was among the first to express the drama in the role. She managed to unite the disparate moods into a seamless whole. In addition, she gathered the entire role of Lucia, all of the scenes and arias, into a unified characterization that leads convincingly to the mad scene. Her Lucia was more than a lovesick girl suddenly gone berserk in the last act; hints of the character’s mental fragility are given each time Callas’s Lucia appears.
Callas is partnered by the ever-passionate Giuseppe di Stefano, as she is in the 1953 EMI set. In both recordings, di Stefano is in prime voice, ardent to the dying note; and usually preferred to Ferruccio Tagliavini (a renowned lyric tenor, unfortunately near the end of his career in 1959) in the EMI stereo set. Tito Gobbi’s Enrico (1953 EMI) is a dark-toned villain; Rolando Panerai (1955 Berlin) has a lighter timbre, a pronounced vibrato, but offers an Enrico that is rather fascinating. He starts out somewhat benignly, and then—just when you think he’s not such a bad guy—he bares his fangs and spits some rather nasty venom. The small role of Alisa is given to Luisa Villa, who turns in a distinctive characterization.
The sound on this 1955 Berlin release is surprisingly good. That’s not to say it measures up to the 1959 stereo set, but it’s very clear and well balanced, with only a few patches of over-saturation or fuzziness. The 1953 studio album has never been one of EMI’s better sonic achievements, although the sound in its CD incarnation is much improved over the earlier LPs. If Callas is to be your preferred Lucia, these three entries are worthy recommendations. This Opera d’Oro album has a very attractive price but no libretto. This same performance also circulated on the EMI label, an album that included an unflattering photo of Callas and Karajan on the cover and a booklet with the libretto in four languages. The two studio EMIs also have librettos in four languages, and are available at mid and full price. Incidentally, recordings of Lucia divide the work into either two or three acts. It is generally considered a three-act opera, and all three of these Callas CDs adhere to a three-act format, although abridged. Should you be seeking this 1955 live performance with Callas, di Stefano, and Karajan, be careful you don’t confuse it with a 1954 performance from Mexico. I have not heard it, but I’ve read that it is compromised by sonic difficulties and omissions.
FANFARE: David L. Kirk
Works on This Recording
Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti
Maria Callas (Soprano),
Giuseppe Di Stefano (Tenor),
Rolando Panerai (Baritone),
Nicola Zaccaria (Bass),
Giuseppe Zampieri (Tenor),
Luisa Villa (Mezzo Soprano),
Mario Carlin (Tenor)
Herbert von Karajan
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,
Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Written: 1835; Italy
Date of Recording: 09/29/1955
Venue: Live Berlin
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