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Cherubini: Medea / Rescigno, Callas, Vickers, Cossotto, Carlyle

Release Date: 09/24/2013 
Label:  Ica Classics   Catalog #: 5110   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  David AllenMaria CallasJon VickersFiorenza Cossotto,   ... 
Conductor:  Nicola Rescigno
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden OrchestraRoyal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Length: 2 Hours 10 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CHERUBINI Medea Nicola Rescigno, cond; Maria Callas ( Medea ); Joan Carlyle ( Glauce ); Fiorenza Cossotto ( Neris ); Jon Vickers ( Giasone ); Nicola Zaccaria ( Creonte ); Mary Wells ( First Maiden ); Elizabeth Rust ( Second Read more Maiden ); David Allen ( Captain ); Covent Garden Op O & Ch ICA 5110, mono (2 CDs: 129:53) Live: London 6/30/1959

Maria Callas, probably the ultimate cult opera singer of all time, was a creature of both innovation and tradition—innovation in the way she approached the total performance of a role, often so dramatically vivid as to be unsettling for her audiences, but tradition in her inclusion of superfluous rallentandos, ritards, and unwritten curlicues (trills, turns, and extra cadenzas). It was the sort of style that would soon go out of fashion forever, but Callas was able to maintain it for some years just because she was so good at what she did.

Although she sang an extraordinarily wide repertoire—all of it traditional tonal music, none of it modern—she had five key roles that might be called her signatures. They were, in chronological order of their premieres, Medea, Norma, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata, and Tosca. Of these, the first three excited the most comment and drew the most attention: Medea because no one was doing it at the time, Norma because it had long been considered too difficult to become a repertoire opera, and Lucia because she defied the expectations of the pretty but mindless soubrette-coloratura voices that one usually heard in the work. Yet in reviving Medea, Callas once again used a corrupted score. The changes began in Frankfurt in 1855, where Cherubini’s spoken dialogues were replaced with sung recitatives by Franz Lachner—this was the version that premiered in Italy in 1909—but when the opera was first revived for Callas in 1953, an entirely new edition had been prepared by Vito Frazzi and Tullio Serafin. We should not be so horrified by this nowadays, in our sometimes too rigorous “purity of the score” mentality. Remember that even Toscanini made entirely new performing editions of Gluck’s Armide and Orfeo at the Metropolitan Opera. “Fixing” old scores so that they came more into line with contemporary aesthetics—provided that it was done tastefully, and not just to produce a garish effect—was considered fit and proper in the era in question.

Now, I for one would like to go on record as saying that I am not entirely opposed to this practice. Everyone seems to forget (if they ever knew) that, at the time he died, Georges Bizet was beginning to write through-composed recitatives for Carmen so that it would become popular outside of the Paris Opéra-Comique, or that Charles Gounod did exactly that before Faust left the shores of France for foreign climes. Who today can even conceive of Faust with spoken recitatives? Thank goodness that the composer himself did it, or we’d hear a hue and cry from the musicologists about how we simply must hear Faust with spoken dialogue. But, Callas being Callas, she went further still, cutting and rearranging passages (some of them with the help of Leonard Bernstein, her conductor in some of those early 1953 performances) so that today we have two fairly different editions of Medea: the Cherubini one, and the Callas one. Judging from the emotional impact of her performances, however, I’ll take the Callas edition every time. Even the undisputedly great Magda Olivero, performing a more “correct” edition of the score in Dallas during the 1960s, could not make as great an effect with the music as Callas did.

But then we move to the role of Giasone, and here there is really only one tenor who was good enough to confront Callas as Medea, and that was Jon Vickers. His first performance of the opera with her was in the legendary Dallas performance of June 11, 1958, also preserved on pirate tapes and issued on CD. It is an incendiary performance, every bit as good as this one, yet although the sound quality is bright and clear on top, it tends to compress the voices in their middle and lower ranges, and the orchestra sounds particularly unrealistic.

This June 1959 Covent Garden performance goes a long way towards restoring the Callas-Vickers collaboration in more attractive and realistic sound. We have here a different supporting cast—Teresa Berganza was Neris, Elizabeth Carron was Glauce, and the very young Judith Raskin was the First Maid in the Dallas performance—but the three major principals (Callas, Vickers, and Zaccaria) are the same, as is conductor Rescigno. Like the Dallas version, this performance has been available before, on BJR 105 (LP), Melodram, Virtuoso, Diva/Sakkaris and Arkadia (CDs), but coming directly from the BBC master tapes, this is a much clearer representation of the performance.

Now, I will not pretend that the sound here is state-of-the-art of its time. It’s typical radio broadcast sound of the 1950s—somewhat dry and a little boxy with a certain amount of tape hiss—but having heard both Callas and Vickers in person (not together, however), I can attest that their voices are captured with greater fidelity here than even on many of their studio recordings. This is particularly true of Callas, whose voice, though never actually beautiful in the conventional sense (she herself once described it as a sulphuric voice, another time as “a cheap violin of unknown manufacture played by a virtuoso”), was particularly hard to capture on recordings. What I remember most about it is that it had that metallic core (call it “sulphuric” if you like), around which was a diffuse ambience that spread out into the theater. Some recordings only capture the metal core (this is true of the 1958 Dallas Medea, which is so boxy that it sounds as if it were recorded in Studio 8-H); some only capture the diffuse ambience; but this radio broadcast captures both. I can play any moment in this performance for someone and say, with complete confidence, “This is what Maria Callas’s voice actually sounded like.” And that is quite an accomplishment.

What I found even more interesting was that, in the year between the Dallas and London performances, Callas had changed her concept of certain passages to give a different dramatic emphasis. This is especially evident in the first act aria, “Dei tuoi figli la madre tu vedi” (The mother of your children you see). In Dallas she is angry and volatile, her performance of the aria lasting 4:26. In London she is sad and melancholy, more hurt than angry, at least at this point in the opera; there are indeed some high notes that she sings loudly for dramatic emphasis, but the overall feel of the aria is completely different, and she takes 20 seconds longer to sing it. (The booklet gives the timing as 5:08, but there is applause after the aria in the London performance whereas in Dallas there is not.) It is exactly because of little touches, and changes, such as these that made Callas such a fascinating artist, and one whose best performances, such as this one, continue to influence and inspire other singers.

Having seen Callas and Vickers, I can almost see their facial expressions and gestures as they perform these roles. Sadly, I cannot say the same of Nicola Zaccaria, one of those basses (Rossi-Lemeni, who I did see, was another) who were known as fine stage actors in their day. I can only imagine the impact of this trio on the Covent Garden audiences of that time. Quite naturally, however, the critics went insane with awe. Nothing like this had ever been seen on an opera stage in that time: Greek drama brought to vivid, almost frightening, life via an Italian opera from the period after the French Revolution. (I don’t think I need point out that, although Callas sang quite acceptable French and enjoyed certain French operas, she always felt that, Cherubini being an Italian composer, his music made a better impact in the Italian translation.)

As for the supporting singers, Carlyle’s soprano has a bit more vibrato and is a tad softer in focus than Carron (Dallas), but she sings an excellent and affecting Glauce, and Callas always got the best out of her mezzos. Young Cossotto doesn’t sound all that different, at this stage of her career, from young Berganza, but both have a more dramatic profile here than they usually did, and in her act 2 aria Cossotto’s voice has a lovely sheen that she later lost. And let’s face it, the Covent Garden chorus of this period could sing rings around that of Dallas.

For Callas fans, then, this issue—like the “official” La Scala release of La Vestale —is a must-get for your collection. You can safely junk all prior issues of it.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Medea by Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  David Allen (Baritone), Maria Callas (Soprano), Jon Vickers (Tenor),
Fiorenza Cossotto (Mezzo Soprano), Nicola Zaccaria (Bass), Joan Carlyle (Soprano),
Mary Wells (Soprano)
Conductor:  Nicola Rescigno
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Period: Classical 
Written: 1797; France 
Date of Recording: 6/30/1959 
Venue:  Live  Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 
Language: Italian 

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