Notes and Editorial Reviews
Listening to the new Maria Callas Remastered–Complete Studio Recordings is like cleaning your glasses or looking at a wine glass that has just come from the dishwasher. No spots. A fog, a type of indefinable schmutz that you were only vaguely aware of, is suddenly gone: OMG, so that’s what this was supposed to sound like!
For the techies out there, the original recordings–many with boxy sound (the first Tosca, for example), many murky (Il barbiere di Siviglia), many with extraneous noises, such as traffic outside the studio (the stereo Norma), or a low rumble, which, it is explained, came from the London Underground (the stereo Lucia)–have been transferred at 24-bit/96kHz, in contrast to the 2007 remasterings, which were at 16-bit/44.1 kHz (not as sharp). In addition, in 2007 some reverb was added for “presence” and the noise-suppressing ART process flattened dynamics. The original studio master tapes have been used here.
I can only verify the results: I’m pretty certain I am now hearing the voice of Maria Callas as closely as possible to what it sounded like live, in the studios, when she was recording these works. I only heard/saw her live once–during her disastrous concert tour in 1974, when there were only a few decent notes left in her voice–but I do recall a resonance and a “buzz” to those good notes that has only been hinted at on her recordings prior to these newly mastered releases. It’s like hearing them all–26 complete operas and 13 recitals–anew. Any student or lover of singing, and particular, Callas, can attest to the ways in which her voice changed over the years; but now, without distortion or anything added, it’s even clearer–and more importantly, we can now hear how her voice, in fact, remained the same.
The voice itself is endlessly fascinating. Aside from her occasional use of a “little girl” voice–as Gilda, Amina, Elvira, Butterfly (in Act 1)–the middle octave always had a darkness to it. And even in something like her opening words in the duet with Giorgio from the 1953 Puritani–“O amato zio, o mio secondo padre!”–there is a slight heaviness, both solid and tender. And her genius at eliding the word “zio” with the next “o” tells us so much about the warm, loving relationship between the two.
From the start of her career as well, the very top of the voice–from B-flat to E-flat in alt–can be wiry and precarious, or conversely, rock solid. This lasted until late, 1959. And the vicious (or miserable, or hateful, or ferocious), colorful, dramatically right-on chest voice, unequalled by any other soprano on the planet, was also always present–just compare her two recordings of Gioconda, the first from 1952 and the second, from seven years later. Her chest voice sounds like an erupting volcano in both. The intriguing “bottled up” sound that some find stunning and interesting and others find simply odd is there from the start. (Walter Legge hypothesized that the roof of her mouth was peculiarly high, like a “gothic arch”, which caused that effect.)
It is often said that her voice was everything but beautiful, but unless we’re speaking in Kanawa/Battle/Fleming terms of beauty, this is not true. The improved sound, with none of the tubbiness or flatness of the pre-stereo recordings, allows us to hear a sweetness that is unmatchable. Her recits and both duets from Sonnambula are balletic; Gilda’s innocence is irresistible; her exchanges with her mother from, yes, the later Gioconda, are concerned, loving, and girlish. I might add that the original release of the Puritani sounded like mud; now, each voice, and the orchestra, is clear. And we can hear niceties in Callas’ singing that had been covered since ’53.
In addition, with the sound cleared up, her sheer craziness and desperation as Santuzza (not to mention Gioconda) is now wonderfully in-your-face. The yelling in Cavalleria, with orchestra at full throttle, no longer distorts, and the extreme anxiety that pours out of Callas is matched by the disdain from Giuseppe di Stefano in the duet. In August of ‘54 alone she recorded Forza, Il turco in Italia, 11 Puccini arias, and nine arias as different as “La mamma morta” and “The Bell Song”, all while learning La vestale. I cannot imagine a soprano today who would subject herself to such a schedule.
Strange, other things are now audible. To name two: In Barbiere, on the 2007 CDs, there is a little harpsichord flourish after Bartolo’s “A un dottor della mia sorte” that introduces Berta’s recit before the faux-drunken Count enters. That flourish ends CD 1 and starts CD 2–a really sloppy oversight, now fixed. And marvelously, the rumor that Giuseppe di Stefano did not show up for part of the Puritani recording sessions and another tenor had to sing his music is now audible: As Callas sings “Son vergin vezzosa”, Giorgio, Arturo, and Enrichetta join in, making it a quartet. Listen carefully: In the first verse there is no tenor audible, and in the second the tenor is clearly not di Stefano. Just a lagniappe, I realize, but it will give you an idea of the clarity of the remasterings. Additionally, the opening “Scarpia chords” from the first Tosca are no longer muffled and Ferrando’s narrative from Act 1 of Trovatore is wonderflly spooky and clear. In fact, all of the Trovatore is brilliant and every nuance present.
Of course the flaws are still present. On the Callas à Paris 1 from 1961, after a simply ravishing “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”, with the most sultry downward portamentos in history and a voice as solid as a rock, we get Juliette’s Waltz Song, which, though her sound is remarkably placed for a younger, more innocent character, is about as ugly above the staff as possible. And that CD ends with a performance of “Depuis le jour” that never should have been released. In other words, we’re fine in the mezzo repertoire on the CD, save for the finale of “Pleurez mes yeux”, which ends on a ghastly high B that caps an otherwise overwhelmingly sad reading of the aria. Callas’ 1964 singing of Weber’s “Ocean, thou mighty monster”, in garbled, bizarre English (listen to the way she pronounces “burning”) is capped by a high C that could kill the weaker among us, and most of the Rossini and Donizetti Arias CD, from 1963 and ’64, is a joyless, effortful affair.
The 69 CDs are handsomely packaged with a 132-page booklet, each opera or recital with its original covers (a 70th disc, a CD-ROM, contains easy-to-download librettos in PDF files). This is an incomparable release.
-- Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com