The Callas Divide

New releases of old performances to argue over

Opera queens are of two camps (as it were) on the subject of legendary opera diva Maria Callas. Twenty-five years after her death, a mention of her name is sufficient to polarize any group of opera lovers. Her detractors liken her voice to some unlistenable amalgam of those annoying NYC taxicab announcements and the soundtrack to a PETA film about inappropriate animal experimentation. Furthermore, they find her dramatic interpretations to be overwrought posturings thatcannot quite conceal her shaky technique. Those of us on the other side of this dispute liken her voice to well-aged balsamic vinegar: dark, complex, and richly mellowed, but retaining sufficient acidic pungency for moments of dramatic intensity. Her interpretations are not so much acts of impersonation, but acts of creation—when experiencing a Callas performance; it’s not possible to imagine any other singer in the role. This is particularly true of her live performances where she performs with risk-taking abandon. Happily, EMI has just issued a bunch of live Callas performances in time for the holiday season. None of these performances are new discoveries; those elusive treasures rumored to be in the vaults of La Scala and the Chicago Lyric Opera still remain unavailable. Still the sound is noticeably improved over previous issues (if still not wonderful) and there are even librettos because you’ll want to follow every word. While Callas acolytes will want the entire batch of opera and recitals, the best introduction to her art from these CDs is the performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera recorded on opening night at La Scala, Milan in 1957. As Amelia, the woman who harbors an illicit love for her husband’s best friend, her character’s torment and anguish are memorably palpable, even without any video souvenir of her acting in the role. In this set, she is more than ably partnered by three of the greatest Italian singers of the time: the fiery tenor Giuseppe di Stefano as her love interest Ricardo, the velvet-voiced yet impassioned baritone Ettore Bastianini as her husband, and super-mezzo Giulietta Simionato as the witch Ulrica. Conductor Gianandrea Gavezzini brings a welcome moody urgency to the performance. Two other sets in the series feature Callas’s only opera performances with Leonard Bernstein as conductor in Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Cherubini’s Medea. A telepathic bond seems to exist between the two musicians with the conductor keeping the orchestra with the singer through every subtle variation in tempo and setting the ideal speeds for the showpiece arias as he does most famously in the dazzlingly fast finale of La Sonnambula. While the other singers in the casts may not all be at Callas’s exalted level, these performances are justly famous and offer many rewards in repeated listenings.