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Queen of Pain

Maria Callas, Callas Edition (EMI Classics)

Opera review, November 28, 1997

EMI Classics is in the midst of a major project: it's reissuing, in spiffy new digital remasters, its vast hoard of Maria Callas recordings. The first wave--20 boxed sets of complete operas--has already come out. A dozen of her recital discs are to follow in January; a second wave of opera boxes will arrive next March. I've spent the past few weeks listening to the first 20 sets, and I now know what it feels like to be a lab rat. I've been gulping down arias and duets and choruses in doses far in excess of normal human consumption; the level of Puccini in my brain is high enough to trigger tumors. But I think I'll be all right, now that it's over. I might even be willing to listen to more Callas someday. Just not today, thank you.

I can't recommend that anybody else plow through the whole lot the way I did. The most obvious thing about EMI's "Callas Edition" is that it's wildly uneven. It does have more than its fair share of glories. But some of the sets are barely passable, and a couple (I'm thinking particularly of a recording of La traviata from 1958 and an Aida from 1955) are so poor I don't understand why anybody thought they were worth remastering. When I sort out the heap of boxes on my desk, I find that three sets float to the top: the 1955 recording of Rigoletto, the 1957 Il barbiere di Siviglia (both conducted by Tullio Serafin), and the 1953 Tosca (conducted by Victor de Sabata). They're easily among the finest opera recordings I've ever heard. They're great operas--an issue because Callas was often at her best in bad operas. They're magnificently conducted, with wonderful casts in top form. EMI's new Abbey Road remastering sounds terrific. And they offer a superb showcase for Callas's dazzling vocal technique and commanding emotional power, without any of the excesses and grotesqueries that make some of her other performances so nerve-racking.

Of course for a true Callas junkie, the excesses and grotesqueries are the whole point. The EMI sets are mostly studio recordings, and Callas was always a little subdued in the studio. To get her at her most distinctively bizarre, you need to hear her onstage in front of a live audience--where she pushed at the limits of her voice and (it sometimes seemed) her sanity. A few of the EMI sets are live, including what might be her most extreme performance, a Lucia di Lammermoor from 1957 (in next year's batch of rereleases). But most of the classic live performances are on obscure and fringe labels, and most of those discs have horrendous sound. Yet it's part of the Callas mystique that her greatest work sounds remote and damaged, which goes together with her reputation for freaky behavior and the apparent miraculousness and fragility of her whole career.

I have to be honest--I'm bored to death by any story about an opera diva throwing tantrums. (I like them even less than stories about imperious conductors incinerating hapless musicians with their laserlike glares.) So most of the Callas mystique leaves me indifferent. The tumultuous love affairs, the wild arguments at rehearsals, the melodramatic collapses in mid-aria before horrified audiences, and so on and on--I have a suspicion that it was all much more fun when Callas was the only diva pulling these stunts. Now they barely register on the scale of childish self-indulgence. Compared with the pampered lunacy of today's divas, Callas's strangest outbursts would barely provoke a stagehand's sneer; put her up against any million-dollar athlete and she comes off as an exemplar of Cartesian rationality.

But even if you ignore all that, there's one long-running public tragedy you can't avoid: her voice. Most opera singers gradually lose both range and control as they get older; that's why they retire from performing full operas and switch to recitals, where they can pick and choose the music they can still sing well. But Callas's voice didn't decorously decay; it self-destructed almost overnight. To this day, people debate why it happened--overwork, exhaustion, poor training, some congenital defect in her vocal cords--but whatever the reason, her live performances and recitals from 1958 on are an erratic track of disasters, partial returns to form, sudden bursts of the old fire, and abrupt failures. It made everything about Callas's career in those years weird and suspenseful. Would she show up? Would her voice function at all? Would she be able to get through to the end without falling apart? In some of her last recitals you can hear naked terror in her voice as she approached a challenging high note.

Fortunately this isn't a big issue with the bulk of the EMI sets--they're mostly from earlier in her career, when her voice was still strong (and besides, in the studio she could always stop and start over again). But here and there you can pick up the warning signs. In the live recording of Ponchielli's La gioconda from 1958 her voice sounds raw and exhausted, though she's able to make that work for her--it merely sounds as if the character is raw and exhausted. She's not so resourceful though in a studio Lucia di Lammermoor from the same year: long passages have the ungovernable raven's-caw quality that would soon overwhelm her entirely. I don't think EMI is doing Callas's reputation any favors by reissuing this performance--but at least it makes her last studio recording, the 1964 Carmen, more impressive by comparison. Here, after years of exhaustive retraining, she was able to pull off one last great performance. But it's only a tactical victory; you can hear the strain in her voice and the elaborate diversions and feints that cover for her weakened range. That's not the Callas anybody needs to remember.

But then her voice was fragile even at its best. In her glory years, from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, she consistently had a tricky time with her upper register; at unexpected moments her voice would flail around alarmingly or blow out altogether. Her lower register was always constricted. And her middle register was--well, nobody ever knew what to call it. "Veiled" is one critic's polite term. "Phlegmy" might be more honest. She sounded like she needed to clear her throat. I've sometimes wondered if she had more control over this effect than she admitted, since it did tend to thicken mysteriously when a dramatic situation was at its darkest. In her recital discs, where she was singing for the beauty of the music rather than the drama, it's often barely noticeable. Then her voice became insinuating, charming--even, in a way, lovely. (Try the EMI disc called Lyric and Coluratura Arias, out in January.)

If her voice was so erratic, why did she make such a huge impression on the opera world? One reason is her craft. Most opera singers have a natural tendency to coast through the easy passages and save themselves for the big moments. Not Callas. She slaved over every aspect of her parts, pouring as much of her fanatical attention into the most incidental recitatives as she did into the grandest arias. The result, which the "Callas Edition" amply documents, is that she mastered virtually every genre, style, technique, and mannerism of the whole operatic repertoire, to a depth that makes most singers look like amateurs. She excelled not only in the bel canto opera of Bellini and Donizetti (which is what she was famous for), but also the grand opera of Verdi, the opera verismo of Mascagni and Leoncavallo, and--hard as it might be to believe, given her reputation for florid melodrama--the comic opera of Rossini.

But maybe that's not so surprising. Comedy requires exactly those gifts for discipline and precision that Callas had in abundance. So I suppose it's only to be expected that she would make a wonderful Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia: serene, delicate, and elusive. (This is one role where she was better in her toned-down studio mode; onstage she overacted and bombed.) She's a laugh riot as Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia; there's one great aria where she ricochets from insincere flirtatiousness to cringing self-pity to imperious rage with the precision of a jet pilot executing a barrel roll. And in both operas she reveals a kind of jazzy delight in collaborating with other singers. For sheer exhilaration, there isn't much to compare with hearing her race through long and intricate quartets at top speed without once stepping on her partners' lines.

"Collaborating" is another concept you don't often encounter in discussions of Callas, but she often brought out the best in other singers. This is a big stroke of luck for listeners, since even in her major performances she wasn't onstage all the time--Italian opera may have had better parts for women than Hollywood does now, but the men were still expected to carry the heaviest loads of plot. A dull performance from a tenor or baritone is even harder to sit through when you know that Callas is standing off-mike ready to kick ass.

But there were singers who could hold their own onstage with her. The "Callas Edition," in fact, amounts to a kind of survey of Italian singing in one of its richest periods. I came away from these sets with nothing but praise for baritone Tito Gobbi, for instance: his voice has some of the same weaknesses that Callas's does (particularly a strained upper register), but he more than makes up for it with spectacular drama. He's roaringly good as Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and he's even better in the title role of Rigoletto, where his voice seems to darken with horror as the tragedy deepens. His duets with Callas are all black volcanic fury from him and dazzling lightning from her; cumulatively they take on a kind of Shakespearean grandeur.

Just as impressive is Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. He's perfect as Selim in Il turco in Italia--charmingly bewildered by the eccentricity of these barbarous Italians, but with just the right hint of villainousness underneath. He's flat-out wonderful as Padre Guardiano in La forza del destino. This set is one of the jewels of the whole collection: Tullio Serafin's conducting is wild and headlong, effortlessly encompassing Verdi's gorgeous profusion of duels, battles, vendettas, deathbed confessions, riotous tavern scenes, military camps filled with swarms of refugees, hushed ceremonies in mountain monasteries, and God knows what else. Callas herself is in peak form as the tormented heroine Leonora--only one of several characters in the chaotic plot to renounce the secular world for the cloistered life (to Verdi, the ultimate romantic gesture). But Rossi-Lemeni proves to be the anchor: his grave and powerful performance as the monk almost succeeds in persuading me that this thunderous nonsense has some moral heft.

But about Callas's usual love interest, Giuseppe di Stefano (who shows up on eight of these sets), I'm more ambivalent. He did have a voice like burnished gold; it was a little past its best in the 1950s, but it was never less than a pleasure to hear. Yet as a dramatic presence he was a lightweight, and he also had an eerie air of caddishness that gives his scenes with Callas a discordant subtext: no matter what the plot says, you find yourself vaguely thinking that he's not good enough for her. This damages what is otherwise one of the best sets in the whole collection, the 1955 Il trovatore conducted by Herbert von Karajan, in which di Stefano as Manrico comes off as a callow stand-in for a swashbuckling hero. But there were a few times when he rose to the occasion magnificently, the terrific 1954 Pagliacci, for instance, where the sweetness of his voice is racked with what sounds like authentic anguish. I can hardly believe he had it in him.

Callas was also lucky--most of the time--in her conductors. There is one loser: Antonino Votto, a hack who sounded like he had his gaze on the time clock offstage; if he kept the orchestra from drowning out the singers, he figured he'd done a good day's work. His flaccidity undercuts some of the finest singing of the whole project: Callas, di Stefano, and Gobbi tearing through Un ballo in maschera. Two other conductors--Franco Ghione, who did the 1958 Traviata, and Georges Pretre, who shows up for the 1964 Carmen--are just as bad, but fortunately they're around less often. On the other hand, there's Victor de Sabata, who conducted the magnificent 1953 Tosca, von Karajan at the height of his powers (he would soon take a steep dive into self-parody), and Callas's mentor, the great Serafin, whose strong, conservative, and vigorous conducting brings Callas's wild originality together with the finest traditions of Italian opera performance.

Still, it's Callas's name that's bigger than anybody else's on the CD boxes, and the "Callas Edition" stands or falls by what she does. What justifies such a vast project of remastering old mono recordings, few of which have sound that any listener today would consider any better than adequate? Is Callas really all that exceptional?

The usual line is that Callas was a great dramatic actress, which is true enough as far as it goes. It's no secret that most opera singers are lousy actors; they think acting means silent-movie pantomime--throwing back their arms to mimic surprise, clasping their hands together for anguish. Some of the best of them--Pavarotti comes to mind here--can't even be bothered to make that much effort; they just stand where they're told and emit their glorious music like caged songbirds. Callas was obviously in another class, because she ransacked scores for drama and psychological nuance. That's why she gave such fanatical attention to aspects of operatic form other singers shrug off, like the recitatives; more words, however throwaway, meant more dramatic material to work with.

But nobody's going to mistake Callas for Meryl Streep; she was a great actress only by the minimal standards of opera. What really matters is the kind of drama she was interested in. She was fascinated--obsessed, really--with extreme emotions, and she was working her way through the repertoire for operas that allowed her to vent them. So while she did turn in classic performances of Rossini and Verdi, that's not really where her heart was--and they're probably not strong enough to sustain her reputation on their own. Rossini and Verdi were too realistic for her, too radiant with psychic health. She found her true home in the melodramas of Puccini and the extravagantly absurd bel canto operas of Bellini and Donizetti.

It's always going to be an obstacle that Callas's best work is found in operas that are basically nothing more than lurid kitsch. It's a problem everybody who loves opera can't avoid--the point where the idiocy of what you're watching is finally too much to take. A lot of people hit that wall about ten minutes into Bellini's Norma, when they realize that the plot is about the tragic love affair between a Roman legionnaire and a druid priestess. But this was exactly the point at which Callas's art caught fire. The more foolish and improbable the dramatic situation, the better she was; earthbound plots set too close a limit on her inexhaustible capacity to display pain.

Where did this capacity come from? I don't have the slightest idea--though it does explain why people are so obsessed with her biography. Yet I don't think the details of her life provide answers one way or the other, except that in her life as in her art she was looking for situations that seemed to correspond to the strangeness of her own psyche. She found what she was looking for in Tosca, where she could make the heroine's suicide a kind of spectacular triumph. She was an amazing Madame Butterfly, because Butterfly's grief seemed to come so naturally to her; it rises to a religious fervor by the end, as though abandonment and death were the most exalted of earthly states. I don't think I've ever heard another human being sound quite as angry as she does in Cherubini's Medea (EMI has a good performance scheduled, but the best ones are on the pirate labels); when she contemplates murdering her children, her voice takes on a sublime demonic fury. And she's the only singer I know who has ever made the ending of Manon Lescaut believable: when the heroine is exiled to America and left to die of starvation in what Puccini blithely describes as "a vast featureless plain on the outskirts of New Orleans," Callas makes such a surreal fate seem somehow inevitable--go down her road, the moral is, and you're bound to end up in the abyss, no matter what the map says.

Ultimately what makes Callas such a great artist is that the mere release of these extreme emotions was never good enough--she was constantly looking for ways to reshape them for maximum expressive power. You can hear the way she worked by comparing her different takes on Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. EMI is bringing out her two best performances in next year's batch: an early studio recording (conducted by Serafin) from 1953 and a live performance (conducted by von Karajan) from 1955. They offer a startling demonstration of how much control she had over her wildest effects.

Lucia is a perfect Callas heroine: an innocent girl who, for reasons too tenuous and improbable to recount, goes insane and dies. For the studio recording, Callas came up with one of those brilliant strokes of theater that made her reputation. She played Lucia as already insane when the opera begins. Her first aria, where she describes a ghost she saw in the garden, is dripping with sinister foreboding; her duet with her lover Edgardo is altogether creepy, because he's so happily oblivious to her air of morbid anxiety (this is one place where she makes di Stefano's shallowness work for her). It was an unforgettable coup. The only problem with this bleakest of Lucias is that there's nowhere to go from the opening; the later scenes come off as stagnant and superfluous. So for the live performance two years later she reconceived the role to make it more dynamic and suspenseful. This time Lucia is radiantly childlike--her ghost story is now a sweetly mysterious fairy tale, and in the duet she sounds like an innocent girl oblivious to the wimpishness of her lover. She may not be crazy, but she's too fragile for the sordid world around her--she cracks at the first complication. From then on, Callas creates a wholly irrational internal landscape for her; in her great second-act mad scene, she flashes from one disassociated mood to the next--happiness, terror, confusion, dread, ecstasy--like a disintegrating kaleidoscope randomly scattering its colored shards.

I've never heard another opera performance like it; it's opera transformed into a kind of visionary theater. It recalls Samuel Johnson's great judgment on John Milton's poetry: "He can please when pleasure is required, but it is his peculiar power to astonish." In the "Callas Edition" the pleasure comes and goes, but the astonishment endures.