divina callas warner

La Divina Maria Callas in all her roles
Studio & live recordings 1949-1976
Warner Classics 5419 747395 [131 CDs; 3 Blu-ray; 1 DVD; 148pp book]

So; choose your scenario: the second flood has come and devastated the earth, but left floating on the waters is a sealed box containing Warner’s issue of La Divina Maria Callas in all her roles; or, if you prefer, the asteroid has struck, extinguishing all life, but before that cataclysm culturally-minded boffins have sent spiralling into the blackness of infinite space a capsule containing this box set preserving all that is best about one tiny manifestation of Western civilisation: opera. Because that is what this box contains: 131 CDs, three Blu-ray discs and a single DVD featuring one of the greatest artists the world has ever seen singing the best music ever composed in that genre.

It’s expensive; currently anything between £300 and £400 – but hell’s bells, people spend that on a Michelin-starred meal for four. The problem for us Callas aficionados is that we are more or less familiar with every item it contains – but my goodness, its acquisition certainly frees up some shelf space if, like me, you already had most of these things in their separate EMI issues or on labels like Opera d’Oro – but be aware that nothing here has been specifically newly remastered for this set; the studio recordings and Juilliard Masterclasses are all those remastered at Abbey Road in 2014 for the jumbo studio collection and most of the live recordings are those remastered by Art & Son Studios, Annecy, issued by Warner in the 2017 Maria Callas Live box, containing 42 CDs and three Blu-ray discs, which I reviewed here. They were all done very well, I should add, but see below regarding the Pristine issues before you take the plunge.

All those operas in the Live box are included here, plus some new, live extras: the 1955 Giulini La traviata, the Votto La sonnambula and the Gavazzeni Un ballo in maschera, both those last two from 1957, and all the live concert recitals (Turin, Rome, San Remo, Milan, Athens, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Amsterdam, two in Paris and four in London) and the Dallas rehearsal, on 10 CDs. Furthermore, we have “the masterclasses she gave at the Juilliard School, videos, and a bonus CD of world premiere releases: alternate takes and working sessions from studio recordings of the 1960s.” A DVD ROM contains electronic files with the libretti and sung texts for all albums, liner notes from the Callas 2014 Studio and Live Editions, most of the live operas and interviews with and tributes from a host of luminaries from the opera world recorded in 1978 and 1979, after her death. Finally, we have a 148 page landscape-format book lavishly illustrated with some beautiful and evocative black and white photographs, drawings by Amandine Comte and excellent essays about Callas’ life and work and the contents of this box by consultant Michel Roubinet in French, English and German, plus a card inviting the purchaser to reserve a ”Digital Collectible (free NFT)” – which, I am informed by Wikipedia, is “A non-fungible token… a unique digital identifier that is recorded on a blockchain, and is used to certify ownership and authenticity”. So there.

In sum, we have the most comprehensive survey of the 74 roles she sang for which audio documents exist, collected as a tribute to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth on 2nd December 2023 and issued in a limited edition of 3000.

So far, so good – excellent, in fact. There was, however, always one question in my mind concerning whether the prospective buyer is getting the best sound available. As I observed in my review of the Live edition, as a result of the efforts of the admirable Parisian sound restoration engineers at Studio Art et Son, nearly all of those live recordings sound much improved over previous incarnations on EMI or Opera d’Oro, with the exception of  I vespri Siciliani, for which the issue on the Testament label remains preferable. Most of the studio recordings were originally in good sound to begin with in any case, but there is now another consideration to take into account: the ever-increasing number of Callas recordings XR remastered into Ambient Stereo by Pristine. No fewer than seventeen of the twenty-six studio recordings offered here have already been given that treatment, as have two live recordings – the 1955 Votto Norma and the 1959 Rescigno Medea, plus the earliest recordings from 1949, included as a bonus on the 1953 studio Lucia di Lammermoor. While the Warner sound has proved to be fine, on every occasion that I have reviewed those Pristine issues I have found them to be superior, and that is a factor which will weigh heavily with those collectors who demand the best sound and like what Pristine does. I certainly do; in every review I have praised their work, remarking upon the “improved immediacy, depth, breadth and brilliance, and reduced extraneous noise in the Pristine version” (Il trovatore); “Andrew Rose’s XR remastering…has enhanced its spaciousness without artificiality and the sound now positively leaps out such that you would never guess that the recording is sixty-five years old as I write” (Il barbiere di Siviglia); “There is virtually no hiss, plenty of airy ambience around the voices and instruments and above all, a new depth now that the lower frequencies have been enhanced; the unpleasant metallic quality always previously present is gone.” (I puritani); “…this latest incarnation from Pristine, is a re-mastering into Ambient Stereo of a previously unavailable recording of the FM broadcast on high-speed, open reel tape. As a result, and after a little audible patching of tape changes and the remedying of a few drop-outs towards the end of Act I, this issue far surpasses in quality what has previously been on offer. There is virtually no hiss and acres of space around the voices and instruments, revealing hitherto inaudible detail and nuance.” (Medea). I do not want to make too much of this, as in any case Callas’ studio recordings were recorded perfectly well, but there is a definite attraction to having the earlier mono ones rendered into Ambient Stereo (and for EMI’s failure there we may thank Walter Legge’s resistance to embracing the new stereo technology). So although you might want to proceed with some shelf-clearance if you acquire this set, you may well do as I have done and hang on to any Pristine remasterings as still the best available.

Regarding the artistic merits of these recordings, there is little point in my ploughing through every one adumbrating its characteristics; it would render this review too long and tedious, and in any case, you will find reviews by me and my colleagues for most, if not all, of these recordings on Music Web detailing both their virtues and the occasional drawback, either in Callas’ singing or in that of her partners. In addition, many of them have been assessed in my surveys. Let me instead refer to a few highlights: Callas’ extraordinary first recording of the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde and, in another Wagnerian surprise, her definitive Kundry in Parsifal, sung in Italian (see my survey for more); her excellence in roles she never sang on stage but completely inhabited (such as her Carmen); wonderful singing from later in her all-too-brief career when her voice was supposedly in decline, such as the mesmerising Lady Macbeth arias recorded with Rescigno in 1958 (disc 62); at the other extreme of her remarkably versatile voice, her extraordinary facility in pyrotechnic ornamentation on recital discs such as “Lyric and Coloratura Arias (disc 60) – sample her “Dov’è l’indiana bruna” from Delibe’s Lakmé. There are some other fascinating, less familiar items, too, including a recording of the aria “Ah! Perfido” with Jeffrey Tate at the piano made as late as 1976, the year before her lamentably premature death, in execrable sound but good enough to suggest that despite a bit of a wobble, she was making the effort to recover her voice and was succeeding in doing so; she certainly sounds no worse than some of her rockier periods in the early sixties. I never tire of observing that her vocal decline was not linear or exponential; at times in the mid-60s she sounded in fine form, although after her supposedly temporary break from performing in 1965 she never again sang an opera on stage and her last public appearance was in a concert in Sapporo, part of the series of concerts in her 1973-74 “comeback tour” with Di Stefano – a tour largely ill-fated yet you may still hear from her “Suicidio” in excerpts on YouTube from two of the three Tokyo concerts that much more than mere remnants of her voice remained. Devotees will also doubtless already have watched on YouTube the videos of her Juilliard masterclasses from the early 70s but it is a nice idea to have collected them on three CDs (nos. 132-4) coupled with recordings of the arias she was teaching that she actually sang herself. Noticeable is her insistence upon having the full technical armoury: a singer without a trill or a properly developed lower register is incomplete and improperly prepared – and again, it is apparent just how much voice she still has compared with her students. The bonus CD 131 of various “alternate takes and working sessions” from the early 60s in London and Paris reminds us how good Callas still sounded – and amateurs like me might wonder what it was about those takes which disqualified them from being used – except, of course, when Callas stops herself and explains in her fluent Italian what she has just done wrong! Being already familiar with so much in this box, in many ways I found that disc one of the most diverting, as we hear both a wonderful voice in full flight singing great music and how Callas tackled a work in progress. I love her plea for indulgence when she has to repeat a passage: “Excuse me, gentlemen, we are trying to get something perfect; please forgive me.” A complete, polite, considerate professional – as the many who worked with her attested, despite her supposed volatility – largely a myth manufactured by the media or a misrepresentation of her righteous indignation when bullies like Bing tried to impose unreasonable demands upon her voice .

As Warner’s stated intention is to provide everything Callas recorded in the studio and “her best live recordings”, one can dispute the second statement; missing are a few live performances that I would always include in any list of her finest, such as her 1958 La traviata at Covent Garden, her 1959 Medea –  again, at Covent Garden and superior, I think, in both sound and singing to the two recordings supplied here – and her 1955 Norma conducted by Votto – especially as the last two are both now remastered into Ambient Stereo on Pristine – but those are negligible objections given the embarrass de richesses in this box. The comprehensiveness of the studio recordings means that we get both versions of Tosca; the earlier version remastered by Pristine will always be my first recommendation, but reacquaintance with the supposedly markedly inferior 1964-5 set conducted by Prêtre – Callas’ last studio recording – convinced me that it has many merits, so I am glad of Warner’s policy of complete inclusivity. Furthermore, on the third Blu-ray disc we are given the whole of the Act II of Tosca filmed at the Royal Opera House in 1964, witness to the theatrical magic Callas worked alongside Gobbi’s nonpareil of a Scarpia, despite a few flapping top notes. Watching Callas on stage and in concert on those Blu-ray discs only enhances one’s appreciation for her supreme dramatic gifts.

Among the studio recordings are many that will always be in a shortlist of the best: the aforementioned Tosca, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Manon Lescaut, Rigoletto, Aida and her second Norma. The stellar cast of that last remake only adds to its lustre, but even in recordings when she was not ideally partnered, it is often her contribution which makes them indispensable, as with her Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, her Leonora in La forza del destino and her second La gioconda, which she considered to be her finest recording, saying – here, I quote from my survey – “’It’s all there for anyone who cares to understand or wishes to know what I was about.’ If you don’t respond to her Gioconda, you don’t like Callas.”

Obviously being the operaphile that I am, I have difficulty understanding those who don’t respond to Callas’ artistry, even though I would never claim that she was flawless in the way of a handful of technically superior sopranos, but none pierces the heart of the entity born of the marriage of words and music quite so completely as Maria Callas at her best – and this magnificent collection bears testament to that.

Ralph Moore

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