Bellini sonnambula 5679062

Déjà Review: this review was first published in February 2003 and the recording is still available.

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
La Sonnambula (1831)
Libretto by Felice Romani
Maria Callas (Amina), Giuseppe Modesti (Il conte Rodolfo), Gabriella Carturan (Teresa), Cesari Valletti (Elvino), Eugenia Ratti (Lisa), Pierluigi Latinucci (Alessio), Giuseppe Nessi (Un notaro)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan/Leonard Bernstein
rec. live, 5 March, 1955, La Scala, Milan
Original review of EMI release
Warner Classics 5679062 [2 CDs: 141]

Released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas, this release is one of four opera sets and further recital discs commemorating one of the most famous opera divas of the last century. This set will have her fans salivating as one of the most prominent features of a Callas performance is here in full – the dramatic presence on stage, and the ability to make the drama come alive, simply by the use on one’s ears. EMI has done a superb job of La Sonnambula, given the material with which they had to work. It comes in a full size double box, plus a high quality synopsis of the opera and historical details of the artist, all at mid-price.

Are there any drawbacks to this issue? Yes. The recording, although apologies are made for the sound quality on the box, is in terms of when the performance was recorded (1955), the quality of sound is pretty dreadful. The sound picture moves back and forward as the singers move about he stage, and the audience is unruly, shouting and bawling at strategic points as is common with many live Italian performances from this venue.

If sound quality is of importance, I wouldn’t touch this issue with a barge pole. However that would be to miss a glorious performance of Bellini’s popular opus, with a dramatic flow which other better recorded performances miss. Bernstein’s conducting is somewhat reticent, not helped at all by the boxy sound quality and somewhat approximate playing of the band, and ragged singing of the chorus.

There is verisimo singing with a vengeance, with more sobs to the minute than I have experienced recently. However all is not lost. Callas is in very fine voice, and this is caught reasonably well by the recording, which overloads and distorts fairly regularly. Once you have tolerated the first 15 minutes or so, the shortcomings in the recording quality become less noticeable, allowing the true plus points of the performance to shine through. The only singer which I couldn’t tolerate was Eugenia Ratti, a soprano with a bright squally tone which I found downright uncomfortable. Her duet with Cesare Valetti at the beginning of Scene 2 in Act II is painful, and I am sure that she wasn’t chosen to show up Maria Callas.

Bellini’s story of the sleepwalker is a pretty banal story, accompanied by very simple tunes and nothing very inspirational to carry the unsuspecting audience along. That this performance is compelling at all is down to the artists involved.

Maria Callas performed in La Sonnambula 10 times in March and April with Bernstein at La Scala, a further 12 performances with Antonio Votto, 6 at La Scala in March 1957, followed by 2 in Köln, and finally 4 in Edinburgh also in 1957. She recorded the opera in the studio in 1957, conducted by Antonio Votto and this performance is also still available (2 discs at full price).

Wherever she sang this role she was greeted with rapture, and quite rightly so if this, first night performance is anything to go by. I have not made any comments about the rest of the cast, as this is really not necessary – anyone contemplating purchase of this set will be buying it for Maria Callas, and it is well worth while for this alone.

John Phillips

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