DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor (Callas, di Stefano, Gobbi) (1953) (Naxos Historical: 8.110131-32)
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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor
Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor was the firstcomplete recording for EMI that Callas took part in, inFebruary 1953; sessions followed performances ofLucia at the Comunale, Florence. Angel published it inthe United States in January 1954 and Columbia inBritain in March 1954, but after Tosca and I Puritani,both of which also include her, but were made later.
Walter Legge, EMI's record producer, explains why ina letter to Dario Soria of Angel records. 'Tosca is so farsuperior to both Puritani and Lucia that I beg you inyour own interests to hold up the other operas untilTosca is published.' Presumably he was not writingabout the operas but about the recordings. It was Callas,however, who made all these recordings, particularly ofPuritani and Lucia, and as we see today she continuesstill to create a demand for them, notwithstanding morethan half-a-century having passed and now they are inthe public domain.
Legge had been busy in the music business since1932. By the time these operas were recorded he was inhis mid-forties, his taste reflected in London's concertlife, and by recordings throughout the world.
Unfortunately, he was not properly appreciative ofCallas; he did not make complete recordings of her inI vespri siciliani, Armida, Macbeth, Anna Bolena orIl pirata, all of which he might have done, for in themshe enjoyed some of her greatest triumphs. Not untilafter Legge's death did EMI feel obliged to poach onthe pirates and publish amateur recordings of liveperformances of some of these operas. That is not to saythe recording of Tosca is not outstanding; it includesCallas's Tosca, Tito Gobbi's Scarpia, Giuseppe DiStefano's Cavaradossi, the chorus and orchestra of LaScala, Milan, but, as di Stefano pertinently observes,'the miracle of that Tosca was the conductor de Sabata'.
After Callas's death in 1977 in an obituary Leggeacclaims it 'Callas's supreme recording ... after nearly25 years still unique in the history of recorded Italianopera'. Certainly it is 'still unique', but 'Callas'ssupreme recording'? If we only had her Tosca how littleof her art would have survived. Tosca needs to be sungwell but the contribution of the orchestra is quite asimportant, whereas in Puritani and Lucia it does notsignify. Indicatively the recording of Tosca is complete,whereas those of Puritani and Lucia are muchabbreviated; whole scenes are not included, somepassages have been shortened, second verses of ariasand cabalettas deleted, and codas cut. In the 1950s,when the recordings were first published, it was claimedthese were made so as to minimise conventions in oldfashionedworks, but what they did was enable most ofthe cast, who had not the technique, notwithstandingremarkable voices, to cope with the music. Beingtrained by teachers brought up in the age of verismothey could not easily manage the wide range andexacting tessitura required in bel canto opera.
Callas is the exception. The sensation her singingcaused when this recording of Lucia was first issuededucated critical ears and revitalised florid song. It hadlong been dismissed. The critic Ernest Newman in 1926was derisory: 'Ornaments were only evidences of thebad taste of the singers and the tyranny imposed bythem upon audiences, and ... while the vulgar ... mayhave delighted in them, to the genuinely musical ear,they must have been intolerable'. It was not, however,that ornaments were in bad taste; florid song is commonto many different styles of music, occidental andoriental, and long antedates opera. By the last quarter ofthe nineteenth century, 'coloratura', as florid song wasby then slightingly styled, had become something onlyfit for birds - in Siegfried literally so, for Wagner has theForest Bird at first vocalise fioritura and thenafterwards add words. By so doing he reminds us, asPaul Henry Lang notes, in Music in WesternCivilisation, song is even older than speech. Florid songmay no longer feature in opera, yet it is part of anirrepressible natural vocal grammar that spontaneouslyfinds expression in many different musical styles.
Recordings preserve jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgeraldexuberantly resorting to mordents, staccati, and even adlibitum cadenzas.
I remember when Callas's Lucia was first issuedthroughout the opera world she created one of thegreatest furores in a career that for a few years was anunending sequence of furores. As the reaction in hisreview in The Gramophone of Philip Hope Wallacetestifies, he was so carried away that he had to go out inthe garden and cool off. Lucia had not then beenperformed at London's Covent Garden since 1925,although at New York's Metropolitan it was still givenoccasionally, but only by 'coloratura' sopranos, atradition that had been petering out through AmelitaGalli-Curci (1882-1963), Frieda Hempel (1885-1955),Maria Barrientos (1883-1946) and Lily Pons (1895-1976), whose voices, records suggest, only got smalleras their singing got sketchier. Callas executes the floridsong with unerring accuracy, and uses a stunningweight of tone and breadth of phrasing. In the cadenzato the Mad Scene, the sudden intrusion of the flutesounds as if she were cavorting with a tin whistle. Shebrings to Lucia a tragic dimension, creating a precedentwith it, something we can be sure never before divinedeven in the nineteenth century. She imbued it with thedramatic weight of later generations of composers'works, yet did so without in any way forcing theboundaries of Donizetti's style. By so doing it enabledher to translate the impact the opera initially had intosomething comprehensible today. The idea, Flaubertdescribes in Madame Bovary, of the heroine weepingbecause she sees herself in the unhappy fate of poorLucia, is not so ridiculous.
Giuseppe Di Stefano, born in 1921 near Catania,Sicily, had a brilliant but short career. His was one ofthe most beautiful lyric tenor voices of the last century.
He began singing light music then, following a briefperiod of study with the baritone Luigi Montesanto,made his opera debut in 1946 as Des Grieux inMassenet's Manon at Reggio Emilia, after which hisrise to fame was rapid. In 1947 he appeared at La Scala,Milan, also as Des Grieux, and in 1948 at theMetropolitan, New York, as the Duke in Rigoletto. Atfirst his repertory included Fenton in Falstaff, Almavivain Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi,Alfredo in La traviata and Faust, but it did not take longbefore he began undertaking heavier r?â??les, likeCavaradossi, Don Jose in Carmen, Radames in Aida,Canio in Pagliacci and even Alvaro in La forza deldestino. Sadly the great years of his career were soonover, and by 1961, trying to make more out of his voicethan nature had put in, he made his last appearance at LaScala. From 1944 for HMV he recorded songs and arias,and from 1953 for Angel/Columbia, with Callas,Edgardo, Arturo, Cavaradossi, Turiddu in Cavalleriarusticana, Canio, the Duke, Manrico in Il trovatore,Rodolfo, Riccardo in Il ballo in maschera and DesGrieux in Puccini's Manon Lescaut.
The career of Tito Gobbi (1913-1984), born atBassano di Grappa in the Veneto, lasted more than fortyyears. His was a first-class Italian baritone with acharacteristic timbre in the Titta Ruffo style. He madehis debut in 1935 at Gubbio singing a bass r?â??le, Rodolfoin La sonnambula, but this was a one off, and by thenext year at La Scala, he became a baritone. Within afew years his repertory embraced Germont in Latraviata, Silvio in Pagliacci, Lescaut, Marcello in LaBoh?â?¿me, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, Ford inFalstaff, De Siriex in Fedora, Baldassare in Cilea'sL'arlesiana and Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur, andhe also sang Melot in Wagner's Tristano and Gunther inIl crepuscolo degli dei, Jochanaan in Strauss's Salomiand Wozzeck, as well as a sizeable repertory of thenmodern ope