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Great Opera Recordings
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Opera in Four Acts
Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni after a story by Mariette Bey
Aida - Maria Callas (soprano)
Radamès - Richard Tucker (tenor)
Amneris - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo-soprano)
Amonasro - Tito Gobbi (baritone)
The King of Egypt - Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
Ramfis - Giuseppe Modesti (bass)
Messenger - Franco Ricciardi (tenor)
A Priestess - Elvira Galassi (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan (Norberto Mola, chorus master)
This recording, the ninth in the series made with Callas at La Scala, Milan, by EMI [Angel/Columbia], took place in August 1955 and was first published four months later. Today she has been dead more than a quarter of a century and the great years of her career are twice as long ago. Inevitably the number of those who actually went to her performances is getting less and less, so now her recordings are becoming increasingly more significant in an assessment of her worth. Some rôles she only recorded and never undertook on stage, such as Nedda in Pagliacci, Mimì, Manon Lescaut and Carmen; others she recorded and did appear as, but at most only in a couple of seasons, such as Fiorilla in Rossini's Il Turco in Italia, Rosina, Gilda, Madama Butterfly, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and Leonora in La forza del destino; only a few did she record and sing live many times, such as Norma, Violetta, Lucia and Aida.
Although Callas appeared as Aida often in her early years, the rôle never really suited her, as did Norma, Violetta and Lucia. Live recordings, though not always sonically impeccable or complete, from Mexico City (1950 and 1951), Rome (1950) and London (1953), have something to tell us. In 1950, though hardly a mature interpretation, it is easily and affectingly sung. Yet only a year later she sings too strenuously; her attack in dramatic moments is overly vehement, her tone often curdles and she sounds obsessively competitive. This is not surprising. During that period she undertook for the first time several typical Callas rôles, which require a mastery of the florid style, such as Leonora in Il trovatore, Fiorilla, Violetta and Elena in I Vespri Siciliani; in these she takes the head voice up to E flat or even E natural, above C. The vocal cords are not dissimilar to an elastic band – try stretching them and flaws soon start to become obvious.
Callas sang Aida at her début at La Scala, Milan, in 1950 when she deputised for an indisposed Renata Tebaldi, but the Milanese were not about to capitulate - Tebaldi was then at her vocal zenith. Stage director Franco Zeffirelli, who was in the audience recalls, 'all they heard from Callas was the unevenness, the changes of register'. An opinion confirmed in the Corriere Lombardo by Teodoro Celli, later one of her most enthusiastic supporters: 'She seems to improvise differently from note to note her method and technique. She also forces her high notes.' Determined as she was to breach the wall into La Scala, Aida proved too blunt a weapon for the assault. It took another three years before the message had got through even to her. During that time the number of Aidas she sang dropped precipitately, and after 1953 she would only undertake it again in this recording.
One of her last Aidas took place in June 1953 when she appeared at Covent Garden in London. A comparatively recently discovered recording of a broadcast confirms that by then, like her Gioconda and Turandot, it was a thing of the past; the warts it revealed were all too obvious. Desmond Shawe-Taylor in The New Statesman writes: 'Although as a rule her sense of line is superb… She is at her worst gulping through "Ritorna vincitor", very unsteady at the climax in "O patria mia", and hardly attaining beauty before "Là, tra foreste vergine", which is really too late.' Andrew Porter in Opera notes: 'she has a tendency on sustained high B flats or Cs to develop a rapid trill, through the full semitone below the note… [Y]et how beautifully she caressed the phrases [in the final duet] starting "Vedi? di morte l'angelo", touching gently the notes marked staccato, ravishing the ear with the downward portamento from the high B flat.'
Although this recording was made two years after she sang it in London, it still displays her characteristic finish; for all her vocal flaws she was never careless or unmusical. For example on the opening phrases of the Act III love duet with Radames, 'Là, tra foresti vergine', her voice has a limpidity which enables her to accomplish miracles of pianissimo shadings, singing dolcissimo as the score directs, and with a great deal of refined tempo rubato. Later in the same act in duet with Amonasro, 'Ciel, mio padre', when he reminds her of home, how tellingly does she deliver the phrase 'ah ben rammento' ('Ah! too well remembered'). There are innumerable occasions in which she renders the subtlest and, what may seem, least significant markings in the score so effectively. If we listen attentively, we note it is her perfect legato which enables her to suggest by musical means even the exclamation marks and commas in the libretto.
Possessing a big voice, although she used it somewhat coarsely, the Triestine Fedora Barbieri (1918-2003) was one of a number of front-ranking Italian mezzo-sopranos active in the 1950s and 1960s, including Ebe Stignani (1903-1974), Giulietta Simionato (b.1910), Elena Nicolai (1912-1985) and Fiorenza Cossotto (b.1935). In her home town she studied with Federico Bugamelli and Luigi Toffolo, and in Milan with Giulia Tess. In 1940 she made her début at the Comunale, Florence as Fidalma in Il matrimonio segreto, then in 1943 married the Director of the Florence May Festival. Although the war interrupted her career nevertheless in those years she appeared in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, The Netherlands and Austria. No sooner was peace declared than her international progress was rapid: in 1946 from La Scala, Milan, the following year she travelled to the Colón, Buenos Aires; in 1950 to Covent Garden, London and the Metropolitan, New York, and also to San Francisco and Chicago. Her repertory in her palmy days included rôles such as Dalila, Azucena, Amneris and Eboli, which she sang under de Sabata and Giulini. She created Dariola in the première of Alfano's Don Giovanni di Manara at the May Festival in 1941 and in 1942 was Telemaco in Dallapiccola's revision of Monteverdi's Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria. In Siena that year she sang Giustina in Pergolesi's Flaminio, and in 1943 at Cremona, Orfeo in Vito Frazzi's edition of Monteverdi's opera. She undertook a number of rôles with Callas, including Brangania in Tristano, Adalgisa, Amneris, Neris in Medea and with her recorded Amneris, Laura in La Gioconda, Azucena and Ulrica.
One of America's favourite tenors Ric