VERDI: La Traviata
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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
At the beginning of October 1951 Callas stopped off inNew York, on her way back from Rio de Janeiro toMilan, and signed a contract with Dario Soria, Presidentof CETRA-Soria, an Italo-American company, to takepart in recordings of La Gioconda, La traviata, ManonLescaut and Mefistofele. By the beginning of 1953,however, Soria had moved to Angel Records and set upa new outlet for EMI in the United States (itsrelationship with RCA Victor having come to an end),and whither Soria went so went Callas. In September1952 she had recorded Gioconda for CETRA but wasstill contracted to make Violetta in La traviata thefollowing September. Like La Gioconda, La traviatawas recorded in Turin. It was published in Italy and theUnited States in September 1954, but as CETRA did nothave an outlet in Britain, the recording did not becomeavailable there for several years. I remember howdisappointing and frustrating that was.
In the course of her career Callas sang Violetta 63times; it ranks next after Norma as the r?â??le she sangmost often. Through the eight years it was in herrepertory her interpretation changed and developed,rapidly and prodigiously. The first time she undertookit, in January 1951 at the Comunale, Florence, she was avery bulky lady and weighed nearly ninety kilos. Hardlysurprisingly there was nothing tubercular about herconception, and the emphasis then was all on voice.
Zeffirelli, who was present on that occasion, recalled inan interview, 'how the audience went mad ... it wassensational, vocally and musically'. In September shesang it in Brazil in S?â?úo Paulo in company with whatwould later become familiar figures in EMI'srecordings: Giuseppe di Stefano (Alfredo), Tito Gobbi(Germont) and conductor Tullio Serafin. More thanthirty years later, in his autobiography, Gobbi had notforgotten her performance: 'I cannot believe anyoneever sang that first act as Callas sang it ... I find itimpossible to describe the electrifying brilliance of thecoloratura, the beauty, the sheer magic of that soundwhich she poured out then. And with it perfect diction,colour, inflection and feeling.' Then Violetta wasperformed by sopranos whose looks may have beenfitting, like Mafalda Favero (1903-1981), or had voicesof impressive size, like Adriana Guerrini (1907-1970)and Maria Caniglia (1905-1979), or of notable quality,like Renata Tebaldi (b.1922) and Antonietta Stella(b.1929); but for singers in those days, brought up in theage of verismo, it did not matter how Sempre libera wasexecuted, few cared what key they sang it in, or hadtechnique enough to cope easily with the floridmeasures.
In the course of the next three seasons Callas sangVioletta at Bergamo, Parma, Catania, Mexico City,Verona, Venice and Rome. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf wasat a performance at Parma with her husband WalterLegge, EMI's record producer. 'We ... witnessed amajor victory for Callas. As everyone knows, there is novictory in Italy like being acclaimed in Parma in a Verdir?â??le! ... I went backstage [and told her] there [was] nopoint in my singing this r?â??le again. ... And I didn't.'Still, in 1955 when Legge arranged an EMI recording ofTraviata, he could not have thought Callas's Violettasufficiently a victory to wait only another two years,until her CETRA contract enabled her to make it again,but booked Stella as Violetta. Recordings of Callas'sVioletta from Mexico City survive from 1951 and 1952and both show her a vocal powerhouse. In the first, atthe end of Sempre libera, she makes a sweepingportamento to the high E flat. In the second, perhapsbecause the performance is a bit of a mess and theconductor lacks any authority, at the end of the act threeensemble, Alfredo, di questo core, she takes theopportunity of completing the upward arpeggio toanother high E flat. When she sang it next in Veronathat summer Peter Dragadze in Opera called it, 'thegreatest thrill of the season ... an unforgettableexperience ... she appears to make no effort to dramatizethe situation physically ... [it is] the colour of her voice[that] clearly depicts every emotion and sensation she isexperiencing.' In Rome in January 1953, according toCynthia Jolly in Opera,. 'in the first act [she] succeededadmirably if untraditionally, when one remembers thebird-like coloratura Violetta is used to receiving', but inlater acts, some in the audience were 'enchanted by hersheer [vocal] expertise ... other[s were] shocked by herlack of feeling ... and la voce troppo forte.' But what shedid was take the trouble to look at the score and sing allof what is written, as well as add embellishments andsing different cadenzas in different performances. Aswe can hear today in this recording, made in Septemberthat year with the Rome cast, Francesco Albanese(Alfredo), Ugo Savarese (Germont) and conductorGabriele Santini.
A year later in Chicago when Callas sang it next, inher first season in the United States, she had reduced herweight by more than 25 kilos. Violetta was the secondr?â??le she undertook after making her debut as Norma.
James Hinton in Opera thought 'the idea of Callasmounting a pyre whose construction and lighting shehas herself ordered [and] travelling about in a chariotdrawn by dragons ... is quite believable [but] lying poorand neglected in a furnished room is too much to ask ofany audience'. Not until her next Violetta in May 1955at La Scala, Milan, when she took part in Visconti'sfamous production in two seasons 21 times, did the newsvelte Callas metamorphose her dramatic conception.
Thereafter she sang it in New York, Lisbon, Londonand Dallas. I saw her Violetta in June 1958 in London,by which time her voice, like her physique, had becomethinner and less substantial than it was three yearsbefore. Whether this was of its own volition or becauseshe sought deliberately to use the minimum of voicewho can say, but inevitably there soon came a pointbeyond which it was impossible for her to support hervoice sufficiently; she sang only two more Violettas inDallas at the end of that year. Happily this recordingdates from 1953, when she was still in the plenitude ofher powers and her instrument matched the size of herfigure. It shows her Violetta boldly, brilliantly, as wellas dramatically sung.
Francesco Albanese (b. 1912) was born at Torredel Greco near Naples. He was a lyric tenor and madeappearances after 1941 at many of Italy's leadingtheatres, the San Carlo Naples, the Rome Opera, LaFenice in Venice, the Comunale Florence, La Scala,Milan, and abroad at the S?â?úo Carlos, Lisbon, CoventGarden, London, the Colon, Buenos Aires, and Kiralyiin Budapest. For twenty years he sang Almaviva inIl barbiere di Siviglia, Ramiro in La Cenerentola,Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore, Jenik in Smetana's Lasposa venduta, Fenton in Falstaff, Ernesto in DonPasquale, Ismael in Nabucco, Faust, Rodolfo, Giulianoin Charpentier's Luisa, Wolfgang Capito inHindemith's Mathis il pintore, Avito in Montemezzi'sL'amore dei tre re, Faust, Giasone in Cherubini'sMedea, Pilade in Gluck's Ifigenia in Tauride andRinaldo in Rossini's Armida, the last three of which hesang opposite Callas; of the last two recordings surviveof broadcasts.
Albanese's contemporary baritone Ugo Savarese(1912-1997) was also a Neapolitan. After studying atthe Conservatory there he appeared at the San Carlo in1940 as Schaunard in La Boh?â?¿me. Like Albanese hesang at many important Italian opera houses. Hisrepertory included Germont, Enrico in Lucia diLammermoor, Rigoletto, Tonio in Pagliacci, Marcello,Gerard in Andrea Chenier, Don Carlo in La forza deldestino, Amonasro, Escamillo, Valentin, Alfio, di Luna,Telramondo in Lohengrin, David in L'amico Fritz,Alfonso in La favorita, Carlo in Verdi's Giovannad'Arco, Barnaba in La Gioconda, Zurga in I pescatori diperle, the carpenter in Mascagni's Il piccolo Marat,Belcore in L'elisir d'a