Maria Callas at Covent Garden

There’s not a lot of film footage of Maria Callas performing and most of what there is is of concerts.  What makes this disk special is that it contains the whole of Act 2 of Tosca recorded at the Royal Opera House on 9th February 1964.  It’s a Zeffirelli production and Tito Gobbi sings Scarpia with Renato Cioni as Cavaradossi.  It gives, I think, a pretty good idea of Callas’ appeal as an actress and as a personality.  She is fascinating to watch but in many ways quite hard to listen to.  My partner, who was in the next room, thought I was listening to an atonal modern piece, which is as much as I’m going to say about accuracy of pitch.  I found myself more caught up in thinking about that modern audience segment that wants to go back to “the good old days” because if this is representative I think they are nuts.  It’s not about Callas.  Well directed I think I’d have enjoyed seeing her.  It’s the overly melodramatic, well, everything.  OK, I know it’s Tosca but Gobbi’s eye rolling scenery chewing is like three Bryn Terfels without the self deprecating twinkle in the eye.  One wants to shout “watch out for the crocodile!”  And is he ever loud?  At first I just thought it was a recording balance thing but I don’t think so as he sounds way louder than the other singers.  It’s hard (and probably unfair) to judge a voice on the basis of a rather ropey recording like this but I wouldn’t pay to hear barking like this.

1.Tosca The other half of the disk consists of tu che le vanità from Don Carlo and some excerpts from Carmen recorded at a gala concert in November 1962.  The Verdi really reinforced my impressions of the Tosca.  It’s melodramatic to the max.  No-one would dream of singing it like that anymore and, although it has a certain fascination, I’m rather glad that is so.  The Carmen excerpts though are rather charming.  I think I would have enjoyed seeing her in that role.  As a bonus one gets to see an absurdly youthful Georges Prêtre in the pit.

2.vanitaThis DVD is very much a historical document.  The black and white 4:3 picture is pretty ropey and the mono sound is only so-so.  As a benchmark of what 1960s opera was all about though I think it’s worth a look.

3 thoughts on “Maria Callas at Covent Garden

  1. No artist is perfect but let’s be honest about Callas’ contribution to the art form.
    She was the embodiment of the singing actress and her allure still fascinates us decades after her death. Her musicality and depth of achievement as a musician set the standard for many of the performers that followed her footsteps. She was instrumental in bringing back from obscurity a great swathe of rep that was deemed unfashionable and too obscure to be performed.
    Her quest for artistic truth on stage was at its most revealing when you read accounts of people that worked with her for the very important staging of Medea by Alexis Minotis (first in Dallas, then Covent Garden, Milan and Epidaurus). Dismissing a great tragedienne like her as a fascinating oddity is insulting to her achievement. Medea and Norma are the two roles she channelled most of her energy and bathos to. It is a great shame no filming of either role came to fruition.

    Comparing a performance style from the 1960s to current practise is so disingenuous to be totally blinded. Do you think if she was around today she would perform like this? Yes we like to bash Zeffirelli when ever we can (I do too), because we are cool modern kids that don’t like stage clutter…but honestly that Tosca was one of his finest productions. Callas incidentally did not work with him too many times, having more of a preference for Visconti and Wallman.

    Just disappointed you allowed your internal aversion to Zeffirelli to cloud your judgement on Callas and Gobbi.

    Here’s a bit of Sonnambula from 1965, recorded for French television as my final word:

    • Thanks for that. I did hope someone would wade in. I hope I wasn’t “dismissive”. I’ve now invested many hours in trying to understand the Callas phenomenon. I’m sure my partner thinks I am completely mad! I get the glamour. I get the historical importance. I also enjoy her singing in certain roles; Norma for instance. Then I see something like this Tosca, which I was recommended as an example of Callas’ magic, and I don’t really get it at all. It’s not Zeffirelli clutter though I do blame him, as director, at least in part for the melodramatic acting. I just find the singing very hard to listen to and I don’t think that’s because of a change in performance style since the 1960s. I have lots of recordings from that period that I love.
      I think I’ve now probably spent as much time as anyone reasonably could on trying to understand the appeal and conclude it’s just not for me. If it gives you pleasure that’s great. I really wish I could enjoy it!

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