Reputed - and rightfully so - as the twentieth century’s most revered soprano, Maria Callas’s prolific discography affirms her inimitable vocal prowess. From Bellini to Puccini; live performances and studio recordings, Callas’s versatility and meticulous attention-to-detail lends itself exceptionally well to recordings. Small wonder, then, that certain roles - Tosca, Mimì, Norma, to name a few - have been branded as distinctly Callas’s. Below are seven of opera’s most indispensable recordings, though whittling down her expansive discography is sacrilege, and ranking them a task absolutely out of the question.
Verdi’s La Traviata - Live Recording in Lisbon, 1958, Warner Classics
Of all Callas’s recordings, her portrayal of Violetta stands as one of the most masterful roles of her career. In this particular recording - taken from a live concert at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Lisbon - Callas’s careful characterisation traces Verdi’s almost tri-part recount of a young, consumptive courtesan. From Act I’s champagne-fuelled rapture, to Act III’s pious Addio, Callas’s nuanced shifts in tone and colour embody the role’s demands seamlessly. Projection, and her distinct vibrato are her championing assets. Notably, Alfredo Kraus’s love-lorn Alfredo is matched - if not a little sentimental - but as a pair, their dynamic typifies Verdi’s nonetheless poignant narrative.
Verdi’s La Forza del Destino - Studio Recording, 1955, EMI Classics
Cast here as the tragic heroine Leonora, the demands on both the crystalline quality of Callas’s upper-register, and the richness of her low notes are presented at their most stark - particularly in the desperate pleas for divine intervention. In the Act I aria “Pellegrina ed orfana”, Callas’s control and diction are masterfully projected, yet maintain an air of vulnerability, whilst Act II’s “Madre, pietosa” and Act IV’s “Pace, Pace, mio dieu” showcases the pent-up frustration and guilt of choosing between brother and lover. Upon the suggestion that she’s best off at a convent, Leonora comes into her own - Callas’s virulent rejection matched in her scathing delivery.
Puccini’s Tosca, Studio Recording, 1953, Warner Classics / EMI Remastered 2002
With indisputably one of the most stellar casts of all opera recordings to date, de Sabata’s disc is utterly gorgeous. With Callas as the ever-fiery, jealous Tosca - two self-professed traits of her own character - her acting and vocal abilities are difficult to discern from one another. Though “Vissi D'arte'' is universally thought of as the apex of the opera’s emotional calling, I am personally enamoured by the recitatives of the work. Puccini’s orchestration is luscious, and Callas’s silky and fearsome retorts, (Mario! Mario! Mario!) amidst moments of petty bickering, bring with them a familiar charm and tragic foreboding. Di Stefano brings a pathos to Caravadossi, and Gobbi’s lecherous Scarpia makes for an excellent villain. The recording’s overall quality has been sharpened to contemporary taste - though its original 1953 take is equally as charming; providing that the fuzz of background noise plays to an aesthetic you enjoy.
Puccini’s la Bohème, Studio Recording, 1958, EMI Classics
This iconic recording is another with a star-studded cast. Alongside Callas’s Mimì, is Anna Moffo - who makes for a phenomenal Musetta. The Act II aria “Quando ven mo” serves as one of Moffo’s acrobatic showcases - one of the few moments of light-hearted relief amidst an opera driven by poverty, consumption, and eventually death. As for Callas and di Stefano - whose frequent pairing in the 50’s is one of the more successful on record - work to blend beautifully together. The tentative Act I aria “Non sono in vena” serving as a testament. Another of the work’s more famed moments can be attributed to the Act III plea “Ah! Buon Marcello”, where Mimì takes Marcello (Panaeri) as a confidant - her voice heart-wrenching and ever-sincere.
Verdi’s Rigoletto, Studio Recording, 1955, Warner Classics
An opera paradigmatic of class, familial, and romantic conflict, Verdi’s tragic heroine Gilda certainly bears the brunt of it. Callas - who's portraying the 16 year-old daughter of the duke - may “put-on” a child-like tone to create an air of innocence, but her skill is far from childlike. From the capricious farewell of Act I “Addio, addio, Speranza ed anima”, to the lament “Tutte le feste”, and the naivete of “Caro Nome”, Callas’s capable versatility in mood and tone renders this a definitive recording.
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Studio Recording, 1955, Warner Classics
In the titular role, Callas’s careful fragility and child-like innocence are executed beautifully. Her dynamic scale is flawless; shifts in colour utterly luxuriant, both on-stage and off. What renders this recording contentious though, is the diction in which she chooses to enunciate certain words in order to achieve a faux-Japanese accent. This bizarre, cutesy license she gives herself makes for a distasteful and frankly racist take, which isn’t even consistent throughout the recording. However, the redeeming aspects of the recording must be attributed to Gedda, whose portrayal of the cruel Pinkerton hinges on the beautiful and the brash elements of his delivery. Marrio Boriello’s Sharpless is worthy of a mention, as is Karajan’s masterful control of the orchestra.
Bellini’s Norma, Studio Recording, 1954, Warner Classics
Here as the titular role, Norma - a Druid Princess - Callas carries herself in an assertive demeanour, though in the moments of genuine turmoil she accentuates the role’s vulnerability. The most famous of Norma’s arias, “Casta Diva” affirms this through Callas’s careful coloratura phrasing, and adept vocal control. What’s also worth mentioning, is the control between her voice and the orchestra - the two work hand-in-glove thanks to Serafin’s careful balance.
Shadi Seifouri, July 2020