Mary Garden sings La Traviata (1911)
Mary Garden sings two Scottish songs
Maria Callas sings Rossini’s Armida (1952)
Thirty-seven years after her death (on September 16, 1977), Callas is widely recognized as one of the twentieth century’s greatest singers, alongside Caruso, Chaliapin, and Ponselle. Despite her immense fame, her recorded legacy is so vast that some of her finest performances have not attracted all the attention they deserve. So here goes—a list of my personal favorites among her most frequently overlooked recordings.
1 — Rossini’s Armida, which she rescued from oblivion at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 1952. This fiendishly difficult opera requires a first-rate assoluta as well as five (five!) world-class tenors, which presumably explains why it isn’t revived more often. Callas’s 1952 recording is sonically primitive and the rest of the cast leaves much to be desired, but she makes mincemeat out of all her (later) competitors, including several famous stars who, unlike Callas, have had the benefit of decades of Rossini scholarship.
2 — The 1956 Traviata from La Scala. This was a reprise of the famous Visconti production, which premiered the previous year and which has long been considered as one of the brighest jewels in Callas’s crown. In the 1956 revival, Callas is joined by Gianni Raimondi, whom I find preferable to Giuseppe di Stefano; Bastianini again sings Germont. The sound quality is marginally better in 1956, allowing the listener to enjoy the infinite nuances of Callas’s singing, which does not exhibit any sign of the unsteadiness that began to creep in in the 1958 Lisbon and London performances.
3 — The 1950 radio recording of Parsifal. This is a controversial choice as she sings this most Germanic of operas in an Italian translation, alongside an Italian cast (which interestingly includes another famous Lucia, Lina Pagliughi, as one of the Flower Maidens). Our perception of Wagner has considerably changed in the past sixty years, and we have completely lost touch with the tradition of Italianized Wagner, which flourished in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is worth remembering that it gave us many gems, including Aureliano Pertile’s Lohengrin and Callas’s fiery Kundry.
4 — The 1951 Vespri Siciliani. The primitive sound presumably explains why this recording does not feature more often in lists of Callas’s best performances. Not only is she in spectacular voice throughout, but she is joined by an strong cast that also includes Boris Christoff as Procida, and Erich Kleiber’s understanding of this difficult Verdi score is impressive.
5 — The 1957 recordings of La Sonnambula from Edinburgh. These performances came at the end of a difficult season, and Callas famously declined to sing the additional Sonnambula requested by the management of La Scala, thus allowing Renata Scotto to stand in for her at the last minute. The two surviving recordings are vocally uneven, and the opening aria clearly betrays her exhaustion, but nowhere else does she give a more inspired rendition of the heartbreaking final scene. In the recordings, you can almost hear the Edinburgh audience holding their breaths in wonder.
Hjördis Schymberg and Eleanor Steber sing Le Nozze di Figaro, conducted by Fritz Busch (1947)
Francesco Navarini sings Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1903)
Anselmo Colzani sings I Pagliacci (1964)
Aged 99, Magda Olivero comes out of retirement to sing an excerpt from Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini (2009)
She begins by explaining that a voice she heard in a dream commanded her to do this. “Sarà quel che sarà, ma lo farò con tutto il cuore e per dar grazie a Dio per tutto quello che nella vita mi ha concesso.”
Paolo, datemi pace.
Magda Olivero and Beniamino Gigli sing Adriana Lecouvreur (1940)