MARIA CALLAS IN TRIESTE NORMA, NOVEMBER 19, 1953
by MILAN PETKOVIC
* * *
The part of Norma is one of the most complex
and demanding musically, vocally and dramatically in all opera. A precious
few names could claim to have completely mastered all aspects of the role Giuditta
Pasta, Maria Malibran, Lilli Lehman, and Rosa Ponselle were certainly among them. In
1950s, only one Norma reigned supreme in the operatic pantheon: Maria Callas. While there
have always been sopranos who demonstrated praiseworthy accomplishments at least in some
aspects of this complex role, many would agree that to this day no one has matched Maria
Callas vocal, dramatic and scenic portrayal of the Druid priestess, generally
considered ultimate. By Callas own admission, Norma was her favorite role (apart
from Violetta in La traviata), and it was the one with whom she became particularly
Maria Callas opened the 1953-54 season at Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi in Trieste on November 19, 1953, singing the fifty-third of her ninety Normas. She first sang in Trieste in La forza del destino in April 1948 at the Politeama Rossetti theater, and gave a concert three years later (in which Tito Schipa participated). The latter occasion was Callas debut at Triestes Teatro Giuseppe Verdi. The series of four 1953 Normas (November 19, 22, 23, and 29) was her third and last engagement in that city. None of Callas Trieste performances are known to have been captured in sound, except for the Norma premiere, which was originally recorded complete and later broadcast by Italian Radios second channel, as it can be inferred from speakers announcement after the broadcast. The RAI recording of the complete performance seems to have been lost. Fortunately, the broadcast was partially taped by at least two different individuals, and approximately two thirds of the music survives.
Franco Corelli, with whom Callas had first sung in Norma in Rome in April 1953, made his Trieste debut on November 19, 1953. Interestingly, this is the second earliest example of Corellis voice on tape, recorded two years after his operatic debut. Corelli sang with Callas in Norma on twelve occasions between 1953 and 1964, including a complete studio recording in stereo (EMI 1960). Although sonically inferior to the EMI version of seven years later and incomplete, this is Callas and Corellis only recording of Norma presenting both singers at the absolute peak of vocal refulgence, freshness and fearlessness. Maria Callas sang with the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Elena Nicolai thirty-five times in eleven productions in the span of nine years, but they appear together on only two recordings; this is the only live one. Another Bulgarian singer in the cast was Boris Christoff, who relatively rarely sang in Norma (he was partnered by Callas and Maria Caniglia in 1948, 1951, and 1953); this recording is the only memento of his Oroveso, and the last of only three Callas-Christoff collaborations documented in sound.
Coming after a two-month period of rest, the 1953 Trieste premiere of Norma finds Callas in remarkably fresh, rich, powerful, and securely produced voice, particularly in the high register. Following the opening recitative, she gives one of her most spontaneously and easily sung renditions of "Casta diva" on records (which comprise no fewer than eighteen and a half different versions, in addition to the two master classes she gave on the interpretation of this aria). In Trieste, Callas singing of the cavatina exudes calm, repose, and serenity; the fortissimo ascent to the high B-flat is indeed impressive in both verses. The cabaletta capped by a blazing high C sounds as if sung in one long breath. It is an exciting display of steadiness of vocal production, dazzling brilliance, and virtuosity, if not quite intimacy of expression. The same can be said for her impeccable rendition of the concluding part of the first duet with Adalgisa, including a perfectly produced high C in "Ah sì, fa core, abbracciami." In the next scene, Callas sings the polonaise "No, non tremare" with fierce abandon and knife-like attacks. She surmounts the hurdles of the passage not only with her stunning technique, but also an almost frightening vocal power and dramatic intensity. In the subsequent trio, strikingly sung by all three participants, the meditative and regretful quality of "Fonte deterne lagrime egli a te pur dischiuse" is to be noted amid Normas bitter utterances. Callas singing of the finale is no less thrilling (scornful vocal emphases are found for the words "maledetto" and "indegno"), and she crowns the acts ending with a magnificent and prolonged fortissimo D in alt not found in Bellinis score.
The sheer visceral excitement generated in Act I, however, is not quite successfully balanced with inward reflection and expressions of deep personal anguish in Act II. These would become a hallmark of Callas Norma in the subsequent years. However, this intimate, interiorized approach is present in a relatively sketchy form in the Trieste performance. To cite an example, Callas uses a more generous and less subtly shaded tone for the poignant cantilena "Teneri figli" than it would be the case later. Nonetheless, alongside the vivid moments of contempt ("Schiavi duna matrigna!") or fearsome resolution ("Muoiano, sì"; "Ecco il delitto"), several heartrending dramatic solutions can be heard as well. For instance, a sudden and abrupt weakening of the voice on the last syllable of "I figli uccido!" a vocal equivalent of Normas helpless dropping of the knife with which she intended to kill her children or "Ah! No! Son miei figli! Miei figli!", where Callas voice literally chokes with horror. The recitative with Adalgisa is sung in a rather grand manner, reinforced by Elena Nicolais heroic emphases. A softening of tone, already noticeable in "Deh! Con te, con te li prendi," is brought forward to a greater degree in the sublime "Ah! Perchè, perchè." These lines are sung with an elegiac combination of tenderness, regret, and dreamy wistfulness, which always distinguished Callas interpretation of that famous passage. Committed, resolute, and energetic singing from both protagonists characterizes the duets final section.
The last scene of the opera is remarkable, and not only for the splendor of Callas high Cs. As far as the soprano part is concerned, the Norma-Pollione duet is superior in every respect to the Callas-Corelli studio version of 1960; the latter recording unfortunately caught the soprano in a comparatively poor vocal shape. In "Mi possiio dimenticar," the same effect used with such poignancy in "I figli uccido!" can be heard again a telling sign of Normas weakness in spite of her brave, menacing words. "Solo? Tutti!" is delivered with the same razor-sharp and resolute attacks as in the polonaise of the Act I finale. Corelli proves to be a most sensitive and responsive partner in this duet, as well as in the acts finale. In the latter, there is a memorable contrast between Callas stentorian, vindictive and accusatory tone of "Allira vostra nuova vittima io svelo," immediately followed by a hushed aside full of doubt and remorse "(Io rea, linnocente accusar del fallo mio?)." Most of "Qual cor tradisti" is sung with exterior emphases and less subtlety of inflexion than in Callas later performances; yet a most moving solution is found for the conclusion: "soterra ancora sarò con te." Moving, too, is Normas plea to Oroveso "Ah! padre... Deh! Non volerli vittime," sung with a magnificent legato and prodigious reserve of breath.
Of special interest in this recording is Franco Corelli at the beginning of his distinguished career. Corelli had already sung with Callas in four performances of Norma given in April 1953 in Rome; this was his first artistic collaboration with Callas, who on that occasion sang "Casta diva" in the original, higher key of G major (a practice she would repeat only in the four London Normas of June 1953). Corelli sings with feeling and careful shading of words, particularly in the duets, if not always the vocal steadiness of the later days. His shaping of lines in "Meco allaltar di Venere" (published here for the first time) is not as firm or precise as it would become several years later, but this can be attributed at least in part to the first-night nerves. Still, all features of Corellis unmistakable voice and style are already evident, and the tenors heroic sound, not devoid of charm and elegance, is as exciting as ever. The phrase "Traman congiure i barbari, ma io li preverrò" is more expressive and the following cabaletta vocally smoother than in the EMI recording, with a triumphant interpolated top note at the end.
Elena Nicolais is not an ideally youthful sound, which would indeed be appropriate for the role of Adalgisa; neither does she show total respect of Bellinis style, or the required precision in more florid passages (compare, for example, her verse "Ripeti, o ciel, ripetimi" with Callas rendition of "Ah sì, fa core, abbracciami" in their first duet). In compensation, Nicolai offers superb firmness and resonance of sound, especially in the powerful and precise top notes. And as it might be expected, Boris Christoffs Oroveso is an imposing, solemn one. The bass vocal splendor and authority have been rarely matched in this role. Yet the listener cannot fail to respond to the subtleties he brings to the part, such as the reflective, hushed mood full of inner torment in which Christoff moulds the recitative line "Cruda legge, il sento" before his aria in the penultimate scene.
This engaging performance has known very few LP or CD editions, probably due to the fact that it has not been preserved complete. The version published in 1991 by Melodram, presented as a complete Trieste Norma, was actually an amalgam of six different live recordings all but one featuring Maria Callas and it did not even include all available material from Trieste (for more details, please refer to the article Callas Trieste "Norma" on Melodram CDM 26031: Reality and Illusion included in the multimedia part of this set). The Divina Records enhanced CD edition (DVN~3) is unique in that it presents, for the first time on CD, all of the audio material known to have survived from the 1953 Trieste performance with many portions in best available sound. In addition, this edition offers several rare photographs from the production, scans of the original hand program, as well as scans and translations of two original newspaper reviews of the performance.
© Milan Petkovic, 2003