On 20 May 1949, Maria Meneghini Callas made her Buenos Aires debut in the Teatro Colón as Puccini’s Turandot. In addition to the four performances of Turandot and four of Norma in May and June 1949, she sang a single Aida on 2 July and appeared in a gala performance celebrating the Argentine Oath of Independence one week later. It was Callas’ only operatic season in Argentina.

     DIVINA RECORDS offers the complete surviving excerpts from the Teatro Colón Norma of 17 June 1949 for the first time on CD. This material is of enormous historical importance. To date, it represents the earliest known instance of Callas’ voice captured in an actual sound recording with no ambiguity regarding its authenticity or the performance date. Lamentably, only the overture, the beginning of Act I, and the duet “Oh, rimembranza” were recorded. This is the third Norma of Callas’ career; she diligently probed the role with Tullio Serafin only five months prior to this performance and the three Normas that followed on 19, 25, and 29 June. If the local press reported nervousness in Callas’ opening performance of Turandot and the critical opinions of her interpretation were divided, the Norma performances were a resonate success; both critics and the public were deeply impressed by Callas’ extraordinary abilities as a first-class soprano drammatico d’agilitŕ.

     The present recording is the only sound document of Callas’ partnership with Fedora Barbieri in this opera. Of the numerous mezzos featured in Callas’ Norma recordings (Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato, Ebe Stignani, Elena Nicolai, Miriam Pirazzini, Christa Ludwig, Fiorenza Cossotto), Barbieri is certainly one of the most expressive and memorable, as this recording testifies. The 1949 “Oh, rimembranza” duet has already been issued on several CD editions (Melodram, Gala, Eklipse), but the DIVINA RECORDS disc, mastered from the original paper tape source, has the best available sound. This, together with the Act I scene performed on 9 July, are the first documents of Maria Callas in the role most closely associated with her. With years, her singing of Norma’s complex and demanding role would become deeper with meaning and more subtly nuanced, but the freshness and freedom encountered in this recording of the first Norma-Adalgisa duet would never be quite equaled again. Worth noting are Callas’ magical phrasing of “Oh! cari accenti, cosě li proferia,” the messa di voce on the high A that follows, and the vocally exemplary rendition of the difficult “Ah sě, fa core, abbracciami.”

     The Gala Performance on the occasion of the 133rd anniversary of the Argentine Oath of Independence took place in the Teatro Colón on 9 July 1949 and included excerpts from Norma, Faust, and Turandot, all performed with stage sets and costumes. It is only recently that a recording of the first part of that performance came to light, and is published for the first time on this CD. Callas’ participation consisted of the recitative “Sediziose voci,” cavatina “Casta diva,” and cabaletta “Ah! bello a me ritorna” from Act I of Norma. It is the first time that one of the soprano’s most famous interpretations was documented in sound. According to Nikos Petsalis-Diomidis, Callas’ first sang “Casta diva” in public on the occasion of her debut in concert (celebration of the American Independence Day, 4 July 1938, Athens, Greece). The Norma aria was given as an encore following a program of American and Greek songs sung by Callas at the evening’s end. She would then sing “Casta diva” several times between 1940 and 1947, including auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera of New York and La Scala of Milan, before attempting the role for the first time on the stage in 1948. The scene sung in this Buenos Aires performance preceded Callas’ first studio recording sessions by four months. She recorded “Casta diva … Ah! bello a me ritorna” on 9 November 1949, plus excerpts from Tristan und Isolde and I puritani; all were first issued on three Cetra 78 rpm records in early 1950.

     The first recorded performance of Callas’ “Casta diva” is a brilliant achievement. While the 1949 studio version remains an outstanding performance, the Buenos Aires rendition is superior in many respects. In it, Callas shows rare inventiveness and intimacy in the interpretation, giving it a contemplative and mystic character not quite evident in the Cetra version. Her rich, fresh, and beautiful voice of seemingly limitless possibilities literally sculpts Bellini’s long arches of sound; the legato line is impressive, the vocal ornaments impeccable, the interpretation exuding glowing repose. In no other Callas recording of this aria can one hear such memorable effects as, for instance, the sudden hush on the word “ardenti” at the beginning of the second verse. The beauty and lightness of the cadential B-flat and the descending chromatic scale that follows are breathtaking. In addition, this is Callas’ only live recording of “Casta diva” in which the four forte high A’s leading to the climactic B-flat are approached with an accacciatura from below instead of a direct attack (the latter would become practice in her later recordings of the aria). The only two instances of this old performance practice, extensively used in Bellini’s period, in Callas’ recordings of “Casta diva” are the Buenos Aires performance of 9 July 1949 and the Cetra commercial recording of 9 November 1949. The cabaletta, sung in the purest virtuoso style, is delivered with freedom and spontaneity; particularly impressive is the section “E vita nel tuo seno, e patria e cielo avrň.” Callas caps the cabaletta with a superb, rock solid forte high C, completely dominating the chorus and the orchestra for few seconds. As on the Cetra recording, she approaches the high C from the lower G, but the C is held a bit longer and with greater steadiness than on Cetra. Incredibly enough, such accomplished singing of one of the most taxing bel canto scenes comes from a woman only twenty-five old. Of eighteen complete documented versions of Callas’ “Casta diva” (in addition to her two Juilliard master classes on it, during which she sings few lines) the Buenos Aires version is certainly among the most impressive Callas’ performances of this music left for posterity.

     Marguerite’s scene and Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust, handsomely sung by the young Argentinean soprano Helena Arizmendi (who had also sung Liů to Callas’ Turandot in May and June 1949), and an early document of Nicola Rossi-Lemeni’s Oroveso complete this historical issue. Five years later, Callas and Rossi-Lemeni recorded Norma for EMI under Serafin’s baton, but in the studio set, Rossi-Lemeni lacks the smoothness and homogeneity heard on this live recording. The second part of the Gala Soiree, which consisted of a complete Act III of Turandot with Callas, Del Monaco, Arizmendi, and Rossi-Lemeni was, unfortunately, not recorded.

     An excerpt from Act II of Turandot, allegedly recorded in Buenos Aires on 20 May 1949, was first issued in France in 1984. Upon the release, rumours began to circulate that the excerpt in question might be a composite mostly made from commercial recordings by Callas and Del Monaco. Recent analyses performed by Robert E. Seletsky, Pablo D. Berruti, and the writer of these lines, demonstrate that the mentioned material is indeed a hoax assembled from at least three different studio recordings, not an authentic 1949 Teatro Colón performance. The two surviving fragments from Act III of Turandot, on the other hand, have been generally accepted as authentic; Callas’ indeed shapes Turandot’s few lines differently than in the complete Turandot (EMI 1957), her only other recorded interpretation of this music. These snippets originate either from one of the four Colón performances (20 and 29 May, 11 and 22 June 1949), or from the Act III of the 9 July gala (all were broadcast). The exact date of this performance, given during the last series of Maria Callas’ stage portrayals of Turandot, is unknown. The fragments originate from an acetate disc source; their pitch is about a semitone low in other LP and CD issues. It was corrected by Robert E. Seletsky for this CD edition.

© Milan Petkovic, 2000