Callas’ Buenos Aires Turandot – Authenticity and Forgery
by Milan Petkovic
On 20 May 1949, Maria Meneghini Callas made her Buenos Aires debut on the stage of the Teatro Colón as Puccini’s Turandot. It was her only operatic season in Argentina, and lasted less than two months. An excerpt from Act II, allegedly recorded during that debut, citing Maria Callas (Turandot), Mario del Monaco (Calaf), Virgilio Tavini (Altoum), Helena Arizmendi (Liù) and conductor Tullio Serafin, was first issued in France in May 1984 by Rodolphe Productions. Originally the first side of a three-LP album entitled Les Inédits de Maria Callas (RP 12413/15), it has been available in several CD reissues, starting with a release of “In questa reggia” in 1987 by Rodolphe (Maria Callas: Il canto assoluto, RPC 32484/7). Eklipse was the first label to issue the complete Act II excerpt on CD in 1995 (EKR CD 44), followed by Great Opera Performances (778-CD 24) and Sakkaris in 1998 (SR.DIVA 1112).
Upon the release of the Rodolphe LPs, rumours began to circulate that the excerpt from Act II might be a hoax – a composite made from commercial recordings by Callas and Del Monaco, and other sources as well. These commercial recordings are: (1) “In questa reggia,” recorded by Callas with conductor Tullio Serafin for EMI in London in September 1954 in her first LP recital, 7243 5 66463 2 2 (1997); (2) the complete monophonic EMITurandot recorded under the auspices of La Scala in July 1957, with Maria Callas, Eugenio Fernandi, and conductor Serafin, CDS 5 56307 2 (1997); (3) the complete stereophonic Decca Turandot made in Rome in July/August 1955 with Inge Borkh, Mario del Monaco, and conductor Alberto Erede, 452 964-2 (1999). It was concluded that the Act II excerpt from Turandot originally issued in 1984 by Rodolphe (in further text: the Rodolphe release/excerpt) was an authentic and important early Callas performance. However, the conclusion regarding its authenticity was not unequivocal, and many Callas scholars and enthusiasts remained unconvinced. The aim of this article is to demonstrate that it is undoubtedly a hoax assembled from at least three different studio recordings.
A close comparative analysis of the Rodolphe release with the above studio recordings reveals that the former is indeed a concoction of various sources, electronically processed and doctored with static, applause, voices from the audience, and other extraneous noise to simulate a live broadcast. More importantly, Callas’ voice is lighter in colour and at times slightly tremulous, not so much on top as in the middle register. The middle voice sounds too lightweight in comparison to the four live and three studio Callas recordings known to have been recorded in 1949. Furthermore, the pitch on Rodolphe’s excerpt was deliberately raised above the normal level. An even closer analysis reveals interesting details.
Most of “In questa reggia” was taken from the 1954 EMI recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Serafin. It is obvious why this version was chosen for the hoax over the one from the complete 1957 set: Callas’ voice had been in a considerably better shape and control in 1954 – closer to her rich, brilliant, well-focused and solid sound of 1949. “Principessa Lo-u-Ling, ava dolce e serena,” however, was drawn from the 1957 Turandot. This particular detail was brought to my attention by Mr. Robert E. Seletsky, who further suggested that the portamento on “Lo-u-Ling” in the 1957 recording may have seemed reminiscent of Callas’ earlier performance practices to the forger(s), thus more easily aiding the deception. Callas’ earlier portamento was musically different from the type she employed after 1953.
The phrasing, accentuation, and coloration of certain words, syllables and phrases on the Rodolphe release and EMI 1954 are identical. One needs only to listen to the word “carovane” in the phrase “O principi, che a lunghe carovane…” recorded by Callas in 1954: this word was given a different inflexion on the 1957 version, but it sounds exactly the same as on the Rodolphe release. Certain slight pauses within phrases audible on EMI 1954 were eliminated during the preparation of the faked “live” excerpt to give the impression of a different performance, but the traces of editing are not indiscernible (“No, no, mai nessun m’avrà, ah! rinasce in me…”). The choral interjections were dubbed over from another source, since the chorus and tenor lines are omitted on the 1954 recital disc.
As soon as Del Monaco enters at “No, no! Gli enigmi sono tre,” the acoustic changes. Furthermore, during the only portion to be sung unisono by the two protagonists (including their double fortissimo high C), Turandot’s lines can barely be heard, and are totally unrecognisable as sung by Callas. This section originates from the left channel of the Decca stereophonic recording, in which Mario del Monaco’s voice predominates over that of Inge Borkh. A precise comparison between the passage on Decca stereo 1955 (left channel only) and that on the Rodolphe release reveals that the soprano line on the latter is indeed sung by Borkh, not Callas; the sound of the female voice has been deliberately blurred.
Additional important evidence arises from a random background noise occurring at a particular spot earlier in the excerpt. Pablo D. Berruti of Divina Records performed an oscilloscopic analysis of the words “… la sua fresca voce” in “In questa reggia” on the 1954 EMI recording and the Rodolphe excerpt. A quite audible click occurs during the last syllable of the word “fresca” on both Rodolphe and 1954 EMI precisely at the same moment; it is absent from Callas’ 1957 recording. Mr. Berruti corrected the pitch of the “la sua fresca voce” part of the Rodolphe excerpt and recorded it simultaneously with the corresponding bit from the 1954 EMI recording (left channel: Rodolphe; right channel: EMI 1954). A comparison of the two superposed sound sources reveals no difference between them (excluding the artificial background) – tangible evidence of fraud.
Callas’ part in the Riddle Scene is, of course, taken from the complete EMI recording, her only extant version of that music. Despite effects introduced to deceive the listener (slight volume drop-outs aimed at masking certain interpretative details, metallic coloration and resonance of high-lying passages electronically induced to simulate the incisiveness and robustness of Callas’ pre-1954 voice), her singing and vocal inflexions are identical to those on EMI 1957 (“Sì… la speranza che delude sempre!” and “Percuotete quei vili!,” to cite only two significant examples). These subtle details were proven impossible to mask by any technical means. Equally deserving our attention is the fact that Callas does not make a single error, or even the slightest hesitancy, in the pronunciation of Turandot’s text. This would have probably been unusual for her Argentinean debut, since the local press reported manifestation of her usual first-night nerves on 20 May 1949 (“the nervousness of a performance,” as La Prensa said); critical opinions of her opening performance were divided.
Mario del Monaco’s part was taken from the 1955 Decca version, his only recording of Calaf’s part. Each time his voice is spliced in, a change in the sonority and a slightly faster tempo occur. Furthermore, the interpolated phrase containing an optional high C heard at “ti voglio ardente d’amor” is clearly not sung by Del Monaco. Eduardo Arnosi, a critic of El mundo and a close friend of the tenor, was present at three out of four Turandotperformances of May and June 1949. According to Mr. Arnosi, Del Monaco did not sing the optional high C on any of those occasions. Not only is the acoustic of that portion different from the rest of the Rodolphe excerpt (the drastic change beginning precisely at the word “ardente”), but the timbre of the tenor voice venturing the high C hardly resembles Del Monaco’s. It was clearly taken from another source in order make the concocted recording more obviously different from the Decca version (in which Del Monaco does not attempt a high C, but sings the original phrase that includes a lower option and a slightly different text, “ti voglio tutta ardente d’amor”). Eduardo Arnosi’s evidence and the clumsy splicing present a strong argument for the fraudulence of the Rodolphe Act II excerpt. Even more evidence is seen in Helena Arizmendi’s inability to recognise her own voice in Liù’s line “E per l’amore!” heard on the Rodolphe release. (The information concerning Mr. Arnosi’s and Ms. Arizmendi’s statements was provided by Pablo D. Berruti, who interviewed them both.) It should also be noted that strange extraneous background noises are audible throughout the Rodolphe excerpt, sounding more similar to the moving of heavy boxes in a large storage room than to a noise normally expected from a theatre audience.
Splices from various sound sources, pitch alterations, filtering of desired portions of the frequency spectrum, the addition of artificial distortion or sudden drop-outs are all easily achieved on ordinary audio equipment, as was apparently the case here. As a result, Callas’ top does sound more metallic, forceful, and resonant than on EMI. However, the forgery of Callas’ Buenos Aires Turandot ultimately failed to produce satisfactory results due to the following reasons:
- Callas’ middle voice sounds too thin and lightweight for 1949, but astonishingly similar to that documented on her post-1953 recordings instead. The British critics, for instance, initially complained about the heavy, covered quality of Callas’ middle register on the occasion of her London debut in 1952. In an Opera News issue of that period, John Freeman mentions “the masked tone in the middle register, which at times makes her sound as if singing with a mouthful of hot marbles.”
- Altering Callas’ phrasings and the unique colours and inflexions she gives to Turandot’s words on two EMI recordings has proven an impossible task, even if it was attempted by the creator(s) of the forgery. Comparisons of minute interpretative details with the studio versions of 1954 and 1957 are highly relevant in that regard. Identical inflections can be heard on the excerpt attributed to 20 May 1949 and on either EMI 1954 (“In questa reggia”) or EMI 1957 (Riddle Scene and the few words from “In questa reggia” mentioned above).
The two surviving snippets from Act III (about two minutes in total), on the other hand, have been generally accepted as authentic. They originate either from one of the four Turandots of May and June 1949, or from the Act III of 9 July 1949, all performed at the Teatro Colón. These excerpts, first issued on a Legendary Recordings LP (LR-111), are low in pitch and in bad, yet clear enough sound to observe that Callas’ singing of “So il tuo nome!” and “Ah! Calaf, davanti al popolo con me!” is different from her rendition in the complete EMI recording. This material originates from an acetate disc source, and is also featured on the aforementioned Eklipse and Sakkaris CDs. It is, however, absent from all Rodolphe editions.
In July 1999, Divina Records of Buenos Aires issued a CD (DVN~12) with Callas’ newly discovered Teatro Colón material that has survived on paper tapes. (The enhanced CD version of DVN~12, published in 2000, includes the authentic Act III material in correct pitch, as well as all of Callas’ Teatro Colón performances known to exist in sound – about 68 minutes in total). The recording medium of the discussed Turandot Act II excerpt, on the other hand, remains unspecified. No original acetate disc(s) or paper tape(s), such as those used for the DVN~12 CD, of the Act II excerpt have come to light.
The Act II Turandot excerpt that the Rodolphe producer Jacques Bertrand claimed to be “an authentic unpublished material” and “a Callas recording never heard in thirty-five years” (Réal La Rochelle’s Callas, la diva et le vinyle, Montreal, 1987, p. 105) is unquestionably a fraud, probably intended to attract Callas devotees, but also to boost Rodolphe’s sales. The annual sales of the “previously unreleased” Turandot Act II excerpt were anticipated to surpass five to six times the average (ibid., p. 285). In light of this fact, it is significant that the twenty-two minute Turandot excerpt was not initially issued on one side of a single LP record, but as a part of a three-LP set (the rest of which, however, comprised authentic live material from the early years of Maria Callas’ international career).
© Milan Petkovic, 1999 and 2002
I wish to thank Mr. Robert E. Seletsky of Boston for bringing this subject to my attention as well as for his contributions; Mr. Pablo D. Berruti of Buenos Aires, producer of Divina Records, for providing important information and performing the oscilloscopic and sound analyses mentioned in the text; and Mr. Frank Hamilton of New York City for many useful suggestions.
NOTE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Milan Petkovic has been studying Maria Callas’ art since early 1970s, attaching great importance to the historical accuracy of data. He specializes in comparisons between Callas’ different recorded interpretations of the same music.
The correlation between Callas’ psychology and her recorded interpretations is a particular interest, given the soprano’s belief that a key to her personality was to be found on her records. Besides the art of Maria Callas and opera, Milan Petkovic’s interests lie in classical music, pharmaceutical industry, chemistry, teaching and psychology. He lives in California, USA.