Callas at EMI: Remastering and Perception
by Dr. Robert E. Seletsky
MARIA Callas’ profound influence on opera in the second half of the twentieth century is self-evident. The soprano considered herself a musician above all else and was more concerned with style and interpretation than with simple vocalism. Callas’ artistry thus transcended the specifically operatic medium and remains a living musical force today, over two decades after her death. Her commitment and creative collaboration with the musical personas of the composers whose scores her performances illuminated make her the perfect embodiment of musico-rhetorical ideals described in theoretical writings dating from as early as 1600. Notwithstanding her oft-evoked gripping stage presence, Callas’ art can be fully understood and appreciated through her extensive audio recordings.
EMI/Angel, Callas’ principal studio affiliation beginning in early 1953, has reissued her recordings many times, continually adapting their sound to the perceived preferences of the record-buying public. Each reissue, particularly of the monophonic recordings—the core of Callas’ output—consolidated matters of balance, color, and even pitch; sonically and cosmetically, one generation is easily distinguishable from another. The most recent “renovation” is EMI Classics’ Callas Edition, released in late 1997 and early 1998, ostensibly to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the soprano’s death. Given the problems with the new edition, as we will see, one must suspect that the financial crisis then facing EMI was factored into the haste with which the recordings of its historically most profitable artist were reissued.
Angels Dancing on the Point of a Needle
A retrospective of EMI’s Callas output provides a revealing prelude to an evaluation of the latest incarnation. A drawing of La Scala appears uniformly on the album covers of the first “red-label” Angel LPs, the exterior on the lower half against a black background, the interior on the upper half against colored backgrounds—red for Puritani, blue for Tosca, magenta for Norma, yellow for Pagliacci, etc. Departing from the formula slightly, Turco in Italia’s cover is entirely light blue, Sonnambula’s lower half is light purple, Turandot and the 1959 stereo Gioconda have orange lower halves. The composer, title, and cast are centered on the covers. The 1953 Lucia di Lammermoor was not recorded in association with La Scala and therefore has a different appearance altogether. Pressed in Britain like their counterparts on English Columbia, the discs were also originally available singly, still in automatic sequence.
Except for Cavalleria rusticana, Walter Legge produced the EMI recordings from Callas’ great years. Consistent with much early LP sound, spaciousness was seldom a characteristic of Callas’ monophonic originals, but rather, an extraordinarily intimate, human sound. Such intimacy did not flatter the orchestral presentation: it is small and constricted. Those who have heard Callas live say that the original pressings best capture the voice they remember, most accurately revealing its “rainbow” of coloristic complexity. While generally similar to each other, the early LPs reveal some slight variations: for example, although both were recorded in 1956, Ballo in maschera is very close while Trovatore is less immediate.
Sonic distinctions appear as EMI/Angel’s mastering and pressing techniques gained in sophistication: a 1954 Norma pressed from stampers with suffixes from “1N” to “4N” is somewhat sweeter but less articulate than a set pressed from later ones. Subsequent sets frequently combined pressings made from stampers of slightly different vintages, leading to subtle differences in sound from side to side. Other changes included the substitution of vinyl for the LPs’ original heavy, inflexible plastic. The legend “Recording Angel” was removed from the labels, the pun perhaps lost on most people; the size and spacing of the characters in “ANGEL RECORDS” were increased. On the covers, the Scala insignia was diminished, the color background of the Angel logo (matching the upper half) deleted. “Electric & Musical Industries (U.S.) Ltd.” disappeared from labels with the release of Angel’s first stereo LPs, the labels’ lower edges either left blank or occupied by the word “STEREO.” Minor changes aside, the “red-label” Angels, taken as a group, have real cohesion.
Blue Angels, Orange Angels, Foreign Angels
When Angel founder Dario Soria left EMI in December 1957, the new directors decided to consolidate Angel sound, modeling it either on stereo sonority or imagined American preferences. Monophonic Angels were remastered—probably from second-generation tapes—and pressed in the U.S. by EMI/Capitol with more spacious orchestral sound but a blurred, distant Callas. The new masterings dispensed with the oscillating center grooves designed to activate older automatic tonearm-return mechanisms. The red labels were retained for a few years, the lettering somewhat narrower; they were used somewhat beyond 1959 and were therefore the first to credit “Maria Callas” rather than “Maria Meneghini Callas. Many late-1950s/early-1960s monophonic sets combined the red-labeled, darker-sounding later masterings with older, bright-sounding “red-label” Angel LPs; discs bearing the later red labels were even made from older masters on one side—with oscillating center grooves—and from later, darker-sounding masters—with stationary center grooves—on the other. The red labels themselves were ultimately replaced by the blue labels that listeners usually associate with the Angel pressings of the 1960s.
The mono Lucia and Norma were discontinued in the wake of stereo remakes, reappearing as budget-priced Seraphim sets. The late-red/blue-label Angels and Seraphim demonstrate a new carelessness by such omissions as the second act’s first note in the Angel Butterfly and the ten-second opening timpani in the Seraphim Lucia. These errors persisted in all subsequent U.S. LP issues, although they do not mar either European EMI LPs or any CD versions. In the mid-1960s, the earlier, ubiquitous “Scala” cover design was replaced by the varied art already in use on the album covers of Callas’ non-Scala recordings, though the booklets remained the same, retaining the title lettering style of the earlier covers.
The 1970s gave us the “orange-label” Angels. These LPs are bright and somewhat lean in sound, again redesigned to accommodate the perceived tastes of their generation. Although vocally immediate, they sometimes lack warmth; further, their increased upper-middle frequencies reveal tape hiss for the first time in monophonic Callas recordings. Seven more full-priced monophonic Callas sets were discontinued, all of them eventually remastered and reissued on budget Seraphim except Turandot. The old Scala drawing with superimposed title and cast list is sometimes seen on the backs of “orange-label” Angel and Seraphim albums, with gray or white upper and black lower halves. Both “blue-” and “orange-label” Angels introduce considerable dynamic compression which, strangely, does not occur in the original pressings. With the late-1950s U.S. pressings, vinyl and surface quality begins a steady decline. There were several other brief phases—”gold-label” or “ochre/brown-label” Angels of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as “yellow/black-label” Angels—the final design before the introduction of the CD; however, the three stages described above—”red-,” “blue-,” and “orange-label”—cover the basic American LP pressing history.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, European EMI affiliates devised two completely different methods of refreshing Callas’ monophonic recordings. EMI Italiana and English EMI/HMV issued most of them in unmusical electronically rechanneled stereo—at full price, frequently the same operas re-released in their original mono on budget U.S. Seraphim. Happily, there were also lovely mono remasterings from English EMI/HMV, French EMI, German EMI, and Toshiba/EMI. Some of these mono reissues sound remarkably like the originals—sweet, articulate, and complex—but with more refinement and realistic orchestral sound, most satisfyingly revealing the full potential of the original tapes. Stereo recordings were also improved: the unacceptably reverberant sound of the 1959 Lucia and 1960 Norma was corrected, as was the compression and colorlessness of the 1959 Gioconda.
Angels Dancing on a Point of Light
The First Callas CDs: 1984-90
The first generation of studio recordings on CD, issued between 1984 and 1990, reproduces the extremely close miking of EMI’s 1950s monophonic aesthetic, perhaps exaggerating it. While tampering very little with the originals, EMI’s attempts to reduce original tape hiss compromised the high-frequency content slightly in some of these CDs, most notably Trovatore and the 1953 Tosca. Initial criticisms, however, were somewhat unfair, as the most recent LPs for comparison were the overly bright late Angels, while the CDs were closer in sound to the original pressings that listeners had forgotten. As first released, the mono Toscadivided the second act between CDs at the LP side 2-3 break; act 2 was soon consolidated on the second disc, and more tracks were added.
The 1984-90 CDs preserve and enhance the breadth and richness of Callas’ vocal color and musical expressiveness; Callas invariably sounds larger than life, projecting an exciting, palpable presence. Her slimmed 1954-57 sound also comes closer to her 1953 voice, not at all an objectionable quality. Interestingly, the opposite is true of most later LP pressings, where Callas’ earlier voice seems closer to her post-1953 sound; the notable exception is the Seraphim 1954 Turco in Italia, which sounds fuller-voiced than the original Angel pressing. Sections deleted from the last acts of Forza and Gioconda in all LP editions, for the sake of length, are restored and are actually heard for the first time in these CDs. EMI’s apparent instinct was to eradicate three decades of sonic accretions and return to the original sound of the master tapes insofar as was possible; the 1954 Norma, pressed in Japan during 1985, for instance, faithfully reproduces the dark sweetness of the earliest LPs.
EMI Classics 1991-96
The Callas CDs underwent some sonic alterations at the time “EMI/Angel” became “EMI Classics.” The changes are apparently the result of slight re-equalization; EMI never alluded to them nor modified its catalogue numbers. Carmen was mastered from three to two CDs, reducing its cost but introducing a break in act 2—not an original LP side-break. The EMI Classics CDs of the early-mid 1990s sound less close and weighty than the earlier CDs, but they are brighter and more transparent—the dull-sounding 1993 German Puritani and Norma excepted. The characteristics of both earlier and later CD pressings are present in the LPs, so any preferences are entirely individual. Initial CD releases that were muffled or opaque benefit the most in the newer pressings. Sonic differences are also noticeable in the products of different pressing firms (e.g., EMI Swindon, EMI Uden, Nimbus, Sonopress) and locations (Japan, U.K., Holland, U.S., Germany); pressing locations frequently differ from those listed on the slipcases or liners.
Seldom an issue in studio recordings, the pitch level of EMI’s mono Callas pressings has been incrementally lowered over the years. The LPs of the 1960s are a shade flatter than the originals, the “orange-label” Angels and Seraphim of the 1970s frequently flatter still. The first CDs generally contain the lowest pitch levels. Fortunately, these discrepancies are under a quarter of a tone; the lack of absolute pitch consistency may originate with speed-drift in EMI/Angel’s 1950s recording equipment caused by changes in tape tension. The original LPs, however, may have been deliberately mastered slightly sharp to compensate for heavy period tracking weights, later lowered but still modified to accommodate the drag of in-play record-cleaning devices like “wet-play” or the “Dust-Bug,” and finally left at the original lower pitch with the advent of the CD. There are some complete anomalies: the first LP pressing of the stereo Gioconda is flatter than all subsequent issues; the pitch level of side two in the 1960s Angel Forza is lower than the rest of the set, clearly a mastering defect; the 1960s Angel Butterfly and “orange-label” 1953 Tosca are flatter than either the original LPs or the CDs.
By 1997 Callas’ studio oeuvre—certainly her earliest EMI efforts—had entered the realm of “historical” recordings. But rather than opting for a genuine restoration of the master tapes’ content, EMI preferred to “modernize” the sound, as they had decades earlier with the “blue-” and “orange-label” Angel LPs. The fact that most of the recordings are monophonic, and that goals for recorded sound have changed dramatically in forty-five years, already make EMI’s decision troubling. Further, unlike any prior issuance, the newest versions evince no consolidated conviction about exactly how Callas’ voice should sound. The lack of forethought is apparent: whereas the first-generation CDs of Callas’ studio recordings were issued between 1984 and 1990, the Callas Edition appeared practically overnight in late 1997, a few entries released in 1998.
As one might anticipate, the new edition is uniform in appearance. The packaging makes fairly consistent use of black-and-white period photographs to replace Christian Steiner’s early-1970s color photos on the slipcases of the earlier CDs (although some new issues reuse the Steiner photos in black-and-white versions). Regarded by some as elegiac when the first CDs appeared, Steiner’s elegant photos on black backgrounds had simply been transferred from the Angel, Seraphim, and EMI LP covers of the early 1970s, when they heralded Callas’ ill-advised 1973-74 comeback. The period photographs on the new CD slipcases, however, mislead potential buyers into expecting historical sound restoration. The false impression is further abetted by the accompanying booklets which, in addition to reprints of the essays accompanying earlier CD issues, contain more period photos and statistical tabulations of Callas’ performances (EMI’s frequent errors duly noted). Given her genuine and routinely reaffirmed reverence for the composers of the works she performed, Callas would doubtless have objected to the dominance of her name in boldface capitals on the slipcases and jewel-case liners, while their names are rendered in tiny print. There is only a single precedent: the original LP cover for Bizet’s best-known opera reads “CALLAS CARMEN.” The composer’s name appears only on the spine, justified perhaps by the fact that the 1964 release was Callas’ first complete new role to be recorded commercially in seven years.
The sonic differences within the first-generation CD series are analogous to those among the original LPs. The sonic relationships among the remasterings, however, result entirely from the individual engineers’ attitudes and levels of proficiency with EMI’s new 20-bit “ART” (Abbey Road Technology) equipment. Producer Walter Legge’s recording concepts have been distributed among four EMI remasterers, the original sound of the tapes largely bypassed and newly realized by Allan Ramsay, Simon Gibson, Paul Baily, and Andrew Walter. The voices often sound recessed, thin, harsh, or tight, lacking the color, warmth, and humanity that have always characterized the Callas recordings. The Dutch pressings of the Callas Edition have greater warmth and presence, if less transparancy; they are markedly closer to the earlier CDs than their American counterparts evaluated here, the contrast doubtless the result of post-mastering equalization.
Ramsay’s monophonic remasterings are Puritani, Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci—finally on two discs, Tosca (1953), Madama Butterfly, Trovatore, Ballo in maschera, and Turandot. In addition to the shared sonic traits of the Callas Edition, Ramsay’s work frequently has an artificial transparency; the U.S. versions are strangely dark at times with strident upper frequencies.
The new Puritani has greater limpidity, spaciousness, and instrumental detail than its predecessors. However, Callas’ early 1953 voice, so excitingly represented in the 1986 West German CD edition, loses some vibrancy, color, and presence, as do the other voices.
The overload distortion in Cav is accentuated by a harsh, tight new sound at odds with the bloom of the red-label Angel LPs and the faithful earlier CDs. The sound of the new Pag has some interesting instrumental detail, but the voices are distanced, cold, and surrounded by an unnatural ambience. No CD Pag does justice to the first LPs, though the mid-1990s American pressing comes close. However, the new 2-CD version of the Cav/Pag set permits each opera to occupy a single disc without breaks. Ramsay has removed the electrical clicking noises audible in all earlier versions of Cav’s intermezzo (similar, though perhaps less apparent, “cleaning-up” occurs throughout the Callas Edition); and in Pag, he has corrected the incongruously loud volume of Nedda’s final word, “lurido,” in her scene with Tonio.
The remastered Butterfly has a hollow, artificial clarity, with neither the intimacy of the earliest LPs nor the sweetness and radiance of the previous CD versions, so Callas’ voice is often quite pale and hard. Breathing and many consonants have a distracting electronic buzz.
Because the Trovatore was not as closely miked as most other Angels, increasing its vocal presence in the earlier CD edition produced a somewhat heavy, muffled sound. Ramsay’s leaner version, especially—and unusually—in its American pressing, is closer to LP sound, though the voices lose a certain amount of cushion. Ramsay has also eliminated the long, unnecessary silence between the close of Leonora’s act 4 cabaletta “Tu vedrai” and Di Luna’s subsequent recitative beginning “Udiste,” a side-break in LP versions. The bass, however, has less weight and definition than in other editions. The 1987 version of Ballo is less articulate than the LPs, but it has a rich presence and warmth. The U.S. incarnation of Ramsay’s new mastering is muted, colorless, and thin, with none of the Dutch pressing’s clarity.
The original LP Turandot is not one of Angel’s best efforts, airless and somewhat lacking in vocal intimacy. The American pressing of Ramsay’s remastering imparts a bizarre, exotic, glittering instrumental transparency while orchestrally overwhelming Callas, whose sound is remote and muted, her consonants unclear, almost as though she were turned away from the microphone. The first-generation CD solution, was far better: although the tightness of the original acoustic was accentuated, the voices were afforded real presence.
The new sound of the 1953 Tosca has spaciousness, exuding a certain excitement not unlike some of the later LP versions, but the voices are thinner, less present, and colder. There are several felicitous editorial corrections, particularly the volume reduction at Tosca’s “Ah! Piuttosto giù mi avvento!” in her act 2 scene with Scarpia (CD 2, track 9, 1:35). Yet, this Tosca, as initially released in 1997, contains a profoundly disturbing example of engineering recklessness. Ramsay “corrected” what he presumed to be an editing error but is, in fact, an interpretive subtlety that Callas incorporated into both her recordings of Tosca and all live performances following the first recording. At her entrance, she calls Mario’s name three times, each more insistent than the previous one, to indicate her approach; Callas and Legge worked assiduously to achieve optimal spatial results within the limitations of period mono recording techniques. The third and last “Mario” is preceded by an agogic pause and is then elongated; it is also the loudest and the closest—the only one of the three that Callas sings at a normal distance from the microphone. Without consulting other Callas versions—including EMI’s own second Callas Tosca, apparently—Ramsay deleted the third “Mario,” perhaps because it contains a slightly audible thump or sounded too different from the other two; he replaced it with a copy of the second. He then deleted the spaces, so that the three calls emerge dovetailed and identical, all spatial effect and musical subtlety removed. The effect is reminiscent of a defective, repeating CD. With the original third “Mario” replaced and its surrounding musical time eliminated, Di Stefano’s voice jumps in early, the initial sibilant of his reply “Son qui” cropped. I contacted EMI in June 1998, and the passage was finally restored in April 1999. Sadly, with thousands of inaccurate copies in circulation, the damage is done, creating a strange anomaly in the history of an important recording. Moreover, copies of the corrected pressing are not identified, so prospective purchasers will have no way of knowing whether the copy in hand contains the error or not. Nevertheless, one must be grateful that EMI made the correction, however belatedly.
Gibson’s remasterings of EMI monophonic studio sets—the 1953 Lucia, the 1954 Norma, Forza del destino, Turco in Italia, Aida, Bohème, Sonnambula, and Manon Lescaut—are strikingly different from Ramsay’s. They frequently have even less room acoustic than the original LPs, sounding close but airless, often muted, and sometimes harsh. While the initial mono CD Norma reflected the natural vocalism and sweet sound of the earliest LPs, Gibson’s version has a new hardness, but without added articulation—a covered, brittle sound with a boomy bass. Lucia also suffers from a covered sound and intrusive, reverberant bass, the colorful complexity, bright articulation, and focused presence of Callas’ pre-diet voice sadly diminished.
Tape hiss has been almost completely removed from the Forza and Aida, resulting in noticeable upper-frequency loss. Consequently, in the Forza, Callas’ voice is veiled and dark, these characteristics highlighted by the overemphasized bass and colorless new acoustic. The first-generation Aida CDs successfully combined a bold, close presence with greater brightness than the LPs; the new version has a dull, raspy sound. Analogous to the mid-series change in the first CD Carmen, the new Aida is now on two discs; though less expensive, it has a jarring new break in the middle of act 2, scene 2. The new Bohème is bass-heavy and badly muffled. The Sonnambula started life as a very closely miked, intimate LP; Gibson’s apparent attempt to inject transparency results in pallid, unfocused sound.
The Manon Lescaut, drier and more sharply etched than earlier versions, has great clarity, but its lack of acoustic space reduces the warmth and tenderness of Callas’ lower and middle registers heard on LPs and earlier CDs—qualities so vital for this particular opera. The new Turco has a thin, hollow sound and a harsh top register.
Rigoletto was the only complete monophonic opera left in the care of Baily, whose remastering is harsh. It contains another noticeable, uninformed editing decision: the suppression of the sibilant in “sarà” on the climactic high B of “Caro nome,” mutilating the text “tuo sarà” into the meaningless “tuo arà.” EMI has assured me that this flaw will be corrected.
All these auteurs seem to have prioritized the transparency of instrumental texture; it is no compensation for sacrificing the fullness and complexity of Callas’ vocal sound. Even during her greatest years, Callas’ detractors often alleged that her vocal tone lacked “beauty”; by suppressing its warmth and presence, many new mono masterings do her voice a real disservice by making such accusations into self-fulfilled prophecies. The remastered complete mono operas do have visceral impact, but most lack musical weight.
Callas fares better in the stereo remasterings, the cloudiness of her later voice somewhat mitigated, the “wobble” less pronounced. Yet three complete stereo opera reissues—Barbiere (recorded in February 1957 when Callas was still in spectacular voice), Lucia (1959), and Gioconda (1959)—all remastered by Ramsay, have balance problems, the orchestra transparent but overwhelming. Callas’ voice is too thin in Barbiereand Lucia; in Gioconda it has a muted and remote quality that emphasizes its encroaching weakness.
Medea, recorded by Dischi Ricordi in September 1957, was remastered by Baily with brilliance and immediacy. However, the rich envelope of sound in Callas’ 1957 voice, present in all earlier versions, is lacking. The reworking is thrilling if somewhat inaccurate (and rather harsh in the American pressing). Walter achieves very musical results; like Baily, he was responsible for only two of Callas’ complete operas—the stereo remakes of Norma (1960) and Tosca (1964). The second Tosca was reportedly intended as the soundtrack for a film that never materialized; sonically, it has always had a rawness that no treatment will entirely solve, although Walter’s version has more cushion than the previous CD incarnation. The Norma reworking has less incisiveness than the first CD version, but it is sweeter and achieves a lovely transparency without hollowness, remarkably similar to the fine English EMI/HMV LP mastering of the early 1980s.
The new recital discs restore the contents of the original LPs; in this regard they are considerable improvements over the earlier CDs, which contain some very confusing “mixing and matching” in order to maintain full-price 70-minute lengths. The new discs have shorter playing times—roughly 45 minutes—but are offered below mid-line prices.
The first two recitals, Puccini Arias and Lyric/Coloratura Arias, both recorded in 1954, were remastered by Baily with sweetness, though with less vocal opulence or clarity than earlier versions. The Puccini disc has a slight technical problem which, again, EMI has promised to correct: as it is recorded monophonically, pressing an amplifier’s “mono” button during play should have no effect; regrettably, the two identical channels were accidentally remastered 1/2500th of a second out of phase with each other, so mixing them distorts the sound (EMI’s advice until the correction is made: don’t press the “mono” button). The Lyric/Coloraturaremastering is encumbered by another troubling editing decision: the glottal-sounding release of Callas’ final note in “Io son l’umile ancella” has been artificially “improved”. EMI does not intend to restore the original sound, thus permanently altering a historical document. In 1955, Callas recorded arias from Medea, Vestale, and Sonnambula, intended as her third recital LP Callas at La Scala. She never approved theSonnambula arias for release; they were published the year after her death on the LP Maria Callas: The Legend. Callas at La Scala was delayed until 1958; it finally included the Sonnambula act 1 scena drawn from her complete 1957 set and the Mad Scene from her 1953 Puritani. The new CD version contains all the material from the 1955 sessions. Gibson’s remastering sounds thinner than Baily’s two mono recital discs; the actual CD is erroneously labeled Callas “Live” at La Scala.
Following the first two stereo recitals—Verdi Heroines and Mad Scenes (1958)—the remainder were recorded after Callas’ vocal prime. Her sizable vocal presence in the 1960s stereo recital LPs and first-generation CD versions exposed her vocal difficulties, while the new CDs, with their lighter, more blended sound, are kinder to her voice, if not as honest or compelling; despite a loss of vocal richness, they generally call attention to the shapely phrasing and away from the cloudy vowels, registral gear-shifts, and upper-voice problems.
Gibson remastered Mad Scenes (1958)—with Antonio Tonini listed on the disc as a second conductor, an error obviously derived from the first CD version which included additional selections that he did conduct;Great Arias from French Opera (1961), including “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalila, never approved for release by Callas during her lifetime but published on LP as early as 1982; Maria Callas in Paris: Great Arias from French Opera, Vol. II (1963); Beethoven, Mozart, and Weber Arias; Verdi Arias II; and Donizetti and Rossini Arias (1963-64). Four of these CDs—both French discs,Beethoven/Mozart/Weber, and Donizetti/Rossini—were remastered slightly sharper than LP versions, the earlier CDs, or standard pitches indicated by tuning forks. EMI indicates that a correction may be made in the distant future.
Walter handled Verdi Heroines (1958). Baily remastered Verdi Arias III, newly collated from 1964, 1965, and 1969 sessions. Half the arias initially appeared on the 1972 LP Callas by Request, sanctioned by Callas, and the rest posthumously, on the 1978 Maria Callas: The Legend. Verdi Arias III includes the first CD publication of the recitative and cabaletta “Verrò…Ah, conforto è sol la speme,” appended to the 1969 “Nè sulla terra…Vola talor dal carcere” from Il corsaro. Unlike other recital remasterings, the often saturated and bass-heavy Verdi Arias III presents Callas’ voice less attractively than prior editions of the same material.
Ramsay remastered The EMI Rarities, a 2-CD set composed of studio takes recorded between 1953 and 1969 that do not actually belong anywhere. Four previously unpublished arias appear:  the first, slower 1953 test recording of “Non mi dir” from Don Giovanni,  the 1969 “Te, Vergin santa” from Lombardi, the 1964 take issued as the 1969 version in the 1987 Maria Callas: The Unknown Recordings,  “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide, recorded in 1960 and cited in the 1987 disc which really presented a 1961 take, and  “Arrigo! ah, parli a un cor” from Vespri Siciliani, also recorded in 1960 and cited in the 1992 Maria Callas Rarities which actually repeated the 1964 version first issued on the LP Callas by Request. The 1961 “Tranquillo ei posa…Com’è bello” from Lucrezia Borgia, originally issued in 1992, is now edited according to Legge’s recently unearthed instructions. Also included is the Sleepwalking Scene from Macbeth originally issued in the long-unavailable mono mix of the 1958 Verdi LP, Lady Macbeth’s voice disappearing offstage during the final phrases.
Callas Live on EMI
With the most sophisticated equipment at its disposal, one would have expected EMI to solve or improve problems in the live performance tapes. Regrettably, EMI did not locate the best sources nor did it correct distortion and numerous pitch inaccuracies in the preparation of these CDs; as a result, they are quite disappointing.
EMI’s 1990 release of the Berlin Lucia (1955), mastered by Baily, is extremely bright, and the singers are heard with a close, focused presence that unfortunately also accentuates the overload distortion in the Mad Scene. By comparison, Ramsay’s 1997 version has less vocal core and an electronic-sounding edge. Although the Mad Scene distortion is reduced, so are the color, weight, and volume of Callas’ voice. Both editions contain an awkward moment due to EMI’s routine editing of applause: the encore of the act 2 Sextet would be incomprehensible to a listener unfamiliar with the performance, as the ovation is reduced to eighteen seconds.
Baily’s 1990 EMI Scala Traviata (1955) is distorted, strident, and lacking in bass; Ramsay’s new version is no improvement. Both EMI versions of the live Anna Bolena (1957), one of Callas’ greatest achievements—Gibson’s 1993 mastering and its 1997 successor—are disgraceful: a semitone low in pitch and muffled in sound, certainly owing to poor source selection. The source tape chosen for Gibson’s 1993 remastering of the Carnegie Hall Pirata (1959) begins a semitone flat, coming up to pitch gradually through the course of half an hour, and the crisp digitizing accentuates the source’s unpleasant overload distortion. The new mastering by Ramsay has similar problems and, once again, less presence. The original Pirata tape, made in-house by hired sound professionals, is conserved in an opera archive; it is frustrating that EMI did not seek it out. Happily, EMI’s new Poliuto (1960), based on a good source and mastered by Ramsay,is fine, if a bit more lightweight than other versions. The 1998 EMI Ifigenia in Tauride (1957), mastered by Gibson, is distorted and unfocused; its poor quality is incomprehensible given that some inexpensive LP versions had clear, crisp sound. The booklets accompanying EMI’s more obscure live Callas operas, likePirata and Ifigenia, are their only real assets: the librettos are translated and reflect the lengthy or unusual cuts taken.
The Lisbon Traviata, a staple in EMI’s catalogue since 1980, had fair sonics in its initial LP release, although some private editions had been better. EMI’s first-generation CD version was an improvement, giving the voices more warmth and presence. Gibson’s 1997 remastering is dominated by shrill upper-frequency distortion and accentuated tape hiss—in short, unlistenable.
The 2-CD set Live in Concert contains the complete Amsterdam concert of July 1959, its final two arias in rather overwhelming, if artificial, sound. There are also selections from the four RAI concerts (1951, 1952, 1954, and 1956) with several ensemble and orchestral passages deleted; EMI includes only one aria from the first recital and the last. The pitch of the 1954 “D’amor al dolce impero” from Rossini’s Armida is nearly a semitone high and most of its orchestral introduction has been excised, as in its 1992 EMI release in Maria Callas Rarities—problems not encountered in private pressings. The set includes the 1957 Athens Liebestod, and begins with the much-discussed “Nina Foresti” audition from the 1935 Major Bowes radio program, with all references to the name “Nina Foresti” omitted. The sound of the material in the set is more strident than in other pressings, rather surprising work from Walter.
Lastly, EMI’s 1993 version of the 1952 Scala Macbeth has little weight or bass, but Callas sounds present and articulate, if a bit bright. Ramsay’s 1997 remastering increases this brightness to the point of listening discomfort; further, any trace of Callas’ rich, powerful 1952 sound is disappointingly absent. During the original 1952 broadcast, the sound level dropped precipitously in the a cappella ensemble near the end of the first act. In both EMI versions, the damaged section is replaced by two minutes from a 1960 Leyla Gencer performance. While EMI explains the “pre-” and “post-echo” of its original source (caused by tape print-through) on the back liner and booklet—problems that do not mar private issues of the performance—there is no mention of the far more significant substitution. Ironically, Arkadia Records, which also substituted the 1960 Gencer performance section, sued EMI in Milan for pirating their mastering of Macbeth.
Despite misguided editing choices and sonic failings, Callas Edition remasterings are still closer in sound to previous CD issues than to any LP pressings. In his response to a question about the reworking ofTurandot, an EMI engineer inadvertently revealed to me that the earlier CDs—not the original tapes—were used as reference points; at least his phrasing led to that interpretation. The possibility thus exists that Callas Edition entries were simply remastered from remasterings, a questionable shortcut enabling their nearly simultaneous release. It might also explain certain problems in all digital versions that are absent from analogue incarnations: for example, a tape squeal in the 1953 Tosca as the clarinets play pianissimo in thirds just before “Vissi d’arte.” The slipcases and liners of the complete operas only display the legend “remastered for optimum sound quality,” whereas both the recital and remastered opera highlights disc liners indicate that they were “remastered…from the original analogue tapes,” so no inference can be drawn conclusively. In any case, EMI sought to make each remastering as different as possible from its CD predecessor through electronic contrivance; all efforts were geared toward “improving” the original period sound. However, attempts to modernize early LP era sound are almost invariably unsuccessful; recordings from Callas’ great years cannot be forced to meet current sonic expectations without the erosion of genuine, original vocal characteristics. As shown, however, EMI has been revising Callas’ sound since the beginning of their association. It is a tribute to Maria Callas that her unmistakable voice and incomparable musicianship always emerge, attracting new listeners regardless of flawed engineering.
The new recital discs commendably restore the original LPs’ contents but editing and pitch problems seriously compromise their value. Throughout the Callas Edition, one is left with the uncomfortable impression that the engineers had difficulty in distinguishing tape splices from musical gestures and lacked very basic technique for checking pitch accuracy, nor did they seek any counsel in these matters. Ramsay’s Trovatore is actually more accurate than previous CD editions, though no CD version achieves the precision and warmth of most LPs. Baily’s Medea is laudable for its new focus and energy despite its departure from the original sound. Walter’s 1960 Norma is musical and attractive, recalling the virtues of good LPs. Although Dutch Callas Edition pressings usually sound better than American versions, they are afflicted with the same errors in editing and pitch. Therefore, whenever they are available, early mono LPs, remastered European EMI LPs of the stereo operas, the 1984-96 CDs of Callas’ studio output, and alternatives to EMI’s live Callas releases, should generally be considered superior.
Appendix: The Recordings
|Recording||Angel LP||CD 1984-96||CD 1997-98|
|Lucia di Lammermmor||3503||69980||66438|
|Cavalleria Rusticana||3509/with Pag 3528||47981||56287|
|Tosca||3508||47175 (U.S. 47174)||56304|
|Norma||3517||47304 (U.S. 47303)||56271|
|Pagliacci||3527/with Cav 3528||47981||56287|
|La forza del destino||3531||47581||56323|
|Il Turco in Italia||3535||49344||56313|
|Un ballo in maschera||3557||47498||56320|
|Il barbiere di Siviglia||3559||47634||56310|
|La sonnambula||3568||47378 (U.S. 47377)||56278|
|Manon Lescaut||3564||47393 (U.S. 47392)||56301|
|Medea||Mercury OL-104 (SR3-9000)||63625||66435|
|Lucia di Lammermoor||3601||47440||56284|
|Carmen||3650||47313 (U.S. 47312)
(2-CD 1991 pressing: 54368)
|Callas at la Scala||35304||47966/47282||66457|
|Verdi Heroines I||35763||47730||66460|
|Callas in Paris I||35882||49059||66466|
|Callas in Paris II||36147||49059/49005||66467|
|Verdi Arias II||36221||47943||66461|
|Beethoven, Mozart, and Weber||36200||49005/54437*||66465|
|Rossini and Donizetti Arias||36239||49005/47283||66464|
|Callas By Request (1972)||36852||47283/47730/47943||66462*/66468*|
|[Verdi III*/EMI Rarities*]|
|Callas the Legend (1978)||37557||47966/47730||66462*/66468*|
|Callas: the Unknown Recordings (1987)||49438||49428||66468|
|Callas Rarities (1992)||54437||66468*|
EMI Issues of Live Callas Performances: Complete Operas
|Lucia di Lammermoor (Berlin)||63631||66441|
|Ifigenia in Tauride||65451|
|La traviata (Lisbon)||3910||49187||56330|
EMI Issues of Live Callas Performances: Recitals (1935/51/52/54/56/57/59)
|Callas: the Unknown Recordings (1987)||49438||49428||72030|
|Callas Rarities (1992)||54437||72030|
*contains previously unpublished material
1. Callas’ complete recorded oeuvre is discussed exhaustively in John Ardoin’s The Callas Legacy (New York: Scribner, 1977; rev. 1982, 1991, 1995). Before Ardoin, David Hamilton’s article, “The Recordings of Maria Callas,” High Fidelity, vol. 24, no. 3 (March 1974), pp. 40-48, was fine and compact (although much additional recorded material has surfaced since). Callas’ studio efforts were evaluated in Michael Barclay’s three-part “Maria Callas: A Critical Discography,” American Record Guide, vol. 41, nos. 8-10 (part 1: June 1978, pp. 7-12, 52-54; part 2: July 1978, pp. 39-43; part 3: August 1978, pp. 28-35). Frank Hamilton’s on-line Maria Callas Performance Annals and Discographies is a comprehensive new reference tool at http://www.callas.simplenet.com. The present article examines EMI’s continually changing treatment of Callas’ sound. A slightly altered form appears in the Spring 2000 issue of The Opera Quarterly; this version appears here by kind permission of Oxford University Press. Milan D. Petkovic of Toronto is gratefully acknowledged for directing me to the Glotz interview cited in note 15, to the editing anomalies in the LP Gioconda and 1997 CD Rigoletto, and for his assistance in checking the chronology of arias published after Callas’ death, including the initial observation in note 19.
4. Thor Eckert, Jr., in High Fidelity, vol. 39, no. 2 (February 1989), pp. 46-50, is quite critical of the original CDs. Clearly no Callas admirer, he was apparently unfamiliar with the original LPs’ sound.
5. The CD labels on the 1992 American mono Tosca inaccurately reflect the old second-act division. The 1984-87 digital remasterings were briefly available on EMI/HMV and “Angel Voices” LPs. EMI had previously released a digitally remastered American LP version of the 1953 Tosca as Angel BLX-3508. While less expensive than the CDs—two LPs sometimes containing the music of three CDs—they lacked either analogue sweetness or digital articulation.
6. In Forza, act 4, scene 1 was cut on American mono and electronically re-channeled stereo EMI Italiana LPs. In the Gioconda LPs, a brief omission was made in the final act at Gioconda’s “Questa canzone ti rammenti,” as noted in early editions of Ardoin’s Callas Legacy; the efficacy of this strange deletion, only one minute and eight seconds in length, is unintelligible, and it was not made in Cetra’s 1952 Callas Gioconda.
7. Only one example of a credited remastering from this period is known to me: the Highlights CD for the 1960 Norma, originally compiled and released in 1989, was issued a second time with a new catalogue number and an actual new digital remastering date of 1996, rather than a second printing copyright date.
8. Many of the earlier CD versions continue to be the closest to the original LPs, among them Puritani (West Germany, 1986), 1954 Norma (Japan, 1985), Rigoletto, Manon Lescaut (West Germany, 1986 and 1985 respectively). Like the Seraphim LP reissue, the 1987 West German EMI/Angel Turco contains some elements of the earlier, richer, heavy Callas sound, while the 1993 German EMI Classics pressing is closer to the familiar slimmed voice heard in other 1954 recordings and the original 1954 Angel Turco LP set. Incidentally, some EMI Classics, like the 1993 German mono Norma and the 1994 American Forza, retain the older EMI/Angel logo on discs and/or boxes.
9. The mono Tosca and Norma, originally AAD—analogue original tape and editing stage, digital sound carrier—appear as 1990s ADD EMI Classics. As editing in the 1980s would have been digital, the second “A” in AAD implies an unedited analogue-to-digital transfer. AAD and putative ADD versions, however, are edited identically. More confusingly, Tosca’s labels reflect the change, but slipcases and liners do not. Carmen remained AAD in three-disc and later two-disc versions, although the labels of the 3-CD British pressing read “ADD.”
10. Analogous with LP pressings, variations occur in all the CD issues: Japanese pressings—the first EMI CDs—are sweeter, British CDs darker, Dutch CDs bright and focused, American CDs clear and bright but sometimes lacking in warmth, and German CDs the most present and close.
12. Beyond inferior U.S. sonics, the essays in the new American booklets are only presented in English, so many photos found in the multi-lingual European booklets are missing; further, printed on plain rather than glossy paper, photos appear faded and indistinct—a problem already seen in booklets for previous American pressings. American recital disc liners are printed in tiny black letters on gray backgrounds; on a few, the gray background is dark enough to make the printing nearly illegible. European recital liners have more useful silver backgrounds; however, their booklets often credit photos that do not appear.
13. A number of the remasterings newly consolidate acts: Cav/Pag, Norma (1954), Forza, Turco in Italia, Sonnambula, Turandot, Manon Lescaut (though the disc labels still reflect a break in act 2), Medea, and Gioconda. With Aida, economy apparently took precedence. The new Barbiere division reflects an original LP side-break, preferable to the break taken in the earlier CD version; more tracks have been added, but a useful one, at “Buona sera, mio signore” in act 2, is now absent. Oddly, the awkward division in the 1987 Madama Butterfly is retained.
14. Callas’ studio Medea is often described as “tired-sounding,” perhaps because of the lackluster sonics in most LP versions. In The Callas Legacy, Ardoin reports that it was recorded “by EMI for Ricordi.” While the earlier EMI CD editions are strong, Baily’s bright, dry sound presents Callas with an incisiveness not dissimilar from her live performances in the role.
15. Ardoin asserts that EMI recorded the second Tosca as the soundtrack for a planned film by Franco Zeffirelli. Callas informed Ardoin that because she felt her 1953 mono Tosca could not be bettered, she would not have consented to another simple audio recording. However, EMI producer Michel Glotz has denied that Callas’ second Tosca was recorded with cinematic intentions, maintaining that the idea for a Zeffirelli film came months later. The Glotz interview appears in: Réal La Rochelle,Callas: la diva et le vinyle (Montréal: les éditions Triptyque, 1987), p. 224; new edition: Callas: L’opéra du disque (Paris: Christian Bourgeois éditeur, 1997), p. 202. Nevertheless, the overloaded sound, exaggerated interpretation, and jarring sound effects, combined with Callas’ own statements, make Glotz difficult to believe.
16. In both 1954 and 1960 Normas, an opportunity to correct a long-standing editing error was missed. In act I, part 2, the Norma/Adalgisa duet concluding with Norma’s “Vivrai felice ancor” is elided to the next section opening “Ma di” by three evenly spaced chords. The LP versions placed a side-break after the second chord, and the engineers for all CD masterings, not realizing that the break was mechanically necessary rather than musically motivated, replicated the break with a deliberate, misplaced five-second silence between the second and third chords.
17. After the glottal cut-off, all LP and the earlier CD editions contain four little clicks. Could Callas have been clicking her tongue in disapproval, and if so, why was the take used? Following the orchestral postlude we also hear a brief exhalation. These extraneous noises are deleted from Baily’s new mastering; their presence in the original release and subsequent versions is perplexing, as editing them would hardly have required digital technology.
18. The original LP titles are also slightly altered on these four CDs: Donizetti and Rossini are reversed as are Beethoven and Mozart; the aria order is changed in both CDs as well. The French discs are now simply entitled Callas à Paris I and II. Also, Verdi Heroines is now Verdi Arias I.
19. The recitative and cabaletta appeared in the first French version of Maria Callas: The Legend, but EMI judged them to be of insufficient quality, deleting them from all subsequent LP pressings. A disclaimer in the new CD booklet explains that Callas only marked several top notes, planning to re-record the material, and that it is published now only for historical reasons. EMI integrates much unsanctioned material into the main recitals instead of The EMI Rarities set. Yet Rarities now includes the 1961 Pirata entrance scene, approved by Callas and issued in 1972.
22. Of the two—or possibly three—extant original sources for Anna Bolena, the one principally used for BJR LP 109, Melodram CD 26010, and Verona CD 27090/91 is perfectly pitched and in full, brilliant sound.
24. The greater richness of Poliuto on Verona 28003/4, Melodram 26006, and especially LP set BJR 106, is preferable. Like Arkadia CDHP-520.2 (see the text concerning the Scala Macbeth and note 27), EMI’s Poliuto filters some low-frequency hum, and with it, some vocal presence.
26. CD versions on G.O.P. (Great Opera Performances) 750-CD2 and Nuova Era 2202/3 retain the original passage, raising the gain and filtering out the resulting hiss and hum; all the extant performance material is presented. On LP, BJR 117—second version: beige cover—is the best-sounding mastering containing all the material broadcast.
27. The lawsuit, brought to my attention by Robert Tuggle of the Metropolitan Opera Archive, is described in “EMI et les pirates,” a news item in the side-bar “À Tempo” in Diapason (Paris: Éditions mondiales presses centres d’intérêt), no. 414 (April 1995), p. 8; “À Tempo” authors listed are Ivan A. Alexandre, Christophe Capacci, Michel Parouty and André Tubeuf, with no specific attributions for the individual items. The claim presented in the lawsuit may explain why no engineer is credited for the 1993 EMI remastering.
This article is revised and expanded from The Opera Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring 2000), pp. 240-255, and appears through permission of Oxford University Press.
© 1998 by Dr. Robert E. Seletsky and ©2000 by Oxford University Press