MARIA CALLAS IN HER ONLY MET BROADCAST
By John H. Haley
Callas made the high-lying role of Lucia her own by finding a way of singing it, consistent with her view of the character, with an overall lightness of tone, keeping her voice placed high while still pouring it forth with that incomparable bel canto sense of legato that distinguished everything she did. The heavier tones she regularly used for more dramatic roles were largely absent when she sang Lucia.
Callas performed Lucia during the years 1952 through 1959, inclusive, for a total of forty-six performances, during which time her voice developed and changed quite noticeably, as she advanced from age 28 to age 35. However, while her interpretation deepened, her approach to the role, vocally, remained fairly consistent, even as her vocal tone changed. It was part of her whole conception, artistically, but it was also definitely “part of the plan” for her to be able to manage this role successfully. Once she felt that she could no longer physically do it justice, she dropped it, even though she had several years of good singing left in her fairly short career, when she was still vocally very effective in other roles.
A big factor that makes Callas’ only Met broadcast a quite different Lucia from all of her other preserved recordings of that role, is simply the size of the Old Met, which affected a good many aspects of the performance. It is useful to compare the house sizes involved in all of her surviving Lucia recordings (as known to the author), both live and commercial:
- February 18, 1952. Live broadcast recording of the Mad Scene (sans cabaletta) in a concert performance with Orchestra of RAI Rome, Oliviero de Fabritiis, conductor, RAI Studios, Rome (size unknown). This is of course only an excerpt, but oddly, other recordings of Lucia excerpts unrelated to the two commercial recordings do not seem to exist.
- June 6, 1952. Live broadcast recording of Opera Nacional, Mexico City, Guido Picco, conductor, from Teatro Palacio de Bellas Artes (1936 seats). First performances of entire role.
- January 29-30 and February 1, 3, 4 and 6, 1953. EMI recording, Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Tullio Serafin, conductor, Teatro Comunale, Florence (2000 seats as of 1961).
- January 18, 1954. Live broadcast recording from La Scala, Milan, Herbert von Karajan, conductor, Teatro alla Scala (2030 seats).
- September 29, 1955. Live broadcast recording of La Scala on tour, with RIAS Symphony Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan, conductor, Städische Oper, Berlin (As the current theater was opened in 1961 with 1885 seats, said to be the largest opera house in Germany, the venue for this broadcast would have been Staatsoper Berlin Unter der Linden, which reopened in 1955 after having been rebuilt, having 1300 seats).
- December 8, 1956. Live broadcast recording, Metropolitan Opera, New York City, Fausto Cleva, conductor, “Old Met” opera house at 39th Street and Broadway (3625 seats plus 224 standing room).
- June 26, 1957. Live broadcast recording, Orchestra of RAI Rome, Tullio Serafin, conductor. Venue unknown but probably RAI Studios again, Rome (size unknown).
- March 16-23, 1959. EMI recording, Philharmonia Orchestra, Tullio Serafin, conductor, Kingsway Hall, London (something more than 2000 seats).
For the sake of comparison, the New Met at Lincoln Center, New York City, which opened in fall, 1966 (the Old Met was demolished in 1967), has 3850 seats, which is the rough equivalent of the Old Met, but by all accounts the New Met has substantially better acoustics. (The other large theater at Lincoln Center that housed the New York City Opera from 1964 until 2011, is the New York State Theatre, which seats 2586, now known as the David H. Koch Theater).
As will be noted from the above list, we have a Callas Lucia preserved for every year during the seven-plus-year period that she sang that opera (1952-1959), except 1958. Among the missing live performances for which no recording has surfaced are: any of the four Florence performances in late January through early February, 1953, contemporaneous with the first EMI recording; any of the six performances at La Scala in late January through early February, 1954, following the 1954 broadcast performance in the above list; neither of the two Chicago performances in November, 1954; any of the other three Met performances in December, 1956 that were before and after the above Met broadcast; any of the three Met performances that occurred in February, 1958; and either of the two performances in Dallas, in November, 1959 (her final performances of this role).
As can be seen, the European venues where Callas performed Lucia, as well as the Mexican one, were all about 2000 seats or smaller. The Old Met, however, at about 3850 seats (including standing room) approached twice that size, and it was not known for possessing good acoustics. There is no doubt that to be heard well in the Old Met, a singer had to produce a good volume of tone, and indeed, it used to be said that the greatest sin a singer could commit at the Met was not being heard. Given the heavy influence that the Met had in the world of opera across the twentieth century, as well as arguably the stylistic changes brought about by the rise of verismo opera and the ever-increasing volume that became expected in Wagner, a school of opera-singing arose in the 1940’s and 1950’s that I have referred to as “the athletic period.” Volume was cultivated in all voice types, affecting norms of vocal instruction, too often at the expense of many other important aspects of good vocal schooling. In particular, Americans who resisted studying in Europe sometimes worked at being loud much harder than they worked on subtlety of expression, vocal flexibility and shading, excellent diction, mastery of musical styles, and most of all, solid legato. In the mid-1950’s one could hear too many successful singers at the Met, not limited to Americans, who were not adept at Italian pronunciation, who barked out their music with no particular care for good phrasing or legato, and who above all lived on stage for the high notes. Many a mediocre performance could be well received if sprinkled with bombastic top notes. If we were in the grips of an “athletic period” of operatic singing, the Met was its world capital.
In so many ways, Callas was the antidote for this situation, with her carefully crafted, meticulously prepared and extremely well-schooled interpretations. Above all, she was a great master and exemplar of excellent musical style, in particular in the bel canto repertory which became her great specialty, providing triumph after triumph in her career. Donizetti’s greatest masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor, was a natural for her, even though her darkly colored, large voice was not typical of the kind of lighter-voiced sopranos who had claimed Lucia at the Met in the decades prior to Callas’ appearance there. For example, Lucia performances at the Met that had occurred earlier in 1956, prior to Callas’ arrival in town, featured Roberta Peters and included a broadcast by the reining coloratura star of the Met, Lily Pons (who made very few actual Met appearances, preferring more lucrative concert work elsewhere). And in the years prior to Peters’ appearance as Lucia, the Met had heard the very young Patrice Munsel in the role. These ladies, all light coloratura sopranos, were pleasing singers in Lucia, but Callas provided a very different theatrical experience, demonstrating that a bel canto opera like Lucia was in fact full of dramatic fire and depth of feeling, while at the same time she executed the difficulties of the role with admirable aplomb, beautiful phrasing and tonal luster, with her darker, inherently more dramatic voice. Callas’ Lucia became a truly tragic figure on stage who moved audiences as much as Callas the singer impressed them with virtuosic singing, which as she presented it, further supported and enhanced the drama.
At first listen to Callas’ Met broadcast performance, one is immediately struck by how loud this performance is, overall. The orchestra, conducted by Fausto Cleva, a respected Met stalwart of Italian repertoire but not a conductor associated with the subtleties of bel canto style, is playing loud throughout, sometimes at rollicking tempos, and in general, the singers other than Callas are singing in a range between mezzo-forte and forte, according to their habitual manner of making themselves heard at the Met. Stylistically, this epitome of bel canto opera is rendered by Cleva, the orchestra, the chorus, and most of the singers, and eventually to some extent by Callas herself, caught up in her surroundings, more like a blood-and-thunder early Verdi opera. This approach presents a contrast to the stylistic authority of the great Serafin or von Karajan’s flexibility and suavity heard in a number of the other Callas Lucia recordings.
Mic placement is clearly playing its own role in what we are hearing, as the orchestra and singers are closely miked in the huge performing space, giving us lots of orchestra that may have been perceived differently out in the house, but mic placement is of no concern of the singers, who are focused on launching their voices out into the vast space of the large house. Whether or not Callas intended to be, she was obviously affected by what was happening around her. This is decidedly her loudest sung Lucia that we are able to hear—we find her producing a bigger tone, successfully of course, compared to her other recorded performances. Undoubtedly, in Chicago’s Civic Opera House (seating 3,563) in 1954, as well as in Dallas’ State Fair Music Hall (seating 3,420), in 1958, despite the house size she was able to deliver something more like her European Lucia’s, given the knowing support of conductor Nicola Rescigno, a master of bel canto style, who conducted her in all of those Chicago and Dallas performances.
Thus, in her only Met broadcast, Callas ramped up the volume. Paradoxically, this becomes an exciting aspect of what was overall a fairly unstylish performance. Thankfully, at this point in her career, Callas was well equipped to deliver a louder tone, even though that was not her accustomed mode of delivery in a role like Lucia. But there was a price—by “changing the plan,” she got a little vocally tired from working so hard in this high-lying role, and some of the usual bel canto ease and buoyancy of tone heard in her other Lucia’s was absent, although she was never less than the great musician and magical interpreter. We can sense her trying to reign things in, in solo passages, only to have the loudness factor pop back in the orchestra or in the efforts of another singer. Only in the Mad Scene can she finally seize control of the performance and mostly “have it her way.” Yet here too, there are passages where the orchestra is quite loud. No doubt due to this slight vocal tiredness, Callas omitted both traditional concluding high E-Flats in the Mad Scene. That was undoubtedly a wise decision, and they are not terribly missed. Further, a high D stops on her at the conclusion of her Act II, Scene 1 duet with Enrico (the other high D’s throughout the performance are all well managed and secure).
Once one adjusts to the fact that this is not going to be a typical Lucia performance for Callas, one can still focus on a number of things to commend it, and much to enjoy. As indicated, there is a basic Verdi-like crackle to things that provides excitement, and Callas herself, in unaccustomed circumstances, generates plenty of excitement.
Apart from Callas, for me the greatest pleasure of this performance is the quite well-sung Edgardo of the handsome Italian tenor, Giuseppe Campora. Following a stint at La Scala, he was only in his second year of a seven-year Met career that did not carry him as far as might have been expected, based on the beauty of his voice. He was a lyric tenor bordering on spinto, and most of his singing here, although certainly influenced by the need to sing loudly in the large Met, is frankly more solid and possessed of a more beautiful tonal quality than Callas’ more frequent Edgardo on recordings, Giuseppe Di Stefano, whose constant pressing on his once beautiful voice was taking a large toll.
Baritone Enzo Sordello is a forceful Enrico, though perhaps not on the same high level interpretively as Tito Gobbi or Rolando Panerai in Callas’ other Lucia recordings. Still, there is a lot of fine singing to enjoy in his burly performance. He was fired from the Met by Rudolf Bing shortly after this performance, and the story has persisted that Callas was behind this firing based on her anger at Sordello because he held his concluding high G at the end of their duet longer than she did, immediately after the high D that had stopped on her, referred to above. This story frankly seems unlikely, given that Callas was known for being a good colleague and a total professional who focused on her work and as a rule did not engage in such personal animosities toward colleagues. Further, on the recorded evidence, what Sordello did simply does not seem that far out of line, hardly seeming like an act of malice aimed at the prima donna—in fairness the slight awkwardness at this point in the performance seems to have been more her fault than his. At minimum, one suspects that there was more to this story than a diva’s pique, to result in Bing’s immediate firing of a fine-voiced, very competent singer like Sordello.
A brief but interesting comprimario contribution is made by a future Otello, James McCracken, as Enrico’s spy Normanno in the first act, which is meaningfully sung despite some incorrect diction. The remaining singers are undistinguished, but they do not detract that much from the enjoyable qualities of this recording.
The importance of this broadcast, which can at last be heard in fine sound, is the opportunity to experience the great Callas in less familiar circumstances, providing us with a different take on one of her greatest roles.