Maria Callas: The Live Recordings (42CD/3BD)
42CD, Live, Box Set
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Audio CD, Box set, Live, September 15, 2017
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Marking the 40th anniversary of Maria Callas’ death (16th September 1977),Maria Callas Livecaptures the legendary soprano in action on the stages of the world’s great opera houses and concert halls. Thanks to new audio remastering from the best available sources, this 45-disc set reveals Callas’ compelling genius as a singing actress with a new truthfulness and immediacy. Containing 20 complete operas – including 12 works she never recorded in the studio – and five complete filmed recitals (with two different stagings of Act 2 ofTosca) on Blu-ray, Maria Callas Live is the indispensable complement toCallas Remastered, Warner Classics’ landmark collection of her studio recordings.This luxury boxset comprises42 CDs(20 complete operas) and3 Blu-ray discs(5 recitals). Twelve of the operas were never recorded by Callas in the studio: Verdi:Nabucco, Verdi:I vespri siciliani, Verdi:Macbeth, Wagner:Parsifal, Donizetti:Anna Bolena, Donizetti:Poliuto, Rossini:Armida, Bellini:Il pirata, Gluck:Alceste, Gluck:Ifigenia in Tauride, Spontini:La vestaleand Giordano:Andrea Chénier.Apart from that, we are also able to witness the historic performance of Verdi’sAidain Mexico City, where she interpolated a high E flat at the end of the Triumphal Scene, exciting the audience to ecstatic applause;La traviata(Lisbon 1958), conducted by Franco Ghione with Alfredo Kraus; her only incarnation on stage of Gilda inRigoletto; Bellini’sNorma, at the height of her vocal powers in London; Donizetti’sLucia di Lammermoorin the legendary perfomance with Karajan at the Städtische Oper Berlin; Cherubini’sMedeaand Bellini’sLa sonnambulaunder Leonard Bernstein at La Scala, and the heartbreaking PucciniToscafrom Covent Garden, 1964.
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Here's the list, for those who don't like to enlarge Amazon's photo and read sideways:
First, 20 operas on 42 CDs:
1. 1949 – Verdi Nabucco (cond. Gui)
2. 1950 – Wagner Parsifal (cond. Gui) – sung in Italian
3. 1951 – Verdi I Vespri Siciliani (cond. Erich Kleiber)
4. 1951 – Verdi Aida (cond. de Fabritiis)
5. 1952 – Rossini Armida (cond. Serafin)
6. 1952 – Verdi Rigoletto (cond. Mugnai)
7. 1952 – Bellini Norma (cond. Gui)
8. 1952 – Verdi Macbeth (cond. de Sabata)
9. 1953 – Cherubini Medea (cond. Bernstein)
10. 1954 – Gluck Alceste (cond. Giulini)
11. 1954 – Spontini La Vestale (cond. Votto)
12. 1955 – Giordano Andrea Chenier (cond. Votto)
13. 1955 – Bellini La Sonnambula (cond. Bernstein)
14. 1955 – Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor (cond. Karajan)
15. 1957 – Donizetti Anna Bolena (cond. Gavazzeni)
16. 1957 – Gluck Ifigenia in Tauride (cond. Sanzogno)
17. 1958 – Verdi La Traviata (cond. Ghione)
18. 1959 – Bellini Il Pirata (cond. Rescigno)
19. 1960 – Donizetti Poliuto (cond. Votto)
20. 1964 – Puccini Tosca (cond. Cillario)
And, 4 Blu-ray programs as follows:
21. 1958 Paris
22. 1959-62 Hamburg
23. 1962-64 London
24. 1949-64 Callas Live
Now as to rating. Because there are no librettos, it would be hard to give 5 stars in any case. Even the justly infamous EMI blue-boxes gave us librettos. In that respect, these are already lower quality than EMI blue-boxes! Hard to believe! Anyway, I'll start with 3 stars and let's see if they can earn higher, not simply based on the merits of one or two.
About the remastering and beautiful packaging. Grandiose advertising claims and beautiful packaging do affect customer perception and expectations. I don't mind that source material has degraded, or was no good to begin with. Such is life. But like others, when I see '2017 NEWLY REMASTERED', etc. I am tempted to think that post-modern technology and supercomputers have suddenly, finally stripped away all imperfections. But, IT HASN'T ... not yet anyway.
Sure, the "good ones" sound even better. There's an old saying in the classic car hobby: the ones that don't need to be restored are the easiest to restore! Surely that applies even more to antique sound recordings!
A few years ago someone released the Mapleson Cylinders on CD. They are from about 1903 and boy, do they sound horrible. Were they 're-mastered'? Well, I'm sure they were to a degree. But the issuer had the sense not to promote them as such. They understood the concept of less is sometimes more. Better to underpromise and overdeliver. That was not followed here.
Still, am I happy to get all the Callas live recordings together? Yes. That is because I have only a few of them. I'm not a lifetime Callas worshiper. I consider her an important historical figure, and although I would personally rather have a Tebaldi or Scotto box if there was one, still I would like to listen to the complete Callas set.
Speaking of "the complete Callas set". I hope no one thinks this is the complete canon. They do not include any studio recordings. That cuts out the 1953 Traviata, the La Gioconda, the 1954 Tosca (described by many as being one of the greatest opera recordings ever made), the studio Rigoletto, Medea, Barber of Seville, and Carmen.
And furthermore, they do not even include all the ‘live’ recordings! Just among Traviatas, where is the Mexico City Traviata, the 1955 La Scala with di Stefano, and the 1956 La Scala with Raimondi? How about the live Ballo in Maschera? I am not a Callas fanatic who has every detail memorized, so there’s probably other stuff missing as well that I don’t know about.
Update 1: NABUCCO (1949)
My rating: 2 stars, If disregarding Act IV. Otherwise, zero stars (or fewer if possible).
Acts 1 and 3 are clear and decent, as good as could be expected from (almost) any live recording from the era. Act 2, a little less so, but tolerable. However ... Act 4 surely will be consigned to the burning hell of live opera recordings, if there is one. It is literally the worst I have ever heard, and I have heard a lot. It is seriously infected by crosstalk, that is, electronic interference coming from elsewhere, in this case sounding like mis-tuned AM radio.
I definitely reject the theory it was recorded by a someone in the audience with a portable unit. I doubt they had such a machine in 1949, but aside from that ... there are simply no audience noises that would indicate it. One would hear loud clapping, kicking, talking, etc. It ain't there.
Also I would guess there was more than one ampex used, with different hum or other characteristics, and the final tape assembled after the fact. (That wouldn't, however, explain why Act 4 is so poor.)
And to reiterate, on the front and rear cover we see 'CALLAS LIVE REMASTERED'. So we buy it and open the plastic, and on the inner sleeve it says ' ... We are nevertheless aware that numerous instances of saturation and noise may make listening difficult, particularly in Act IV'. Now there's an understatement!
So what do I think of Callas in Nabucco? She does not have the problems of 10 years later, I will leave it at that.
Something very strange happened during Act 3, 'Va, Pensiero'. First of all, the orchestra played it wrong, and it could only have been done PURPOSEFULLY. I mean there was obviously a conspiracy with the conductor, orchestra and chorus, to leave out an entire line of the chorus and just continue on as if nothing had happened!
At first, I thought it had been snipped out of the master tape, but if so, it was quite a masterful job and sounded perfectly natural. Then after a few more bars, the crowd started reacting, yelling and screaming, and they were not screams of joy. Then there was an encore, and the piece was done correctly, to the crowd's satisfaction. WHAT THE HECK IS WITH THAT???
Update 2: PARSIFAL (1950)
My rating: Quite pleasant in all aspects, 3 1/2 stars (out of 5).
If someone had told me 2 weeks ago I'd soon be listening to an Italian-language Parsifal with Callas as Kundry, I'd have said they were severely disturbed. Well, here it is. And after Act IV of Nabucco, a beautiful sunny voyage it is. It sounds as good as anything from 1950 or even several years later. The only problem is the orchestra is a little quiet in relation to the singers. So during the lengthy Prelude, if you set your amplifier to a comfortable listening level, the singers will come in too loud. So scale it back a little, which sounds odd at first but will soon be acclimated. Then you will be treated to a lovely Italian-language Parsifal also featuring Boris Christoff as Gurnemanz.
This is a 3-CD offering and I believe it is complete although I didn't follow the whole thing with libretto.
This is a radio broadcast and not exactly what I would call a 'live' performance. (Although I suppose it doesn't really belong in the 'studio recording' collection either.) There is no audience present, or if there were, they were quiet as church-mice which seems unlikely.
All these Callas CD sets show on the cover in what wonderful, artistic venue they were recorded. For example, 'TEATRO SAN CARLO NAPOLI', or 'TEATRO ALLA SCALA MILAN', etc. This one is proudly labeled, 'AUDITORIUM DELLA RAI ROMA'. How exotic! (RAI = Radio Audizioni Italiane :)
Update 3: I VESPRI SICILIANI (1951)
My rating: Enjoyable overall, 4 stars out of 5.
This also stars the great Boris Christoff, and conducted by Erich Kleiber, one of the great heavies from the old-old days. This has good sound, from beginning to end. I mean good, listenable sound from 1951 and it is also consistent throughout, making it easy to get acclimated to. It is like watching a good old black & white movie and soon not noticing, just getting involved with the drama.
I just sat back and enjoyed this recording, and I enjoyed it so much, I'll tell you how much I enjoyed it. I forgot I was listening for Callas. After the 3 CDs were over, I thought, "Oh, was this with Callas? I didn't notice!" Therefore, she must have been pretty good!
Now, 3 CDs for a Verdi opera? Well, no fewer than 28 minutes were taken up by BALLET. Was it really only 28 minutes? Felt more like 2 hours! Perhaps you will agree with me, some Verdi ballet is a little vapid. (Whoops, ka-chung, there goes the negative vote counter!) Seriously though, the ballet was written for the original French version "Les vepres siciliennes" and I think Verdi jettisoned it when he fixed up the Italian version a few years later. And they brought it back here just to be nice. I guess I'm ultimately happy it's here in its entirety. I would've been mad if I found out Warner cut it from this series because it wasn't Callas.
Now how about the German director, Erich Kleiber? Did he mess it up as some other Germans might have? No, he did not. It sounded completely Italian.
I'm very happy with this recording if one is going by the happyometer. This is although Warner gives us a little smokescreen (no doubt to cover some of their other misdeeds), by coyly admitting the 'overall sound is poor'. It certainly is not.
Update 4: AIDA (1951)
My rating: Sound and performance both highest ratings, 5 stars.
This Mexico City Aida has been around forever, obviously, but I seem to have heard it was not in very good sound. Perhaps Warner really has found an alternate source because ... frankly ... this is a jaw-dropping jump in fidelity. It is not just a 'little' beyond what we have heard so far on this set, it is light-years ahead. If you said this was recorded 20 or even 30 years later, I would have only answered, where'd you get the singers??
And never mind the technical specs of the tape recorder. I want to know how they did such a good live recording using ANY equipment, including modern day! It is a master class in live opera recording. Everyone is picked up well, there is no fading in or out, etc., all of which have nothing to do with tape recorder technology per se. More of intelligent microphone placement, live mixing ... or you tell me, I don't know!
So this is the first time we get a good clear picture of the 'early' Callas voice. She is joined by Mario del Monaco, Oralia Dominguez, and Giuseppe Taddei. Quite a cast. I don't think I want to review the voices, that should be totally unnecessary anyway. I will just say this is now one of my favorite Aidas. And one thing I like about it is its white-hot intensity. The orchestra is a bit scrappy in places but this only seems to add to the sense of being there!
Performances and recordings like this are what we really need to save the 5-star reviews for. Otherwise we have nothing to offer when something is truly exceptional!
Update 5: ARMIDA (1952)
My rating: 1 1/2 stars.
This has by far the worst sound of the set so far (that is, if we're overlooking Nabucco Act IV).
The sound is watery and bland. Parts of it are infected by a pulsating noise which sounds somewhat like an air conditioner with a bad bearing. It's mild in a way, but over time causes headache. I'm grateful when that pulsating sound stops occasionally and we just have the watery, bland default.
There are 12 minutes missing due to crosstalk interference. If it was anything like Nabucco Act IV, one should be grateful it was cut. The good news, unlike Nabucco overall, is there's absolutely no crosstalk interference in the rest of the opera. So it would have really appeared out of the blue, unlike Nabucco which had a little here and there, throughout.
Now, one can still hear the performance in Armida. And far more so than any other earlier opera in this set, there is a lot of coloratura and high notes. Those Callas fans who enjoy her coloratura and especially her high notes should be very happy. However I feel about it, I am well aware it is classic Callas and her fans will love it!
Update 6: RIGOLETTO (1952)
My rating: 3 1/2 stars.
This Mexico City Rigoletto is nowhere near as good sound as the Mexico City Aida of the previous year. What's with that? The sound is not rock-bottom, not at all, just a disappointment after the excellent sound of Aida. It is par for the course, what one would expect from an good average 1952 live performance.
And of course ... the sound can't compete with studio Rigoletto, also with Giuseppe di Stefano. So why one would need both, I am not sure. No, actually I do know. I do have multiple recordings of artists I like.
At least the sound is consistent, so whatever negative qualities it may have, it can be acclimated after a few minutes of listening. And that is a great advantage--I hate it most when sound is inconsistent.
Now about Callas. This is an entirely different character than Armida, the previous heroine. Callas certainly took on the warrior's part in Armida, with coloratura through the roof. Here she is completely scaled back as Gilda. I thought she might be tempted to overdo it, but in fact, she sounds very tender and vulnerable. It's to her credit she could do both parts so well.
I have had to deduct a half-star for La donna e mobile. Tenor di Stefano ended on a high note which he held interminably and was almost a half-step flat. The crowd must have thought this opera was written by Schoenberg and they absolutely roared with approval. So he gave an encore of the 2nd verse, and again he ended with an extended top note and it was even flatter than the first. Tenors, please do not show off what you don't have.
Update 7: NORMA (1952)
My rating: 4 stars.
This is a remarkable performance which I listened to its entirety in the car today while commuting. I enjoyed it very much, not mainly because of Callas but more the intelligent direction of Vittorio Gui, and the excellent supporting cast including the unknown, 26-year-old Joan Sutherland. This is one performance I would like to go into a little more detail and to do so will have to listen again completely and this time with libretto. Here is an example of a time I would really like a libretto and luckily this is one of the very easy ones to obtain elsewhere ...
My only quibble is about packaging. This box set is touted as being a companion to the "Maria Callas Complete Studio Recordings" and in color of the box it is a good match, but I only wish it had a lift off lid as its companion does. The cds set in the box, as cds on a shelf. This is indeed a minor quibble, I realize.
I have as I stated only listened to one opera, so maybe a follow up review will come as I complete the set. I also look forward to reading others' reviews listening to several of the other performances,
Update: After further listening, I believe that some additional comments should be made concerning some of the older selections in this set. These again are personal opinions and certainly not those of an "expert" audiophile.
Some performances, Nabucco in particular, but even in Armida, I Vespri Sicilliani, there is some muffling of sound, especially in choruses. The main soloists appear mostly clear, but sometimes distant. In Nabucco, I did seem to notice more of an inferior sound, but not to the point that I did not wish to listen to it. It is definitely not awful( except ,maybe Act IV). These are after all, historical documents, and thus some of the "outdated" recording techniques should be expected. The redeeming quality of theses recordings is the beautiful, voice of Maria Callas! After all isn't this what we all wish to hear, her beautiful vocals?
One more side note about Nabucco is the surprise in "Va, Pensiero". It seems the chorus was performed wrong, and after much vocal disapproval from the audience, it was performed again. Quite interesting!
I have also listened and viewed two of the blu ray discs in this set, and the sound and visual quality is quite good, on these, also.
Now on to further listening, of this beautiful set.