Callas: Arie da Opere
CD liner notes by Rodolfo Celletti
from the Fonit Cetra CD Maria Callas: Arie Celebri

These two Compact Discs represent the most brilliant period in the career of a singer who, from the late 1940's to the early 1950's, completely changed not only the performance but also the understanding of opera. With the appearance of Maria Callas, lovers of musical drama ceased to underrate Italian opera of the early nineteenth century; spurious vocal traditions generated by more than fifty years of Verism were discarded; standard theatrical repertoire was given a healthy jolt; the concept of actress-singer changed radically; and a new attitude toward singing for female voices was accompanied by a new conception of virtuosity on the part of the public and the press. In other words, Maria Callas pioneered a revolutin with results which we still note today.

This collection of performances presented by Fonit Cetra is one of the most probing documentations of the changes her appearance provoked. Today it is automatically assumed that a capable soprano can sing both Vestale and Puritani, Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma, Traviata and Macbeth. However this was absolutely unusual forty years ago [in the 1940s]. At that time there were airtight, almost guild-like delineations which had been enforced for approximately a hundred years. It was a steadfast if unwritten rule that the pure, delicate voices of so-called light or coloraturea sopranos could only warble in the feathered roles of Lucia di Lammermoor, Elvira of Puritani, Dinorah, Ofelia of Amieto, or Lakmé. By the same logic the stentorian, overpowering voices of so-called dramatic sopranos could only illuminate the vehement, aggressive roles in such operas as Norma, Nabucco, Macbeth and Gioconda.

The weakness of this system was the inability of light sopranos to express strong emotion — which certain moments of their repertoire required — while dramatic sopranos did not know how to disentangle their hard voices — which were harsh and forced in the upper register — from the perils of virtuosity when confronted with passages requiring agility. The resulting performances would today be met with active disapproval, but they were peacefully accepted in their day because it was said that the "chirping embellishments" were, after all, unimportant. But Callas shattered the barrier separating these two categories by miraculously reviving the technique of the best sopranos singing in the first half of the nineteenth century, who quite commonly performed both Norma and Lucia, or Puritani and Nabucco.

Her first achievement was a re-evaluation of the "chirping embellishments", demonstrating that the virtuosity of Lucia or Norma involved an expressivity which went far beyond hedonism and exhibition. But it was only logical that a singer with an intense but extremely flexible fvoice capable of performing perilous runs, rapid staccati, languid embellishments and crisp high notes, could draw upon other powers. And here the great vocalist combined together with the great interpreter. An ability to express graduating dynamics from a pianissimo to fortissimo furnished Maria Callas with the most efficient tool a singer can have: a widely varied, precise phrasing with the finest differences of shading, highlighting every individual word of the recitatives and cantabili. Even more, she was able to invest this kaleidoscopic phrasing with the overwhelming eloquence of an unparalleled capacity of diction and emphasis. When, in the great aria in Act I of Traviata, Callas sings: "e nuova febbre accese", she fully, poetically stresses the significance of these words; and when, at the end of the aria "Suicidio!" she obsessively repeats the phrase: "domando al cielo di dormir queta dentro l'ave!", each repetition has a different color, intensity and accentuation.

It has often been said of Maria Callas that her voice was not extremely homogenous or beautiful in timbre; that it evidenced a certain guttural quality; and that in moments of great tension it became somewhat uneven or rough. This is all true. But her attraction consisted above all in her ability to make one forget such unpleasant inflections, thanks to a gift often missing in a timbrically perfect voice: that is, an unusual variety of colors and accents which completely captures the listener's attention. It is neither hyperbole nor rhetoric to say that Callas was often able to use a different voice according to the character she interpreted. This collection by Fonit Cetra documents that claim. From the lugubrious timbres of Gioconda to the arrogance of Abigaille or Lady Macbeth; from the light, echo-like vocalises of Dinorah's aria to the muffled tones and transparent staccati of Lakmé or the nostalgic lyricism of Louise; it is all a game of light, half-light and shadow, of languishing and outburst, of convulsive rebellion and exhausted mourning, varying from the shadings of mezzosoprano to lyric soprano. Finally, in Armida's seductive melody "D'amore al dolce impero", it will not be difficult for the listern to catch, through her splendid haughtiness and triumphal vocalises, the announcemnet of a vocal and acting method that also paved the way to a renaissance of Rossini's music ... which is still significant today.


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