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Recordings

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
08 Sep 2006

VERDI: La Traviata

Callas fans better skip this review, as they won’t like the tone, the words, or whatever slights real or imagined they may perceive.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Maria Callas (Violetta), Silvana Zanolli (Flora), Luisa Mandelli (Anina), Gianni Raimondi (Alfredo), Ettore Bastianini (Giorgio Germont), Giuseppe Zampieri (Gastone), Arturo La Porta (Douphol), Dario Caselli (D’Obigny), Silvio Maionica (Dr. Grenvil), Franco Ricciardi (Giuseppe), Vittorio Tatozzi (domestico), Carlo Forti (commissario). Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.
Live recording January 19th 1956.

Myto Historical 062.H111 [2CDs]

$18.49  Click to buy

Myto had the good (or bad, some would say) idea of including Violetta’s big act 1 scene from the famous opening night of this production 8 months earlier and the difference is telling. Of course, the 1955 performance was broadcast and the sound is so much better whereas I don’t know who recorded this evening with some bad blasting and distortion. Still the voices do not suffer too much and can easily be compared. It is immediately clear that during the earlier performance Callas’ voice is somewhat steadier, less strident and surer in the high register. It belongs to the politically correct creed to preach that this Traviata was Callas at her zenith, but compared to the 1951-1952 Mexican performances and her 1953 Cetra recording there is a marked deterioration on all fronts. This particular recording has the soprano in a still more shaky sound. As the middle voice is still relatively unimpaired, Callas often pushes for volume that is lacking elsewhere. The moment she goes beyond the stave, the sound becomes thin and there is often a marked beat. She transposes the ‘Sempre libera’ because no real prima donna, and definitely not Callas, could get away at La Scala at the time without a top note. I don’t buy the story of Callas fans saying she purposely made her voice weak and sickly. Indeed, in the fourth act this has a meaning and the difference is easily audible between this gimmick (or interpretative nicety) and the audible shrill sounds in the first three acts. Another article of the Callas creed tells us to believe that though some vocal power had disappeared, this nevertheless was more than compensated by deeper insights. This is belittling Madame Callas’ artistry during her best vocal years. Maybe her partners are not ideal in the Cetra recording but the small telling utterances, the phrasing in the big duet with father Germont is as perfect as in her later performances and the Cetra recording is not handicapped by strident sounds.

I cannot honestly say I was very much impressed by Callas’ colleagues, either. Gianni Raimondi certainly doesn’t sob his way through the role. In fat, he is one of the most insensitive Alfredo’s I have ever heard. His big and youthful voice fills La Scala, and this seems to be sufficient. However, he lacks finesse, belting out ‘Croce e delizia’ where every tenor worth his salt makes a diminuendo, and singing ‘Lunge da lei’ much too straightforward without the smallest try to diminish the volume. In the end, he is rewarded by a huge ovation… so much for those cognoscenti of the fifties. Only in ‘Parigi, o cara’ does Raimondi decide to give us some tenderness.

Almost exactly the same can be said of Ettore Bastianini. “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Giorgio Germont”. The baritone’s gruff voice, the relentless stream of big sound can be exciting in Trovatore or Rigoletto, Traviata is certainly not its place. Each ‘Donna son io ed in mio casa (A lady I am and in my own house)’ wouldn’t for have thought to acquiesce to such a father’s request, completely lacking subtlety, warmth or empathy. Even in ‘Di Provenza il mar’ its just a big voice ringing out, and for only a small second at the end of the first verse does he think that this stream of unrelenting sound may not entirely convince his son to return to Provence. Unfortunately at this moment Bastianini’s breath runs out.

The opera is well paced by maestro Giulini, though the orchestral sound is poor. I fail to see the greatness of a version where almost half an hour of music is cut in the most barbaric Italian provincial style, and where every utterance of Alfredo, Giorgio Germont, Grenville and Anina after Violetta has died is thrown out because the last human sound in the performance has to belong to the prima donna. This is strictly a recording for fans of one or more of the three principals.

Jan Neckers

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