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Who do you prefer in this, Callas or Sutherland

  • Maria Callas

    Votes: 18 78.3%
  • Joan Sutherland

    Votes: 5 21.7%
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Woodduck got there first and has most eloquently expressed my opinion.

The most I can say for Sutherland's version is she has wonderful top notes, but I'm afraid that is not enough for me. Her diction is a bit clearer than it often was, but she makes virtually nothing of the words and I don't like the upward ending, which robs the end of its tragic grandeur. The aria's emotional and tragic core is missing and what I hear is mere note spinning.

Callas's top register is raw and she flaps at the climax, but oh what she finds in this piece, with so many phrases standing out in relief. Hamlet should have listened to Callas singing Mais qui donc a voulu l'éternité des pleurs (But who has wished this eternity of tears?). It would have saved him an awful lot of trouble.

Here are the English words to the aria.

From this dreadful combat I emerge brokenhearted!
But at last I am free and I shall at least be able
to sigh without constraint and to suffer without
witnesses.
Weep, weep my eyes! Fall, sad dew
that a ray of sunshine should never dry!
If one hope remains to me, it is to die soon!
Weep, my eyes, all your tears!
Weep, my eyes!
But who has wished this eternity of tears?
O dear ones in your graves, do you find such
delight
in bequeathing to the living implacable griefs?
Alas! I remember he said to me:
"With your sweet smile
you can only ever lead on
to glorious roads or blessed paths!"
Ah, my father! Alas!
Weep, weep my eyes! etc.


With Callas you don't have to understand French to get the general idea.

I might add that Chimène is one of those Falcon roles, which requires a solid middle and lower register and therefore not a natural for Sutherland. Like Woodduck, I wish Callas had given us more of these roles towards the end of her career. Charlotte, to be sure, but what a magnificent Cassandre or Didon she would have made.

To borrow from MAS, in the conflict between art and voice, it's always art that wins for me.
 

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Looking through the versions of this aria on youtube threw up some interesting candidates. Bumbry and Verrett would seem a perfect fit, but I wouldn't have thought it would suit the likes of Cotrubas and Gheorghiu. I know Gheorghiu recorded a sympathetic Charlotte, but the role sounds a bit low for her and I would have thought Chimène would be too. Scotto recorded it late in her career and I came across versions by Resnik, Caballé, Yoncheva, Françoise Pollet, Kasarova, Te Kanawa and Félia Litvine, not to mention a host of versions by singers I've never heard of. It seems to be a popular recital piece.

I doubt I'll be listening to most of them (there's only so much time in a day), but one or two piqued my interest.
 

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What sounds fake to one may sound like creative art to another. The Callas voice is not a natural medium for Mimi - or Gilda, or perhaps even Butterfly. One of the things that astonishes and delights some of us is that she is a vocal chameleon, with a unique ability to create a virtual new voice for role after role. Medea, Norma, Amina, Lady Macbeth, Lucia, Carmen - it's the same singer, it couldn't be anyone else for even two notes in succession, and yet each role is based on a different range of vocal color. Yes, it's artifice - and I say long live artifice, when it's allied to a musical and dramatic intelligence as original, penetrating and endlessly fertile as hers. (Whether this artifice damaged her voice is another question, which Parsifal98 discusses above. It seems reasonable to me.)

Contrary to your impression, I get more depth of character and feeling from her Mimi than from any other. Far from being bored, I'm constantly struck by her ability to find character in a word or phrase I hadn't suspected was there. Her characterization culminates in a death scene so delicately expressed, in a wan voice so drained and yet so full of feeling, that I feel like a witness to an actual death. I find it uncanny.

Really, there's very little difference, and the sound of the live recording is so muffled it would make certain subtleties inaudible, or more imagined than heard. I prefer the studio recording, where her every intention is clear.

Not hard to see why. With Callas you can hear the late-stage deterioration in the voice that leads to a distorted vowel here and there. You can simply ignore the distortion, which doesn't get in the music's way (in her Carmen, she actually makes creative use of this vowel alteration in places - who else would even think of such a thing?). With Sutherland you hear something - hard to say what - that seems endemic to the whole vocal production, something that makes vowels indistinguishable and consonants muted, such that it can be literally impossible, for certain stretches, to know what language she's singing in. The effect of the music itself is compromised by sheer inarticulateness, and we have to be content with a sort of sonic bubble bath. One thing Callas is not is musically inarticulate.

On the whole, I think I hear what you hear and understand your objections. My subjective reaction is, obviously, different.
I've been away and evidently missed quite a lot whilst not checking TC, but I would just like to thank Woodduck for this wonderful post which puts into words far better than I ever could just what it is that so thrills and excites me about Callas. Early Callas, middle period Callas and late Callas, I'll take it all. The only recordings I have difficulty with and in fact never listen to are the ones from her final tour with Di Stefano, but there is much that is still magnificent even in the late recording sessions from 1969.

As for studio Callas and live Callas, I don't always hear that much of a difference. Sometimes, as in the Karajan live Lucias, as opposed to the 1953 studio one, she is more subtle live than she was in the studio, so evidently the conductor also played a big part. I don't hear that much of a difference in the two recordings of Mimi's aria, but prefer the studio one because of the better sound and the greater detail.
 

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The date on the video says 1959, but the date might be wrong (1969?), in which case, yes, that would be unfair. Mostly, though, I was trying to use it to illustrate the types of sounds she began to make. They are worse here and not typical of her earlier work, as I said, but they are, in my view, the culmination of the direction she went in beginning in the mid-late 50s. The comparison with Rethberg's interpretation (not vowels) applies equally to Callas' earlier and much better version, though.
It was 1964 and was one of the few arias Callas agreed to EMI releasing in 1972, six years after she had last appeared on stage. The other arias on the disc were Imogene's first scene from Il Pirata, which was recorded in London in 1961 under Antonio Tonini, and Verdi arias from Attila, I Lombardi, I Vespri Siciliani and Aida's Ritorna vincitor, all recorded in Paris in 1964 under Rescigno. The best aria on the disc is undoubtedly the Aida, which has fewer high notes and in which she recovers much of her former dramatic fire.

The sessions were fraught with problems, Callas being for the most part very nervous and insecure, and most of the arias were composites of various takes. Not so the Aida aria, though. Apparently they were all taking a break as things had got particularly tense and Michel Glotz, the recording producer, played a recording of Régine Crespin singing Ritorna vincitor, which had been recorded in the studio the previous day. Callas was insensed on hearing a performance that was so antithetical to her artistic sensibilities. "This isn't Verdi or Aida" she exclaimed, "When I sang this with Maestro Serafin, it had such urgency I could hardly get the words out. Are the parts still here?" she asked. On finding that they were, she turned to Rescigno and said, "Come on, Nicola, let's do it." And they did. In one take. It ended up being by far the best recording on the LP that was finally released in 1972. It seems she briefly forgot her nerves and just went out and sang.
 

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Callas - By Request was one of my favorite LPs and I played it to death.

View attachment 163187
It was my second Callas recital. My first was the Puccini disc, mostly because it was the only one that hadn't been deleted at the time.

I remember I asked to listen to some of it at my local record store (oh those wonderful days of the listening booth) but I was somewhat taken aback by the harsh sounds that I heard (I think it was the opening of O madre dal cielo) and I left without buying it. However those harsh sounds somehow kept on echoing in my mind's ear and I returned a few days later and bought the LP. After that it was hardly off my turntable.
 
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