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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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I have known and loved Callas's grand assumption of this aria since its release on LP, and I continue to feel that Charlotte would have been one of the most appropriate roles for her in the terminal phase of her career. Even the painful high notes are absorbed in her brilliant articulation of the character's own pain, as they could not be in some of the other arias she chose to include in her two French opera collections. I'm grateful that we have as much French music from her as we do, much of it lying predominantly in the mezzo range where the dark timbre of her mature voice made its best effect. And, though my French is rudimentary (don't ask me to converse with you), it's clear to me that she has mastered the sounds of the language as few foreigners do, and she is able to give a beautiful demonstration of the way in which the articulation of words fulfills an essential requirement of fully meaningful singing. This is a performance of immense gravity and authority that pierces the heart.

I didn't know that Sutherland had attempted this, and I wouldn't have expected it (which indicates nothing but my ignorance of her work, I'm sure). I can admire in it a genuine effort to rise to its challenges, and I suppose it gets at least halfway there. The fey, wilted phrasing which typifies - and sometimes compromises - so much of her work in bel canto opera is not wholly absent here, and there's no compensatory strength in her verbal articulation, which plays hide and seek behind a veil of "schwa" tinged with the French "eu," so that we can identify the language but not make contact with it. As everyone will point out, the high notes are strong and fine; however, the gain at that end of her range is lost at the other, where the lower middle voice has its typical plugged-up quality and the chest voice has little resonance or bite. Hers is not a voice made for tragedy, but only for the gentler pathos of the roles in which, wisely, she specialized.

I'm afraid I find no competition here.
 

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To be perfectly honest, Sutherland's voice isn't free from being tonally-neutral and choosing between late Callas and late Sutherland is a no-brainer for me. This part is more suited to lower voices. Massenet is not about the size (we're not talking about Esclarmonde), but with those deeper chest tones missing, some of the dramatic power is lost.
Again, with all due respect - Sutherland is a very surprising choice for this aria. But I'm sure the next round will come up with another worthy contestant!
With all respect, at around 2:46 on Sutherland and 3:06 on Callas you have the lowest passage and I don't see what the fuss is about as they both have about the same amplitude. I know Callas can have booming low notes, but here she and Sutherland sing this passage at the same volume. Perhaps you don't like her lower notes, but she and Callas are on equal footing here. This is not Suicidio.
It isn't a question of volume. Not to rag on dear Joan, but I find her lower notes inherently rather dry, gray and inexpressive. Even some of the greatest singers are limited in their expressive abilities by their natural timbre, or have areas of their voices that lack character. A singer may have good intentions, but these might fail to come across, given the voice that she has. In Callas's case the upper range, which always had a bit of hardness to it, deteriorated to the point that it could express little but desperation, but the rest of the voice was always full of fascinating overtones which she could vary and exploit at will to express a wide range of character and feeling. Sutherland's voice, quite apart from it's technical abilities or its "beauty" (a subjective matter, of course), had a more limited range of expression simply by virtue of its timbral qualities.
 

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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.
Let us know which ones you find most worthwhile.
 

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it certainly isn't late Sutherland and her diction and droopiness is well under control.
Can you speak or sing French? I can do both, quite accurately, and I can't catch half of what she's saying. I have to wonder how much I'd be able to distinguish if I'd never heard the aria before. All the vowels tend toward a "schwa," tinged with something like the French "eu," and consonants are variable. The very first phrase of the aria, "Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux," might as well be "meuweu, meuweu, meuse yeu." Her phrasing may not be "droopy," but in the quiet passages it is somewhat limp and lacks intensity and drive, partly due to her mannerism of swelling and backing off of notes rather than steering them strongly into each other in a sharply etched legato line. Where the music is more declamatory and doesn't permit this sort of swooniness she's better, so that she leaves a more positive impression than her beginning led me to expect.

This is an example of a soprano entering foreign territory and excelling herself.
If she excels herself, it's only the self of 1962 which had declined after the Lucias of the 1950s.
 

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Never again will I post Sutherland in any contests. Sorry folks. I have some she'd be great in such as Turandot but I hate seeing my love raked over the coals so and it is inevitable in this crowd. I must have abysmal taste. Oh, well.
Awwww. May I recommend a scented bubble bath and a glass - or maybe a whole bottle - of Harvey's Bristol Cream?
 

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She's been a constant in my life for 50 years and more than other stars there is very strong emotional connection, much more than just being a fan. You are likely too mature to have such adolescent attachments to singers but I am an early teen in an old body.
Ah, I see now (maybe I'm slow about some things). If she's that special to you, you would indeed be wise to set her aside, else you could go through an awful lot of bubble bath and Bristol Cream. I think most of us are responsible critics, but we do call 'em as we hear 'em.
 

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Callas: I tend to find later Callas mannered. She overcompensates for the loss of her voice by giving her line excessive inflection until it is no longer spontaneous, as it was in her miraculous earlier recordings. I was bored by the rendition. It was kind of like a lullaby with the occasional booming sound on the bottom. At least there was an absence of distorted vowels and off pitch notes. The harshness of the top is seeping down. Seattleoperafan correctly characterized the wobble, although the piece lies lower, so that wasn't much of an issue.

Sutherland: Again, she didn't draw me into the character. Callas was Callas and Sutherland was Sutherland, who is usually fairly generic. I'm not a fan of her sound on record (not old enough to have heard either live, unfortunately) and her distorted vowels bother me and muddy the tone.

I best liked the Tirard (who I'd never heard of) rendition that Revitalized Classics posted. She is poised and has a tragic sensibility, but also spontaneous and free with her vocalism. The only fault is the weak low notes where she refuses to switch into chest voice, despite obviously having one (she has wonderful chest coordination in her head voice). She could have used some coaching from Callas on that score. Cernay was also very good. Felia Litvinne does a remarkable version as well. Brava Tirard, however, for showing once again that voice and art are not opposed. If it's true that a beautiful voice "isn't enough", as the oft quoted phrase goes, it's also true that there is a distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions.
It's impossible to argue with perceptions, but it's amazing how differently we hear things. Listening to Callas give what seems to me an absolutely characteristic performance - concentrated and with an inward intensity, never letting the mental and physical energy flag, shaping phrases thoughtfully, tautly and with impeccable legato, responsive to every word of the text without ever resorting to an unmusical, superficial or unstylistic effect to express them - I can't imagine what "mannerisms" you're detecting, or how her finely detailed realization of the aria's moods could suggest a lullaby. I hear her making music with the same sure intuition, musicality and integrity that characterizes all her work, early or late. It's true that in her late recordings her voice sometimes undercuts her intentions - which are nonetheless pursued with not-always-comfortable zeal - but here that's a problem only in the high-lying climaxes. The darker timbre which her voice took on at this stage seems made for tragedy (or, as in Carmen and Dalila, an earthy sensuality).

I agree that Tirard (new to me too) sings and interprets the piece beautifully, though the voice as recorded (important qualification) has less depth of tone than I'd like. Marian Anderson's deep voice is surprisingly wonderful in this music. I just wish she'd taken a less hurried tempo.
 

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Also, I don't think it's just later and earlier Callas, I think it's studio and live Callas too, just that she was more prone to "special" singing in the studio later on as opposed to her earlier studio recordings. To try and give an example of the kind of thing I'm talking about, I think it helps to compare her later studio and live recordings. Here's her 1956 (I consider all post 1953 Callas "later") Si mi chiamano Mimi:

It's musical I guess, but it's boring and kind of limp. I get no sense of the depth of Mimi's character and feeling. Instead I get what I hear as Callas undersinging in order to sound sensitive. There's "lightness" and "shading", but it sounds fake to me.
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.

Here's a live recording made a few years later:

.........................................................

Suddenly you can hear a real voice start intone the music -- she has to use her real voice to be heard. The lower notes are stronger and there's what to me is real feeling instead of affectation.
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.

There are vocal issues (including some distorted vowels of her own, which, even when they are quite serious as in her late recording of Ma dall'arido, never receive the same criticism as Sutherland's),
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.

This analysis doesn't apply 100% to the Massenet of the competition (e.g., her low notes are very strong and dramatic in the studio recording, and her tone is less pulled back and pallid in part because of the context of the piece and in part because I think she identifies more strongly with this music), but I felt some similar frustration while listening to her rendition.
On the whole, I think I hear what you hear and understand your objections. My subjective reaction is, obviously, different.
 

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It's odd that we are so in accord on, say, Carl Martin Oehmann's rendition of the Flower Song. I feel like we hear the same thing and have the same response, not only to the quality of the voice but to the expressive effects for which it is used. Yet with Callas... Freni has less perfect legato at times, but she's no slouch either, and I like some her musical choices better actually (for example Freni's "I fior ch'io faccio ahime non hanno odore" is exquisite). The performance as a whole, while obviously also for the microphone and not an audience on stage, feels both deeply refined and spontaneous to me:

To me, Mimi's character is all about an enormously passionate soul hidden under layers of timidity, bodily frailty, and the oppressiveness of day to day life. Despite some overuse of pianissimo effects, I get that 100% from Freni, not from Callas.

Anyway, as always it's very interesting agreeing or disagreeing with you.
Thanks for the Freni clip. She has a voice made for Mimi. The right voice can take a singer at least halfway to a characterization, and so there is no need for extraordinary art to triumph over nature. My reaction to this performance is that it sounds lovely, idiomatic and "right," but not very interesting (by which I don't mean dull). This might say more about my feelings toward the opera than about Freni or Puccini. Boheme needs something "extra" in the performance to attract me or hold my interest. Bjorling and Tebaldi managed that nicely!

The Callas voice is not made for Mimi, or for a number of other roles she sang (or at least recorded). It's an odd voice, to state the obvious, and it offered her an unusual set of limitations, challenges and possibilities. I get immense pleasure, and often amazement and awe, from her artistic resourcefulness in getting from her voice the most unexpected and unimaginable (by anyone not her) things, even - or especially - when it wouldn't be the voice I'd choose first for a role. I would never have imagined her as Butterfly, for example, and in the more passionate parts of the love music I find the astringent sound rather unpleasant - I really want a full, luxuriant sound like Tebaldi's - yet I find her whole portrayal achieving an almost unbelievable act of self-transformation and metamorphosis which in the end is almost too intense to bear. I haven't listened to that recording in many years. It actually scares me.
 

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In support of the de-coordination theory, when I complained about Callas' vowel modifications earlier, I had this recording specifically in mind:
Now it's a little extreme for her, but it does reflect in a heightened form a trend in her later singing. The middle becomes cloudy and "ah" and "oh" (chestier vowels, so to speak) are modified to "ooh", which as Parsifal98 was saying pulls in falsetto participation. Taking chest out of the middle (or never putting it in the first place) and singing with more falsetto is exactly what modern singers do that causes the old lady sound so many of them have. Callas never went that far, but her diction in this Ballo excerpt is pretty bad: "Ma dall' (the chest tones are clear) aridu stelu divulsu". She did not do that in her earlier complete recording, which is much better. Whether the reason for the changes is to compensate for other vocal problems, or as I suspect, because she is intentionally trying to slim down her town for the microphone so she can do all those subtle shadings, or both, I'm not sure.
This aria from Un Ballo in Maschera is from Callas's very last published recital album, the third of her Verdi collections, when her upper register was a more or less complete wreck, although it could still sometimes function better than it does here. It makes me sad to hear this and to see it brought out as an example of anything, and ordinarily I would never listen to it except to admire the persistence of her sure musical instincts and stylistic mastery in defiance of the physical odds. Comparing it with Rethberg in her prime is a little cruel, don't you think?
 

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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.
That is definitely not her 1959 voice. I think the track dates from 1964 or 1965, the years of her final Toscas, her Carmen, her last Norma in Paris, and her departure from the stage. We can hear some vowel oddities in Carmen (where I could swear she sometimes varies the sounds intentionally for effect), but then in her Covent Garden Tosca from the same year the vowels are quite clear:


The vowel modification is certainly compensatory and seems to have varied depending on her vocal coordination at the time, but I think she was aware of it and occasionally altered the coloration intentionally. Aside from whether or not it's "correct" (obviously it isn't as basic technique), I don't always dislike the effect, and in Carmen I find it lends a certain sultriness that works dramatically. Jazz and popular singers alter vowels routinely for expressive effect, and we might ask why such effects might not have a place in opera as well.
 
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