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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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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.
 

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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.
I find later Callas mannered in the sense that I think she tones down her sound for the microphone and has a tendency to croon. The decline in her voice would have incentivized this approach, as the microphone would reveal more faults if she sang at higher intensity more consistently. I think others tend to hear this as detailed "shading" and "coloring" rather than "crooning", or as I put it in my first post "mannerism" and "over inflection", but that's how I experience it. I found her performance here to be too held back in a way that sounds like an affectation for the microphone, and that put me off.
 

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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.

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. 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), but the interpretation is very strong. The former has more shading and what not (and also seems like a lullaby to me), but the latter, to me anyway, has more voice and thus more possibility for art as well.

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.
 

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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.
 

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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. In any case, the contrast with proper coordination and diction is striking:
Rethberg doesn't start out in chest, but the low head voice is clear, and the vowels in the middle are very clear and "bloomed", to use Parsifal's terminology (which I like and agree with). Also, to be honest, I like Rethberg's interpretation much better. There's much more drama, feeling, and shape to the phrases. Imho.

Late Tebaldi is still Tebaldi, so it tends to be good and is sometimes pretty great. Think of her live Fanciulla from 1969 with Konya (with the legendary TRE ASSI E UN PAIO). She's still a formidable presence. But I agree that her best work is early.
 

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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.
 
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