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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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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.
I share your opinion, which is eloquently expressed in this post. I would even add that I believe her vocal difficulties were hastened by her crooning in the studio. Cornelius Reid mentioned in his book The Free Voice that constriction, which inevitably happens when you lighten the voice, can "de-coordinate" the registers. And in the end, I believe this is what brought Callas's downfall: the registers became separated from one another, hence why people sometimes talk about her "three voices". Nonetheless, she maintained her great artistry, which makes her vocal decline even more saddening and frustrating. Such feelings also inhabit me when I think of the evolution of Tebaldi's voice...
 

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I have a question for you. I know so few Tebaldi fans.... she is almost as poor here as Sutherland. I know Tebaldi was of course best best best in the early 50's. I may more forgiving than most but I thought her reworked voice in the late Giocondas was quite effective and I greatly enjoyed her in the role in Met Broadcasts when she took the role up late. Do you think her reworking of the voice made a difference for you?
Now, I am no Tebaldi specialist, and have not listened to all she had to offer. I mostly limit myself to her early, live recordings, and some of the early studio recordings in which the voice sounds fuller and less harsh. But sampling Tebaldi throughout her career, the first thing that I hear is the loss of what one could call the "bloom" (cannot find a better word) that she had in the beginning. What I mean by bloom is the "ooooooh" sound (like an owl) that you hear when she sings, even when there is a lot of squillo, like in this performance:


In this performance, the voice is not harsh nor does it has this edge that would soon creep in. The bloom is like a cushion on which every notes sit. The feeling I get is that it enveloppes the voice. I think you hear it more easily with lower voices, like in this performance of Ave Maria by Christa Ludwig. Listen to how the "ooooooh" sound is always there, whether on the low or on the high notes. Listen to how she sings the vowels and how she slightly changes them, enough to maintain the falsetto action, but not so much that we cannot make up what she sings. Ludwig wrote about that in her autobiography and how changing the vowels without it being obvious was an art in itself:


Returning to the Tebaldi video, The "bloom", which is the opposite of harshness and edge, was present throughout her range and is only possible with a proper coordination of the registers, and more specifically proper falsetto action. To maintain proper registration and falsetto action, one has to sing dark and with proper resonance in the pharyngeal space. As a singer climbs up or down the tone scale, he should maintain such resonance by shifting the registers and slightly changing the vowels. As you go up, there should be more "ooooooh" in the sound, in order to maintain the throat open. But there should still be chest voice, in order to maintain clarity and squillo (a singer cannot really control these things, but he or she should try to obtain the right sound whilst maintaining the voice free of any undesired tension).

Just like Callas, I believe a "de-coordination" of the registers brought about Tebaldi's vocal decline. She lost that dept in her sound, which comes about when proper falsetto action is failing. She therefore developped an edge in her sound, and her high notes became shrill and flat, like screaming (not all the time though). You can also see in some videos that she sometimes sang with her mouth barely open, and that she would sometimes spread her mouth to reach the high notes, which naturally tenses the throath and make you lose the necessary depth to hit the note on pitch and with said bloom. The matronly tone also started to appear. Now her late recordings, like La Gioconda, are not complete disasters, and she could still spin some beautiful lines. But the changes can still be heard easily. To conclude, I think this video does a good job of explaining what became wrong with her singing, and finishes with a great display of what she actually did so well when she had freshly arrived on the operatic stage:


But to answer your question more explicitly, her reworking of the voice made no real difference for me. It did not really bring back what was so good about her singing. It may not have been her fault, for the knowledge necessary to solve her problems was getting rarer. It seems to be mostly forgotten today...
 

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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.
I do not know if constant alteration of the vowels, at least alteration that is not the result of the natural workings of the voice, is a good idea. Jazz and pop singers do it because they sing with a microphone and do not have to project their voices in a grand theatre. They can therefore sing with as much alterations as they want, and even with disconnected registers, airy vocal production, extremely tense voices, nasality... all such things which the modern vocal aesthetic as made permissible. But the old singing tradition, which put emphasis on health, efficiency and beauty, was the answer, taken from empiric experimentations and obervations, to a problem that predates the invention of the microphone: how can one sing as healthily, efficiently and beautifully as possible whilst being heard. Part of the answer is the importance of the vowels, which, at least in Romance languages and those influenced by Latin, are open-throated sound lending themselves well to natural pharyngeal resonance, the greatest tool for projection. Pure vowel sounds are part of the backbones of a sound vocal technique. Their proper alterations, due to the natural workings of the voice (as mentioned earlier) should only come about when one has learned the differences between pure vowels and impure ones. In the Free Voice by Cornelius Reid, the first exercices given to aspiring singers are to produce open-throated vowel sounds in the chest voice at different pitches, before singing them at an higher octave in falsetto with the ooooh sound (the bloom). The pure sound comes about before the altered one. Now, I know you only propose that vowel alterations could be used in opera for expressive effects, and I know you already know everything that I've written, as you've proven time and time again. The paragraph above is only there to support what I believe should be the rule concerning vowels in singing: singers should learn to sing pure vowels and their natural alterations before trying to change them for interpretative purposes (the old "master the rules before breaking them"). I am afraid that permitting such alterations without any boundaries will mean future singers will sing, just like the current crop, their "awwwwnnnn" and their "oowwwww" in collapsed headvoice on the Met stage with thundering applause. There is still time to change the status quo. Or maybe I am being too optimistic...

Concerning the Callas Carmen recording, I, like you, also appreciate the way Callas plays with the French language. Being a francophone myself, I find her inflections often brilliant. The way she sings

L'on m'avait avertie
Que tu n'étais pas loin,
Que tu devais venir,
L'on m'avait même dit
De craindre pour ma vie,
Mais je suis brave
Et n'ai pas voulu fuir.


in the beginning of the last act duet is, ever since I heard it, the standard to which I compare all other versions. But I do not consider her singing in this recording to be efficient and healthy, and while there are moments of beauty, it is also sometimes rather ugly. I believe the sole reason why I can appreciate the singing in the title role is because of Callas and the knowledge that I possess of her abilities as a singer, abilities which where in display much earlier in career and where by then failing her. A bit of projection as we would say. If any other singer had offered a vocal performance similar to her, I would have never listened to such a recording.

To finish, a word about the Rethberg/Callas comparison. While it is indeed slightly cruel if only used to criticize Callas, I find it an apt comparison for illustrating what we have been talking about during the last posts. It displays well the difference between good registration and bad registration, and the importance of the bloom, meaning falsetto action, in a good, healthy, efficient and beautiful voice.

P.S. Retherg's voice is stunning.
 

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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.
I am glad that you mention the clear vowels in the middle voice. In my post, I wrote about the alterations of the vowels and forgot to indicate that such alterations happen mostly at both ends of a singer's tessitura. We can hear alterations of the vowels when Tebaldi sings in her booming low voice just as we can hear it when she sings high notes. If the falsetto action doesn't increase while singing in the lower register, then the voice becomes raw and unpleasant. Pure chest is far from being a beautiul and healthy sound. Tebaldi was acclaimed for her great diction, and the following performance, which has been posted by Woodduck before, is a great testament to it:


The vowels in the middle voice are pure and clear, and the voice is blooming. The way she sings

Mi piaccion quelle cose
Che han sì dolce malìa
Che parlano d'amor, di primavere
Di sogni e di chimere


gives me shivers. The clarity and purity of the vowels in a middle voice that still blooms means that while the qualities of the chest voice dominate in this tessitura, or are at least more present than in the high register, the falsetto action is still there, but does not have enough impact as to alter the vowels. It has just enough impact to give depth and beauty to the voice. Then again, it seems as if the voice sits on a beautiful velvet cushion. A wonderful performance indeed.
 
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