Monday, December 2, 2013

Maria Callas, gone too soon

The greatest soprano in the world was born 90 years ago today in Manhattan, christened Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou and died exactly one month after Elvis Presley in 1977. At 53, an age when most sopranos begin gracefully to withdraw from leading roles, she was already retired and 20 years past her prime.

But what a prime! At her best, she married vocal skill to dramatic expression like no soprano before or since. Here's a sample:

That's what she sounded like in 1953, in the title role of what may be the most perfect opera recording: A "Tosca" with Victor de Sabata conducting, Giuseppe di Stefano (also in his very short prime) as the ardent Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi as the venomous Scarpia.

And here's a video excerpt of a performance of the same role five years later with Gobbi. This consummate actress made only one official piece of video, the second act from "Tosca" in the mid-'60s, when her voice was beginning to go. But bootlegs such as this one abound.

She had limitations: She sang almost entirely in Italian, only occasionally making a foray into French. (The same was true of Pavarotti.) She never ventured into comedy, except for a couple of biting Rossini roles. She had no desire to play -- and perhaps could not play -- less complex parts. On the other hand, she started the revival of bel canto operas (where beautiful singing is paramount) and helped us rediscover Bellini and rarer Rossini and Donizetti pieces.

No one I have ever heard could be such a self-sacrificing yet embittered Norma in Bellini's opera, such a mercurial (and deep) Carmen in Bizet even after her voice was shaky, so pathetic a doomed Lucia di Lammermoor in Donizetti. (She's the only singer who has ever made Lucia's 15-minute mad scene tolerable.) Leonard Bernstein reportedly called her "the Bible," referring to the unquestionable authenticity of her performances.

Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi (Callas' main rival in the 1950s) and other contemporaries had longer careers and burned just as brightly in certain parts. After Callas dropped 80 pounds in 1954, her vocal production changed; she said she lost strength in her diaphragm, which made her lose confidence in herself. That led to vocal strain and a pronounced wobble. But in her brief, glorious heyday, no one could touch her.


Anonymous said...

She was the best. And as you said, even after she picked up the wobble in her voice, she could still deliver a mesmerizing performance. Truly an original, and one of the all-time greats.