Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Return of Maria Callas: London, November-December 1973 (British TV, 1973)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I screened the companion piece to my download of the 1975 Yokohama Tosca with Montserrat Caballé and Giuseppe di Stefano: a British TV film called The Return of Maria Callas that was shot at one of the concerts she and di Stefano gave in London during their ill-advised 1973-1974 world tour backed only by pianists: Ivor Newton at this stage of the tour and his page turner, Robert Sutherland, taking over later on after the octogenarian Newton got too sick to continue. This wasn’t exactly the smartest career move for Callas at the time — Walter Legge, who signed her to EMI Records in 1952 and supervised most of her greatest recordings, said in his article about Callas (which, as he later put it, became controversial with “the gallery-girls of both sexes” because he discussed Callas’s artistic flaws as well as her strengths), “Better to draw a veil” over those last concerts — even though one thing they did do was give audiences in cities where Callas had never performed in her glory years a chance to see her live. John Ardoin discussed these concerts in his book The Callas Legacy — of which I have the very first edition, completed while Callas was still alive but published in 1977, the year of her death — and even though his book was intended as a comprehensive discussion of all the known recordings of Callas, he confessed that he was only going to write about six of the concerts even though more of them were recorded (this being the age after portable tape recorders were invented and before the age when the threat of bootlegging led performers, promoters and concert venue owners to insist that concertgoers be searched on their way in for alcohol, drugs and contraband recording devices). Ardoin listed a wide variety of operatic selections — some for soprano, some for tenor, some duets — even though not all of them were performed at every concert. “Less than an hour’s worth of music was performed in each, though stretched out to two hours,” he explained; “programs were without organization or point of view.”

Ardoin went on to critique the performances, especially Callas’s role in them — “from di Stefano one expected little,” he wrote patronizingly about the tenor who partnered Callas on the tour (and, briefly, in bed as well — with the full knowledge of Mrs. di Stefano, by the way, who was aware that it was little more than a rebound affair triggered by Callas’s breakup with Aristotle Onassis): “[I]t quickly became evident that her grave vocal uncertainties exerted a tremendous toll on her ability to shape music in the old meaningful way. Gone was the ability to sustain long phrases, and recitatives and flourishes were now weak and often imprecise. Her mind seemed to be more on vocal survival than anything else.” And, he added, “Callas did not help herself by choosing a repertoire which placed too great a demand on her limited powers.” You can say that again; instead of singing classical songs, where she could have sung in comfortable keys and picked more intimate pieces that would have worked without the support of a full orchestra (though, as Charles pointed out, one reason the tour made money was likely that by doing it with just piano accompaniment, they spared themselves the expense of hiring an orchestra in each city and having to rehearse with it), instead of doing opera excerpts that required a much stronger, louder and technically assured voice. Perhaps the most depressing excerpt on this concert (which was probably the November 26, 1973 one from London’s Royal Festival Hall — though it might have been the follow-up one from the Albert Hall on December 2) is “Suicidio!” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, which according to Ardoin was transposed down for her — her performance is limp and surprisingly unenergetic compared to her visceral recording of the same piece as part of a complete Gioconda for Italy’s Cetra label in 1952 — though the video is actually quite enjoyable if one doesn’t dwell on the diminution of Callas’s power (including her shortness of breath, the main risk advancing age poses for a singer: I can remember the time John Primavera and I went to see Frankie Laine perform at one of the Italian festivals in the 1990’s, and he was in excellent form, his voice ringing out as strongly as ever but his phrasing much choppier — he took lots more pauses for breath singing “That’s My Desire” than he had recording what became his trademark song in 1947 for Mercury).

The other pieces on this program were the duet “Io vengo a domandar” from Verdi’s Don Carlos (it’s either in the first or the second act, depending on whether the producer cuts the entire Act I as Verdi did for the work’s Italian premiere after it had its world premiere in France — and, as with Verdi’s earlier Paris commission, The Sicilian Vespers, Don Carlos is usually performed in Italian even though Verdi wrote it in French); the tenor aria “Vainement, ma bien-aimée” from Lalo’s opera Le Roi d’Ys (a complete recording of which was recently reviewed in Fanfare, whose critic described a plot that makes Il Trovatore seem like hard-edged realism by comparison), the final duet from Bizet’s Carmen (probably the most viscerally exciting singing from Callas on the whole show even though di Stefano’s comparative disinterest in acting doesn’t help — in 1955 he had actually walked out of a La Scala production of La Traviata with Callas because he had got tired of the long meetings between Callas and the director, Luchino Visconti, going over the score and working out exactly what sort of dramatic expression was called for, scene by scene and almost line by line; to di Stefano opera meant standing up, singing, and if you did so loud enough and hit your high notes well enough to impress the audience, you didn’t need to worry about acting), two bits from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana — the soprano aria “Voi lo sapete” (which is actually low enough the part of Santuzza has been sung by mezzos — which meant it put Callas in more comfortable territory in 1973 than soprano roles like Gioconda did) and the duet “Tu qui Santuzza,” and the charming encore piece Callas used throughout the tour, “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, which she renamed “O, my public, caro” when she announced it.

Though the voices of Callas and di Stefano were only pale echoes of what they had been in the 1950’s when they made a celebrated series of records together (as Ardoin noted, both the London concerts were recorded by EMI, “but so poor was the quality of the singing that not enough material could be salvaged to make up a single LP” — instead EMI reached back into their vaults and put together two “clip” albums of Callas and di Stefano, in their primes and with full-orchestra accompaniment, in their 1950’s recordings of some of the music they were singing on the tour), there’s a fascinating pathos behind this video: Callas looked as good as ever (absolutely spectacular in a blue-and-white outfit and still sexy as hell — whatever the years had done to her voice they didn’t seem to have affected her looks any, and one would never guess watching this video that she had less than four years left to live) and there seemed to be almost a yearning for approval, a desperation in her attempt to get the concert audience to warm up to her and not see her as a remote prima donna prone to emotional fits both on and off stage. When Richard Dyer saw the concert in Boston he wrote, “Callas has long commanded our attention, our gratitude, our awe. Now in her struggle and her exhaustion she asks and earns, at cost to herself and to us, what she has never before seemed to need: our love.” Certainly it’s almost impossible to imagine the Callas of the 1950’s introducing an encore with the words, “O, my public, caro”!