Sunday, February 22, 2015

Maria Callas: Life and Art (Picture Music International/ITV, 1987; EMI, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The films Charles and I watched last night were part of an EMI Records package (back when EMI still existed as a separate company before the relentless forces of corporate consolidation ended up absorbing it, with the Universal Music Group purchasing Capitol and EMI’s other popular labels while the classical catalog ended up at Warners Music Group — with the bizarre result that the back catalog of EMI’s classical division is now being reissued under something called “Warner Classical,” ironic because in its heyday, when it was still associated with the movie studio that shares its name, Warner Bros. was notorious as the one major record company that hardly bothered with classical music!) released in 1999 called Callas: Life and Art, containing two CD’s of opera excerpts abstracted from Maria Callas’ EMI studio recordings (some of them recorded as excerpts, some “clipped” from complete-opera recordings) and a DVD containing a documentary, also called Maria Callas: Life and Art, along with what was billed as “excerpts” from a concert she gave in Hamburg, Germany on March 16, 1962 but which seems to be the entire telecast. I had a previous version of this I’d video-recorded off what is now the Arts & Entertainment network, and the only selection missing here that was on my earlier copy is the orchestra (the North German Radio) under conductor Georges Prêtre playing the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. To my mind, the very best posthumous documentary on Callas was the first one, shown on PBS in 1978 (just a year after her death in late 1977 — a perilous time for celebrity legends; Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley also died in the last half of 1977) and featuring some of the same people interviewed in this one (notably director Franco Zeffirelli) but offered more (and longer) clips of Callas actually performing. Written and directed by Alan Lewens and Alistair Mitchell for ITV Channel 4 (Great Britain’s commercial channel, though even here the commercials appear only between the shows, not during them), and narrated by Rosalie Crutchley, Callas: Life and Art tells a fascinating story and gets most of it right, though it has some of the faults that rankle me in music documentaries and biographies generally: the showing of actual performances only in brief, out-of-context clips and what I call “first-itis,” the tendency of biographers in any medium to say the person they’re biographing was the first to do something when in fact plenty of people were doing it before them.

In this case the bit of “first-itis” that particularly rankled me was the assertion that Maria Callas was the first opera singer who bothered to act, who made communicating the drama of opera as important a part of her overall approach as singing the notes of the music. Utter nonsense! First of all, there was Giuditta Pasta, whose heyday was the 1830’s, and while we have little or no idea what she actually sounded like I’ve always thought she probably sounded very much like Callas, partly because the reviews of Pasta that do survive describe both strengths and weaknesses similar to those of Callas (her strongest suit, according to contemporary critics like Stendahl and Chorley, was her vivid acting and ability to communicate the drama of an opera; her biggest weakness was her wobbly high notes) and partly because three of Callas’s biggest successes were in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Norma, all operas written for Pasta. And though Pasta antedated the existence of audio recording by several decades, we do have singers who were acclaimed as great singing actresses in their day — Geraldine Farrar, Mary Garden, Rosa Ponselle — who did record; though we only have excerpts by which to judge Farrar and Garden, Ponselle left behind two complete performances on Metropolitan Opera broadcast recordings (both operas Callas also recorded, Verdi’s La Traviata and Bizet’s Carmen), and her Traviata is a vividly dramatized interpretation that yields little or nothing to Callas for dramatic impact and subtlety. Indeed, there are striking parallels between Ponselle and Callas; both had relatively short professional careers (Ponselle’s big years were 1918 to 1937, Callas’s 1947 to 1965), both were particularly famous for singing Bellini’s Norma, both were coached in that role (and others) by the same person — Italian conductor Tullio Serafin (who controversially regarded Ponselle as the better of the two; in a late-in-life interview he said that of the singers he’d worked with there were three he called “miracles” — Ponselle, Enrico Caruso and baritone Titta Ruffo — and he relegated Callas to the catch-all category as one of “several wonderful singers” he’d also worked with), and both spent their last years living as recluses, keeping up their vocal exercises and maintaining dreams of a comeback (indeed, both tried comebacks — Ponselle in 1954 in a series of recordings made in her home and Callas in 1973-74 with an international tour with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano — and both used only piano accompaniment, not full orchestra, in these attempts).

Anyway, this documentary about Callas told some of the familiar stories and put some interesting “spins” on them, though this one didn’t demonstrate (as the 1978 PBS film did) just what was so remarkable about the incident that first catapulted Callas to stardom. In 1949 she was hired to sing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Venice opera, with Serafin conducting, and the other opera being given in Venice was Bellini’s I Puritani, a coloratura display piece usually cast with light, leggiero sopranos. One day, while she was sitting at the piano rehearsing Walküre, Callas got bored with all that Wagner and picked up the score of Puritani, sight-reading one of its arias. Serafin’s wife overheard her just as she was finishing a phone call with her husband, who told her that Margherita Carosio, the soprano who was supposed to sing the lead in Puritani, had fallen ill and wouldn’t be able to perform. Mrs. Serafin told Callas to sing the Puritani aria for her husband, who in the meantime had been calling all around Italy looking for a replacement soprano for Puritani, without success. Serafin heard Callas sing Puritani and told her flat-out, “You are going to sing Puritani in a week. I will arrange for you to have time to study.” Callas, as she recalled it later, was flabbergasted — “I can’t!” she said. “I have three more Walküres!”— but decided that if someone of Serafin’s experience thought she could go in one week from the big, heavy declamation of Wagner to the light, flexible singing needed for Bellini, she’d take on the challenge. When she opened in Puritani she created a sensation, and though it would take her a few more years before she got invited to sing at the world’s top opera houses (La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London, the Met in New York), the Venice Puritani was what established Callas as more than just another young soprano, a remarkable talent who could bring the dramatic fire needed to sing Wagner to operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini that had long been regarded as showcases for light-voiced singers, and reach dramatic heights even in operas like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Il Trovatore with legendarily silly plots. (Callas herself admitted to her record producer, Walter Legge, that part of the challenge in being an operatic actress was that “some of the texts we have to sing are not distinctive poetry.”)

The film tells the familiar story of how Callas cracked through the wall that after World War II dropped between the world of classical music and the broader popular culture, though not always in ways that helped her; Callas became tabloid fodder, at first from her feuds with opera-house managers like Antonio Giringhelli at La Scala and Rudolph Bing at the Met, and then when she met Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and, though both of them were married to others, the two began an intense affair that … well, other sources differ but this film definitely and emphatically blames Onassis for ruining Callas’s career. That’s an arguable case but a bit of an oversimplification; even before Onassis Callas had found herself drawn to the world of high society, especially after she went on a 16-month diet (inspired, according to Arianna Huffington’s biography, by the example of Audrey Hepburn, the woman Callas thought was the epitome of glamour and whom she wanted to look like) that turned her from a typically overweight soprano to an internationally acclaimed beauty. (Conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, who worked with her on both ends of her diet, said when he first saw the “slim” Callas he didn’t recognize her.) She had met the society hostess Elsa Maxwell and was bewitched by the world Maxwell offered her, especially after the sheltered existence she’d let up until then when she did almost nothing that wasn’t related to opera — even her husband, Gian Battista Meneghini, an Italian businessman who had made his money building a chain of car dealerships, was more a professional partner than a personal one. Indeed, Meneghini took over her management (and, as Walter Legge noted in his memoir, since he was still legally married to her when she died he continued to manage her estate!), which as this film pointed out meant that she didn’t get the leg up that professional managers of classical artists could give up-and-comers — you book 10 of my lesser-known talents or you don’t get my established star — but it also meant that she wasn’t indebted to an agent pulling that sort of thing on her behalf. Callas made it on her own and never let anybody forget it. Filmmakers Lewens and Mitchell make their distaste for Onassis evident in just about every frame devoted to him; indeed, though they don’t claim he whipped her or tied her up or did any out-and-out S/M trips on her, their depiction of the Onassis-Callas relationship sounds an awful lot like Fifty Shades of Grey: a mega-rich man subjugates a woman and turns her essentially into his slave. Then, at least in the real-life version, he throws her over and ends up with a woman who could give him even more glamour points: Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the assassinated President of the United States. What the film didn’t mention is that as the marriage of Onassis and Jackie soured, he re-established contact with Callas and essentially used her as a telephonic sounding board for all his discontents with Jackie. One example: “She spends all this money — my money — on fancy clothes, but when does she ever wear them? All I ever see her in is jeans!”

One thing I hadn’t known about Callas before is that some of the most embarrassing news stories about her was faked; on January 1, 1958 she was supposed to give a gala performance of Norma at the Rome opera house, a huge state occasion which the president of Italy was scheduled to attend. During the last rehearsals Callas realized she was coming down with an illness, and it was going to be unlikely she was going to be able to make it through the New Year’s performance, but she gamely went on anyway, only to throw in the towel (so to speak) at the end of the first scene of Act I. The surviving broadcast includes a lot of commentary from Italian announcers as to whether or not she would return and finish the opera, and in the end she didn’t, the rest of the performance was canceled (there had been no understudy to “cover” her, though eventually soprano Anita Cerquetti was called in to finish the rest of the scheduled run — and the Rome Opera sued Callas both for the money and prestige they’d lost from her cancellation and the cost of bringing Cerquetti in to replace her — Callas eventually won the case, but not until 1965) and the tabloids reported it as “Another Callas Walkout!” This film showed a quite snippy British newsreel about the event, claiming that if you wanted to make sure to see Callas you have to get yourself invited to one of her rehearsals, since at least those she showed up for — and the makers of the newsreel presented a clip of Callas, with a full orchestra behind her and two professional microphones in front of the stage, singing Norma in Rome. They said it was a rehearsal for the 1958 performance Callas had (allegedly) walked out on, but it wasn’t: it was a telecast of a concert performance of Norma Callas had given in Rome three years earlier. The fact that a British newsreel company would deliberately fake a story just to make Maria Callas look bad and contribute to the “dragon lady” reputation she’d already picked up from the tabloids was shocking even by today’s standards of “news” manipulation.

Overall, the Callas phenomenon remains an enigma — how this woman could have risen to the heights of operatic success, then more or less abandoned it all for a jet-set lifestyle and ended so sadly, and also how Callas changed the standards of opera singing for both better and worse (better in the sense that she taught the next generations of singers that it was important to act in opera and not just sing; worse in the sense that because she could get away with technical limitations, overall standards of technique declined as later singers used Callas as an example to get away with downright sloppiness — even Walter Legge said he felt Callas’s example would harm future singers because they would “try to imitate not her virtues but some of those things that she did deliberately and could only do because of her intelligence and because she knew the dramatic purpose”) — though watching both the documentary and the concert that was packaged as a bonus item, a telecast from Hamburg on March 16, 1962 (during a three-year period in her career, 1961-1964, in which she gave up either performing or recording complete operas and only did concerts and recital albums), it’s astonishing how clean Callas’s singing is from a technical standpoint. Yes, there are a few of the notoriously wobbly high notes that even Legge, who signed her to a major-label record contract and was enormously influential in building her career, ridiculed (“Can you, dear reader, swear that you have never winced at or flinched from some of her high notes, those that were more like pitched screams than musical sounds?”), but they are awfully rare, and though there are those opera fans who believe that if Callas had wanted to she could have salvaged her career by retraining as a mezzo-soprano (the way Astrid Varnay did) and singing in the lower register of her voice that was still beautiful even when her top got chancy and shrill, I suspect that Lewens and Mitchell (and Arianna Huffington) are right that it was Callas’s will to live and pursue a career, not the actual physical voice, that failed her in the end. One of the interviewees in the documentary discusses visiting Callas in her later days, as she played tapes of her old performances over and over (significantly, she was far more interested in the live broadcasts than in her studio recordings, apparently agreeing with her most devoted fans that it was the live recordings that captured her at her absolute best), and inevitably being reminded of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard obsessively looking at her old movies as part of her own campaign to live in the past.

The Hamburg concert shown here (rather sloppily; there were no subtitles to indicate what she was singing about and not even chyrons to tell you what arias she was singing) shows that, even this late in her career, Callas was a fully accomplished and technically excellent singer (it’s interesting that the last selection on the program is “O don fatal” from Verdi’s Don Carlos, one of those so-called “Falcón” roles — after a 19th century French singer for whom a lot of them were composed — that lies on the cusp between soprano and mezzo and was therefore more comfortable territory for the Callas voice in 1962 than the upper reaches of the soprano repertory) and those wince-inducing high notes were few and far between. What’s also interesting about this, and all other Callas concert films that exists, is that — unlike a lot of other singers — she did not let the fact that she was singing in concert absolve her of the responsibility to act. Here she’s dejected in her opening aria, “Pleurez, mes yeux” from Massenet’s El Cid (interestingly she’s playing the role of Chiméne that was portrayed by Sophia Loren in the movie El Cid with Charlton Heston), flirtatious and charming in the “Habañera” and “Seguidilla” from Bizet’s Carmen, ardent and hopeful as the “good girl” Elvira in “Ernani, involami” (“Ernani, flee with me”) from Verdi’s Ernani, and world-weary in “O don fatal” (and after watching the documentary one can’t help but wonder if Callas especially identified with the Princess Eboli, who in this aria laments the “fatal gift” of beauty that has distorted the way the world sees her). All in all, this rather pretentious package (two CD’s and a DVD packaged in a small book) nonetheless gives a good glimpse of Maria Callas the artist as well as Maria Callas the celebrity — and one suspects the artist will survive and her work will continue to enthrall and move people long after the sordid details of her personal life and her relations with her bosses and her colleagues have been forgotten.