Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Maria Callas: Paris Opera Gala, December 18, 1958 (French TV/Warner Classics, reissued 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the videotape a friend had lent me: the Maria Callas Gala at the Paris Opera, December 19, 1958: a pretty incredible performance, in which she does bits from Norma, Il Trovatore and The Barber of Seville in concert form, followed by a completely staged performance of Act II of Tosca with French tenor Albert Lance as Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi (in splendid form vocally, though he wore a pretty obvious false nose that made him look almost like a cartoon character) as Scarpia. (Ironically, the only other extant film of her acting in an operatic context is another version of Act II of Tosca: the “screen test” Franco Zeffirelli shot in London six years later, also with Gobbi as Scarpia, as a warm-up for their studio film of Tosca that was, in the end, never made.) Aside from one scene in which Callas and Gobbi touch, Callas seems to have taken to heart the advice Sarah Bernhardt, who “created” the role of Tosca on the spoken stage, gave to the singers who played her in the opera: “Tosca’s hatred for the police-agent Scarpia … must be completely convincing; she must avoid even permitting the hem of her skirt from touching his body in the second act.” While it’s not known who directed the sequence in this broadcast (and my memories of the Zeffirelli/Callas film are of a much more creatively and intensely directed version than this one), it gives Callas a marvelous opportunity for pantomime after she’s murdered Scarpia (though she throws away the line, “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!,” much to my disappointment; she also doesn’t kick Scarpia after she’s killed him, which — despite the potential for major bodily harm to the baritone — the scene, especially given Callas’ vivid etching of her loathing for the man, one almost expects).

I remember an awful production of Tosca in San Francisco in which the original director/designer, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (whom my brother always used to call “Jean-Pierre Banalle”) gave the soprano singing Tosca no fewer than three doors she had to open and close to get offstage, thus denying her the chance to do much of anything during that long, beautiful musical postlude after the murder. (As Geraldine Farrar said of Bernhardt’s advice to her about this scene, “When we came to the death scene, Mme. Bernhardt imparted to me the extent of her stage business, and when I explained to her the number of musical bars allotted to me in the opera, she threw up her hands in dismay. ‘It is impossible,’ she said, ‘to do justice to the scene.’”) Zeffirelli gave Callas one door, and the anonymous designer of this production had her exit through the wings without having to bother with a door at all. Callas got to do all the action called for in the libretto, including placing the two candles on either side of Scarpia’s corpse and placing something on his chest (it’s supposed to be a crucifix, but in this mediocre 1958 television image it looked more like a corsage to me!). It’s also clear in this version that Callas means to murder Scarpia from the beginning of the scene — as he’s writing out the safe-conduct passes (one wonders if the authors of the original version of Casablanca borrowed the “letters of transit” device from Tosca) she fingers the letter opener, reaching behind her own body to the desk it’s on, then loses track of it and quickly scrambles to find it again — and when she stabs him she doesn’t do so over her shoulder and through his back (the way Grace Kelly killed her would-be murderer in Dial “M” for Murder), but straight through his chest where (as Bette Davis might have said if she’d ever played this role) his heart ought to have been.

As for the rest of the tape, Sebastian’s tempos are unyielding (Lance could probably have made more of the “Miserere” duet from Trovatore with a conductor like Serafin who would have slowed down and allowed him to bend and shape the phrases artistically instead of just belting them out), the choral work awful (especially in the “backing vocals” to “Casta diva”), the backing singers adequate (save for Gobbi and the Spoletta, Louis Rialland) and Callas uneven but mostly stunning, beginning “Casta diva” a little out of things but slipping fully into gear by the second chorus. (Incidentally, I remember an Opera Quarterly article in which Phyllis Curtin blamed Callas’ premature decline as a singer on her poor posture, which allegedly prevented her from breathing properly while singing; I’d probably have dismissed this as so much silliness if its author weren’t herself a singer, and watching this and the Hamburg recital Callas gave four years later, and noticing how hunched over she seems to be and how she seems to do most of her singing with her head bowed down, I’m inclined to think Curtin may have had a point.) — 2/14/95


Last night I was in an operatic mood with my video choices for Charles and I to watch; going through my back files I’d got out Cecelia Bartoli’s CD Maria, her tribute to the legendary 19th century soprano Maria Malibran (1808-1836). She was important as a singing actress — along with her contemporary, Giuditta Pasta, and the German soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, Malibran was one of the first singers who insisted on creating a strong, believable characterization in an operatic role rather than just using it as an excuse for vocal display. She became famous not only for her voice but for her skills as a composer, her famous relatives (her father, Manuel Garcia, and sister, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, were also opera stars) and her tragic death at age 28 from lingering injuries she sustained after she fell off her horse in Milan in July 1836 — though she continued to perform for three more months instead of seeking medical attention. As with the other singers of her time, we have no clear idea of what Malibran sounded like aside from the written reviews critics wrote about her performances and the range of music composed for her — including a fascinating piece by Mendelssohn called “Infelice!” which he wrote for Malibran, she performed twice and then the score was forgotten until Bartoli and her conductor, Maxim Vengerov, rediscovered it for this 2007 tribute album. I used this as a sort of curtain-raiser to one of the three video items included in the new Warner Classics boxed set of live performances by Maria Callas: the famous December 19, 1958 gala performance Callas gave at the Opéra in Paris — the first time she had ever performed live in France. It was the last recorded Callas performance from a year that had begun wretchedly for her with a fiasco in Rome in which she had been hired to sing the title role of Bellini’s Norma in a big gala including the President of Italy in the audience — only Callas fell ill just before the performance and withdrew following the first half of act one. The surviving tape of the broadcast features a long series of anxious announcements from the radio hosts speculating on whether Callas would return — which she didn’t, and since they had no understudy for her (though Anita Cerquetti would come in later and finish the rest of the scheduled run) the performance had to be cancelled. The Rome Opera sued Callas and there was a seven-year legal battle which Callas ultimately won. 

At the end of 1958 she came to Paris — a city she would fall in love with and live in during her retirement — for another gala, again with a national president in the audience as well as such luminaries of the time as Charlie Chaplin, Juliette Greco and Brigitte Bardot. This time Callas came in fine voice (one high note in “D’amor sull’ali rosée” from Il Trovatore goes a bit wild, but otherwise this performance is free from the aggravating wobbles that frequently afflicted her high register as she got older) for a wide-ranging program that featured a recital concert with excerpts from Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in the first half and then, after the intermission, a fully staged performance of the second act of Puccini’s Tosca with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and French tenor Albert Lance as Cavaradossi. Callas opens with the big first-act aria from Norma, “Casta diva,” beginning it with its introductory recitative, “Sediziose voci,” which Callas doesn’t quite tear into with the intensity of her surviving complete performances but it’s still nice to hear the scene in its full context, complete with a bass (Jacques Mars) and a chorus. Callas is absolutely stunning, not only vocally but physically; it’s well known that her 16-month diet program in 1953-54 was inspired by her seeing the movie Roman Holiday and deciding she wanted to look like its sylph-like star, Audrey Hepburn, and judging from her appearance here, she achieved it. She also sings with such total power and authority one forgets the sheer (and typically operatic) preposterousness of the situation: Norma is the High Priestess of the Druids in ancient Britain (not “Gaul” — ancient France — as the perhaps French-chauvinistic authors of the English subtitles maintain), and as such she is obliged to lead a public service in a glade one night every month at the height of the full moon to worship the Druids’ moon goddess (which is who the “casta diva” referenced in the aria is). She’s also supposed to maintain chastity, but she’s broken that vow with the general of the occupying Roman army, Pollione, and when the opera opens this affair has been going on for three years and she’s borne him two children — yet no one has noticed that she’s carried two pregnancies to term even during her regular public appearances every month. (I once joked this is why zaftig sopranos like Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé got cast as Norma: they were already large enough you could actually believe they could carry two pregnancies to term and no one would notice.) 

Following the Norma excerpt, which not only features the cavatina (the slow first half of a two-part aria) but the cabaletta (the fast second half), “Ah, bello, a me ritorna,” which even though she’s still standing in the middle of the glade and all the Druids can hear her, she laments her sense that her illicit lover Pollione is about to leave her for someone else (which he is: her assistant priestess, Adalgisa), which is all supposed to be an aside (communicated in the subtitles in this film by putting an open parenthesis mark at the start of the cabaletta) even though it’s being delivered in full view of the people from whom she’s trying to keep the affair secret. Then Callas and the Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of the underrated George Sebastian (a Hungarian-born conductor whose name seemed to change spelling whether he was working in his native country, France or the U.S., and a quite underrated musician who was a superb recorded accompanist for Callas and Kirsten Flagstad in their live concerts), do one of Verdi’s most audaciously imaginative scenes, the beginning of Act IV of Il Trovatore, consisting of heroine Leonora’s magical aria “D’amor sull’ali rosée,” in which she laments that her lover Manrico is in prison about to be executed; followed by the “Miserere” duet, in which a chorus is singing a Christian lament for the dead, Leonora is pleading with God to find some way to spare her lover’s life, and Manrico, hearing all this from his cell, sings that he awaits death and welcomes it but hopes Leonora does not forget him. One could have hoped for a more butch Manrico than French tenor Albert Lance (obviously they got him because he was part of the home team, and they’d probably blown their talent budget getting Callas and the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi for the Tosca Act II at the concert’s end), but he’s lyrical and up to the demands of the music — and Callas is haunting. One can only wish that they had restored Leonora’s cabaletta after the “Miserere,” “Tu vedrai che amore in terra,” which for decades had been cut from the score but had been restored by Callas and conductor Herbert von Karajan for their studio “complete” of Trovatore in 1956, which would have made an already magical sequence even better (and would also have showcased Verdi’s formal daring in separating a cavatina from its cabaletta not by just a few lines of recitative, as was customary, but an entire big duet with chorus). 

The next selection is the big aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a piece I have a weird history with because I first heard it on the soundtrack to the film Citizen Kane, where Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane butchered it in private performance. (Comingore did her own singing for the film in the scenes in which she performs privately for Charles Foster Kane, but she had a voice double, Jean Forward, in the scenes in which she’s shown singing a staged opera — and though Forward was a fully professional singer, composer Bernard Herrmann threw her a curveball by writing the opera excerpts one key too high for any soprano to sing comfortably.) So it was a bit of a shock when I got a Lily Pons LP on Columbia and first heard it sung properly. “Una voce poco fa” was also interesting to hear in this context right after the Cecelia Bartoli featurette on Maria Malibran because it was one of the two pieces on this Callas concert that was in Malibran’s repertory — and it underscores the interesting argument Bartoli made in the film that Malibran was really not a soprano, but a mezzo-soprano with an upward extension. In the 19th century there was actually a lot more freedom in the opera world to adjust keys to fit singers than there is now, when taking an aria down a half-tone or a tone to accommodate a singer is considered cheating. Malibran’s sister, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, was generally considered a contralto (though her Wikipedia page lists her as a mezzo), and she freely transposed the music of operas like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Macbeth down so she could sing it. (She also commissioned Hector Berlioz to make an arrangement of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice for her; Berlioz fused Gluck’s versions — the Italian-language 1762 original in which Orfeo was a soprano castrato and the French rewrite in 1774 in which Orfeo was a tenor — and for some reason his rewrite, not either of Gluck’s originals, has become the standard text.)

In his book The Callas Legacy John Ardoin quotes a contemporary review of Giuditta Pasta by Marie-Henri Stendhal (a French writer best known for his novel of the French Revolution, The Red and the Black) and suggests it applied to Callas as well: “She possesses the rare ability to be able to sing contralto as easily as she can sing soprano. I would suggest … that the true designation of her voice is mezzo-soprano, and any composer who writes for her should use the mezzo-soprano range … while still exploiting, as it were incidentally and from time to time, notes which lie within the more peripheral areas of this remarkably rich voice.” We don’t have records of Pasta, of course, but ever since I read that and similar remarks from critic Henry Chorley, writing about Pasta the way critics 120 years later would write about Callas — praising her intense acting and dramatic skills, and criticizing her wobbly high notes ­— that Pasta’s voice probably sounded a lot like Callas’s, especially since three of Callas’s biggest successes were in operas originally written for Pasta: Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Norma. Getting back to The Barber of Seville, Rossini originally wrote the leading female role of Rosina for mezzo-soprano and later pitched it higher for light sopranos — Lily Pons and Kathleen Battle are examples of that type of Rosina — while Callas, nominally a soprano, sang the part in the original mezzo keys. One of the remarkable aspects of the surviving concert films of Callas is that she didn’t let the fact that she was just singing on a bare stage in normal clothes absolve her of the obligation to act. I remember seeing Birgit Nilsson in concert in San Francisco in 1979, and her voice was spectacular but she did absolutely nothing with her body: she just stood straight and hurled the music out at the audience without changing her posture or making any gestures. Not Callas; after playing the doleful heroine trapped in a forbidden relationship in the Norma and Trovatore excerpts, she is flirtatious and coquettish in the Rossini aria, as the text and the situation demand, and she’s fully in charge of the role. 

Then the concert film proceeds to the second half of the program, a fully staged performance of Act II of Puccini’s Tosca with Callas in the title role, Tito Gobbi as the villainous Baron Scarpia — a repressive police agent attempting to maintain order in Rome and suppress the rebellion being led by supporters of French emperor Napoleon (who’s a good guy in this, not surprisingly since the source play was by French writer Victorien Sardou) no matter how many men he has to kill, or how many women he has to rape, in order to do it; and Albert Lance as Tosca’s boyfriend, Mario Cavaradossi. Scarpia and his assistants Spoletta (Louis Rialland) and Sciarrone (Jean-Pierre Hurteau) have captured Cavaradossi and are torturing him — excuse me, using “enhanced interrogation techniques” — to get him to tell them where he’s hiding Angelotti, one of the leaders of the rebellion. Scarpia realizes Cavaradossi will probably never “break” — or at least he won’t break in time for Scarpia to arrest and kill Angelotti before his dinner (referencing a more recent tyrant, I joked, “His cheeseburger’s getting cold”) — but if he can apprehend Tosca (an opera singer who’s just wrapping up a special church benefit performance as the act begins) and make her hear the sounds of Cavaradossi being tortured, she’ll break down and give him Angelotti’s whereabouts in exchange for him letting up on her boyfriend. She indeed does that, and naturally Cavaradossi is pissed at her, though his mood brightens up when word reaches everybody that Napoleon has just won the Battle of Marengo (“Vittoria! Vittoria!” Cavaradossi cries). Then he’s led back to his prison cell and Scarpia makes Tosca an offer: he’ll release Cavaradossi if she’ll have sex with him. Tosca, who in Sardou’s play was described as an orphan who was raised in a convent (like Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music) and is therefore very religious, sings her character’s best-known aria, “Vissi d’arte,” as a prayer to God asking why He has put her in this situation — let her boyfriend die or have sex with a man she can’t stand. (Indeed, when Geraldine Farrar was preparing Tosca she sought out an interview with Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary actress for whom Sardou had written the play, and Bernhardt told her that Tosca’s loathing for Scarpia should be so total she wouldn’t let so much as the hem of her dress touch him.) 

Tosca agrees with the utmost reluctance, but Scarpia says that he can’t just release Cavaradossi: he has to stage a fake execution — “like we did with Palmieri,” he tellingly stresses to Spoletta — and he’ll write two safe-conduct passes so Tosca can get herself and the supposedly dead Cavaradossi out of Rome. (I’ve often wondered whether Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, author of the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s that eventually became the movie Casablanca, got the gimmick of the “letters of transit” from Tosca.) Then Scarpia zooms in on Tosca, ready to claim his prize — and Tosca grabs a letter-opener from his desk and stabs him with it, killing him. Tosca has a long scene after Scarpia’s death, lighting candles and putting them on either side of his body while she says, “He’s dead! Now I forgive him!,” and giving him one more look of disgust, she says contemptuously, “And before that all Rome trembled.”[1] Callas oddly throws that line away in this performance — a minor disappointment in what is otherwise a brilliantly executed rendition of this score, so different from the bel canto arias of Rossini and Bellini and the extension of bel canto Verdi composed in TrovatoreTosca is an example of the operatic movement called verismo — which literally means “realism,” though the realism of verismo was mostly expressed in sordid plots about love and betrayal, and what separated the verismo works from previous operas about love and betrayal were that they were about ordinary people, not royals, nobles or figures from Greek or Norse mythology. We can hear the dramatic contrast between Puccini’s succinct, almost telegraphic style of writing and the elaborate forms of earlier Italian composers; in a way Puccini and his verismo contemporaries, Mascagni and Leoncavallo, anticipated film music in general and film noir in particular in the highly dramatic nature of their plots, their realistic depictions of crime and the motives behind it, and in the way they largely abandoned form-based arias in favor of a continuous dramatic declamation critics called parlando (literally, “speech-like”). 

When verismo composers stopped the action for an aria, it was to heighten the dramatic situation and convey the character’s inner thoughts and emotions, much the way Shakespeare had done with his soliloquies, not to give a star singer the chance to show off his or her voice. One of the things that made Maria Callas legendary was that she could do it all; she was equally adept in bel canto operas and verismo works, and she probably picked the program for this concert deliberately to highlight and demonstrate her versatility. It’s also interesting that though Callas and Gobbi had recorded Tosca together at La Scala in Milan in 1953, with Victor de Sabata conducting and Callas’s lifelong friend (and occasional lover) Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi — a record still hailed by critics as the benchmark for all Tosca recordings — they had never appeared together on stage in this music until this performance. In fact, only three films exist of Callas in an actual opera performance (as opposed to a recital concert), and all are of Act II of Tosca: a 1956 Ed Sullivan Show appearance with George London as Scarpia, this one and a 1964 rematch with Gobbi on a BBC program in London. With Rosa Ponselle we have the frustration of having only two complete opera recordings, both from the Met — La Traviata in 1935 and Carmen in 1936 and 1937 — and otherwise we have to imagine what her complete performances were like from studio recordings of snippets. With Callas we have an ample, if not absolutely complete, documentation of her repertoire on audio recordings but heartbreakingly little on video. With today’s singers we get plenty of videos, though many of them are hard to enjoy because of the creepy antics of the so-called Regietheater directors who arbitrarily impose their “concepts” on the operas and usually turn them into travesties of the original dramas. 

This 1958 Paris concert has been available in several different presentations and re-edits; this one was included in the 42-CD boxed set of Callas live recordings from Warner Classics (which acquired the classical catalog of EMI, Callas’s record company, when Universal Music bid for EMI’s pop catalog — including the Beatles — and European antitrust authorities decided that if Universal took over EMI’s classical records as well they’d have a virtual monopoly on classical music recordings, so they forced EMI’s owner to sell the classical branch somewhere else) and was originally produced in 1999 for French TV. It deleted the purely instrumental selections — it’s customary for a full-length concert of a singer with orchestra to include some instrumental numbers to give the singer a chance to rest his or her voice, and the original telecast included two of these, the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (which opened the original concert) and the overture to The Barber of Seville (played, appropriately, just before Callas sang “Una voce poco fa”). The DVD edition also left out the opening footage showing the celebrities in the audience, and substituted modern-day footage of the Paris opera house with a narrator babbling on endlessly over what a great facility it was and is. I’d rather have had a document of what the original audience for this telecast saw — no less and no more — but at least the additions stayed out of the way of the music (which was not the case of the absolute hash PBS made of the incalculably historically important footage of the inaugural gala Frank Sinatra staged for President-elect John F. Kennedy on January 19, 1961!) and, out of the all too few films of Callas in action, this may be the very best. — 5/23/18

[1] — In Act III we learn that Scarpia double-crossed Tosca; Cavaradossi’s execution turns out to be real — the firing squad’s guns have actual bullets in them, not blanks — and Spoletta and his agents show up to arrest Tosca, only she escapes them by committing suicide via a spectacular jump off the roof of the castle where Cavaradossi’s execution took place.