Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Mercoledi Musicale

I know that the commemoration of what would have been the 90th birthday of Maria Callas was two days ago but thought I'd wait a day or two as the internet was awash with tributes on December 2.

As a young opera queen goer I was not a big Callas fan - my taste ran more to (gasp!) Renata Tebaldi for Verdi-Puccini and Joan Sutherland for the bel canto.  I did have - and oft played - her Mad Scenes recording with its famous Anna Bolena finale.  That I had to admit was pretty damned exciting stuff.  She only made two appearances in Toronto during her career: once on October 21, 1958 when she performed in concert at the mammoth Maple Leaf Gardens hockey rink and again during her, sadly unsuccessful, farewell concert with Giuseppe di Stefano on February 21, 1974 at old Massey Hall.  

My appreciate of her came later in my opera-going life, long after she had retired from both singing and public life.  I came to realize that there is more to singing than beautiful sound - there is the ability to take a piece of music and with it create a vast array of emotions in the listener.  The sounds may not always please the ear but they touch the heart - and perhaps more to the point the gut.   I recently heard it explained that Callas was a "great artist" not necessarily a "great singer".  I think I know what the commentor was getting at - particularly as she ran into more and more vocal difficulties after 1958.

Though she sang Puccini and Verdi on stage, notably Tosca, La Traviata and Macbeth, she was best known for her bel canto roles - Anna Bolena, La Sonnambula, Norma, Il Pirata.  However in the recording studio she committed many of the Puccini and Verdi roles to disc.  Desdemona in Verdi's Otello was a role she never sang on stage and only recorded excerpts from in 1963.  By that time the voice was in decline - a decline that many claimed had started as early as 1955 - but that ability to take a piece of music and with it create a vast array of emotions was still there.  Some may not consider it great singing but no one can deny that it is great, and moving, artistry.

As her gentlewoman Emilia brushes her hair, Desdemona prepares for bed and she recalls a song that Barbara, a maid of her mother's sang after she had been deserted by her lover.  Frequently she breaks off to refer to the poor jilted mad girl; at one point the wind at the shutters frightens her; as Emilia leaves she is suddenly gripped with anguish and bids her not "good night" but "addio - farewell".   Turning to her prayers she says her Ave Maria - her voice fading away into troubled sleep as she repeats:
per noi, per noi tu prega, prega
sempre e nell'ora della morte nostra,
prega per noi, prega per noi, prega.
Ave Maria. . .
nell'ora della morte.
Ave!. . .Amen!
for us, pray for us, pray
now and at the hour of our death
pray for us, pray for us, pray
Ave Maria....
at the hour of our death.
Ave! ....  Amen

While I was doing a Google search - they did a wonderful tribute to La Divina on December 2 - for an image I came across an Al Hirschfeld caricature that I had never seen before.  It is Callas as she appeared in the finale scene of La Sonnambula in Luchino Visconti's production at La Scala in 1955.  No longer Annina, the simple village maiden of Romani's libretto but a grand diva of the ottocento - bejeweled, grand and showing us the vocal technique at her command.   As he always did I think Hirschfeld caught the essence of the character and the singer - both as seen by Visconti and projected by Callas.

December 4 -1909: 1st Grey Cup game is played. The University of Toronto Varsity Blues defeat the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club 26–6.
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Harpers Keeper said...

I stumbled across "Callas Forever" on television the other day so I watched it again. I had not made the connection that they were showing it in connection with her birthday.

Ur-spo said...

I agree her bel canto was the best.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

A personal fave! Her personal life was opera worthy too.