Maria Callas is in the Room
Maria Callas (1923-1977) recorded twenty-six complete operas and a dozen sets of aria recitals between hear first full cry 78s in 1949, and her final recording session in 1969, when her voice was in extremis.
That's a lot of records! Devotees of Callas's art tend to be completists. Her record label, EMI, cannily has not only kept her recordings in print, but has shepherded them through generations of re-packaging and re-mastering, insisting that each issue sounds better than the last. Phooey. Up until now, it was all a gimmick. After all, this was the company, God bless them, one wag insisted "was ready to convince the world that Callas was still alive."
In a way she is, in yet a new packaging and puttering... but there's a difference. Warner Classics has produced a 70 CD box of all of Maria Callas' studio recordings, all of the twenty-six operas (Norma, Lucia di Lammermoor and Tosca twice) and aria recitals. All of the ancient tape sources, made in Turin, Milan, Paris and London have been cleaned, as if the final skin of decay has been rubbed of The Last Supper. What remains is astonishing.
There's no tape hiss and no back ground noise. The balance between orchestra and soloists is restored with nothing too forward or recessed. I'm convinced these recordings give the best aural representation of Callas's voice as it was on the day of recording. I have owned several generations of Callas LPs and the first CD versions; which sounded horrible. I heard her in Symphony Hall in Boston in 1973. I never heard Callas in her prime years (they were half over by the time I was born). I can't imagine, however, ever hearing her better than as she is presented in this collection.
Open the box and the problem is where to begin. A friend of mine began with her final recordings and worked backwards. I've been sampling an opera for which Callas was not known, Verdi's La forza del destino. If you want a rich, spinning sound with a lot of warmth, Callas didn't have that. But she'll make your heart bleed with her repeated cries of "Pace!" and her anguish at "Alvaro Io t'amo!"
I've also been sampling the Lyric and Coloratura arias recorded the same year (1954). Not even I can imagine Maria Callas as the demure Lakme, but the "Bell Song" peals away with an undercurrent of tragedy. Her Rosina on the same recording is dazzling, a b*tch on wheels, having fun.
Maria Callas-Remastered, The Complete Recordings 1949-1969 isn't cheap. If you have a significant other controlling the drachmas at home you may want to hide the credit card bills. Musicians of every stripe will celebrate the artistry in these recordings. If you have never liked Callas, and there are many who don't, spend your money elsewhere. For the rest of us, I believe these recordings to be the last note in Maria Callas' legacy, at least for a while. Enjoy.