BELLINI: La Sonnambula – Callas, soprano/ Monti, tenor/ Cossotto, mezzo-soprano/ Zaccaria, bass/ Antonino Votto, conductor / Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala Milan (1957) – Testament SBT2 1417, (2 CDs) 78:55; 42:19 [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
This recording of Bellini’s La Sonnambula was made of a live performance on 21 August 1957 at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland. The high-quality tapes that were used as source material for this release come from a private recording made for Callas’s EMI recording producer Walter Legge. They were supplied to the record company by Legge’s widow, the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Their excellent quality enables one to truly appreciate the artistry on display here.
Maria Callas sings one of her signature roles as Amina. She had made one of her great successes at La Scala singing the role in March 1955 under Leonard Bernstein. The years that she spent at the legendary opera house, beginning in April 1950, signify a golden age in Italian opera that was made even more special by what essentially was a rebirth of the bel canto repertoire. By 1957 Callas had by all accounts reached her artistic peak. This recording is an important document for that reason. She sang Amina for four performance in Edinburgh, on August 19, 21, 26 and 29. The reviews of Callas’s first performance were mixed, some critics observing that she was not in good voice but that the cast and production were superb. It was her second performance, the one recorded here, that by general agreement was considered her best.
Callas is in great voice with no evidence of some of the vocal problems she would soon develop. She sings with a smooth, almost creamy, vocal legato. Her voice sounds buttery, seeming to melt through and around the notes, giving them a richness and presence that is palpable even when heard through the scrim of fifty years. Her fioratura is supple and light, the notes floating above the orchestra so that her voice is never submerged. Callas does not appear to ever strain for a note. Her voice is always agile and flexible, with an upper register that is forceful but transparent. Callas always retains her lyric sweetness, She sings with nearly perfect evenness through passages of florid ornamentation. Although she sang roles with greater drama and weight, you would be hard-pressed to find better recorded examples of her bel canto singing.
The rest of the cast is equally superb. Nicola Zaccaria as Count Rodolfo sings with a warm and rich bass. Fiorenza Cossotto, in the first year of a long and brilliant international career, flashes her splendid mezzo-soprano with its dark and dramatic edges holding its own with the great Callas. Tenor Nicola Monti as Elvino sings with a lyrical smoothness that is most pleasing to the ear. Conductor Antonino Votto leads lightly, never stepping in the way of his singers. Bellini’s long-lined melodies are presented with tenderness and a touching simplicity by the orchestra. The mono recorded sound is good for its age. Expect the typical compression, mild distortion and slight metallic quality to the sound found in recordings this old. Whatever the sonic limitations, as an historical document of a great singer at her peak this recording is irreplaceable.
– – Mike Birman