26 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Pietro Mascagni – CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA (M. Callas, G. di Stefano, R. Panerai, A. M. Canali, E. Ticozzi; Warner Classics 0825646340903)

CD REVIEW: Pietro Mascagni - CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA (Warner Classics 0825646340903)PIETRO MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945): Cavalleria rusticana—Maria Callas (Santuzza), Giuseppe di Stefano (Turiddu), Rolando Panerai (Alfio), Anna Maria Canali (Lola), Ebe Ticozzi (Mamma Lucia); Coro ed Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano; Tullio Serafin, conductor [Recorded in Basilica di Sant’Eufemia, Milan, Italy, 16 – 25 June and 3 – 4 August 1953; Warner Classics 0825646340903; 1 CD, 78:03; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

I recently eavesdropped on a conversation between a pair of twenty-something opera patrons about the continuing legacy of Maria Callas. ‘What’s the big deal about Callas, anyway?’ one of the young men asked his companion, nearly prompting me to insert myself, uninvited, into their exchange, but it is a valid question: what is the big deal about Callas? Why, thirty-seven years after her death, does she consistently remain one of the best-selling Classical recording artists? Why is she dismissed by some listeners as a deeply-flawed singer but spoken of in hushed tones by others—indeed, in some cases by the same individuals—as an incomparable artist? Why is she nearly all voice instructors’ example of how not to sing and so many singers’ idol and inspiration? I never lived in a world with Callas in it, having been born five months after her death on 16 September 1977, but since first hearing her legendary recordings of Tosca, Norma, and Il barbiere di Siviglia, I have never again lived in a world without Callas. La Divina herself said that the curious listener seeking answers to questions about who she was as an artist could find them in her recordings. Hearing her 1953 recording of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in Warner Classics new ‘Callas Remastered’ series proves her right: in seventy-eight minutes, the young Callas—not yet thirty at the time of the Milan recording sessions—takes the listener on a journey through virtually every emotion that a human might feel, not in an opera but in a lifetime. Remarkably, however, nothing in Callas’s performance comes from any source other than Mascagni’s score. Perhaps she was an imperfect vocalist, but she was indisputably one of the most insightful, sincere, and compleat musicians ever to stand before an audience or a microphone and sing. In this recording, she is as startling, breathtaking, and, yes, relevant a Santuzza as has ever been recorded. What’s the big deal about Maria Callas? After sixty-one years, her Santuzza responds palpably and as mere words never could.

The 1953 recording sessions, in which Callas is reported to have substituted for an unidentified mezzo-soprano whose upper register deserted her during her traversal of Santuzza’s music, were produced by Dino Olivieri, a noted composer and conductor in his own right, and engineered by Osvaldo Varesco under the auspices of La Scala. In the years since the first release of the recording, many sources have erroneously reported that Callas never sang Santuzza on stage, but she portrayed Mascagni’s Sicilian peasant girl in a student production in Athens in 1939 and reprised the rôle for Greek National Opera in 1944. The sound quality achieved by La Scala’s recording team in the Basilica di Sant’Eufemia did not reach the level of excellence of Callas’s recordings overseen by Walter Legge, but the 24-bit, 96 kHz remastering by Abbey Road Studios now released in Warner Classics’ new ‘Callas Remastered’ series gives this performance an immediacy not heard in its previous incarnations on CD. Spatial effects, including Turiddu’s offstage singing of the Siciliana, are managed more organically than in many later recordings, and scores of instrumental details, particularly harp arpeggios, emerge with incredible clarity. The bells actually sound like those of a provincial village church and are placed in the soundscape with realistic perspective, and the organ is audible in the ‘Regina Cœli’ and the celebrated Intermezzo without being over-prominent. The cracking of Alfio’s whip sounds amusingly like the firing of a cap pistol, but the overall fidelity to Mascagni’s instructions and the naturalness with which they were enacted for the microphones are laudable. The voices have tremendous presence without seeming artificially balanced. Occasional instances of distortion and peaking remain, mostly in large ensembles or when soloists are singing at the tops of their ranges, but attempting to even out these frequencies would likely have robbed the recording of much of its sonic impact. That impact is extraordinarily imposing: heard in such drastically bettered sound, this performance, whatever the true circumstances of its genesis may have been, can be enjoyed without reservations. No longer must any aspect of this recording’s musical and dramatic prowess be taken on faith.

With so much of Mascagni’s orchestration restored to discernibility, the inherent nobility and bel canto grace of Tullio Serafin’s pacing of Cavalleria rusticana is immediately apparent and unchanging throughout the performance. The opera’s histrionic tempestuousness and violence are not shortchanged, however: in Maestro Serafin’s hands, Cavalleria rusticana is the tale of essentially decent people forced by circumstance into deadly confrontation—decidedly rustic chivalry, as the title would have it, but chivalry nonetheless. The conductor shapes the Prelude as though it were music by Bellini or the young Verdi, phrasing the expansive melodic lines with elegance. Throughout the performance, Maestro Serafin’s tempi are ideal for both music and singers, and both his conducting and the musical execution as a whole display an instinctive use of portamento now all but vanished from opera. His speeds are rarely as slow as those adopted by the composer in his 1938 Hague performance and 1940 studio recording, but he wholly avoids the tendency shown by many conductors to rush emotionally-charged passages and wallow unabashedly in the Intermezzo. From a Twenty-First-Century perspective, Maestro Serafin’s very slow tempo for ‘Turiddu mi tolse, mi tolse l’onore’ in Santuzza’s duet with Alfio—marked largo by Mascagni—initially seems misjudged but is fully justified by the intensity of the singing. Under the direction of Chorus Master Vittore Veneziani, the La Scala choristers sing resonantly. Many aficionados of choral singing might cavil at the manner in which individual voices stand out in this performance, but this convincingly conjures an atmosphere of villagers communicating through song. Alongside their choral colleagues, La Scala’s orchestral musicians accompanied both the first recording of selections from Cavalleria rusticana and the opera’s first complete recording. The music was in their minds and hearts, and they responded in 1953 with red-blooded potency to Maestro Serafin’s leadership. The woodwinds are typically Italianate in tone, but the playing by all sections of the orchestra is conscientious and commendably sure of intonation. Above all, Maestro Serafin and the La Scala forces create a performance that truly seems to be not a studio run-through of an opera but, as Leoncavallo put it in the Prologo of Pagliacci, ‘uno squarcio di vita.’

Neither Ebe Ticozzi as Mamma Lucia nor Anna Maria Canali as Lola is a notably polished vocalist, but both ladies sing with commitment. Ms. Ticozzi evinces genuine sympathy for Santuzza in Mamma Lucia’s exchanges with her before the church, and her abiding love for Turiddu is always apparent, not least in her heartbreakingly simple singing of ‘Perchè parli così figlio mio?’ after Turiddu entreats her to care for Santuzza in his absence as though she were her own daughter. Ms. Canali sings Lola’s ‘stornello,’ ‘Fior di giaggiolo gli angeli belli stanno a mille in cielo,’ charmingly, rising to the top G with assurance, and she is among the few recorded Lolas who makes the abrupt end of her song upon her encounter with Turiddu and Santuzza dramatically portentous.

Rolando Panerai, who recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday, is an Alfio whose singing of his entrance aria, ‘Il cavallo scalpita, i sonagli squillano,’ establishes the character’s persona rather than being, as it has often been for many baritones, an embarrassing circumvention of vocal shortcomings. Mr. Panerai possesses the top Fs and F♯ that defeat many Alfios, and he portrays a man who is rugged and jealous but basically good-humored. At the start of the duet with Santuzza, there is audible shock in his voicing of the line ‘Che avete detto,’ and the threat of his ‘Se voi mentite, vo’ schiantarvi il core’ is not overplayed. There is no questioning the determination of his ‘Infami loro, ad essi non perdono, ad essi non perdono vendetta avrò,’ though, and the intent of the irony of his singing of ‘A voi tutti salute’ in the final scene, again rising to a ringing, secure top F, is unmistakable. If not quite a gentleman, Mr. Panerai’s Alfio is not a thug, and both his dramatic restraint and firm, wonderfully machismo vocalism contribute fantastically to the cumulative value of the recording.

Hearing recordings made in the last fifteen years of his career suggests that Giuseppe di Stefano was anything but a subtle singer. The famously cantankerous Sir Rudolf Bing wrote that the tenor’s diminuendo on the top C in ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure’ in Gounod’s Faust was the most beautiful sound he heard during his storied career at the Metropolitan Opera, however, and early recordings reveal an often ravishingly beautiful voice over which the singer wielded imperfect but still impressive control. He was on splendid form at the time of this recording, and his singing of Turiddu’s Siciliana, ‘O Lola, bianca come fior di spino,’ is one of the best performances of this deceptively tricky piece in the discography. The impetuosity of Mr. di Stefano’s singing in the duet with Santuzza is telling, the ennui in his voicing of ‘Tu qui Santuzza?’ disclosing the extent of Turridu’s exasperation. The cruelty with which he sings ‘Bada, Santuzza, schiavo non sono di questa vana tua gelosia’ strikes Santuzza more stingingly than Turiddu’s fists might have done, and his dismissal of his cast-off lover is heartless but impeccably vocalized. Mr. di Stefano’s singing of the Brindisi, ‘Viva il vino spumeggiante,’ is suitably light-hearted, but seriousness creeps in even before Alfio’s entrance. Mr. di Stefano manages to make Turiddu’s confession sound less self-indulgent than it has often seemed both on records and on stage, and his ‘Mamma, mamma, quel vino è generoso’ is shaped more by the effects of wine than whining. His entreaty of his mother to care for Santuzza should he fall in his duel with Alfio resounds with sincerity. Throughout the performance, Mr. di Stefano’s ascents to top A and B♭ are steady and on pitch, but there is already a worrying openness to the tone that bears witness to the problems with which he contended later in his career. Still, his fortissimo top B♭ on ‘s’io non tornassi fate da madre a Santa’ in the final scene is phenomenal. Mr. di Stefano had a number of bad days in recording studios, but those that produced this portrayal of Turiddu were not among them. In truth, the rôle was slightly heavy for his lyric natural instrument, but he held nothing back in either his singing or his acting of the part.

Some critics have found Ms. Callas’s Santuzza an uneven performance. If that is the case, her unevenness is other singers’ perfection. Though she had not sung the rôle for nearly a decade at the time of this recording and thereafter would only occasionally sing ‘Voi lo sapete’ in recital, the imagination and resourcefulness that she exhibits in her singing of Santuzza music are sensational. She becomes Santuzza, displaying not only mastery of the music but absolute comprehension of its construction, in a way that only Giulietta Simionato truly rivals on recordings. From her sheepish singing of ‘Dite, mamma Lucia’ at her entrance, Ms. Callas’s Santuzza is a conflicted woman whose prevailingly uncomplicated worldview is shattered by Turiddu’s betrayal. Leading the Easter hymn ‘Inneggiamo il Signor non è morto,’ she pours her soul into the music, her top B launched to heaven at the piece’s close. Her singing of ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’ is profoundly expressive without being over-sentimentalized: few if any other Santuzzas have more meaningfully observed Mascagni’s marking of ‘mestamente con simplicità’ or produced the top As with greater dramatic impetus. Ms. Callas’s tranquility in ‘Battimi, insultami, t’amo e perdono ma è troppo forte l’angoscia mia’ in the duet with Turiddu is plaintive, and she again honors the composer by taking his indication of ‘con dolore’ in ‘La tua Santuzza piange e t’implora come cacciarla così tu puoi, la tua Santuzza?’ at face value, infusing her performance with devastating sadness. She joins Mr. di Stefano on the unison top As and B♭ with total security, and the steadiness of her ascent to the option top B♭ in the largo passage beginning with ‘Turiddu mi tolse, mi tolse l’onore’ heightens the intensity of the duet with Alfio. The desolation of her exclamations of ‘infame io son,’ realizing that her actions will almost certainly precipitate Turiddu’s demise, is engrossing. In the final scene, Ms. Callas makes the top B♭ on ‘Oh! madre mia!’ the cry of a broken soul. Throughout the performance, she is in superb voice, but the sublimity of her performance is in her manner of inseparably allying music and text. It seems slightly absurd to praise a singer for singing what is on the pages of the score before her, but few singers past or present have trusted composers’ ingenuity as undeviatingly as Ms. Callas did in every rôle that she sang. She did not always sing as steadily or as beautifully as in this recording, but her Santuzza is a marvel. In truth, though, it is not her Santuzza: it is Mascagni’s, presented with greater faithfulness than even he might ever have expected.

More than sixty years after the voice of Maria Callas was first recorded, years during which her recordings have never gone out of print, why are her complete opera recordings now being remastered and reissued by Warner Classics? The simple answer is that the least impressive of her recordings deserves to be heard in sound that enables the listener to perceive some degree of the infrangible concentration that guided her singing even when the voice was at its most fallible. The remastering of this Cavalleria rusticana gives a wondrous performance of the opera a technical foundation nearly worthy of it. Callas is certainly not the sole reason to cherish this recording, but it is to her perennial appeal that gratitude for this reissue is owed. So, what is the big deal about Callas? She once said, ‘I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my rôles; but I am not the devil, either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged.’ Whether she soared or struggled vocally, she was always a serious artist. That is a big deal, and Warner Classics’ ‘Callas Remastered’ series grants listeners who never heard Callas in an opera house or concert hall the opportunity to judge for themselves—with every benefit of advances in recording technology—how this woman changed opera one performance at a time.