GIORDANO: Andrea Chénier
We are fortunate to have two more major operatic issues at budget price from Naxos. The La Scala 1941 recording of Andrea Chenier is a classic with tenor Beniamino Gigli in one of his favorite roles as the ill-fated poet, Maria Caniglia a vibrant if rather shrill Maddalena, Gino Bechi, Giulietta Simionato, Giuseppe Taddei and Italo Tajo early in their lustrous careers. An added plus is the inclusion of other important recordings of arias from the opera by singers listed above. Ward Marston's transfers are impeccable, taken from two mint copies of the British HMV pressing, adjusting inconsistent recording speeds—a task magnificently accomplished.
Now, to add to previous Naxos issues of Renata Tebaldi recordings of Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La Boheme (see REVIEW) we have their reissue of Verdi's Aida recorded in Rome with more major early singers in the full bloom of their early careers. Tebaldi's voice was in its youthful prime, Mario del Monaco made up in sheer power for his lack of subtlety. For magnificent vocalism there are many treasures to be found in this set. This recording was issued about a decade ago on London (440 239) at budget-plus price, still in the catalog; it also was issued at full-price on Pearl. Neither of these are necessary now that we have this budget issue from Naxos in a new transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn from British LP pressings adjusted for best possible sound, with the comment that in all probability the part of the High Priestess in Act I was sung by Suzanne Danco, a major Decca artist of the time, unlisted as it was felt such a big-time singer should not be credited in a relatively minor role.
If you can't beat them, join them seems to be EMI's motto regarding these Maria Callas live recordings. Both have previously been issued on pirate/unauthorized recordings, often at premium price—and as Callas is perhaps the major classical artist on EMI's roster, they want to profit from her non-studio recordings. This will benefit the collector as they have been able to obtain the finest possible sources and they are issuing these recordings—and other live performances as well—at mid-price. Other releases are a 1952 Norma from Covent Garden and a 1957 La Sonnambula from Cologne, and recitals from Hamburg, Stuttgart and Amsterdam (all 1959), London (1961 and 1962) and Paris (1963 and 1976) (for detailed information, visit the Angel website (http://www.angelrecords.com). The packaging is also deluxe: both Aida and Tosca have a listing of all Callas performances of each opera, photos, a track-by-track synopsis of action, plus the complete libretto
Aida was recorded in Mexico in 1951 when the Greek soprano was relatively unknown to the operatic world. The previous year she had performed the same opera in Mexico to great acclaim, with tenor Kurt Baum who had great problems with Callas' exhibitionistic performance. Mario del Monaco sang in the 1951 performances. Thirty-five at the time, he was also at the beginning of his career. Both he and Callas sing with all the stops out, particularly del Monaco who extends the final note in "Celeste Aida" showing what he can do; forget about the composer's written dimmuendo on the note. Callas holds the high C in "O patria mia" very long—it's an ugly sound, but it is loud and long. And of course Callas' famous high E-flat at the end of the Act II "victory scene" is there, and stunning it is. As John Stean's notes say, "this is a full-blooded performance...all the principals sing as loudly as they can for as long as they can." The mono sound is acceptable, with much applause included, along with occasional extraneous sounds. The orchestra and chorus are mediocre. If you wish to have this performance this EMI issue surely is the one to have.
Maria Callas' Tosca is her most famous role and this performance is from Covent Garden in 1964, eleven years after she made her famous EMI recording with di Stefano, Tito Gobbi and Victor de Sabata conducting. This, with Renato Cioni as a fine Cavaradossi, has been issued a number of times before on pirate/illegal labels; now we have its "official" EMI release, in best possible sound, and at medium price. Again we have deluxe packaging mentioned earlier.
If you ever see an Archipel "Desert Island Collection" CD (ARPCD 0005) of Maria Callas in excerpts from Turandot and Aida, "Callas only extant live recording of Turandot and Aida excerpts 03.06.1950. Rarities of the young Callas," do not be tempted. The sound is excruciatingly poor, often with the sound of a loud unidentified machine in the forefront. And Callas emits some dreadfully squally sounds in both operas. Forget this one. Even the staunchest Callas buffs will find this worthless.
R.E.B. (November 2003)