This opera is a winning amalgam of Italianate passion and Gallic elegance: Puccini combines the refinement of drawing-room elegance with the unbridled emotionalism of verismo - and the result is captivating rather than incongruous.
This was Callas' last La Scala recording, made in July 1957 after a punishing recording schedule including Turandot; we are fortunate to find her and Di Stefano in such splendid voice knowing how soon they would both start running into more serious and frequent vocal difficulties. Callas' mentor Serafin is in good form, too; fleet and light in the bustling crowd scenes and indulgently permissive of rallentandos for his singers in plush outpourings like "Donna non vidi mai". This technique of placing intimate reflective revelations of inner thoughts against frenetic action is almost a cliché - or at least a trademark trope - in Puccini's operas, but he is such skilled craftsman it works every time, whether in "La Bohème", "La rondine" or "Turandot", and here it exercises its magic as he homes in on the feisty protagonist and the naive hero gamely battling against worldly cunning.
What a pity that this was recorded in mono just as stereo production was about to get going, but the sound is clean, clear and well-focused. Casting is from strength, the diction of all concerned is a joy. Baritone Giulio Fioravanti is little remembered but he was also very fine in Tebaldi's "Adriana Lecouvreur" recorded in 1961. Either I am increasingly grateful for their voices and thus more tolerant of minor blemishes or Di Stefano and Callas really are in excellent form here. It is apparent that Callas is singing carefully and even holding back a little in the earlier two Acts but this is could be as attributable to characterisation as caution; she is a credible ingénue and Di Stefano convinces as an impetuous youth. The morbidezza of "in quelle trine morbide" is enchanting; the flap on the B flats less so but negligible. Her lower register is brought in to devastating effect in the final scene and the culminating tragedy is deeply affecting, both singers giving it their emotional all. I don't see that the flaws are any more salient than recordings Walter Legge sanctioned for immediate release and in many ways this one is artistically superior.