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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best Callas "Sonnambula", 14 Sep 2010
L. E. Cantrell (Vancouver, British Columbia Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Bellini: La Sonnambula (Audio CD)
Live performance from La Scala in Milan, March 5, 1955.

Weak, inadequate, antiquated, muffled, limited and frustrating. I am reminded of the output of the first generation of pocket-sized transistor radios that were such a craze when I was in junior high school--the ones that made the Bakelite-cased, table model AM radios at home sound so resonantly mellifluous. Audiophiles who suffer the vapors on hearing digital recordings made with last week's equipment, walk away right now. This is not for you. The only reason for listening to this recording is the performance. Live with its technical inadequacies.

Amina - Maria Callas (soprano)
Elvino - Cesare Valletti (tenor)
Teresa - Gabriella Carurani (mezzo-soprano)
Il Conte Rodolfo - Giuseppe Modesti (bass)
Lisa - Eugenia Ratti (soprano)
Alessio - Pierluigi Latinucci (bass)
Un Notario - Giuseppe Nessi (tenor)

Leonard Bernstein with the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milano.

The standard cuts that were traditional for a century or more are observed.

No libretto. Brief history of the opera and a short summary of the plot. Nothing on the cast or the circumstances of the recording. Track list identifies main singers but omits timings.

In 1955 La Scala presented "Sonnambula" in an expensive new production overseen by Luchino Visconti, who served as producer, director and all-around prop for Maria Callas. It marked the second occasion in which Callas and Leonard Bernstein worked together in an opera house. Callas was still at her peak, but not long before, a bobbled high note during a performance of "Andrea Chenier" had occasioned an outburst of boos and whistles, something that Maria Callas would remember far more clearly than the cheers she had also earned that night. Callas believed that the sharks were beginning to circle--and she was probably right. Not long after that, Callas, being Callas, had managed to get into an unseemly tussle with Boris Christoff over bows in a "Medea." And the feud with Renata Tebaldi had come to a nice, sour boil.

By the time Callas arrived in Milan, she was in a state. Her doctor ordered complete rest. The opening of "La Sonnambula" was postponed for two weeks. Bernstein was not entirely unhappy at the delay, for it allowed him to get in an almost unprecedented eighteen orchestral rehearsals for an opera that La Scala habitually performed after only a single run-through.

At the time, Callas seems to have been going through an infatuation with Visconti. When she finally turned up at rehearsals, she was unusually pliant before his direction. However, so the story goes, one Visconti-ism proved too much for her. Although the opera is set in a humble Tyrolean village, the director insisted that Callas wear her best personal jewelry during all rehearsals. "But Luchino," she is supposed to have said, "I'm only a village girl." "No," Visconti replied, "you are MARIA CALLAS playing a village girl, and don't you forget it!"

Callas sings extremely well here, lightening her voice to portray the simple village girl, Amina (pace Luchino), but nevertheless in full La Divina mode with wonderful high notes and breathtaking vocal decorations. For Callas fans, that fully justifies a five-star rating for this set.

This is one of the relatively few Callas live recordings that can also boast of a first-class tenor and conductor. Cesare Valletti was a true, indeed a classic tenore di grazia. He was Tito Schipa's student and in some ways he surpassed that charming old musical con man. Because of him, the glorious Amina-Elvino duets are first-rate. (Such was not the case in Callas' studio recording and her second live recording, both made with the utterly useless Nicola Monti.)

Bernstein was at his most Bernsteinly. He put his well-rehearsed orchestra through their paces and injected drama, fire and electricity into the music. (Perhaps more drama, fire and electricity than sweetly melodious Bellini ever intended--but that's another subject.)

The rest of the cast is pretty good, also unusual for a live Callas recording. Eugenia Ratti is a little too hard-edged for my taste but she is effective as the hard-edged Lisa. Giuseppe Modesti is fine as Count Rodolfo. The only fault I can find with him is that he is not Cesare Siepi.

Callas at her best, a good supporting cast and a top conductor, all of these demand and deserve five stars.

This is not at all the best performance of "La Sonnambula" available. In 1952 CETRA issued a recording with Lina Pagliughi and Ferruccio Tagliavini which is currently available in various editions. Pagliughi was good, even though she was never the vocal technician that Callas was. Nevertheless, she was a better Amina, singing in the old melodic way. Excellent as Valletti was, Tagliavini was even better. Overall, I think the Pagliughi-Tagliavini performance is the one Bellini would have said most closely matched his intentions.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine performance - wretched sound, 18 Feb 2009
Ralph Moore "Ralph operaphile" (Bishop's Stortford, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: La Sonnambula (Audio CD)
Mr Cantrell on has already done his usual sterling job reviewing this set and I agree almost completely with his verdict - except I cannot give it five stars when there are two other excellent studio recordings to go for. I discuss these fairly extensively in my review of the 1957 EMI set conducted by Votto; the other is the splendid 1952 version with Tagliavini and Pagliughi, conducted by Capuana.

I see little point in buying the official EMI re-mastering when it is available on the Opera d'Oro label for less than half the price on Amazon Marketplace - unless you want the booklet and libretto, as, of course, Opera d'Oro provide their usual minimal documentation (i.e. nothing beyond a cast list, a few cues and another of Bill Parker's skilfully condensed plot synopses). The sound was always grim and this is primarily for Callas aficionados. Bernstein gives her the latitude which Votto's more pedestrian conducting denies her and there is a palpable sense of a great occasion to be perceived through the murky sonics. He had many more weeks than normal to rehearse the piece and it shows; there is a lot of lovingly played detail and a sense of unity between the diva and her maestro. It is also true that Valletti is superior to Monti but not necessarily to Tagliavini; neither Zaccaria nor Giuseppe Modesti, good as they both are, is superior to the peerless Cesare Siepi in the old Cetra set. I still want this in my collection as a souvenir of Callas in one of her best rôles on a special night at La Scala but her studio recording is almost as good and makes easier listening - and ultimately the Cetra is the best all-round choice.
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