Maria Callas's legendary Medea in fabulous, definitive sound quality
who cares about the art form of opera should have a Callas Medea
represented in their collection, and now it is perfectly clear that it
is this Pristine transfer of the 1959 Covent Garden performance that is
What could possibly justify revisiting a recording most recently issued (under official license) less than 18 months ago? Quite simply, the colossal leap forward in sound quality afforded by the discovery of source recordings that, even in their raw state, were streets ahead of any previous CD issue of this hugely important historic broadcast performance.
The recording was taped from the high quality live FM broadcast on the BBC's Third Programme onto high speed open reel tape, and reproduces the event in a way that the existing CDs only hint at. There were two very brief sections where tape changes required patching, and three or four moments of very brief tape dropout to fix towards the end of the first act; these aside, the broadcast has been marvellously preserved, together with BBC announcements.
XR remastering has only served to further enhance such excellent source material, almost totally eliminating tape hiss, and bringing forth a full and brilliant live sound that frequently matches - and in some cases exceeds - the quality of Maria Callas's studio recordings made in her 1950s heyday. No opera lover or Maria Callas fan can surely afford to be without this Medea!
Medea - Maria Callas
Giasone - Jon Vickers
Glauce - Joan Carlyle
Neris - Fiorenza Cossotto
Creonte - Nicola Zaccaria
Prima ancella - Mary Wells
Seconda ancella - Elizabeth Rust
Capo delle guardie - David Allen
Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Nicola Rescigno, conductor
Broadcast live from the
Royal Opera House, London
BBC Radio Third Programme
Tuesday 30 June 1959
This release is extraordinary news for fans of Maria Callas
This is one of those releases that will have collectors of great historic recordings alternating cheering in exultation and wailing in frustration. Only four issues ago, in 37:3, I hailed the new ICA issue of this performance, taken from surviving master tapes, as being leagues ahead of all preceding issues, and at last providing a live complete opera performance of Maria Callas in fully listenable, realistic sound. Now, with this new issue, Andrew Rose has accomplished the seemingly impossible; he miraculously supersedes that ICA issue with a remastering from a new private source, “taped from the high-quality FM broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme onto high speed open reel tape” by a private collector. (Two very brief places where music was lost due to a need to change tape reels, and a few moments of broadcast drop-out near the end of act I, have been filled in from previously issued sources, though Rose does an excellent job of minimizing the differences in the sound quality of the various sources.) One would think that ICA, working from archival master tapes, would have the sonic edge here, but Rose amazingly trumps that release in spades. The ICA set remains good, but this is even better—tape hiss greatly is reduced, the frequency range and dynamics are even more open, and clarity of details is amplified. Over the years, Rose has steadily refined and improved his trademark XR remastering art, and the results are now routinely reaching the point of superlatives for every issue. A secondary but welcome bonus is that, unlike the ICA release, this preserves the broadcast introductions to each act (including a reading of notes written by Andrew Porter). While every Callas maven on the planet has doubtless already invested in the ICA set, a further expenditure of funds to acquire this Pristine Audio version (the wailing in frustration side of matters) will be for such collectors virtually a moral and not merely an aesthetic imperative.
As I discussed the performance in detail in my previous review, I will only briefly summarize that here. Of the six surviving Callas performances of the title role of this work, this is more than ever the one to have; indeed, it is a crown jewel of her discography, even if it stems from about two years after the first signs of her vocal decay became evident (though she is in exceptionally good voice here). As Giasone, Jon Vickers is a fully worthy partner and dramatic foil; Zaccaria, Cossotto, and Carlyle anchor a first-rate supporting cast; the chorus and orchestra are likewise top-notch; and Nicola Rescigno (a Callas favorite) provides able guidance and support from the podium. Tracking is less generous than on the ICA release (20 instead of 29 cueing points), and as always fuller documentation must be accessed from Pristine’s web site, but these are very minor considerations. (While Rose has quite reasonably explained his minimal paper documentation as a cost-saving measure to keep his on-demand releases affordable, I wonder if there is any way he could offer interested collectors the option of paying an extra fee for a printed booklet.) More than ever, this remains one of the truly indispensable items of the Callas discography, and (despite the corrupt edition used of the score) a landmark in the history of 20th-century operatic interpretation. If one could create a niche higher than “must have,” this release would surely occupy it. But further comment by me is merely superfluous, nay tedious; set this review down and order this set now.
James A. Altena
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:1 (Sept/Oct 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.
Although Maria Callas and Jon Vickers were barely three years apart in age (Callas born in 1923, Vickers in 1926), they collaborated in only one opera, Cherubini’s Medea, over a period of five years, from 1958 to 1962. Three live recordings—made in Dallas in 1958, London in 1959, and Milan in 1961—survive to document this unique partnership. Until now, the favored version has been the one from Dallas, which shows both principals in blazing form and is decently recorded. By 1961, Callas’s voice had loosened and frayed so much that it could no longer sustain the ferocious demands she was placing on it. Two years earlier at Covent Garden she was in better condition, but previous releases of that version have suffered from the poor quality of the recording. Now Pristine Audio has discovered new tapes that capture the event in remarkably satisfying sound, with ample presence and detail. And so at last we have a worthy document of what can now be appreciated as a thrilling performance of the first great Romantic opera, involving two of the greatest tragedians ever to stride the boards of any opera house.
In several ways, Medea (or Médée, as originally titled at the Paris premiere in 1796) was the perfect vehicle to bring the artists together, particularly at that specific point in their careers, when Callas was already in decline while Vickers was just emerging as a singer of international stature. Inspired by Gluck’s “reform” operas of the 1760s to 1780s, but with more sophisticated orchestration and bolder, more adventurous harmonies (a number of passages anticipate Beethoven), Cherubini’s opera achieved a marvelous fusion of 18th- and 19th-century styles, harnessing the volcanic passions and theatrical extravagances of Romantic music to a Classical discipline. Callas can concentrate on her magnificent gift for dramatic declamation, as well as expressive, nobly sculpted cantilena, without having to contend with any extravagant coloratura or exceptionally high notes. And her voice, in 1959, is still sufficiently resilient to surmount most of the perils of that murderous act II finale. Vickers is captured in his early prime, before the gravelly snarls and lurching mannerisms began to invade his work: The flow and shapeliness of his legato singing is astonishing in a voice of such immense size, and the sound itself (rugged strength enfolding a core of treble-like purity) can be hauntingly beautiful. Both singers, so different in background and training, found in this particular opera a moral seriousness—and, amidst the sound and fury, a classical dignity—that allowed them to invest their roles with unforgettable conviction and candor. Given central performances of such power, it hardly matters that the opera was sung in an Italian translation, using an abridged score that incorporated recitatives composed by Franz Lachner to replace the original spoken dialogue. What we experience is a musical drama of extraordinary concentration, formal cohesion, and intensity.
The remainder of the cast is worthy of the occasion. Joan Carlyle and the young Fiorenza Cossotto, as Glauce and Neris respectively, sing their arias with lovely tone and appropriate feeling. Nicola Zaccaria has the rich bass timbre and the authority for the role of King Creonte. The conductor, Nicola Rescigno, is chiefly remembered as Callas’s preferred accompanist during the years of her decline. But he was also a musician of culture and experience, and the Covent Garden Orchestra plays exceptionally well for him. And I have to say that I’ve never before heard a performance of this opera, live or recorded, that demonstrated so clearly the sheer quality of the score and its historical importance as a bridge between two major musical eras.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:1 (Sept/Oct 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.
This release is extraordinary news for fans of Maria Callas, and will settle with finality the question of which of the six Medea performances left in recorded form by Callas is the best choice. The strengths of this version became fairly clear about a year ago when ICA Classics issued a version of this performance that it claims derived from the BBC tapes. Suddenly the relatively dim sound we had grown accustomed to in earlier versions seemed to open up. But now, for reasons that are not easily explained, we have another major degree of improvement in Pristine’s release. Andrew Rose, Pristine’s owner, says that this recording “was taped from the high quality live FM broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme onto high speed open reel tape, and reproduces the event in a way that the existing CDs only hint at.” I heard this edition in Pristine’s XR Stereo remastering, a process that adds a realistic sense of space around the music without resorting to the fake stereo techniques one remembers from the 1970s. ICA’s edition of this performance was ecstatically received by almost all reviewers, including both Lynn René Bayley and James A. Altena in Fanfare 37:3. Altena also has a helpful chart in his review for those who wish to know about all six Callas Medea recordings.
It is important to know that while there are specific merits to each of those six (especially, perhaps, the incredibly dramatic 1953 performance led by the young Leonard Bernstein), four of them suffer from cramped or even primitive sound. The only two with sound quality that doesn’t get in the way are the 1957 studio recording led by Serafin and this one. The studio recording, sadly, does not catch Callas in her best voice, and for some reason Serafin seems out of sorts too. That recording, which one would have expected to be one of her most important studio efforts, is a huge disappointment.
But here we have a performance of incredible power now available with a level of sound quality that we never dreamed of. The sound is almost as good as a late 1950s studio recording, and finally we can hear Callas and her colleagues with no compensation needed for the sound quality. I almost feel apologetic to those who recently invested in the ICA Classics edition, which was clearly better than its predecessors, but the reality is that this is as much better than the ICA as the ICA was over earlier versions.
Callas’s portrayal of Medea is one of the classics of the second half of the 20th century operatic world. And while she might have been in slightly better voice for Bernstein in 1953, the fact is that she is still singing well here. Her tone is even and secure, her ability to color the voice and convey all aspects of this complex character is unparalleled. We get tenderness, pain, fury, self-hatred, jealousy, and every other part of the chemical mix that is Medea. All of it is audible, clearly, to anyone with ears—even if they don’t know the opera. Here and in Dallas she had her only ideal partner as Jason, Jon Vickers. He sings with extraordinary power, but also tonal beauty, evenness of tonal emission, and a rare ability to apply vocal color to dramatic effect. They make an unforgettable pair. Bayley used the word “incendiary” to describe Vickers’s performance, and it is the perfect adjective for both singers. Listen to Callas’s entrance in the third act, “Numi, venite a me.” This is a sound that etches itself into your memory, and doesn’t leave.
The rest of the cast is very fine, and Rescigno’s conducting is in that zone that lies between competence on one hand and revelatory inspiration on the other. This is more than good, workmanlike conducting; he knows the style, he knows his singers, and he keeps the music flowing with energy and at the same time beauty. The version used includes the usual cuts from that period, and the spoken dialogue of Cherubini’s original was replaced by Franz Lachner’s recitatives, which again was standard for that era. Musicologists can complain, and to some degree they are right in feeling that the Cherubini original, heard in French, is a finer work. But until another artist like Callas comes along and sings it, I’ll take this bastardized version with her every time.
Anyone who cares about the art form of opera should have a Callas Medea represented in their collection, and now it is perfectly clear that it is this Pristine transfer of the 1959 Covent Garden performance that is the one. This release practically defines why the Classical Hall of Fame exists in Fanfare.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:2 (Nov/Dec 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.