Monday, 24 September 2012

Maria Callas in Norma

7th December 1955. Antonino Votto is in the pit at La Scala. On the bill: Bellini's opera Norma. With Mario Del Monaco (Pollione), Giulietta Simionato (Adalgisa). Fortunately someone, somewhere was making some kind of recording of the evening. The Italian audience was noisy and ecstatic.

There are few real golden classics of recorded music. The Busch Quartet in Beethoven and Schubert; Edwin Fischer in Bach's 48; Casals in the Bach suites for solo cello … and a good handful of others including Maria Callas in Tosca and … Maria Callas as Norma.

I have had the December 1955 Norma for some years (Hunt CD). I am eternally grateful to Andrew Rose (Pristine Audio) for having taken the fragile and imperfect recording in hand and having produced something to which one can listen without wincing too often. Bellini's music is sublime. Del Monaco has been bettered, as has Simionato. But Norma is about Norma, and on 7th December 1955 Norma was Maria Callas. Here, she is simply without any equal whatsoever. This is one of those recording where you forget the sound quality, you do not judge the other singers; you simply concentrate on Norma. And you throw out any other versions you may have (including two other Callas versions).

So many real golden classics of the recorded era date from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. This was the age before the itinerant musical stars took to the air to sing or play on one continent on Monday and another on Tuesday. Germans performed Wagner and Bruckner in a way that does not compare with today. Italians sang Puccini and Verdi … and Bellini, in performances such as you no longer find when the principal tenor flies in from New York and Norma flies in from Moscow. But listen to Callas as heard on 7th December 1955 in Milan and you understand fully and completely why she was so revered and why, to this day, she still has no equal whatsoever.

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