Maria Callas & Victoria de los Angeles

Maria Callas & Victoria de los Angeles

Maria Callas
Maria Callas’ renown as La Divina is of course legendary. Her legacy, however, is equally clearly controversial. Walter Legge, producer of many of her recordings, describes her vocal assets as part of a larger section on the same in Jürgen Kesting’s Maria Callas. Her three octave range, distinctive timbre, sizable voice, a potential darkness in the middle range, easy coloratura, and access, if not security in the top notes. Perhaps even more of note is Kesting’s description of the dichotomy between “good” voices, lacking in naturally effortless technique but with great artistry, and “beautiful” voices whose effortless technique seems to be the end in itself. Kesting asserts that Callas fell into the former category. Kesting repeatedly addresses issues of style in relation to this categorization, noting Callas’ abilities to execute pianissimi, portamenti, true Bel Canto coloratura, and emotional shading. He notes, however, that the core voice seemed flawed in some significant ways, seeming shrill, sometimes harsh, insecure and wobbly in the top, and sometimes lacking in power at the very bottom.
This is borne out both by reviews of Callas’ work and my own analysis of her live performances in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera in 1956 and of Tosca in 1965 in Parigi, as well as her studio recording of Carmen under Georges Prêtre. In listening to Callas’ Bel Canto work it was clear how her artistry revived the style and repertoire of that time period. Contrary to earlier recordings, Callas clearly articulated a style that did not merely layer Puccinian verismo on top of earlier composer’s music. Instead, her substantial use of dynamics, mellifluous lines and phrasing, and vocal shading set the genre apart in a way that even today, with the focus on more “accurate” historical practice, seems lacking in the performance of this repertoire. Particularly impressive to me was this technique of vocal shading (perhaps called tinta in some circles), as it is something that, done infrequently, usually is done, in a very dramatic way, in Verismo opera, rather than subtly as Callas employed it. Nowhere was this clearer, of course, than the mad scene. From a personal standpoint, however, the sometimes harsh, almost reedy sound of Callas’ voice mixed with shrill top notes was dissatisfying from a standpoint of pure vocal aesthetics. It is not a voice that I particularly wanted to listen to for its sheer vocal beauty.
When listening to Callas in Tosca, I was met by the remarkable discovery that the style and interpretation is, in many ways, the same. Where I might expect, normally, to hear a slightly older singer with a more developed voice produce a fuller sound as Tosca rather than Lucia, or even to simply let go more on the more sustained passages, this only occurred to a small extent with Callas. While in a few fortissimo portions her voice did take on a tone more typical of a lead soprano in a Puccini opera, she invariably reverted to the smaller, more precise, and often thinner, almost nasal tone she used in Lucia. This tone did seem to carry. Harold C. Schonberg’s review of her 1965 Tosca at the Met more or less sums up my feelings on her performance in the role. He mentions the same dichotomy as Kesting, that Callas’ Tosca was exquisitely interpreted, beautifully phrased and with ample use of emotion displayed through vocal means, but lacking in the full, round tone that is vocally satisfying especially in this repertoire.
Callas’ foray into mezzo-soprano repertoire was intriguing in contrast with the preceding two operas. Where Callas’ voice seemed to fit the preceding two roles in a fairly uniform manner, almost bending the repertoire to her voice rather than the other way around, a perceptible difference was noticeable in Carmen. The easiest description I can find is that it simply sounds more comfortable. The same tactics are there, the same Callas artistry and, to an extent, the same Callas sound, made in some cases even more nasal by the French. Still, while the tone may not be substantially more full, it seems to have more body and less of a sense of detachment. A writer for the Times in London noted the same experience at a 1962 recital featuring mezzo-soprano repertoire in contrast with soprano repertoire. Hence, Carmen retained the interpretive glory present in both Lucia and Tosca while seeming to ease both Callas’ singing and my listening experience. It is hard to tell how Callas’ Carmen would have sounded in the house, but a rough estimation seems to suggest she would at least have been able to pull it off.

In summary, there seem to be some intriguing possibilities for why Callas ended up the way she did. Perhaps, as some have suggested, she was just a mezzo-soprano with exceptional range and agility in the soprano range, explaining why she sounds more comfortable in mezzo-soprano repertoire despite her fame in soprano roles. There are indeed examples of such singers both in the past and today. Callas’ ability to sustain some of the highest roles in the repertory as well as those like Tosca that require both range and staying power in contrast with the lighter voices of many of these kinds of mezzo-sopranos, seem to undercut this philosophy, however. It may be that her sudden and severe weight loss had something to do with the change, as well. My suggestion, however, is that while that may have been a component both physically and psychologically, her choice of repertoire and technique may ultimately have been responsible for the result. Recordings of Callas in her early Wagnerian bouts are not really extant as far as I can tell, but in order for her to merely perform Isolde or Brünnhilde, a quite large voice and great stamina would have been necessary. After this analysis, I am very intrigued by the notion supported by some that Callas actually possessed the sort of dramatic soprano or high mezzo-soprano voice that sits on the borderline but, perhaps unique to her case, has unusual range. If, then, Callas cultivated a technique that was off-the-voice or used only a fraction of it, her ability to be heard in nearly any role over an orchestra no matter what kind of shading she did but with a relatively unsatisfying tone quality would make sense. It is clear, even from scathing portrayals such as in “Maria Callas: Great Interpreter; Dysfunctional Vocalist” in Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities, and the Musical Flaw by Freya Jarman-Ivens, that Callas’ interpretive abilities were impressive vocally. Combined with her impressive stage presence and physical acing abilities, which can be viewed in excerpts if not in whole roles, it is clear why she deserves her acclaim in that regard, and why her legacy may have been bred in a generation that saw, rather than merely heard, her perform.

Victoria de los Angeles
            I was already somewhat familiar with Victoria de los Angeles because of her recordings with Jussi Björling in the Verismo repertory. I was less familiar with her lighter repertoire, however. After listening to her 1954 performance in the title role of Manon, I was met with quite a surprise. To some extent, de los Angeles reminded me of Maria Callas. The tone she employed was quite a bit tighter in vibrato than that she employs in heavier repertoire (though certainly parts of Manon are not the lightest). I was impressed, however, by the level of phrasing and play with dynamics that de los Angeles employed here. I do not want to say that these elements are lacking in her heavier repertoire, but merely that here they are clearly the focus, with tonal splendor taking a sort of back seat. Nonetheless, the tone seemed a bit less supported, a bit less full, and perhaps slightly harsher. I will admit to preferring it to Callas’ tone, nonetheless. It does support the notion in the preceding section though, that this result may occur with larger soprano voices focusing on hushed phrasing and artistry rather than on pure vocal technique.

            In Puccini, both as Madame Butterfly and especially as Mimì, the voice truly blossoms. None of the Callas-like sound remains, and it is clear that a substantial, though not massive (although these were not live recordings), voice with adequate ring and a warm, supple tone is particularly fitting for this repertoire. Indeed, it almost seems like this is perhaps de los Angeles’ ideal spot. For me personally, I might feel the voice lacked a more steely, ringing sound for some Verdi, and for repertoire of different weights it might not have been entirely appropriate. The phrasing and artistry are not absent, but the voice itself does more of the work in this repertoire. Again, however, this seems fitting. Somehow de los Angeles’ tone, combined with Puccini’s melodies, seems to convey the emotions necessary without much modification. A 1957 Times review of her as Butterfly suggests exactly this, although it finds the interpretation to be “cold.” I suspect this is an aberration, however, as other reviews, to be discussed shortly, point to the opposite in almost all of de los Angeles’ work.
            Victoria de los Angeles’ final career move as far as repertoire was to perform and record Elisabeth in Tannhäuser before turning to a substantial recital career punctuated at times by continued opera involvement. Elisabeth is not comparable in weight to the heavy Wagner sopranos, but it is a significant foray by de los Angeles into German repertoire, and was interesting to compare to her work in Puccini repertoire. I found her technique to be largely similar between the two, although, almost peculiarly, she seems actually to employ more phrasing, use of dynamics, and vocal shading than in the Puccini operas. This makes sense to some extent, however, as Wagner’s music was meant to be more holistic dramatically, whereas Puccini’s music really does seem to be more melodically focused on the voice.
            Most of the reviews easily accessible for Victoria de los Angeles’ career actually focus on her extensive recital engagements. Her repertoire for these appears to be varied and thus quite interesting. Mentioned in reviews were Spanish opera and zarzuela, Rossini, Schubert, Handel, Ravel, and even such rarities as Lully and Pergolesi. Of course much less of this is available recorded live. Nonetheless, the reviews are, on the whole, quite positive. Occasional mentions of musical insecurity, vocal thinness, especially with age, and glum interpretation do crop up. This is fair, however. Reviews of Maria Callas make little emphasis, other than simply stating the obvious, about a horrible night because she was already so polarizing and so unusual. De los Angeles’ record much more accurately reflects that which I would expect for any artist. Some repertoire that might have been poorly selected, some nights when she just was not feeling the music the way she might have, some occasional vocal troubles, yes. Fundamentally, however, the glossy warmth of the tone and the strength of the interpretation, combined with a vivacious, youthful stage presence were the norm and far outweighed these occasional foibles.
            As a closing note, being a native Spaniard and having the capability, de los Angeles also tried her hand with Carmen, and did so both live and in the studio. Though I did not watch or listen to a full performance of this, I did actually watch a black and white video of excerpts performed live. De los Angeles handled the role ably, seeming to carry fine over the orchestra despite the lower range and still creating a pleasant tone. As some reviewers note, however, the voice did not quite possess the same staying power in the lower registers, and perhaps took a bit of a toll on the instrument (one reviewer, for instance, suggested that singing the Habañera once and then again as an encore was ill-advised). From my own perspective, it seemed like it was fine, but lacked the smoky, sultry quality that some true mezzo-sopranos bring to the role. Matching this lighter vocal weight though, de dos Angeles performed what reviewers call a naturalistically, truly Spanish interpretation that played up the desultory, teasing nature of Carmen rather than the potential for raw sexual appeal, which is sometimes overdone.


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