Saturday, January 7, 2012


Among the assortment of old gramophone records that lived in Dad’s study at number 18 Denham Place was “Callas à Paris,” a collection of French operatic arias sung by Maria Callas, and conducted by the youthful Georges Prêtre. Thank God I listened to that record a lot as a teenager, but it took me a long time to discover the early recordings made by Callas when she was at the height of her vocal powers, and in every respect in her prime. Among those the one I now listen to most is the 1953 Teatro alla Scala recording of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, conducted by Maestro Tullio Serafin. For what operatic confrontation is as painful or affecting as the scene in which Santuzza begs her lover (sung by Giuseppe di Stefano): “No, no, Turiddu, rimani rimani ancora” (“Turiddu, Stay with me, stay”)? And what fury when, at length, high-handedly he doesn’t, was ever better expressed in music than by Maria Callas here? No doubt Christoph Willibald von Gluck was a more soothing presence in the front room at Denham Place than Mascagni, whom I think probably Dad would have disliked, but there can be no doubt that Mascagni was the better fit for Callas. At the end of her career, when her voice was in shreds, Callas performed the same duet in concert with Giuseppe di Stefano in the Royal Festival Hall in London—the sparks flew there, too, but the pain of the drama itself was overshadowed by the greater anguish of a once matchless star who must have been aware that her own voice had abandoned her. You can see it in her eyes.

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