★★★★☆ Engineers at Warner Classics have striven to address some tricky recordings. So have they succeeded?

More than any great singer of the 1950s, Maria Callas’s legacy deserves to be considered from two different perspectives. Her studio career from 1950 to 1965 is one thing, and rightly a cause for celebration. However, there are many who will tell you that her defining work was done on the stage, where her gifts as a vocal actress were allowed full play in tandem with her ahead-of-their-time dramatic abilities.

But here’s the rub: no great singer of the 1950s has been so poorly served in terms of live recordings. Devotees have had to struggle for decades to get a handle on the voice, straining their ears through layers of static, distorting microphones and a sense that the action was going on somewhere else in the building, in fact anywhere but where the listener happens to be right now.

Three years ago, Callas fans were rightly thrilled at the efforts of Warner Classics engineers who went back to the original tapes to remaster the studio recordings. The results were transformative with greater clarity, resonance and a natural sonic stage permitting La Divina to shine more brightly than ever before. Even more excitement, therefore, greeted the news that Warners would be revisiting the Callas live recordings, in some cases reworking the sound from newly discovered analogue sources (including tapes from Italian collector Oscar Costellaccito’s archives) to reveal that ‘other face’ of Maria Callas, for many the greatest operatic actress of all time.

Before taking a tour through the new box, it should be made clear from the outset that many of these 20 recordings start from the painful position of being downright poor. Mostly taken from radio broadcasts, somehow the advances in technology that gave us such a wide range of fine recordings from Bayreuth Festivals from 1951 onwards seem to have passed Maria Callas by. In one sense, then, listeners would be advised not to expect miracles. And yet, starting from such a low benchmark, the room for improvement is considerable, and in most cases these recordings have certainly never sounded so good.

As a general rule, the bright edges of what was often an excessively treble-heavy sound have been blunted – and those who like the widest of frequency ranges may be disappointed here – but at the same time, there’s often a new consistency of sound and a truer aural stage picture. And best of all, the instrument of the star turn is without fail among the chief beneficiaries of the engineers’ attentions.

The new set starts with a 1949 Nabucco and Abigaile, a role that the 30-year-old Callas throws herself into with thrilling results. The sound is poor, though the engineers have tamed it as well as could be expected, but the diva’s solos and duet work hit you smack between the eyes – and you have to hear the patriotic riot that erupts in Act III, necessitating a complete rerun of Va Pensiero – those were the days when opera inflamed political passions, eh?

More valuable is the work that has been done on the decently recorded Rome Parsifal of 1950. Sung in Italian, it’s the only record of Callas’ Wagnerian career – she also sang Isolde and Brünnhilde – and her Kundry is a tantalisingly fascinating creation, complemented by a fine Gurnemanz from Boris Christoff and the lyrical Amfortas of Rolando Panerai. Voices emerge naturally and in cleaner sound than ever, though the orchestra remains recessed.

Even better is the cleaned-up sound for the 1951 Kleiber inspired I Vespri Siciliani with Callas in superb voice, involved and passionate. And then there’s the 1951 Mexico City Aida with that notorious top E Flat riding the full chorus like a bolt of lightning. Just listen to the emotional risks Callas dares in Ritorno Vincitor and the Nile Scene. With more rounded sound, and Del Monaco, Dominguez and Taddei on full throttle, this emerges as a surprisingly listenable to account.

Meet Maria CallasMaria Callas as Ifigenia at La Scala. Photo © Erio Piccagliani

Of course, not every sow’s ear can become a silk purse. For all the boldness of Callas’s assumption of the titular heroine, the meandering sound of the 1952 Armida is pretty much irredeemable – there’s even an unsalvageable bit taken right out in Act III. And although the sound has been drastically improved on the 1952 Mexico City Rigoletto, with the storm scene a coordination train crash, endless gratuitous top notes and Di Stefano applauded wildly even though he’s a semitone flat at the end of La Donna Mobile (twice), it remains far less essential than Callas’s studio recording – and how she didn’t slaughter the prompt for murdering her Caro Nome…?

By the time we reach the 1952 Covent Garden Norma things have started to improve significantly. Careful interventions have resulted in a far more consistent sound, less black and white movie, more modern technicolor. Callas now sits in a far more credible stage acoustic, you can almost feel the proscenium, and despite John Steane’s mealy-mouthed remarks in the booklet note in praise of Stignani over Callas, it’s the latter’s show – a great performance full of fire and vocal dramatics to sit comfortably alongside the studio recording of the following year.

The same goes for the De Sabata Macbeth from the same year, benefitting from a ndew analogue source. A thrilling performance all round, there are still some irreparable dropouts, but Callas’s scenes all fare well and the wildly variable acid edge of the previous issues has been tamed to offer a far more acceptable general sound quality.

Although remembered for her part in the great bel canto revolution, Callas also helped bring barely remembered Classical works back to the stage. The uniquely incisive 1953 recording of Cherubini’s Medea with Bernstein at the helm was one of EMI’s more successful remasterings last time around, and apart from a little more presence to the voices there’s little significant to distinguish the new version. A greater improvement is Spontini’s still underrated La Vestale, an electrifying performance recorded under Antonino Votto the following year, where although the sound is still fundamentally flat with distortions afflicting the second half, many ragged edges have been smoothed out, audience splutters pruned, and voices and orchestra given a new depth and bloom. The 1954 Alceste is a rarity, not currently available on any other label, but sadly, although Giulini is on fire and you sense Callas herself is in superb voice, the sound remains wretched with congested choruses and irredeemable radio interference.

By 1955, the worst of the recordings are behind us and the improvements become more overtly noticeable. The famous live La Scala Andrea Chénier with Del Monaco and Protti comes up pretty fresh, the squealing treble has been calmed and the distortion partially smoothed over with less boxiness to the sound in general. Ditto the lively Bernstein led Sonnambula, which acquires a clearer sense of the stage image thanks to a new source and some nifty engineering. The chorus sound is still mush, but Callas, caught well by the mics, gives a masterclass in bel canto.

Meet Maria CallasMaria Callas and Leonard Bernstein in 1955. Photo © Erio Piccagliani

The first audio miracle, however, comes with the Berlin Lucia. Working with a newly discovered analogue recording, the added depth is most impressive and the voices have an appealing immediacy and naturalness. Although there are other live Lucias, Karajan’s powerful, slightly Germanic approach deserves its place at the top table, and Di Stefano and Zaccaria make first rate partners for La Divina in one of her most famous roles – Act II sextet encore and all!

It’s not just the warming and pulling forward of the voices you notice on the 1957 Anna Bolena (a frustratingly poor recording for its date). The engineers have corrected the pitch, pulling it down less than a semitone, but still an immediately apparent fix. The sound is still not perfect by any means, but it certainly wins out over any other transfer to date. The recording of Gluck’s Ifigenia in Tauride from the same year, however, is in such poor shape that it seems little could be achieved over the previous issue. Not so the famous ‘Lisbon Traviata‘, one of the better sound recordings showing Callas at her most vulnerable. The sound has been nicely tamed and tidied.

Three late recordings complete the set. The 1959 concert performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata is a rarity worth preserving despite tricksy sound that regularly distorts and some ill-disciplined orchestral playing. Voices have been pulled slightly forward to match the best of the independent transfers currently available. Callas is dramatically on fire and Pier Miranda Ferraro the best Gualtiero on disc. Even better is the work that’s been done on 1960’s Poliuto, giving the orchestral sound greater bloom and richness while removing a great deal of the extraneous background noise. With its superlative cast (Callas, Corelli and Bastianini), along with the Berlin Lucia, this is the best in the box.

The set ends in a blaze of technical glory with the 1964 Covent Garden Tosca, the voice a little worn but the dramatic instincts entirely intact. The orchestral sound in particular has been cleaned up, eliminating background noise and generally beefing up the body of the recording. It’s often electrifying – even the knotty-voiced Cioni has his moments – and, as always, it’s a sad reminder of how much Callas still had to give.

The 20 opera box comes with reissues of her three DVDs and a decent booklet with substantial notes. If Callas Live isn’t quite the revelation of the 2014 Studio Recordings, there’s still much to be thankful for. One day someone will invent a programme that extrapolates a modern sound from old tapes, until then, much of this is as good as it gets.

Maria Callas Live is available now on Warner Classics. Click here for Spotify or buy on iTunes.

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