The best Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor) of all time? Callas! The best Norma? Callas! The best Tosca? Callas! The best Violetta (La Traviata)? Callas!
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The sacred, untouchable Callas. Stunning, exhilarating, magnificent, whimsical, heartbreaking, harrowing, poignant, brilliant, enigmatic, gorgeous, unequalled, unforgettable, heady, radiant. That pretty much covers it.
So the question ‘does Callas have a beautiful voice?’ answers itself: yes, of course. Or rather: no, unfortunately not. In the above-mentioned signature roles (there are more), we prefer Gruberova, Gencer or Dessay (Lucia), Caballé or Sutherland (Norma), Kabaivanska or Price (Tosca) or Cotrubas (Violetta), or the soprano in your home or residence.
Callas was above all an icon, an idol. An artist with a personal life full of ups and downs of apocalyptic proportions, which her fans gladly projected onto her performances. For an artist must suffer. Tosca should not be sung ‘beautifully’, so the reasoning goes, but ‘with character’. As if the sopranos who simply sang better than Callas could not put character in their roles.
Callas thus became the favourite of anyone who understands what life is all about, because if you are a Callas fan, your interest goes beyond the beautiful voice, it is about ‘the whole person’. In short, you are not a philistine. The owner of the ladies’ barbershop ‘Chez Eugène’ serves his clientele a Chardonnay on Friday afternoons and lets ‘Casta diva’, a track from ‘The Most Beautiful Opera Melodies’, resound through the shop. ‘I just lóóóóve it, isn’t it simply perfect, ladies?!’, and off he goes, in his Renault Fuego.
But Callas was far from perfect. Domingo said: ‘Her voice was not beautiful in the current meaning.’ In our opinion, we can safely leave out ‘in the current meaning’. It is almost inconceivable, or at least pushed out of historical consciousness, but in the 1950s, during her second Norma in the MET, disgruntled audiences threw turnips and carrots at La Prima Donna Assoluta.
Callas has become an international opera heroine; forgotten are the performances in the MET where she was not regularly, but always, booed. The press she received for her performances in the MET was usually bad as well. Her performance of ‘Casta Diva’ is now a plus nec ultra, the yardstick by which every other version is measured, but at her MET debut in Bellini’s Norma she was booed because of the wobble in her voice. A shortcoming that would never leave her.
Apart from the wobble, there are also the simply ugly sounds with sharp, fragile edges. And yes, always that wobble. Listen to the end of the
madness scene in Lucia di Lammermoor: Callas cuts off the last note with a scratchy, unpleasant sound.
Callas devotees sometimes admit that she was not perfect vocally but praise her empathy and acting skills. We are not too sure about that; what we hear and see in Callas is above all: Callas. And not the character she represents, but rather a caricature of herself. This excessive ‘Callas presence’ was probably put into position to cover up her vocal imperfections or to create a counterweight to a beautiful, and in any case more beautiful, voice, such as that of Tebaldi. Take her widely praised ‘Vissi d’Arte’. Howling, even before a single note has been sung. Weepy. Callas fans love Callas for Callas’ sake, but they must admit that the voice here is not round and full. (Nor pure, for that matter.)
Let’s talk a little more about the lady’s high notes. They are far from pico bello, and her timbre causes irritation in many, or at least some, of us. In 1950, the newspaper Corriere Lombardo wrote about Callas’ Aïda: ‘She has an unclear diction, and she forces her high notes, seriously endangering her intonation.’
And after her Norma in Mexico, the same year, El Universal wrote: ‘She has a predominant stage presence (…), but her timbre is unbalanced and not always pleasant for the audience.’ In 1956, Musical America wrote about her Lucia di Lammermoor: ‘We were not impressed by her very unbalanced and often downright unbeautiful voice and her self-centred acting. It seemed more like Lucia di Lammermoor was playing the role of Callas than the other way around.’
Callas also commented on the voice: ‘It’s not enough to have a beautiful voice,’ she said. We would add: ‘But it helps.’