OP0262. I VESPRI SICILIANI, Live Performance, 26 May, 1951, Firenze, w.Kleiber Cond. Maggio Musicale Ensemble; Maria Callas, Giorgio Kokolios-Bardi, Enzo Mascherini, Boris Christoff, Bruno Carmassi, Mario Frosini, etc. (E.U.) 3-Myto 00227. - 0801439902275
"Erich Kleiber is not usually associated with the 19th-century Italian repertory but he leads a vigorous performance….For Callas and Christoff admirers, of course, this is an essential document….Giorgio Kokolios-Bardi…had been one of Callas’ leading men at the National Opera in Athens, and she particularly requested him for this part."
- Patrick O’Connor, GRAMOPHONE, Jan., 2008
“Between Callas’ début in Italy in LA GIOCONDA in Verona in August 1947 and her triumphant conquest of La Scala in I VESPRI SICILIANI in December 1951, there were two milestone performances that totally changed the course of her career. The first was in I PURITANI in Venice in January 1949 and the other was in I VESPRI SICILIANI in Florence in May 1951. On 19 January 1949 Callas astonished the operatic world by stepping in for the indisposed soprano Margherita Carosio as Elvira in I PURITANI at La Fenice in Venice. She learned the part in eight days during the time she was singing Brünnhilde (in Italian) in DIE WALKÜRE. Both operas were conducted by Tullio Serafin, who realised that although Callas had been singing heavy dramatic parts like Turandot and Aïda since her Italian début in 1947 in LA GIOCONDA, she was also capable of taking on bel canto repertoire, for which she had been trained by her principal teacher in Greece, the Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo.
The PURITANI in Venice was the turning point in Callas’s career and made her an international star. Engagements came flooding in and she was soon able to direct her career into the field of bel canto repertoire, which she preferred, although she did not immediately relinquish the heavier parts, and in any case she had commitments to fulfil in the next few months including WALKÜRE in Palermo, TURANDOT in Naples and PARSIFAL (her last Wagnerian opera) in Rome. On 21 April, Callas and Meneghini were married in Verona and just a few hours later she set off on her own to sail from Genoa to Buenos Aires, where she would sing at the Teatro Colón in TURANDOT, NORMA and AÏDA. She returned to Italy on 14 July and spent the next few months enjoying life as Signora Meneghini, firstly by going on holiday to Venice with her new husband and then by busying herself furnishing the new apartment that Meneghini had constructed for them in Verona. 1949 came to an end with Maria cutting her first gramophone recordings, in those days still 78rpm discs, for Fonit Cetra in Turin (arias from TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, I PURITANI and NORMA) and then triumphantly singing NABUCCO for the first time in Naples in December under Vittorio Gui. Callas was by now an established star and had enjoyed great success in all of Italy’s most important opera houses except La Scala, where she was yet to be invited. The opportunity to sing at La Scala finally came in April 1950, when Maria was asked to cover as a guest for an indisposed Renata Tebaldi in three performances of AÏDA. But despite a reasonable reception from the audience, she got only lukewarm reviews in the press, and was pointedly ignored by Ghiringhelli, the director of La Scala, who seemed to have formed a dislike for Maria from the very beginning of her career. Their relationship was not helped by the fact that Callas, who suffered from severe myopia, announced that there was nothing special about La Scala, which, because she was short-sighted, looked to her just like any other theatre! For the next three months Maria was occupied singing in Mexico City, and when she returned to Italy she had a highly significant encounter with Arturo Toscanini, the legendary conductor who had been for many years the principal conductor at La Scala and under whom Maria longed to perform.
She was invited to audition for Toscanini in the role of Lady Macbeth for a production of Verdi’s opera that Toscanini wanted La Scala to mount in Verdi’s home town of Busseto in August- September 1951 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of the composer. Maria spent the afternoon of 27 September with Toscanini going over the part and she was thrilled when he announced that hers was exactly the voice that he was seeking for Lady Macbeth. Toscanini told Callas that he would instruct Ghiringhelli to send her a letter of intent about the MACBETH, which he duly did. But for various reasons, including the maestro’s failing health, Toscanini’s dream of directing a company from La Scala in Busseto in 1951 in MACBETH, an opera he had never before conducted, did not materialise.
Nevertheless, Toscanini’s influence with La Scala was important, in that Ghiringhelli wished to remain on good terms with him to improve his own status, and it is fairly certain that Ghiringhelli was eventually unable to resist the pressure to invite Callas to join the company of La Scala partly because of Toscanini’s support for her. In addition to the situation regarding the Busseto MACBETH, Toscanini and his daughter Wally backed Menotti in asking La Scala to cast Callas as Magda Sorel in the production of Menotti’s powerful modern-day opera THE CONSUL in January 1951, but Ghiringhelli flatly refused to consider her except as a guest artist. According to Meneghini, however, Callas would not have accepted the role anyway because she did not believe the music would have suited her voice.
In May 1951, Callas had two extremely important engagements at the Teatro Comunale in Florence as part of the Maggio Musicale Festival. The Teatro Comunale was under the enlightened direction of Francesco Siciliani, who had immediately recognised Callas’s exceptional artistic gifts when he first encountered her towards the end of 1948 and offered her two performances of NORMA at short notice. Callas was considering returning to the USA around that time and it was Siciliani’s perspicacity in asking her to sing her first bel canto role that persuaded her to stay in Italy. In the next few years Siciliani remained a major influence on Callas’ artistic development and in Florence she gave her first performances of LA TRAVIATA (the opera she sang most after NORMA), I VESPRI SICILIANI, ORFEO ED EURIDICE (Haydn), ARMIDA, MEDEA and her first LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR in Italy.
Kleiber was born in Vienna in 1890 and established himself as one of the finest operatic conductors of his time. He championed modern works like WOZZECK by Alban Berg and JENUFA by Janácek, and gave meticulously rehearsed and unsentimental performances of the operas of Richard Strauss and Mozart that set new standards, both in the opera house and on commercial gramophone records. He was General Music Director of the Berlin Staatsoper from 1923 until he resigned in 1934 because of his disapproval of the Nazi regime. He then moved to Buenos Aires and spent a lot of time in pioneering conducting work in the countries of Central and South America, although he continued to appear in a number of European cities including Amsterdam, Brussels and London until his activities were interrupted by the Second World War. After the war he resumed his work in Europe and was especially influential in helping to establish the opera company at Covent Garden, where he was under contract between 1950 and 1953. Callas and Kleiber got off to a bad start during the preliminary preparations for VESPRI, when Callas missed an early rehearsal and incurred the wrath of Kleiber at the next rehearsal. But good relations were soon re-established after Callas pointed out that she was not in fact called for the rehearsal that she did not attend. The success of VESPRI was so great that Ghiringhelli was forced to swallow his pride. He sent Callas a congratulatory telegram, and came to Florence in person to discuss her engagement at La Scala. He duly arrived and offered her the opening night of the following season in VESPRI, as well as Norma, Constanza in IL SERAGLIO and Elisabetta in DON CARLO. Callas, determined to make the most of Ghiringhelli’s capitulation, graciously accepted the offer but also insisted that her Scala engagement should include Violetta in LA TRAVIATA. Presumably this was because Renata Tebaldi, Callas’s main popular rival and a great favourite at La Scala, had recently sung TRAVIATA there without much success and Callas wanted the opportunity to show the Scala audience her superiority in the same opera. But Ghiringhelli probably sensed why Callas wanted to sing Violetta and skilfully managed to avoid any immediate commitment to TRAVIATA as a condition of the contract. The rest, as they say, is history.
The performance of I VESPRI SICILIANI in which Callas opened the Scala season on 7 December 1951, conducted by the Scala’s then current artistic director Victor de Sabata, was a spectacular success and ushered in a glorious era for both Callas and La Scala which lasted for some seven years, during which the venerable theatre saw some of the finest performances in its entire history. The TRAVIATA that Callas demanded had to wait until 1955, but proved to be one of her very greatest triumphs in a production directed by Luchino Visconti and conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. After their collaboration in Florence in May 1951, Callas and Kleiber never performed together again. Kleiber was engaged to conduct PARSIFAL at La Scala with Callas as Kundry in May 1956, but when he died unexpectedly in January 1956, the PARSIFAL was somewhat surprisingly replaced by FEDORA under the baton of Gianandrea Gavazzeni."
- Tony Locantro
"...there is the beauty of the voice itself, black and majestic, but capable of melting to the warmest of velvet; a voice that can damn and bless within the same breath. Add to all this a magnificent sense of presence and in Boris Christoff we have a true mastersinger of our time."
- Michael Letchford, Liner Notes to HMV LP set