Maria Callas is the quintessential diva who changed the face of the opera in the 20th century. The repertoire in this performance shows Callas at her best, both in recital and as an operatic actress. Verdi, Rossini, and Bellini were three composers at the heart of Maria Callas's career. Her personal life was of tragic operatic dimensions and perhaps no role comes closer to the essence of Callas than Floria Tosca. The second half to the program comprises the complete Act 2 of this opera, with a brilliant performance by Tito Gobbi in the role of Scarpia. A genuine collector's item, this live recording documents Callas's Paris debut at the peak of her career. Also included is documentary footage about the performance and the opera house. 91 minutes.
The career of Maria Callas was just a bit too early and too brief to receive full and satisfying video documentation like that now being accorded to such singers as Renée Fleming and Luciano Pavarotti. This black-and-white televised recital (Callas's Paris debut) took place at the Paris Opera on December 19, 1958 when television was still in its infancy. We might wish that it had happened earlier, when her voice was in better condition, or later, when video recording technology was more advanced--so that, for example, we would not have to take the narrator's word that Callas is wearing a red dress. But this is probably the best available Callas video recording, and her fans will welcome it warmly. Visual elements were as important as the vocal dimensions in her art.
The material, carefully chosen to show Callas at her best and most versatile, includes "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma (a Callas specialty), the haunting "Miserere" scene from Verdi's Il trovatore, and the mischievous "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Barber of Seville, a fine series of stylistic contrasts in which the essential point is not pure tonal beauty but characterization and subtle expressive nuances. Others have made this music sound prettier; nobody has presented it with more impact.
But the climax of this program is its second half, a staged performance of Act II of Puccini's Tosca. This is a study in police brutality, sexual harassment, and sheer violence, psychological and physical, that has some of opera's most extreme moments--including the great aria "Vissi d'arte," the murder of the villain Scarpia, and the contemptuous dismissal flung at his corpse--"and all Rome trembled before him!" In this segment, Callas goes mano a mano with Tito Gobbi, her only equal as a singing actor during her career. They savor this material in a virtuoso performance. --Joe McLellan