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Giuseppe Verdi

Callas in London: ‘La Traviata’ Act 2, Scene 1

1958. Royal Opera House, London
Maria Callas returned to Covent Garden in 1958 in the role of Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata
Composer Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor Nicola Rescigno
Singer Maria Callas
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera


Except for her signature Norma, La traviata was the opera which Callas performed more than any other on stage.  She gave 58 performances of Violetta Valéry in 17 different theatres between January 1951 (when she was aged 27) and November 1958.  The first was under the benign tutelage of Tullio Serafin at the Teatro Comunale in Florence, and she repeated the role in Cagliari, Bergamo (with Giulini), Parma, Catania, the Verona Arena, Venice and Rome, and as far afield as Mexico City, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, before recording it for Cetra in Turin in September 1953.  The Cetra set finds her in healthy voice but with routine singers in the other roles and limp conducting from Gabriele Santini.  Its more serious downside is that an exclusivity clause in the contract prevented her from re-recording it for EMI’s Teatro alla Scala series with superior forces while the role remained in her repertory.  That makes all the more precious the off-the-air live performances made during the second half of the 1950s.

The breakthrough production opened on 28 May 1955 at La Scala Milan, where during that and the subsequent season it received 21 performances.  It benefited from an unusually intense rehearsal period under the direction of Carlo Maria Giulini and Luchino Visconti, who crafted a wholly rethought interpretation, within the sumptuous belle époque designs of Lila de Nobili.  Giulini explained: ‘In performance, she sang and acted with an ease as though she were in her own home, not in the theatre, for the audience had to believe everything she did.  She simply possessed this unique magnetism.  Our conception was that love was a thing Violetta had never known, even something she shied away from.  She realised that if she fell in love, she would lose her lucidity, her cold capacity to play with life… For me, this Traviata will always remain a special memory.  Long before I began musical rehearsals with the soloists, chorus, and orchestra, before Visconti began his staging with the cast, we worked alone with Maria over an extended period.  We three arrived at her characterisation with a complete rapport between words, music, and action.  Each of Maria’s gestures Visconti determined solely on musical values.  We concentrated much attention on Violetta’s state of mind, trying to penetrate the psyche of this fragile feminine creature.  In doing this, we discovered a thousand delicate nuances… I had conducted a single Traviata with her four years before at Bergamo – my first experience in the theatre.  She came at the last minute as a replacement for Renata Tebaldi.  We scarcely had time to go over the score with a piano before the performance.  Of course, Maria sang magnificently – she was immense then – but her Violetta at La Scala was something else.  Very interior, so tender.  As she, Visconti, and I went step by step through our preparations, she found new colours in her voice, new values in her musical expression, all through a new understanding of Violetta’s innermost being…. She was one of the few performers I have known for whom the last performance was as important, as fresh, as exciting as the first.  With Maria, I assure you the eighteenth Traviata was as engrossing and intense as the premiere… You felt her inspiration not only in the big moments, the most famous arias and duets, but also when you heard her call the name of her maid in a recitative.  It could break your heart.’

The first night at La Scala, the only performance at which Giuseppe Di Stefano sang Alfredo, was broadcast, and may be found in various formats, including a belated reissue by EMI in a gesture to atone for their missed opportunity in 1955, when their commercial recording cast Antonietta Stella as Violetta alongside Di Stefano and Gobbi conducted by Callas’s mentor Serafin.  EMI had also issued, in rather better sound, the live performance from Teatro São Carlos in Lisbon from March 1958, with the young Alfredo Kraus as Alfredo and conducted by Franco Ghione.  But the Covent Garden performance from later that summer represents the last chance to hear Callas in her prime (she was 34 at the time) in one of her greatest roles.

Then aged 13, I was lucky enough to attend one of the later in the series of five performances from a box in the Balcony tier, which offered a sideways but close view of the action.  The staging was a revival of an old Tyrone Guthrie production, no match for Visconti at La Scala, but Callas’s experience and presence galvanised the other performers.  I recall, as if it were yesterday, the frisson of expectation of her opening greeting to her guests: ‘Flora, amici, la notte che resta’.  This black-gowned courtesan had a dazzling smile in public but, when the party was over, her shoulders drooped with exhaustion.  She had no truck with the embarrassing coughing affected by some Violettas to illustrate her consumption.  Her fragility was conveyed by the colours of her voice and, on occasion, by a chilling stillness.  When Alfredo threw his winnings at her in Act 2 Scene 2, she froze like a statue.  With death approaching in Act 3, she dared to conclude ‘Addio del passato’, the final ‘or tutto fini,’ pianissimo so that the voice cracked.  Yet for ‘Gran Dio, morir si giovane’, she summoned superhuman strength to stride across the stage while holding on to the initial ‘Ah’ for what seemed like an eternity.

For many people, including Giulini and Visconti, the core of Traviata lies in the Act 2 duet between Violetta and the elder Germont.  Giulini reminisced: ‘The brilliance with which Callas had depicted the courtesan’s selfish desire for pleasure in the first act made all the more moving her transformation into a woman consumed by love in the second.  This contrast of emotions is what Maria, Luchino and I had sought during our long rehearsals.  Callas, using every vocal, musical, and dramatic device at her command, fully revealed Violetta’s capacity to give, her infinite ability to dedicate herself to another – even to the point of making a complete sacrifice of herself, of leaving the only true love she had ever known.  It is incredible how, during this long duet, Callas drew an unending line of differing moods and feelings.’

Music Preserved’s recording of this scene, with the sterling Mario Zanasi as Germont père, enables the listener to chart the progress from Violetta’s initial dignified defiance through impassioned argument and pleading to eventual capitulation and resigned despair.  The turning point is ‘Dite alla giovane’, which Callas begins with a prolonged soft ‘Ah’ at the single moment when the whole story turns.  She bowed her head and began with a thread of tone so quiet that you were amazed it filled the theatre.  The moment was so intimate and she scarcely seemed to be singing, yet everyone heard.  What an audio recording cannot capture is the infinitely poignant figure writing the fateful letter breaking off the relationship.  But it does encompass the desperate outpouring of love, ‘Amami, Alfredo’, to the returning and uncomprehending Cesare Valletti, whose pliant and juicy tenor tops and tails the scene.

Callas’s Violetta combines the extremes of strength and vulnerability.  66 years after the event, it remains one of the miracles of opera.

Nicholas Payne                                                                                                    
May 2024

This recording is taking from a radio relay by the BBC made from the Royal Opera House on June 20 1958.

It is from the Tolansky-Tschaikov Collection at Music Preserved.

  • Maria Callas
  • Cesare Valletti
  • Mario Zanasi

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