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Callas in London: ‘Norma’ 1952

1952. Royal Opera House, London
Maria Callas's sensational first appearance at Covent Garden, in the title role of Norma in 1952.
Conductor Vittorio Gui
Singers Maria Callas, Ebe Stignani
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera

CALLAS’S FIRST LONDON NORMA

Bellini’s Norma was the role which defined Maria Callas as an artist more than
any other. She first learned it shortly before her 25 th birthday in 1948, and its
style was in stark contrast to the parts she had been singing earlier that year:
Turandot; Leonora in Forza del destino; Isolde; and Aida. The invitation to sing
Norma originated with the conductor Tullio Serafin, who persuaded the
incoming director of the Teatro Comunale in Florence, Francesco Siciliani, to
hear the ungainly Greek soprano who was on the point of abandoning her
Italian career. She auditioned with Elvira’s ‘Qui la voce’, plus cabaletta, from
Puritani, accompanied by Serafin at the piano. Siciliani was so impressed that
he replaced the previously announced Butterfly with Norma to open the
season. Callas learned the role in less than a month.

Callas went on to sing Norma more than any other role in her repertory, from
1948 up to her retirement from the stage in 1965, a total of 84 stage
performances. After the initial two performances in Florence, she introduced
it to the Teatro Colón Buenos Aires in 1949; then in 1950 repeated it in Venice,
Rome, Catania (Bellini’s birthplace) and Mexico City; Palermo, São Paulo, Rio
de Janeiro, and again Catania, followed in 1951. At the end of that year, Callas
inaugurated the season at La Scala Milan for the first time as Elena in Vespri
siciliani; then confirmed her ascendency at Italy’s premier opera house with
nine performances of Norma in early 1952. It was the role chosen for her
Covent Garden debut at the end of that year, the impact of which established
both her reputation in London (and beyond) and the standing of Bellini’s
masterpiece in serious critical esteem. So great was the success that she
returned for further Normas at Covent Garden the following summer of 1953;
and again for two performances in 1957, the second of which I attended with
an on-the-day standing pass at the back of the Stalls Circle.

Callas made two commercial recordings of Norma, both conducted by Serafin:
the first in 1954 and the second in 1960, shortly after two historic
performances in the ancient arena of Epidavros, which appeared to signal her
farewell to the role. Yet, after the famous return to the stage in 1964 for Tosca
at Covent Garden, she chose Norma for her final staged production at the Paris
Opéra in 1965. I visited Paris for one of those performances and remember
the voice as tentative at first, frail at times and lacking the once fearless acuti
at the end of Act 1, but warming to the task in Act 2 and leading the final
ensemble with the reproach to Pollione ‘Qual cor tradisti’ and with a heart-
rending plea for her children, ‘Deh, non volerli vittime’, which rolled back the
years of vocal wear-and-tear to reveal an ideal of timeless beauty.
Music Preserved’s live performance from twelve and a half years earlier
captures Callas at a turning point in her meteoric career, when her large and
healthy instrument aligned with an innate musicality and ferocious work ethic
to commanding effect. The physical and vocal slimming was a couple of years
ahead, as were the collaborations with Giulini, Karajan and Bernstein, Visconti
and Zeffirelli, which were to refine her art. What you hear is raw Callas, and
the effect is visceral.

The opening cavatina, ‘Casta diva’, is a fearsome test for any soprano. Callas
used to sing it with her arms cradled, head slightly tilted, as in a reverie of
communication with another, sacred world. She may lack the centred
evenness and poise of Rosa Ponselle (a singer whom Callas venerated), but she
colours her voice with a veiled quality which is uniquely haunting. Once you
have heard her dreamy melismata, you cannot forget them. The duets with
Adalgisa combine the old-school even emission of Ebe Stignani – listen to how
she launches ‘Mira, o Norma’ – with Callas’s poignantly vulnerable response –
‘Ah perché, perché la mia costanza’ – to mesmerising effect. Callas’s
controlled fury in the duet with the captured Pollione – ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’
– sweeps over the bar lines; yet she tames her power for the confession of
guilt – ‘So io!’ – and the pleas for forgiveness which so overwhelmed me in
Paris more than a decade later.

These 1952 performances were the only production on which Callas worked
with Vittorio Gui, who pioneered the pre-WW2 Rossini revival and was a strong
advocate of Bellini, as later evidenced when he conducted Joan Sutherland’s
first Puritani at Glyndebourne in 1960, a fulfilment of her early Clothilde here.
But, above all, this Norma belongs to Callas. She identified with the heroine’s
conflict between her sacred mission and her tortured personal life, and set her
stamp on the role for eternity.

Nicholas Payne
June 2024

Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835)

Norma

Track 1: Sinfonia

Track 2: Act 1, Scene 1, Part 1

Track 3: Act 1, Scene 1, Part 2

Track 4: Act 1, Scene 2

Track 5: Act 2, Scene 1

Track 6: Act 2, Scene 2

Track 7: Act 2, Scene 3

This recording is taken from a live relay from the Royal Opera House on November 18 1952.

It is in the Wade Collection of Music Preserved.

  • Maria Callas
    Norma
  • Ebe Stignani
    Adalgisa
  • Mirto Picchi
    Pollione
  • Giacomo Vaghi
    Oroveso
  • Joan Sutherland
    Clotilde
  • Paul Asciak
    Flavio
  • The Covent Garden Chorus
  • The Covent Garden Orchestra
  • Vittorio Gui
    Conductor

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