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Luigi Cherubini

Callas in London: ‘Medea’ 1959

1959. Royal Opera House, London
In 1959 Maria Callas returned to Covent Garden in triumph in Cherubini's Medea, in which she was partnered by Jon Vickers.
Composer Luigi Cherubini
Conductor Nicola Rescigno
Singers Maria Callas, Jon Vickers
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera

Callas as Medea

Back in 2017, when such things were still permissible, Stanislavsky
Music Theatre hosted an international event in Moscow, where
composers, conductors, directors, singers and managers debated the
question: Why Opera?  I guessed that I was the only person among the
100 or so present to have heard Maria Callas live on stage. To illustrate
her impact, I spontaneously chose Cherubini’s Medea.  You may capture
a flavour of her performance at Covent Garden in 1959 from this live
recording from Music Preserved’s collection.  Listen to the coruscating
fury of her accusations against Jason in Act 1.  In the theatre, she
adopted a loping stride which ate up the stage and appeared to burn
those around her with its ferocity. But, if you imagine Callas only as a
tigress, contrast that with the vulnerability of her plea for pity from Creon
in Act 2.  Here she transfixed the audience with her stillness.  Callas
embodied the cathartic power of ancient Greek tragedy.  No-one who
witnessed any of her performances live would have dreamed of asking:
Why Opera?

By the summer of 1959, when Callas returned to Covent Garden for five
perfomances as Medea, she was at the zenith of her fame, and indeed
her notoriety. For the opening performance, her Greek shipping
magnate admirer Aristotle Onassis had secured a raft of top-price tickets
for his entourage, which turned the occasion into a society circus that
threatened to overwhelm the resuscitation after a long absence of
Cherubini’s opera. The production had been created the previous
autumn in Dallas, and its director Alexis Minotis and designer Vannis
Tsarouchis were both Greek, imparting an authenticity which appealed
to Callas’s loyalty to her ancient heritage.

On both occasions, and two years later at the arena in Epidavros and in
Milan for her final appearances at La Scala, Jason was played by Jon
Vickers, his only collaboration with Callas. He later reminisced about
the experience: ‘After the war, an enormous revolution took place in
opera because of two people: Wieland Wagner, who totally changed the
approach and emphasis on the physical aspects of stage direction, and
Maria Callas, who took her talent almost to the point of masochism to
serve her work and find its meaning. There are some who think they are
following in her shoes, but, believe me, they don’t know which direction
she was going. I not only learned a great deal about the stage from her.
I learned how the public image of an artist can be unjustly distorted. She
was a superb colleague, giving you something to work with and wanting
you to give it back. She never tried to steal the limelight or upstage
anyone. In the Dallas Medea, she showed Teresa Berganza, who was
exceedingly young and beautiful, how to act the old maid, Neris. Teresa
watched what Maria did, then made the role her own. With Neris’s aria,
Berganza stopped the show. And Maria never moved a hair or a finger
until the applause finished. That’s generosity.’

After the London Medeas, Callas gradually withdrew from the stage
which had been her lifeblood. During the rest of 1959, she gave some
concerts, recorded her second version of La gioconda, and returned to
Dallas for two performances each of Lucia and Medea. Then silence for
much of 1960, before a late summer return to Greece for Norma at
Epidavros, and a second recording of that opera, until opening La
Scala’s winter season with the rediscovery of Donizetti’s Poliuto. Her
only stage performances between 1961 and her return to Covent
Garden for Tosca in January 1964 were the 1961 Medeas in Epidavros
and Milan.

The role of Medea was a talisman for Callas over a period of ten years
from her debut with it in Florence in 1953 conducted by the veteran
Vittorio Gui, and later that year at La Scala conducted by the young
Leonard Bernstein. She repeated it in Venice in 1954 and Rome in
1955, before recording the opera commercially under Tullio Serafin in
1957. Nicola Rescigno was her sympathetic conductor for the later
performances in Dallas, London and Epidavros, but Thomas Schippers
conducted the final five performances in Milan at the end of 1962. In all,
Callas performed Medea 31 times on stage, and it remains one of her
most emblematic roles.

Nicholas Payne
June 2024

Extracts from Harold Rosenthal’s review of performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on 17 and 27 June 1959

Although Medea may not be musically of the front rank, it is a near masterpiece of the second rank, and contains, especially in the last act where Cherubini is more concise and dramatic, some remarkable pages.  Repeated hearings add to one’s respect for the opera; and repeated hearings in the theatre, a broadcast and numerous playings of the complete recording have certainly increased my admiration for the piece…

…Callas recreates a part in her own highly personal terms of singing and acting, unique in our day…

…It has been suggested in some quarters that Callas’s ‘classical tragedy’ approach to the title role was too great for the music…Or is this kind of reasoning perhaps something peculiar to our own time…

…When a great singing actress appears, we cannot begin to separate the vocal and dramatic parts of their performance; they are interwoven and depend one on the other…

…a hundred subtle small details of voice, face and gesture, that only repeated attendance at her performances would reveal.  Such moments as the emphasis on the last word in the phrase ‘Perchè Giasone è mio!’, during her first colloquy with Creon; the seductive tone employed in ‘Ricordi il giorno tu, la prima volta Quando m’hai veduta?’, in her first pleading with Jason; the look of hatred and triumph on her face as Jason concedes her request to see the children, changing to a smile of gratitude as Jason turns his face to her; the limp extended hand, as she leans on Neris, stiffening and speaking volumes as Creon grants her that one fateful extra day; the way the hands clawed at the stomach when her maternal emotions momentarily gain the upper hand; and the whole of that last great act, where she grovels, storms, rages, and has to tackle some of the most fiendishly difficult and exacting vocal music ever written.


I said above that in a performance such as this one should not divorce voice from acting; but as there are some people who want to know how she sang, let me say that her voce was in better shape than last summer, that on the first night she obviously was trying not to make any ugly sounds at all; that her soft singing was often extremely beautiful; that her singing of the Gluck-Mozart like final scene was exciting and electrifying.  The penultimate performance on June 27 found her in even better voice.

Jon Vickers sang Jason with ringing tone and made a rugged hero.  Fiorenza Cossotto as Neris revealed a beautiful and large mezzo, reminiscent of the pre-war Stignani.  She sang her big aria with almost too generous a tone.  Nicola Zaccaria was not really at his best – he has sounded better both as Oroveso and the Count in Sonnambula.  Joan Carlyle’s Glauce was well enough sung, but she failed to arouse our sympathies for the situation in which she found herself…

…But it really was Callas’s evening.


Extracts taken from Opera Diary in the August 1959 edition of OPERA, reprinted by kind permission of the Editor.



Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)


Track 1:  Act 1

Track 2: Act 2

Track 3: Act 3




This performance was recorded live from the Royal Opera House from a performance relayed by the BBC on 30 June 1959.

Re-mastering was done by Roger Beardsley

The recording is from the Harewood Collection in Music Preserved.

  • Nicola Zaccaria
    Creon, King of Corinth
  • Joan Carlyle
    Glauce, Daughter of Creon
  • Jon Vickers
    Jason, Leader of the Argonauts
  • Maria Callas
    Medea, former wife of Jason
  • Fiorenza Cossotto
    Neris, Servant of Medea
  • David Allen
    The Captain of the Guard
  • Mary Wells
    First Maidservant
  • Elizabeth Rust
    Second Maidservant
  • The Covent Garden Opera Chorus
  • The Covent Garden Opera Orchestra
  • Nicola Rescigno

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