Giuseppe Verdi – La traviata
CAST: Violetta Valéry: Maria Callas; Alfredo Germont: Giuseppe Di Stefano; Giorgio Germont: Ettore Bastianini; Flora Bervoix: Silvana Zanolli; Annina: Luisa Mandelli; Gastone: Giuseppe Zampieri; Barone Douphol: Arturo La Porta; Marchese D’Obigny: Antonio Zerbini; Dottor Grenvil: Silvio Maionica; Giuseppe: Franco Ricciardi
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala
Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor
EMI, 1955 (1997)
This is one of the legendary performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece La traviata and perhaps the most famous one. Live recorded at the prestigious Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 28th May 1955, the sumptuous production by Luchino Visconti with Maria Callas in the title role and with Carlo Maria Giulini’s conduction has been unluckily only audio recorded, with the loss of the visual elements that must have been outstanding both for setting and acting. Moreover – and even more unsuitable – the present Traviata has been badly mastered in the Nineties, so that it is sometime difficult to enjoy the outstanding singing of one of the leading sopranos of the past without being disturbed by background and orchestral noises.
The 1955 Traviata
After you win the aversion for this horrible sound, anyway, there are many things to enjoy in this Traviata, especially for what concern the protagonist. This is Maria Callas’s second recorded Traviata after the one she sang in Turin less than two years before. That recording was made under Gabriele Santini’s conduction and with a cast that was definitely inferior to the one that surrounded Callas at La Scala, even though both Giuseppe Di Stefano (Alfredo) and Ettore Bastianini (Germont père) have some flaws next to their undisputable qualities.
In 1955, Callas is at the height of her vocal splendour and of her beauty. From her previous Traviata, she has lost considerable weight for the alleged purpose to resemble Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and her new silhouette had considerable influence on Visconti’s choice (a choice that was not immune from criticism) to change the period of the story to the end of the 19th century because, as he explained «Maria would look wonderful in costumes of that era. […] For my direction, I sought to make her a little of Duse, a little of Rachel, a little of Bernhardt. But more than anyone, I thought of Duse». The accounts of Callas’s acting were unanimously praising and it is still possible to judge a little her interpretation from the many photographs taken that evening.
More significantly, the La Scala Traviata reveals that Callas has improved since the last recording. She still has her weak low register that from time to time compromises the perfection of a sentence, but her middle register is far more sound and her agility is smoother, so that the duet with Alfredo in Act I and Sempre libera have a kind of lightness that they did not have before.
More than virtuosic passages, Callas is riveting for her introspection, for her intimate and deep portrait of Violetta. In the first act, Callas’s Violetta is a coquette, perhaps even an egoistic courtesan interested only in her own pleasure and amusement, as the “worldliness” of her heroine’s replies to Alfredo and to the Baron reveal. Only in the thoughtful recitative before Sempre libera a more human, affectionate creature finally appears.
In the second act, the loving woman prevails over the courtesan and Callas’s passionate élans are countless even if you exclude her desperate, passionate Amami, Alfredo, which is the most manifest and overwhelming expression of love ever heard in an opera house. The entire duet with Giorgio Germont reflects the singing of a tender and frail woman who has entirely devoted herself to the man she loves. As for the rest, you have an embarrassingly wide choice among the nuances that Callas uses to give prominence to her resentment for Germont’s bad opinion of her (listen to her indignant «Donna son io, signore»), then to her surprise when she discovers the existence of Alfredo’s sister («Di due figli!») and finally to her growing desperation in «Non sapete quale affetto», in the disconsolate «Dite alla giovine» and in the anguishing «Morrò, la mia memoria».
The scene in Flora’s house in the second half of the act is rendered by Callas in the same, tragic way.
The last act is the act of the dying, hopeless woman and Callas sings it almost entirely in a whisper, where only the desperate «or tutto finì» at the end of Addio, del passato and the outburst of Grand Dio, morir sì giovine are exceptions. Not even the final «O gioia!» is a real exclamation, as it is immediately repressed by her fatal weakness. Definitely, Callas is one of the most perfect, of the most complete performers that Violetta has ever had.
Giuseppe Di Stefano and Ettore Bastianini
The same cannot be said for her two distinguished colleagues, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Ettore Bastianini. Di Stefano is by nature an ideal Alfredo: impulsive, reckless, full of «giovanile ardore», as he sings at the beginning of the second act, but vocally speaking he is not as perfect and sometimes he is inelegant and it is difficult to be sympathetic with him.
As for Bastianini, his Giorgio Germont has a wonderful, burnished baritone where there is always a certain animosity which is suitable to the character, but overall he offers a routine and cold performance, warmed just a little by some accent of Di Provenza il mare, il suol. For the rest of the time, Bastianini’s only concern seems that to sing well, politely as much as he can, but in the most detached way.
Carlo Maria Giulini
Conductor Carlo Maria Giulini is not at his best. To some really outstanding passages where pathos and transport are clearly manifest, there are others which are more or less dull. His choice of times has been often criticized, but more than slowness itself (that sometimes allows Callas to phrase with remarkable results) it is the insipidness that that slowness creates what really spoils the present Traviata.