Maria Callas was the greatest singing actress of the 20th century. And her greatest role was Violetta, the tragic courtesan of Verdi's Opera *La Traviata*.
But her mature interpretation of the role was never recorded for posterity in the studio. For, very early in her career, before her interpretation had matured, and before she had earned world-wide fame, she participated in a recording of *La Traviata* made (in terrible sound, with provincial forces) by a small Italian record company - and her contract forbade her to record the role again for any competing company for some period of years.
So at the peak of her career, in the mid 1950's, while she recorded all of her other great roles for EMI in much better sound with great artists like the conductor Tullio Serafin, the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano and the baritone Tito Gobbi at her side, she was barred from recording her greatest role of all.
In 1955, Serafin, di Stefano & Gobbi, wishing to preserve their own interpretations for posterity and despairing of any chance of freeing Callas from her contract, made their own recording of *La Traviata* for EMI with the well-meaning but sadly over-parted soprano Antonietta Stella in the title role - a recording that most opera fanatics prefer to forget.
Callas, in true *diva* fashion, never forgave them for what she saw as a betrayal, and vowed that she would never again record the role of Violetta - even after her contract ran out. And she kept her vow.
That's Act I. On to Act II, Scene i:
Though Callas never again recorded the role of Violetta in the studio, in whole or in part, she continued to perform it - with ever greater power and insight - on the stage. And it was the custom of some of the world's great opera houses to record their performances - not for commercial release, but for broadcast, or for archival purposes. So when it became clear that there would never be a studio recording of "La Callas" in *La Traviata*, the opera fanatics of the world set about searching for tapes of her live performances in the role.
They came up with several. But there was one that soon became legendary: the tape of the opening night of *La Traviata* at the Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos in Lisbon, Portugal, on 27th March, 1958 - soon to become known as "The Lisbon Traviata."
It would be too much to say that everything came together, here. The orchestra and conductor were only just acceptable, the sound was unpleasantly muffled - as if it were a copy made on bad equipment, and, to make matters worse, the recording microphone seemed to have been located in the prompter's box - 'cause one could hear his every prompt with startling clarity.
But Callas was on fire. And her romantic foil, Alfredo Germont, sung by the great Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus at the outset of his career, was on fire too. For both of them, it was a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
So copies of the tape spread like a disease among the afore-mentioned opera fanatics of the world. Disputes over who had the best copy would occasionally lead to ugly words in the dress circle and fist-fights in the loggia.
Eventually, "the Lisbon Traviata" became so notorious that Terrence McNally wrote a play about the phenomenon, entitled - what else? - *The Lisbon Traviata*.
* * * * *
Act II, Scene ii:
In due course, after Callas' sadly early death in 1977, her usual recording company, EMI, tracked down the best copy of the tape they could find, spruced it up as best they could, and gave "the Lisbon Traviata" it's long-delayed "official" release on CD.
Can you say "disappointment?"
Now that "the Lisbon Traviata" was no longer a collector's rarity, but a commercial release, critics zeroed in on its weaknesses: the mediocre conductor and orchestra, the annoying prompter, and, above all, the dull and muffled sound. So dull and so muffled, in fact, that it was hard to tell whether Callas & Krauss were giving the performance of their lives, or whether the opera fanatics of the world were merely imagining it (as they are wont to do) through the sonic haze.
So that's when the legend might have died - had it not come out that EMI's release, like all of the best pirate versions that had been circulating for years, was, indeed, based on a mere copy of the original tape - i.e., a copy made for Alfredo Kraus, at his request, by Portuguese National Radio - and subsequently leaked by him to the public.
Which led to the obvious question: whatever happened to the original tape? and did it sound any better than the copy?
The prevailing rumor had it that the original tape was lost forever.
* * * * *
Fast-forward to 1997: Portuguese National Public Radio faces an emergency situation: their scheduled broadcast of that year's opening night of *La Traviata* cannot go forward, because the tape is spoilt. So they send somebody into the vaults in search of a substitute, and - truth is stranger than fiction - said somebody comes up with...the original tape of *The Lisbon Traviata*.
They broadcast it. And the sound turns out to be not just a little better than the "official" release...it's a *lot* better. The orchestra and conductor are still only just acceptable, and the prompter is still an annoyance - but the voices of the principals ring out heroically, as if a scrim had been removed from between them and the listener.
Well, needless to say, pandemonium ensues. Twenty years after Callas' death, the ranks of her admirers may be thinning and aging, but they remain a force to be reckoned with in the operatic world - and, with one voice, they clamor for a public release of the new (or, rather, old) tape. Portuguese National Public Radio, though reluctant to get into the CD business, eventually yields to the pressure, arranging for a limited edition of 2000 copies, available only at a reception desk in their offices. When word gets out, buyers flock to Lisbon from the four corners of the opera world, and it sells out in a matter of days.
Alas, no sooner do they get the discs home and into their CD players, than the complaints begin: the equalization has been drastically mismanaged! Sure, the voices can be heard more clearly than on the "official" release. But the mid-range is thin, while the upper range is strident - and if there's anything Callas' voice doesn't need, it's extra stridency in her upper range. For some hyper-critical listeners, the results are a painful - even unlistenable - distortion of the voice they knew and loved. Better to stick with the dull old EMI recording, they conclude.
* * * * *
And now, fast forward, once more, to 2008: the golden age of internet piracy. On a certain music-sharing site, which shall remain nameless, a certain regular poster, who shall also remain nameless, shows up with a post headed: "The CALLAS - KRAUS Lisbon 1958 TRAVIATA in best sound from a new source" - followed by a description that includes the rather mysterious words: "a private, 1st generation copy of the original tape, CORRRECTY EQ and PITCHED and don't ask me for my sources :-0." Followed by the usual Rapidshare links.
Well, yeah, sure, I said to myself: some Callas Queen has monkeyed around with the sound on one of the usual issues and is now trying to pass it off as "a private, first generation copy of the original tape, correctly equalized and pitched." But hey - why not download it and give it a listen? You never know.
* * * * *
Well, indeed - you never know. Suffice it to say that I am now a believer - both that this recording is exactly what it claims to be, and, more importantly, that "The Lisbon Traviata" fully deserves its legendary status - something that I, like so many others, very much doubted, after my first encounter with the "official" EMI release, lo these many years ago.
In penance for my doubts, I have prepared a whole series of YouTube videos - seven (!) in all - matching all of Violetta's best bits from *La Traviata* with the vocal score, so that those so inclined can compare what Callas sings to what Verdi wrote.
Just in case there's anybody here who'd like to see/hear them all, s/he/it should start with the Act I Brindisi:
...and take it from there by clicking on my video response to each video.
But if you'd rather sample just one, make it the Scena Ultima, where La Callas is at her most brilliant, despite being worn out after a strenuous night's singing:
If, on the other hand, you'd rather not hear any fat ladies singing - well, then I don't suppose that you've made it this far - have you? HAVE YOU??? YOU GODLESS PHILISTINE!!!