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È tardi!...the Lisbon Traviata: Scena Ultima?

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.

* * * * *

Act III:

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.


* * * * *

Scena Ultima:

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!!!

Comments (27)

I shall forthwith send this link to a friend who is an opera fan, thus covering my own philistinism. But who would have thought opera stories could be so exciting?

I saw a performance of this at the Sarasota Opera House (now closed) when I was young. Stories like this are what keep this artform alive. : )

Many, many thanks - or should I say "mille grazie".

Riveting stuff, Steve. I'm going to send it to my mom, a pretty darn good opera singer herself.

Incidentally, do you happen to have an opinion on which recording of Rigoletto is best?

The sound is almost shockingly good. And the supporting voices aren't bad either.

When I was a kid in the mid-60s my grandmother had an LP set of La Traviata, which was one of the few records of hers that I wasn't allowed to touch (apparently it was an expensive set). I don't remember if it was Callas or not, but I do remember that it was on the London label.

The other LP set that I remember of hers, and that I wish I still had, was called "60 Years." It was an RCA Red Seal 2 or 3 LP set of famous RCA recordings from the early 20th century up through about 1960 (hence the title). The set's opening track was Caruso singing "Pagliacci," and it ran the gamut from classical to popular -- Belafonte's "Day-O" was on there, as was Paul Whiteman's "Whispering."

Myself, I'm not a fan of opera, as I don't really care for the solo human voice in the classical style, with vibrato and all. About the closest I come is something like Finzi's "Intimations of Immortality" or Elgar's "Sea Pictures," and even then, a lot depends on the singer. I find "wobbly" vibratos really annoying.

Just a comment to DML, the Sarasota Opera House in not closed. It is alive and kicking (after a major renovation in 2008). Coincidentally, at the end of the October, they are performing, La traviata.

It's great to hear this Traviata in much better sound. It is a shame that Callas never had the chance to remake her early studio effort.

Hmm, then why was there this huge "save the Sarasota Opera House" thing that had appeared to fail?

We need a second epilogue. I'd be interested in learning how this new copy is being received critically. Is it too soon to know?

The Youtube videos are nice (or at least, I assume they are---I'm not where I can listen at the moment). But what would a fellow have to do to get his hands on the full recording?

Titus - thanks for asking.

The site where I originally found this was very dubious - absolutely infested with all sorts of malware, just dying to get an opening to your computer.

So I'll just give you the Rapidshare links:


You will need WinRAR to unlock the files.

The password is: By-Titta-Ruffo

What you will get are four single-track .wav files, corresponding to the four obvious divisions of *La Traviata*. It's a rather unusual format - I have yet to find a program that can burn it to CD. But iTunes can play it &/or convert it just fine.

Good luck!

Albert - so far, at least, I think that this is flying under the critical radar - so to speak. So I guess you'll just have to take my word for it.


But, more seriously: I titled this post as I did (È tardi!) because *it's too late* anyway - fifty years after the performance, thirty years after Callas' death...

How many of us are left who still care?

Rob G: Well, let's see - mid '60's, London label...

Definitely not Callas. Probably Joan Sutherland's first recording, with Pritchard conducting and Bergonzi as Alfredo.

From what you write, here, I can only conclude that you are an opera fanatic waiting to happen. I mean, if you can sit still for Elgar's "Sea Pictures," then there's simply no telling where you might end up!

Bill Luse - "shockingly good" was precisely my own first reaction.

And the sound on YouTube has improved a lot, lately, so I'm very happy with the sound on my videos.

But it's still very much second best, compared to the original. Please see above.


OK, yeah - so ask for me my opinion on the best recording of *Rigoletto,* as if that were some sort of easy question!

But I'm a glutton for punishment, so I'll give you an unequivocal answer:


"From what you write, here, I can only conclude that you are an opera fanatic waiting to happen."

LOL. We'll see.

My goal in life is to hear Lisa Gerrard since Gorecki's 3rd. If I ever win the lottery I will commission it myself. She's got one of the best female voices on the planet, IMO.

Rob G - Gorecki's 3rd Symphony is a very beautiful piece. But I must admit that I can hardly imagine anyone improving over Dawn Upshaw in Zinman's recording. So I guess Lisa Gerrard must have quite the voice!

BTW: just in case there's any misunderstanding: I absolutely love Elgar's "Sea Pictures." But that's seriously hardcore stuff ;^)

Titus - you're most welcome.

My favorite recording of Gorecki's 3rd is the one on Naxos with Zofia Kilanowicz as soloist. I like her better than Upshaw -- her vibrato isn't nearly as deep as Upshaw's and thus her performance sounds far less operatic, which, in my opinion, suits the piece better.

Here's Lisa Gerrard at one of her finest moments. Audio is pretty good, but the video seems to be taped from TV -- the audio & video are slightly out of phase. There are other live versions of this song on youtube but the audio isn't as good.


Rob G - thanks for the link. A very striking voice: she sounds almost baritonal in her lower register!

My bitchy inner opera-queen wants to know what she can do without amplification - but my rational outer self says that performance with a microphone is it's own genre & must be judged as such.

I'd forgotten that she was with "Dead Can Dance."

"Titus - you're most welcome."

Yes, thank you exceedingly! I do most of my blog reading via an aggregator on the fly, so I only get back around to checking the comments every few days or so---otherwise I would have been back to say "thank you" for the links much sooner.

Brilliant Steve, Top Hole

Sorry, Titus - I was in a bad mood, the other day. I hope the links worked for you.

Hi, does anyone know why the 4th part (last act of traviata) isn't working? I managed to get the first 3 but can't get the last one. Can anyone please help? thanks a million.

May I use a bit of your article on my blog if I cite you as the resource?

The last download link is no longer available. I know that this is an old post, but could you please upload this release again? I can't find it anywhere else.
Thanks a lot!

Looks like I can extract the first 3 files even if the 4th can't be downloaded. So the first two acts are ok. Very good sound!!
Looks like only the last act, file 04.wav is missing. Probably you don't have the original archives, but can you please compress the last file and upload it once again? Or maybe someone else that downloaded it still has it? I'll convert them to flac and upload them on a torrent site to avoid future download problems.
Thank again.
(Sorry for my English)

A warm hello to the community !

Crying for a copy of the CD edition of the 1958 Lisbon Traviata from the original tapes released by RDP ? Now you can, read on !

As the lucky owner of one of the just 2.000 copies put in circulation, i offer opera lovers to download a lossless (FLAC) version of this fabulous edition.

Apart fom the soundtracks, the download also includes La Traviata Vocal and Orchestral Scoresheets in PDF format, together with a text file relating the interesting story of this fabulous edition.

But first a few words about this release

Unlike EMI's 1980 commercial release of irritatingly poor quality, this legendary CD edition of the 'Lisbon Traviata' was issued by Radio Difusao Portuguesa (RDP) in December 2000 from its original source tape, with no commercial intentions. The true glory of RDP's Lisbon Traviata remains its sound, limpid and crystalline. Though its source is monophonic, it reveals to the listener the completeness of what took place on the Sao Carlos stage on the evening of March 27th, 1958, capturing even the subtlest details of Kraus and La Divina's operatic genius.

Much has been said about the detailed web of vocal inflections in which Callas created her characters. Her Violetta breathes through the subtle embroidery of vocal colours. One only needs to listen to the courtesan's entrance in the first act in order to witness the first sublime strokes made by the Greek soprano. A willful "lo voglio?". A skeptical smile in "Scherzate", the refined irony in "Voi, Barone, non foste altrettanto", followed by delicate dynamic contrasts in the famous "Brindisi". Thanks to the superior sound quality of RDP's Traviata, listeners can feast and be marveled by many more examples of Callas miraculous artistry. In previous releases, those same examples are muffled and obscured, seem diluted and almost disappear. To paraphrase La Divina, when comparing RDP's reissue and previous bootleg editions, the differences are dramatic as champagne and water.

At the conclusion of the recording, a bonus track reveals a message from Maria Callas dedicated to the portuguese audience in a bonus track, taped in anticipation of her performance.

Principal Roles

Maria Callas - Violetta Valéry, a courtesan, soprano,
Alfredo Kraus - Alfredo Germont, a young aristocrat, tenor,
Mario Sereni - Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, baritone,
Laura Zanini - Flora Bervoix, Violetta's friend, mezzo-soprano,
Maria Cristina De Castro - Annina, Violetta's maid, soprano,
Piero De Palma - Gastone, Alfredo's friend, tenor,
Alvaro Malta - Barone Douphol, Violetta's lover, baritone,
Vito Susca - Marchese d'Obigny, bass,
Alessandro Maddalena - Dottore Grenvil, bass,
Manuel Leitao - Commissioner, bass,


Orquestra Sinfónica Nacional Portuguesa (Portugal's National Symphony Orchestra)
Director : Franco Ghione

Disc 1

01. Preludio (4:19)

Acto I

02. Acto 1 - Dell'invito trascorsa è gia l'ora (5:19)
03. Acto 1 - Libiamo ne' lieti calici (3:08)
04. Acto 1 - Che è ciò (2:22)
05. Acto 1 - Un di felice, eterea (4:14)
06. Acto 1 - Ebben? che diavol fate? (3:04)
07. Acto 1 - È strano! è strano! (4:33)
08. Acto 1 - Follie! Follie! Delirio vano è questo (5:55)

Acto II (1° cena)

09. Acto 2 - Lunge da lei per me non v'ha diletto (1:55)
10. Acto 2 - De' miei bollenti spiriti (3:42)
11. Acto 2 - Alfredo? (0:48)
12. Acto 2 - Madamigella Valéry? (3:04)
13. Acto 2 - Pura siccome un angelo (1:28)
14. Acto 2 - Ah! comprendo (5:54)
15. Acto 2 - Ah! Dite alla giovine si bella e pura (5:49)
16. Acto 2 - Morrò! (4:26)
17. Acto 2 - Dammi tu forza, o cielo! (6:13)
18. Acto 2 - Di Provenza il mar, il suol (5:54)

Total time : 01:12:06

Disc 2

Acto II (2° cena)

01. Acto 2 - Avrem lieta di maschere la notte (7:12)
02. Acto 2 - Alfredo! Voi! (4:30)
03. Acto 2 - Invitato a qui seguirmi (4:12)
04. Acto 2 - Di sprezzo degno sè stesso rende (1:59)
05. Acto 2 - Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core (4:54)

Acto III

06. Acto 3 - Prelúdio (3:56)
07. Acto 3 - Annina? (4:52)
08. Acto 3 - 'Teneste la promessa...' Addio del passato... (5:31)
09. Acto 3 - Largo al quadrupede (0:32)
10. Acto 3 - Signora... Che t'accadde (1:48)
11. Acto 3 - Parigi, o cara (6:22)
12. Acto 3 - Ah! Gran Dio! (1:48)
13. Acto 3 - Ah Violetta! (7:40)

14. Sem som (silent track) (3:00)


15. Maria Callas - Mensagem ao público português (message to the public)

Total time : 01:12:06


Now to the best part of this post: the download links (Hotfile - Total: 455 MB) !

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


- All files are virus free !
- Files are RAR archives, you need to download all of them, then uncompress with WinRar archiver and enjoy !

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