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Subject: Assorted NORMAs and MEDEEs of the past and present
From: Geoffrey Riggs <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Geoffrey Riggs <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 29 Jan 2018 22:02:54 -0500

text/plain (138 lines)

The other day, I was startled by some (possibly churlish?) remarks made by a 
fellow opera fan, following last Friday's PBS telecast of the Met's Norma revival 
from this past Fall, featuring Sondra Radvanovsky:

"After hearing Norma on Friday broadcast, I can only lament that Callas and 
Vickers were never paired in a recording session of Siegmund and Sieglinde, or 
Tristan and Isolde when she was in her Wagner phase. Imagine those two 
mortally committed artists together!!!! Sigh!! "

Someone then asked this guy and a whole group of us if Callas sang Wagner 
only in Italian, to which someone in my family remarked:

"Yes, that is correct. As far as I know, she only sang in three languages her 
entire life: Italian, French and English. She never sang in German, as far as I 
know (though I have a vague recollection that she once looked at Konstanze 
but never followed through). Surprisingly, I donít think there is any record of 
her ever having sung in Greek either, despite her origins, but I may be mistaken 

The fact is, it's true she only sang Wagner in Italian, yes: Isolde (her first 
professional performance outside Greece), Bruennhilde (Walkuere only) and 
Kundry (which does survive in an extant RAI b'cast). Since the extant Parsifal 
is done with cuts, it's possible that Tristan and Walkuere (in other venues) 
were the same. Isolde was closely associated with her in Italy for a while, less 
so the others, although Kundry did get some good notices, and she did it more 
than once. I admire the one Kundry we have of her, although it does sound odd 
in Italian, the cuts are not welcome, and her tenor is atrocious. Gui's 
conducting is sometimes effective, although the winds do seem to "lead" in odd 
places (just mike placement?).

It's possible her one operetta (Suppe's Boccacio in Greece) may have been 
sung in Greek. But I'm guessing that most of her Athens Opera Toscas, etc., 
were done in the original. Two items that may be exceptions(?): Tiefland and 
Fidelio. Her colleagues in both were entirely Greek, and the original language for 
both these operas is German. So they obviously were not done in Italian. Were 
they done in Greek or in German? Anyone know? Fidelio was her single greatest 
triumph in Greece, and it got her the first extra-national press attention of her 
career. That was still during WWII, and Greece was under Nazi occupation at 
the time, so maybe it was sung in German after all. The one time when I know 
for sure that she really did sing in German was at a benefit recital that she 
gave in Greece right before leaving, in which she included some German Lieder.

She did sing Konstanze in Serail, but in Italian in the early 50s. That has been 
documented, and there are extant reviews. No tape has yet surfaced. There 
were rumors about ten years ago that a tape of this had been found and that 
it was even going to be released on a commercial label (!) , but that never 
materialized, and the whole story may have been a hoax.

As for the remark (above) about Callas and Vickers, they did sing together, but 
not in Wagner. Cherubini's Medee is a masterpiece and a work given the highest 
praise possible by Brahms. Beethoven too praises Cherubini in general as the 
finest opera composer of his day. Chorley compares the Medee Act I duet 
finale, when Medee and Jason have their first bitter confrontation, to King Lear 
for its sheer dramatic power. This was the piece that Callas and Vickers did 
together, in a super-charged production by Alexis Minotis, a veteran of the 
Greek theater, one who was steeped in the original Greek classics of Aeschylus, 
Sophocles and Euripides.

Under Minotis's stage direction, this production, as heard in an audio tape of 
the Dallas opening in 1958, vindicates all the praise given both Cherubini and 
Medee. Callas and Vickers are hair-raising in that Act I finale, everything one 
could possibly wish, both vocally and dramatically. Yes, Cherubini was indeed a 
genius, and Medee is indeed a masterpiece. But it takes artists like Callas and 
Vickers to do it true justice.

To get a taste of this unique collaboration, you can go straight to that duet 
finale and hear the two of them performing this fight scored by Cherubini. It is 
not a professionally made recording, and the mike is obviously in the wings: At 
one point, Vickers almost goes off mike, and later on, it's Callas who's distant. 
But in the end it does not matter. These five minutes are a virtual master 
class: great singing, great drama, great musical preparation and leadership from 
the podium from Rescigno -- and great music. At its conclusion, the audience 
becomes an insane mob, and the immediate response is like a volcano:

For me, this whole Medee performance, notwithstanding its being in Italian 
translation, is one of the most potent candidates of all for opera recording of 
the century. It is on a par with other potent candidates like Georg Szell 
conducting Richard Tauber in Wagner's concert version of Walther's "Am stillen 
Herd", Barbirolli's "Ich sah das Kind" with Frida Leider, the whole second half of 
Goetterdaemmerung Act II under Furtwaengler with Leider and Melchior, the 
Scala Opening Night Norma from December 1955 with Callas and Simionato, or 
Litvinne's Fonotipia Acoustic of Selika's "Sur mes genoux". I'm sure I'm 
overlooking two or three really transcendent opera documents in addition, but 
this gives you an idea of the staggering level of this Medee performance 

As for this past Friday's Norma, I'm going to indulge myself and reiterate what I 
already said to another group about this new Met revival with its 
Radvanovsky/Donato/Calleja troika:

"Sad that the NY audience cannot catch the PBS repeat, since NY's Channel 13 
is only carrying the initial telecast on Friday, but not the Sunday rerun.

"I was lucky enough to catch two performances of this same Met revival in the 
house this past Fall. They were both occasions in which one had the rare 
experience of fully understanding Wagner's abiding love for this masterpiece. So 
many things can go wrong in a Norma. But this time everything came together 
for a gripping and beautiful journey.

"If you can ever get to view this, you may see why Wagner was so deeply 
struck by Bellini's genius."

-- That's what I wrote on Saturday. The only other moment in my life when I 
had this feeling of fully understanding Wagner's admiration was my first hearing 
of the tape of that Scala Opening from 1955.  I felt this newest Met revival 
was Bellini's _real_ Norma, and if this opera still left anyone nonplussed after 
Friday night, I would have to say that you have given it your best shot. So I 
wouldn't feel bad. I just want to be sure that you really have seen this telecast 
-- or heard the '55 Scala Opening -- and/or have given either this telecast (or 
an in-person performance of this same revival last Fall with the same cast) 
every chance, before you dismiss the work too casually. There are some good 
reasons why Wagner chose to conduct this piece in Riga in the 1830s.

Brava Radvanovsky -- and Bellini!

Geoffrey Riggs

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