I spent yesterday afternoon alternately fainting from the heat and listening to a recital from the 2015 Schwetzinger Festival by Christiane Karg and the ensemble Arcangelo, which I downloaded a while back and forgot about. It’s a pleasant mixture of Handel’s Nine German Arias and some Bach and Buxtehude concertos. I hadn’t heard the Handel in a while, and what stood out to me was the clarity and delicacy of the ensemble – or maybe it’s just hearing a different recording of these that did it. I don’t know. Karg’s performance offered some nice interpretive touches too, e.g. the energy, almost urgency of “Das Zitternde Glänzen.”
And then I did something I do not normally do: I listened to a Maria Callas recording. I have several, and they don’t see a lot of action. I think there is something in me that is deeply suspicious of a soprano who appears not to have liked Mozart (I remember one modern reviewer discussing a recording of hers in positive terms, but noting that she sang only what she liked, and much of what she liked was “junk like Tosca and Lucia.”) There is also something me that is deeply suspicious of the whole adulation of dead sopranos thing. Every time I read an older critic complaining that singers of the 1950s and 60s were profoundly superior to those performing now I just think – dude (it is usually but not always a dude), you were young then. Opera was new and exciting for you. And you got used to a certain style of performance. We folks under 40 will probably be saying the same thing about current performers decades from now.
But as far as Maria Callas is concerned, the thing is, in the 1950s at least, girlfriend could sing. The recording I listened to was one of Cherubini’s Medea, recorded live in Dallas in 1958. It’s got all the issues of something recorded live in Dallas in 1958 – that is to say, it sounds like I have cotton balls in my ears and someone has turned on the shower. Even so, Callas’s complete dramatic commitment shines through, and I admit, I find her voice interesting. Not a voice I think I could listen to for hours on end without developing a headache, but interesting. And having Jon Vickers and Teresa Berganza in the cast too doesn’t hurt either.