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'Maria Callas Live' Celebrates The Astonishing Range Of A Legendary Soprano


This is FRESH AIR. The career of soprano Maria Callas was relatively short. She died in 1977 at the age of 53, and most of her commercial studio recordings were made in little over a decade. But her performances onstage were legendary, and many of them turned up on pirated recordings taped from radio broadcasts or in the opera house. Now Warner Classics has released an entire box set of these live recordings. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.


MARIA CALLAS: (As Floria Tosca, singing in Italian).

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Maria Callas was lucky she lived when she did. Her legacy is secure because almost every role she sang was recorded. Her astonishing range encompassed 18th century operas by Gluck and Mozart, up to Puccini's unfinished "Turandot" in 1926. She excelled in Verdi and Wagner and recorded an unforgettable "Carmen." But maybe her most significant achievement was in the early 19th century bel canto tradition of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini in which she transformed flighty coloratura vocal exercises into passages of a heartbreaking poignance. No opera singer seems to have cared more about connecting musical notes to words and complex feelings.

From early in her career, recordings of her live performances, often in abysmal sound, kept trickling out, reassuring her admirers that her extraordinary gift was not merely manufactured by recording engineers. Now Warner Classics has released a whole box set of her live performances - 20 complete operas all remastered, plus videos of four live concerts and, most treasurable of all, a telecast of the fully staged second act of Puccini's "Tosca" at London's Covent Garden, the only footage of her in an actual opera production. But let's start at the beginning.


CALLAS: (As Abigaille, singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: That was the young Callas in 1949 singing Abigaille's ferocious aria in Verdi's "Nabucco," the earliest complete opera for which any recording of hers exists and one of the dozen operas in this new set that she never recorded in the studio. Another is her only complete recording of a Wagner role, Kundry in "Parsifal," sung in Italian in Rome in 1950. Wagner was extremely important to Callas at the beginning of her career when her voice was huge, but she soon found a more sympathetic repertoire.

Included in this set are major Callas triumphs. She's Verdi's ruthless then fragile Lady Macbeth and the doomed but heroic Anne Boleyn in Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," a production famously staged for her by film director Luchino Visconti. She made studio recordings of arias from these operas. But some of Callas's most vivid acting came in her meaningful delivery of the dialogue between the big arias. Isn't "Hamlet" more than just the soliloquies? Here's Anne Boleyn telling her lover that she had wanted a crown but got a crown of thorns.


CALLAS: (As Anne Boleyn, singing in foreign language).

SCHWARTZ: Eight of these complete operas Callas also recorded in the studio, a couple of them twice. And it's fascinating to compare the subtle differences between her live and studio work. One of the most celebrated of the live recordings is the opening night of Bellini's "La Sonnambula" at La Scala in 1955, another legendary Visconti production sensitively led by a hotshot young conductor named Leonard Bernstein.


CALLAS: (As character, singing in foreign language).

SCHWARTZ: The 1981 cult film "Diva" is a convoluted mystery triggered by an obsessed fan who secretly records a soprano who refuses to make records. We're lucky that live recordings of Maria Callas aren't so rare and lucky again that many of them are finally so satisfyingly remastered that we can now hear the real live diva better than ever.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed "Maria Callas Live," a new box set on the Warner Classics label.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Lena Waithe, the creator of the new Showtime series "The Chi" set in the South Side of Chicago. Last year, Waithe became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. She got it for co-writing the Thanksgiving episode of Aziz Ansari's series "Master Of None," the episode in which her character comes out to her mother. It's based in part on Waithe's experience. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.