5 Greatest Maria Callas performances
BY Tom Volf
8th Nov 2023 Music
4 min read
Maria Callas is often referred to as "the Voice of the Century", renowned for her unique musicality, dramatic interpretations, and bel canto technique, performing to a calibre that hasn’t been seen before or since. Here, director Tom Volf selects five unmissable performances of her most legendary roles
When you watch videos of Callas, you can see how her acting brought new dramatic depth to her portrayals. My new film, Callas – Paris, 1958, is the first time audiences can see her legendary Paris debut recital for the first time entirely restored in colour, in 4K Ultra HD, and Dolby Atmos sound.
By this time, Callas had performed on all the major stages of the world and had acquired a celebrity status that rivalled Marilyn Monroe. She was at the summit of her art, and the vast range of repertoire she performed that night was living proof of her genius.
Her most anticipated Paris debut was a global sensation, broadcast live across Europe—a huge technological feat for the time—and attended by a wide range of celebrities, from Charlie Chaplin to Brigitte Bardot and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as well as the President of the French Republic himself. Why did Maria Callas generate such tremendous excitement and what made her such a unique artist?
Here are five unmissable performances of her most legendary roles, from that historical night of December 1958 in Paris, and beyond.
"Casta Diva" from Bellini’s Norma—Paris, 1958
Norma was Maria Callas’ most beloved role (she used to call it her "battle horse"), so it’s no surprise that she chose this aria to begin her famed recital on that night in December 1958. When you watch this performance, you are immediately struck by the refinement and work Callas has put into bringing this character to life.
The aria "Casta Diva" takes place in the first act of Norma, right after the title character first enters the stage. Norma is a druid priestess, torn between her role as a spiritual and political leader, and her hidden love for a Roman soldier. The "Casta Diva" is a plea to the moon goddess for peace and protection for her people.
This aria is perhaps the most quintessential of Callas’ repertoire—even those who aren’t familiar with her at all will probably have heard this timeless rendition.
"Vissi d’arte" from Puccini’s Tosca—Paris, 1958
The second half of Callas’ Paris recital was a fully-staged performance of the second act of Tosca, performed alongside Tito Gobbi, himself renowned for his legendary interpretation of Scarpia. Both Callas and Gobbi were trained in the bel canto style, and their theatrical approach and interactions with each other are mesmerising to watch.
In "Vissi d’arte," finding herself and her lover at Scarpia’s mercy, the character of Tosca muses over her darkened fate and asks god why she has been abandoned by Him. “I have lived for art, I have lived for love”, she cries. Given the tragedies in Callas’ own life and her painfully short-lived career, one could say that this aria represents Callas’ own story just as much as Tosca’s. Perhaps this is what makes her interpretation so unbelievably moving.
"Una voce poco fa" from Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia—Paris, 1958
Later that same night, Callas performed "Una voce poco fa", the best-known aria from Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia. This piece sees Rosina confessing to herself that she has fallen for Lindoro and promising to win him over against all odds—although he had better play nice, or else he’ll face the consequences!
Though Callas was best known for her dramatic interpretations, she also occasionally performed opera buffa, and it’s fascinating to see her refined acting and bel canto artistry even in a "lighter" comic role. Rosina’s character is mischievous, but her vocal lines demand incredibly virtuosic coloratura singing. Typically, Rosina would be performed by an entirely different singer to someone who could perform Norma or Tosca. The fact that Callas could perform this role to such a high standard on the very same evening as the dramatic performances above is astonishing, and a testament to her diverse range and skill.
"L’amour est un oiseau rebelle" from Bizet’s Carmen—London, 1962
Commonly known as the "Habanera", this aria from Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most famous operatic arias of all time. In her provocative entrance aria, Carmen muses on the untameable nature of love and attracts the attention of Don José, her soon-to-be lover—and her eventual doom.
Even though she never performed the entire opera Carmen on stage, Callas’ interpretation of this aria has become legendary—she embodied the femme fatale character of Carmen completely, portraying her in a completely different way from how Carmen was sung before. This excerpt from 1962 was one of the very first times Callas sang the "Habanera’ live" and is particularly special—her facial expressions evolving throughout the aria and her absolute embodiment of the character are stunning.
"Ah non credea mirarti" from Bellini’s La Sonnambula—Paris, 1965
La Sonnambula was one of Callas’ favourite operas after Norma and La Traviata, and in "Ah non credea mirarti", Sonnambula sleepwalks while thinking of her beloved, who is betrothed to someone else. This aria is perhaps less well-known, but no less remarkable, and this performance is yet another wonderful example of Callas’ artistry and musicianship.
This performance is from 1965, the year that Callas ended her operatic career—in fact, it was recorded just one month before her final appearance on an operatic stage. Even as Callas started encountering vocal difficulties and her career began drawing to a close, the musical and dramatic subtleties she enacts here are proof of the absolute masterfulness that she had attained.
CALLAS – PARIS, 1958 is in cinemas exclusively in the UK on 11, 12 and 22 November. Visit MariaCallas.Film for a full list of screening locations and to book your tickets now
All images courtesy of Fonds de Dotation Maria Callas
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