The Teatro alla Scala Memories series of historic recordings brings on the stars. The Dec. 7, 1954 opening night live recording (on Skira, distributed by Naxos)of Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale (The Vestal Virgin) stars Maria Callas and, in his debut at the house, tenor Franco Corelli. The conductor was Antonino Votti, a protégé of Arturo Toscanini.
The hardcover book enclosing the 2-CD set contains photos of the rehearsals and production, the whole libretto, and essays, both in English and Italian. The 1954 production used the Italian translation of the text. (There is also a listing of the casts for every production of the opera at La Scala, starting in 1824. It was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1807.)
The essays include such juicy tidbits as this exchange between Toscanini, who came to the rehearsal, and undiplomatically greeted the newly slimmed-down Callas:
Toscanini: “Maria, where did your fat go?”
Callas: “I left the fat for the other singers.”
Toscanini also attended the debut performance; he sat in a box seat with his daughter Wally. The audience gave him a standing ovation and Callas, on stage, kneeled and proffered to the maestro the flowers that had been thrown to her.
Since Callas never recorded La Vestale in the studio, this is the only option for those who want to hear her in this pivotal role.
The production was directed by Luchino Visconti. The acclaimed film director who made his opera debut with this performance and went on to direct Callas at La Scala in La Sonnambula, Anna Bolena, Iphigenia in Tauris, and La Traviata.
The book contains photos of Luchino Visconti with his assistant, the young Franco Zeffirelli. Visconti strikes as many dramatic poses as Callas who played Julia, the Vestal Virgin.
Callas and Corelli as Licinius, her lover, were at their peak. He combined movie star looks with a powerful dramatic tenor which, at this early stage, did not suffer from his later showboating techniques (for example, holding notes too long).
Ebe Stignani (the Chief Vestal) was near the end of her distinguished career; she also sang Adalgisa to Maria Callas’s Norma during the 1950s.
The opera takes place in ancient Rome. The victorious Roman officer Licinius returns from the wars to find that his beloved Julia has become a priestess of Vesta. She prays to be freed from temptation, but he announces his intent to reclaim her in Act I and makes good on his threat in Act II.
As often happens, the woman faces punishment while the man gets off with no penalty. Julia is sentenced to death for licentiousness and Licinius’s pleas for her release initially fall on deaf ears. However, when a thunderstorm reignites the eternal flame, that event is interpreted as a message from the gods. Consequently, Julia is freed so that she may marry her lover.
It is hard to believe that the month after her stunning performance in this neoclassical opera, Callas was to triumph in a completely different style, the verismo opera Andrea Chénier. She managed to learn that role in five days when the tenor star Mario del Monaco switched operas because he claimed he was too indisposed to sing Il Trovatore. Speculation at the time was that he hoped that the newly anointed star soprano would cancel.
The only problem with the La Vestale CD is the sound quality, which is from a live performance in the 1950s. Since Callas never recorded La Vestale in the studio, this is the only option for those who want to hear her in this pivotal role. Despite the poor audio, a listener can easily understand why the audience went wild after each of her arias as well as Corelli’s.
Barry Bassis writes about music, theater, travel, and dining for various publications.
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