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Enduring greatness: five essential Maria Callas recordings on her centenary

<span>Photograph: José Méndez/EPA</span>
Photograph: José Méndez/EPA

I never heard Maria Callas sing. But I did see her once. In 1971, when I was a student on my first visit to the US, I managed to get a back stalls seat at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for a gala performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo, with a rising young tenor called Plácido Domingo in the title role.

In the interval I wandered into the Met’s glitzy foyer. Standing at the foot of the staircase which curved up to the grand tier, I heard applause from higher up. The crowd parted and, down the stairs came that completely unmistakable woman, instantly recognisable to any opera fan, and to millions of others too.

Callas was on the arm of Rudolf Bing, the Met’s general manager, with whom she had had an epic falling out in the 1950s, and who was now starting his final season in charge in New York. She passed me at the foot of the stairs, almost close enough to touch. But, like everyone else, I was merely applauding. I don’t remember a lot about the opera that night. But I will never forget seeing Callas.

Six years later, she was dead in her Paris apartment, aged only 53. Today, as we mark the centenary of Callas’s birth, she remains for many the nonpareil opera singer of the 20th century. Hers is the most interesting, the most exciting and the most instantly recognisable of all operatic voices. Her unhappy life has nothing to do with this legacy, and of course there are many other great singers to consider too, but Callas’s hold on history is justified. It owes everything to two things: first, to the exceptional vocal and dramatic standards she set and often fulfilled; and, second, to the good fortune that her career coincided with the explosion of the long-playing record and the complete recording of operas.

Few singers before or after have been granted such an opportunity. As a result, the Callas discography is very extensive, including several operas she recorded more than once, some that she rescued from obscurity, as well as dozens of recordings (with variable sound quality) of live performances. As far as I know, there are no video recordings of Callas in a complete opera, but there are some outstanding excerpts, well worth tracking down.

Any selection of the kind that follows is personal and arbitrary, but here are my own five introductory recommendations.

Callas with Renato Cioni in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House, London, 1964.
Callas with Renato Cioni in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House, London, 1964. Photograph: Moore/Getty Images

La Traviata

In many ways Violetta in La Traviata is the perfect Callas role. Her commitment to Verdi’s doomed heroine is consistently soul-shaking and always performed with total engagement. There are at least four Callas recordings of La Traviata, all very fine in different ways. The one to have is probably the 1955 live recording at La Scala, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. But make a point of also searching out the precious video clips from her 1958 Lisbon live recording which contain treasurable moments.

Norma

One of Callas’s signature roles, even in her decline. Always sung with great mastery, the identification with the priestess Norma is so complete that it is often hard to separate Bellini’s writing for his tragic central character from Callas’s rendering of it. As is often the case with Callas, the 1952 Norma, recorded at her Covent Garden debut and conducted by Vittorio Gui, finds her in her best voice and sets the recorded benchmark (it also has a small role for Joan Sutherland, the defining Norma of a slightly later era). Callas can be seen singing Norma’s Casta Diva aria in the recently recoloured and reissued video of her 1958 Paris concert of Italian arias, conducted by Georges Prêtre.

Tosca

Puccini’s 1899 opera is the one with which Callas is most frequently associated now. Part of this is due to the modern sentimentalisation of Callas as the female operatic martyr, a bit like Floria Tosca herself. A lot is because there is a full video of her tremendous act two performance with Tito Gobbi’s matchless Scarpia from Covent Garden in 1958. Callas also recorded Tosca twice, and again it is the earlier studio version under the masterly conducting of Victor de Sabata where she is at her best.

Lucia di Lammermoor

Donizetti’s betrayed and traumatised heroine, based on Walter Scott’s 1819 historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor, provided Italian opera with some of its most consummate moments and Callas with one of her finest roles. She made two studio recordings but, for visceral intensity and a direct connection to what her so special, it is the live Lucia under Herbert von Karajan in Berlin in 1956 that stands supreme. Purists will hate it for its cuts, and the sound is not studio perfect but Callas’s performance is gripping, sensitive and on another level.

Parsifal

Surely some mistake? Callas singing Wagner? But, yes, she did, and fascinatingly well too, although only in the early years of her career. In those days she had Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in her repertoire, as well as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde (of which a private tape of a Genoa performance is said to have existed). In her first studio work in 1949, Callas recorded Isolde’s Liebestod in Italian. But the prime Callas-Wagner recorded exhibit is her Kundry (again in Italian) in a complete recording of Parsifal under Vittorio Gui from Rome in 1950. A performance of the very highest class, and an important reminder of her artistic range.

And, as an encore, one more small but somehow supremely stirring Callas moment. She never sang the mezzo soprano role of Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo on the stage. By 1962, when the cameras were there to record her singing of Eboli’s aria O don fatale – O fatal gift – in a concert in Hamburg, the ravages to her voice were increasingly obvious, and the vibrato could get out of hand. But what piercing intensity she brings, what dramatic mastery. This is infinitely more than a common or garden recital encore. You can somehow sense she knows how flawed her greatness has become. But the enduring greatness is there all the same, in this thrilling glimpse of what we are all still missing so keenly today.