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FUELLING A LEGEND (article first published : 2006-12-18)

The years roll on, and still it comes, the inexhaustible flow of new compilations of Maria Callas discs, drawn from the archives of classical record giant EMI. Packaging plays a big part in the fuelling process that keeps the Callas legend alive in the record industry - some 30 years after her death. But genius, of course, is the major factor that pulls in ongoing generations of fans of the great Greek-American soprano.

Besides her ever-burgeoning posthumous discography, a string of biographies and coffee table books about her have been published over the years, as well as a number of DVDs recording the diva in concert, in conversation and giving master classes in the latter days of her life. These, with the luxuriously produced photo albums, give an idea of the physical beauty, glamour and stage magnetism that play a sustaining role in keeping alive the singerís legendary status.

EMIís Callas CD discography has seen releases of previously unearthed private and pirated issues of live performances made throughout the two-and-a-half decades of her career. These preserve images of her stage persona as well as her recital appearances from the late 1940s to the early 60s, when jet-setting with Aristotle Onassisís international glitterati tragically put paid to her prematurely disintegrating voice.

The latest Callas reissue to hit the local market is a six-cd set of some of the divaís vintage recordings, embracing several of her original EMI studio recitals first issued in the 50s and 60s. The compilation offers a disc each of Bellini, Donizetti and Bellini, Verdi, Puccini, French Arias, and one loosely ranging across the board simply entitled Dramatic Heroines.

Returning to Callas after keeping her at arms length for some years is a revelation. Yes, the voice was always a thing apart from the more conventionally beautiful instruments of most of her rivals, before and since. But few if any vocal chords have been as charged as hers with that electric ability to excite listenersí emotions, notwithstanding her sometimes harsh, raw tone, and her occasional wobble on high notes.

Callasí genius lay in her unfailing musicality, patrician phrasing, perfect intonation, and her unique ability to make a role her own, putting her stamp on whatever she touched. This was in evidence when she was in the recording studio or singing live.

Whether performing extracts in concert, or singing in complete operas, she palpably became the character of the moment, Pucciniís gentle Mimi in La BohŤme, Belliniís fearsome Norma or Cherubiniís crazed, murderous Medea. A number of roles Callas never performed in the opera house come to life as magically on disc as did her signature roles onstage. All the arias found on the French disc bear witness to this phenomenon, notably her indelible Carmen which leaps out of the speakers with astonishing vitality.

Highlights during my re-exploration of the present discs were her dying Gilda, sung with heart-rending pathos opposite Tito Gobbiís tormented jester in the final moments of Verdiís Rigoletto; her magisterial Alceste; and her devastating rendering of Orfeoís great lament, Che faro senza Euridice, once heard, never forgotten.

If you have no Callas on your shelves, go out and buy this release. CallasĖ 100 Best Classics may be a short cut to a comprehensive opera collection, but itís a revelatory one. Ė William Charlton-Perkins




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