Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Callas at Covent Garden

By Hadleyblogger Drew

Well, it doesn't seem as if anybody else is putting anything up, so here's a little Callas for you, in one of her signature roles, Tosca. These clips are from her 1964 Covent Garden performance with the incomparable Tito Gobbi as the villanous Scarpia:

It was said that Callas didn't much like the character of Floria Tosca, whom she thought of as a "weak girl." Here, as her lover Cavaradossi is being tortured by Scarpia's henchmen, she sings one of the most famous arias in opera, Vissi d'arte. "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" – “I lived on art, I lived on love." In other words, it's all about poor me - what did I do in life to deserve this? Forget Cavaradossi - what about me?

(This isn't entirely fair, of course - Scarpia's blackmailing Tosca, claiming that he'll release Cavaradossi in return for one night of passion. I'd probably be inclined to wonder what I did to deserve this, myself.) Tosca goes on to kill Scarpia (in a clip I'll put up later on), and after a desperate attempt to save Cavaradossi's life fails, she commits suicide in despair. I trust I haven't ruined the ending for you.

Reading the YouTube comments on this is almost laughable. Everyone has an opinion on Callas (some of them quite insightful, actually), and a venomous attitude toward anyone who disagrees with that opinion (which doesn't really add much insight at all). What a lot of people forget is that opera is theater, not just music, and theater isn't always about the finest technical performance. It's about the experience. As for me, I don't pretend to be an expert, but I know what I like. Callas may be past her singing peak at this point but she can still bring it, and the drama of this scene with her old partner Gobbi - the experience, if you will - is thrilling.

I've heard the arguments about opera being dull, preposterous, difficult to follow, you name it. There's a lot to those arguments. But I'll defy you to feel that way after seeing Callas' anguish in this performance.


  1. Renata Tabaldi had a beautiful Tosca. Callas' voice is a little too raw for me. But, Callas as an actress, as a "feeling" soprano? Unparalled.

  2. Cathy,

    You're right - Tabaldi was wonderful. I don't think you'd look to Callas for a precise reading of the score (look at her interpolated E flat at the end of the second act of Aida, for example) but her reading of the drama, as you said, is unparalled. Her peformances were dangerous - no matter how well you knew the opera, you were held in thrall not knowing what would come next.

  3. Speaking of Tebaldi, that Wiki article Drew linked to recounts a performance in Tokyo when "she decided not to jump for the final suicide, but chose instead to exit by the quinte, walking among the astonished policemen as only a diva could." Wonderful! Even Callas would have had trouble topping that!


  4. Mitchell: LOL! A fine story.

    There are rumors that Tebaldi and Callas were heated rivals but I'm not sure how much of that is fact versus press created (i.e. Crawford versus Davis)

    I really enjoy the direction your blog has taken and the various Hadleybloggers. Keep it comin'!


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