To be honest, there aren't as many perks as you might think to being a freelance classical-music critic, but one of them came in the mail yesterday: this new transfer of one of the great performances of Verdi's La Traviata: live, from Covent Garden in 1958, with Maria Callas as Violetta. Now, while, if forced to name my favorite soprano, I would probably pick Callas, I am hardly a Callas expert, but even I have long been aware of the run of Violettas she sang in the late 1950s—the La Scala performance in 1956, the famous Lisbon Traviata from 1958, and this Covent Garden version. (Callas also sang Violetta at the Met around the same time, before she was "fired" by Rudolf Bing; after Covent Garden, she took on the role one more time, in Dallas.) Callas in La Traviata is kind of like Citizen Kane—not everyone will agree that she was the best Violetta of all time, but the suggestion is more universally plausible than any other. And I'm not sure anyone has ever single-handedly raised the bar on a role the way Callas did; Violetta is, today, a much more challenging role, much more of a career benchmark, because Maria Callas sang it the way she did.
I am probably in a minority in that I prefer the Covent Garden Traviata to the Lisbon Traviata, but my rationale is pretty simple: for me, the heart of the opera is "Ah! Dite alla giovine," the duet that Violetta sings with Germont in Act II, and Callas's Covent Garden "Dite alla giovine" surpasses all others. With this new release, I thought I would try and figure out just why that is. It's tricky: by this point, Callas's general conception was pretty consistent. Compare the 1958 Lisbon with the 1958 Covent Garden, and they're pretty similar: the pared-down sound, the implacable rhythm. But there are differences—and, in the Covent Garden version, by design or accident, they pivot the duet from operatic drama to a traumatic critique of operatic drama.
"Dite alla giovine" is one of opera's great frozen moments. Germont has convinced Violetta to leave Alfredo, Germont's son, on the grounds that it will remove the scandal that would impair the marriage prospects of Germont's daughter. "Say to your daughter, so pure and fair," she sings, "that there is a victim of misfortune whose one ray of happiness before she dies is a sacrifice made for her." Germont expresses, rather effusively, his sadness at this turn of events. In the Lisbon Traviata, Germont was sung by Mario Sereni in booming fashion (to be fair, he's only following directions—Verdi writes the part up to a double-forte). This actually made for a neat dramatic moment: when Violetta returns to her opening phrases in duet with Germont, Callas's insistent quietness actually brings Sereni down from his heroic ring, and the effect is rather of the older man being jolted from public sympathy into a truer, private commiseration. But, perhaps anticipating the gap to be bridged, Callas has already opted for a stronger, bigger dynamic arch than she would use in London. By contrast, Mario Zanasi, the Covent Garden Germont, sings with a much leaner tone—almost tenor-like—and, as a result, the duet maintains a cooler, less roiled profile.
I think that coolness, that emptiness, is the key. You can hear it in the very start of the duet, the fermata "Ah!":
As always in 19th-century opera, the fermata is an implicit invitation to ornamentation. In the Lisbon Traviata, Callas does an elegant little portamento from the B-flat to the G. At Covent Garden, though, she did a stripped-down ornament: just the B-flat, then an A-flat, then a break before the next downbeat. And that's why I prefer the Covent Garden Traviata, because it's where Callas's conception of the character comes through with the most clarity. Her Violetta is not just a woman who has been forced by society into a corner. She is a woman who has, almost in a loophole way, leveraged the artifice of a projected personal image into a kind of defiant prominence. And, in punishment, she has that very artifice taken from her.
We sometimes compliment a performance or a work of art by calling it "artless"; it's an illusion, usually the result of an art so finely honed that it disappears from the artistic surface. Callas's "Dite alla giovine" is something more complex: it's the illusion of a loss of art. It's all the more shattering since her Act I singing, in both versions, is so vibrantly artful, a performance shot through with a confidence in its own performing flair. But Traviata is an opera all about pretense, and image, and how societal standing becomes more precarious as society gets more shallow. Like I've said before, the heartbreak is that Violetta is trapped in a world where Germont's argument actually makes sense to her. But then the ultimate emptiness of her own carefully-constructed artifice is laid bare.
Opera is, of course, one of the most artificial art forms there is, in a glorious way. It revels in its artifice; it posits it as more real than real, and sweeps you up in its amplification. Callas's Violetta plays off that, in a way that, perhaps, she knew would only work within the oppressive artificiality of La Traviata's world. For those few minutes of "Dite alla giovine," Callas rips down the curtain—the artifice is gone, the trappings are gone, the opera-ness of the opera is gone, and we're left with a palpably empty void. It is as if—to reference another opera—Salome were nothing but veils, her dance a dance of disintegration. Not many singers would dare to open up a glimpse of the abyss like that. Callas would, and it was, at least for me, quite possibly the most beautiful thing she ever did.