Thousands of people are hearing the voice of Maria Callas for the first time these days, not on CDs--although her discography on the EMI label is enormous--but in movie houses.
In one of the most effective scenes in "Philadelphia," Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), who has AIDS, seeks consolation in his love of opera and explains what it's all about to his reluctant attorney Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Two arias Callas recorded 40 years ago can be heard on the "Philadelphia" soundtrack recording (Epic EK 57823): "Ebben? N'andro lontano" ("Well? I shall go far away") from Alfredo Catalani's "La Wally," which Callas never sang onstage; and "La mama morta" ("The dead mother") from Umberto Giordano's "Andrea Chenier," which was not one of her major vehicles.
This exposure has started a new surge in the sales of Callas records, which have sold steadily since her death in 1977. Her voice was in about the best condition it ever enjoyed when these arias were recorded in September, 1954, but it was never really pretty--not in the same league as Lucia Popp, who is also heard (rather faintly) in "Philadelphia." What Callas had--a quality that makes her voice specially appropriate for a cameo role in this film--was dramatic intensity.
The intensity and the vocal unevenness are both quite evident in newly released live recordings of three operas that Callas never recorded in a studio: Verdi's "Macbeth," broadcast from La Scala on Dec. 7, 1952, with masterful conducting by Victor de Sabata (EMI 64944, two CDs with libretto); Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," broadcast from La Scala on April 14, 1957, with Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting (EMI 64941, two CDs with libretto), and Bellini's "Il Pirata" with Nicola Rescigno conducting at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 27, 1959 (EMI 64938, two CDs with libretto). The final mad scene from "Il Pirata" is given twice; the second version, also conducted by Rescigno and recorded in July, 1959, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, has some striking differences from the Carnegie Hall version, and most fans would probably find it, on the whole, better.
The most satisfying of these three recordings is "Anna Bolena," partly because Giulietta Simionata, as Jane Seymour, is a worthy partner for Callas, but all of them have moments that Callas fans will find electrifying. The big moment is, of course, what hard-core Callas fans most treasure, ignoring cuts in the text, poor sound and often deplorable supporting casts.
To such fans, these performances are already familiar, having circulated for years in the operatic underground familiar from the stage play "The Lisbon Traviata." Standard catalogues list at least three other pressings of the 1957 "Anna Bolena," for example. But its appearance under the auspices of EMI, Callas' primary mainstream record label, is a significant event; the packaging is better and (though these things vary considerably) the price is likely to be lower.