Lucia’s Mad Scene

I came across this little clip of the great Maria Callas on youtube, and couldn’t resist sharing it for the benefit of those (apparently many) people out there who think she was an overrated singer. I’m a devout Callas fan, but I also freely admit that many of the performances she recorded later in her career (especially in the 60s) weren’t all that good and it’s unfortunate that most of her famous performances were in an era when audio technology wasn’t really up to the task of recording live opera.

However, you can get an idea of how very special Maria Callas was in this little clip recorded live at La Scala in Milan in 1954. It’s a poor quality recording but her voice has a stunning radiance to it despite the distortions. This is the very end of the lengthy Act III “Mad Scene” from Donizetti‘s Opera Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s a tremendously demanding piece, which Callas sings with flawless technical accuracy and extraordinary expressive power leading up to a ringing top E♭ at the end. Her approach to the vocal gymnastics required by the bel canto repertoire was uniquely full-on and, without a safety net, the sense of danger surrounding these performances made them truly electrifying.

Only some of the music  made it onto the recording, but there’s enough there to convince the doubters that this was a very special artist. And, listening to the applause at the end, the notoriously demanding audience at La Scala were clearly convinced too!

Incidentally, some argue that Callas’ voice was in decline after her substantial weight loss (she lost 80lbs between 1953 and 1954), but this was the slim Callas and her voice sounds pretty good to me!

8 Responses to “Lucia’s Mad Scene”

  1. John Peacock Says:

    She’s a great artist – but it has to be said that the final Eflat is painfully sharp.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, she does miss the last note. Not as badly as some I’ve heard, but it’s noticeable even through the radio distortions and to someone who has extremely imperfect pitch like me. It’s a shame, actually because the rest of it is sung so beautifully. Like stumbling at the last fence. Didn’t seem to bother the audience though!

      Curiously, Donizetti’s original key for this piece is F-major, in which it would end with an F natural. I guess it’s usually transposed down to make it easier for the singers.

      • Callas -sempre divina Says:

        Donizitti never wrote an F natural or an E flat as the final note. That was an affectation that was adopted by earlier canary-esque Bel Canto singers. In fact Donizetti never wrote the popular soprano and flute duet cadenza, that was composed in 1888 and included for Nellie Melba long after the opera was written. Callas mostly liked to sing Lucia come scritto as she said it made greater dramatic sense. The Hamburg performance was a better recording as Deutch-gramaphon were technically better that RCA at La Scala and Callas eschewed the “suicide note”.

  2. Do any of you opera buffs (apparently Rocky Kolb is one as well) have “perfect pitch” or know someone who does? Of course, which frequency corresponds to which note is arbitrary, has changed during history and is not constant even at a given time. So, of course, some initial learning is required (i.e. it is not in-born in the limited literal sense). Is it more like a good memory? (Perfect pitch just means there can be a longer time between the first (known) and second notes of an interval.) Or is it more like how most people perceive colour, i.e. they can reliably identify several different colours without reference to another colour? In other words, it is something “intrinsic”, not just relative to another frequency. Or do both forms exist?

  3. John Peacock Says:

    Philip: I don’t have perfect pitch. But from what I know of it, it is indeed an absolute calibration, and a single note heard in isolation can be named. You’re right that pitch standards have varied with time, and I’m told that this is a real problem for people with perfect pitch, since they learn that A means 440 Hz, and then find it impossible to cope with Baroque playing at A=435 (20% of a semitone flat), even if the relative pitching is flawless – they just can’t reset their pitch standard, and hear every note as wrong. So it’s a bit of a curse, really.

  4. “But from what I know of it, it is indeed an absolute calibration, and a single note heard in isolation can be named.”

    This still leaves the question, though, rather it is some sort of “photographic” memory (i.e. they once heard a tone and was told what it was) or whether there is some qualitative difference, such as the way most people perceive colours (i.e. red is something different than green, not just a lower frequency on some continuum).

    “You’re right that pitch standards have varied with time, and I’m told that this is a real problem for people with perfect pitch, since they learn that A means 440 Hz, and then find it impossible to cope with Baroque playing at A=435 (20% of a semitone flat),”

    415 or even 392 are not uncommon Baroque tunings. (Some people might wonder what the point could be of tuning down by a whole tone—wouldn’t that be the same as transposing to the corresponding key? The answer is “no”, even within an equal-temperament system. With most instruments, tuning lower and playing higher to compensate results in the same fundamental frequency, but with a different composition of harmonics (overtones) as well as a different decay curve (volume vs. time). Heavy-metal guitarists often tune lower, even two whole tones, to reduce dissonances when playing with distortion (another reason is that it makes string-bending easier; lighter-gauge strings also allow for easier bending, but with less mass they have less sustain).)

    “even if the relative pitching is flawless – they just can’t reset their pitch standard, and hear every note as wrong. So it’s a bit of a curse, really.”

    In that case, I’m glad I don’t have this so-called perfect pitch. The music I hear is almost all equally tempered, but with a wide range of tunings (in that a’ could be 440 Hz, or (usually) less, or even more).

    If people can’t hear music in the “wrong” tuning, this speaks for the idea that it is something qualitatively different, like seeing a picture through coloured glass. Even in this case, though, presumably, if they had first heard it in the “wrong” tuning, everything would be OK.

    • telescoper Says:

      Doesn’t it just mean that we must have an inbuilt reference calibration – presumably related to some natural frequencies of our earholes – that provides a preferred tuning. It’s clear better defined in some people than others, but we all must have it at some level.

      Perfect pitch is undoubtedly a handicap when it comes to jazz and blues, in which singers habitually sing “under the note” (i.e. flat), bands pay relatively little attention to tuning up, and club pianos are usually out of tune anyway. It is however, a great advantage to have a good ear in the sense of being able to follow what others are doing without reference to sheet music.

      • “Doesn’t it just mean that we must have an inbuilt reference calibration – presumably related to some natural frequencies of our earholes – that provides a preferred tuning.”

        I don’t think so. The normal range of tunings covers a range of 2 or 3 whole notes. I doubt there is any common preference within that range, considering the variation among individuals.

        It’s more a matter of what one is used to. (Again, whether perfect pitch is good memory or whether pitch is to these people something more qualitative like colour is still an open question.) I know someone whose record player ran a few per cent too fast. She was a huge Bob Dylan fan and rather surprised when she first heard how his voice really sounds; it took her a while to get used to.

        Due to whether 24 (film) or 25 frames (television) per second is what is shown, a film on television (at least with the PAL system) is a few per cent too fast. Presumably the tone is a few per cent too high as well. Do people with perfect pitch notice this? (The NTSC system, with 30 frames per second, has to pull a few more tricks to show a 24-frame-per-second film.)

        Historically, higher pitch evolved as a side effect of playing more loudly, mainly because the typical concert venue had moved from a small room to a large hall. With electric instruments, or amplified acoustic instruments, this is no longer an issue, and one can play in the best tuning without worrying that it is not loud enough.

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