The Wicklow Proms

George Fleeton

IF the Great Sugar Loaf Mountain in Co. Wicklow had a southern-lying shadow, which is astronomically impossible, that is where we’d find Calary Church, just off the R755, a 182 year old outpost of the Church of Ireland Diocese of Glendalough, less than forty kilometres south of Dublin.
SINCE 1999 at Calary Church there have been regular music events in what is an impressively and acoustically excellent performance space, capable of seating over one hundred people.

ON July 31 I availed of that space to produce and present my second Wicklow Prom, the Maria Callas Songbook, with special guests Mairéad Buicke, soprano and Anthony Byrne, piano.

IN all Mairéad sang nine operatic arias associated with Callas’ performing career, which had lasted from her European début at Verona in 1947 until her final stage performance at Covent Garden in July 1965.

IT was to mark the 50th anniversary of the day her music died that I had developed this extended and very well attended recital as part of the regular Music in Calary programme.

MAIREAD'S sung arias were:

Wally’s Ebben? Ne andrò lontana from Catalani’s opera La Wally (1892);

Norma’s Casta diva from Bellini’s Norma (1831);

Manon’s Adieu, notre petite table from Massenet’s Manon (1884), and

The Countess’ Porgi, amor from Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro (1786).

THEN in part two, Mairead’s all-Puccini selection comprised:

Mimì’s Sì, mi chiamano Mimì and Donde lieta uscì from La bohème (1896);

Tosca’s Vissi d’arte from Tosca (1900);

Cio-Cio-San’s Un bel dì from Madama Butterfly (1904), and

Lauretta’s O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi (1918).  

COMPLEMENTING these pieces from Callas’ songbook, my choices of archive film of Callas in performance,  taken from television concerts she recorded in Paris (1958) and in Hamburg (1959 and 1962), were projected on to a screen in the sanctuary of the church.

THESE clips were:

Leonora’s D’amor sull’ali rosee and Miserere from Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore (1853);

Rosina’s Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia (1816);

Elisabetta’s Tu che le vanità from Verdi’s Don Carlo (1884), and

Carmen’s Habanera and Séguedille from Bizet’s Carmen (1875).

AFTER introducing  and setting  each aria in the context of both its parent opera and its place in Callas’ performing career, I shared  the following reflections on Maria Callas, accumulated after having studied, taught and written about her voice for the last  twenty years.

WHAT we noticed in the film clips was that, even on the concert platform, Callas sang and acted with every fibre, drilling through to the essence of the music and conveying to us what she found there in ways not previously witnessed on stage and rarely surpassed since.

THIS gave us invaluable examples of opera’s most iconic and influential singer-actress in action and glimpses of her supreme nobility, elegance, musicianship and engagement in performance.

UNLIKE today’s glamorous, song-bird divas, Callas had to deal with her voice as with a hostile antagonist, and her performances were frequently  a battle with knowledgeable audiences, especially in Italy, where they could turn against her very quickly and did so.

NEARLY every one of Callas’ professional appearances in an opera was sung in Italian, so in our extended recital in Calary we made sure to listen to her singing in French (her fourth language), hence Mairéad’s choice from  Manon and  my film clips from  Carmen.

THIS more than made the point that, whereas most operas we attend are patently unrealistic, the voice – the queen of instruments – can paint human emotion and passion with unforgettable power and drama.

OPERA wins us over when the tensions between the words and the music, the character and the singer, become dramatically convincing (in the hands of an imaginative director and an enlightened conductor, of course) and the end effect is to articulate our shared human experience in ways that only music can, so that our watching and listening become part of the narrative unfolding before us.

IN this Wicklow Prom we also explored the lighter side of the Callas voice, in those archival images of her enjoying herself as Rosina and, unexpectedly, as Carmen, totally at ease and light years away from the heavy weight roles so associated with her.

CALLAS sang about forty roles on stage, in over six hundred performances across eighteen years; not one of them was filmed – legitimately; all we have are a couple of hours of pearl and ebony television images, with static cameras, negligible editing and monophonic sound.

SHE was the incomparable interpreter of the operas of Verdi, by far her most performed composer, ten of his operas in all.

YET by age 35, as we now know and, I believe, she suspected then, her voice was on the edge of a precipice over which it fell in slow motion, taking a further six years to reach rock bottom, just as she was beginning to relish, as her voice darkened– but all to late – her new found mezzo-soprano agilities, which again served to underline her fearless and consummate musicianship.

WHAT we particularly saw and heard that evening at Music in Calary, and in Mairéad Buicke’s readings from the Callas songbook, was one of the signature talents that made Callas the diva assoluta of 20th century opera in performance, namely how she gave characterisation and interpretation the same weight as singing the music.

WE know that she had an extremely unhappy personal life but she cloaked that in a parallel life of performance, heaped with admiration and respect which prevails thirty-eight years after her death.

MY years of studying Callas and all her recordings have convinced me that her singing, her on-stage persona, her incredible insights into the music, her insatiable curiosity about her chosen roles in opera and her profound focus on study and preparation were all ultimately a Greek mask, both fierce and frail, volcanic and vulnerable, tragic and comic, and that her personal, life-long pain behind the mask infused the characters of Norma, Violetta, Lucia, Tosca, Aida, Medea and others with a depth and an authenticity never seen and heard before or since, and so  Maria Callas changed irrevocably the way we understand and appreciate opera today.

*

There will be three fully staged performances of Puccini’s opera La bohème in the National Concert Hall Dublin on October 17, 18, and 20 and my pre-performance Talks will be given, from the stage, one hour before each performance: www.lyricoperaproductions.com

Then on November 21, also in the Concert Hall, Mairéad Buicke and Anthony Byrne will be performing in an opera drama called the Puccini Scandal:  details at www.nch.ie

© georgefleetonmmxv