Maria Callas sings Alfredo Catalani

Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“Well, then? I’ll go far away”) from Catalani’s opera, “La Wally”

Does Maria Callas need any introduction? A Greek-American soprano born in 1923 in New York, she became arguably the greatest soprano ever. Her mother and father had a tempestuous marriage, and her mother returned to Greece with Maria and siblings in 1937. Recognized for her musical precociousness, her mother, a social climber, forced her to sing starting at age five, and upon returning to Greece, tried to enroll her in the Athens Conservatoire, but she was rejected because she hadn’t been trained in the fundamentals of singing. Her mother then offered to pay a voice teacher at the Greek National Conservatoire to tutor her. After realizing the natural talent, the teacher took Callas on, refusing to let her mother pay for the lessons. Marias studied with the teacher for two years and made her public debut at the age of 15 singing an aria from Tosca. Her mother then secured another audition with the Athens Conservatoire, and this time, she was accepted, though she put off enrolling for a year so she could finish her degree at the National Conservatoire. She had her first operatic debut in 1941 in a small role in Franz von Suppé’s Boccaccio. She became renowned in Greece and it was recommended that she move to Italy to firmly establish her career as an international performer. Instead in 1945 she chose to move back to America, where she quickly took her place beside the two other great Metropolitan Opera divas of the time–Renata Tebaldi and Zinka Milanov. In the 1950s, she had a feud with Tebaldi and had this to say about her rival at the time.

“My admiration of her is of the fullest, and I am happy for her success. If I hear her sing well, I am the first to cheer her. But I live in another world. She is a vocalist of a certain repertoire. I consider myself a soprano—one who does what they used to do once upon a time. My repertoire, by God’s will and nature’s blessing, is complete. I have contributed to the history of music. I have taken music that has long been dead and buried and have brought it back to life again. If the time comes when my dear friend Renata Tebaldi will sing, among others, Norma or Lucia or Anna Bolena one night, then La Traviata or Gioconda or Medea the next—then, and only then, will we be rivals. Otherwise it is like comparing champagne with cognac. No—champagne with Coca-Cola.”

Yesterday, I was in New York City and paid a visit to Academy Records and CDs on 18th street. There I snagged this 1963 vinyl recording of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat, one of my favorite pieces of music.

On my way out the door, I noticed a bin of free records, I looked in and found a treasure trove of works by Ravel, Faure, Brahms, and various female composers. Among them was this gem–a old Angel Records compilations of famous arias, including today’s featured piece, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“Well, then? I’ll go far away”) from Catalani’s opera, “La Wally.”

Those of you who saw the 1981 movie Diva,a modern take on film noir thrillers, by Jean-Jacques Beineix will recognize this aria, whose performance of it by American soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez. It’s a great pot-boiler with romance, suspense, zen buddhism, and a menacing bald villain.

La Wally is the name of the protagonist in Catalani’s opera. In the last scene, she throws herself into an avalanche. Because this is so hard to depict in a theatre, the opera is rarely performed. Too bad. I’d love to see if Catalani had written any other such transportive arias.

Born today, June 19: Alfredo Catalani. “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana.”

I haven’t heard this piece since around 1984, when it was used in a French, nouveau noir, film called “Diva.” That film was the first time I’ll bet many Americans first heard it as well. It comes from the 1892 opera, “La Wally,” by Alfredo Catalani, born today June 19, 1854. I remember it grabbing people’s attention at that time, kind of like happened with the the 3rd movement from Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. La Wally is the heroine of the opera and the aria, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,” which means, “So that’s how it is, eh? I’m going to blow this popcorn stand.” Wally falls in love with her father’s rival. Dad is so angry, he makes her marry another guy. Later the son of the rival insults her, whom she tells her husband to murder. The husband tries to murder the other guy unsuccessfully and Wally has a change of heart. She goes to kill herself on a mountain, and the other guy finds her and declares his love. He starts back down the mountain and calls back for her to follow, but his words set off an avalanche, which sweeps him away. Seeing this happen to her lover, La Wally jumps into the avalanche and thus to her death. The opera isn’t performed all that often because of the difficulty of simulating the avalanche on stage. This aria, however, is still popular, which is part of the plot of “Diva.”

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