Donizetti : Anna BolenaMilan, La Scala, 1982 (Audio)
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Anna Bolena was a perfect role for Caballe but she should have sung it at least ten years before this infamous Scala performance. I know there were plans for Caballe to do all three Queens in NY but Sills was quick to proceed with this project so the enthusiasm was gone. Any early recorded scene shows that Caballe's aristocratic phrasing and gorgeous voice really do the role justice. Anyhow, here we are in 1982 and the golden tone is only evident in her quiet singing. High and now even middle-high notes no longer sound pleasant but she has the guts to go for two rare (for her) Ds at the end of the ensembles. Then again many famous singers don't retain their youthful voice when they reach their fifties. But the great lady, relying on her technique, could still sing and her fiato often brings back fond memories of her prime.
At the time Caballe was often cancelling performances and this is actually the only night she did Anna Bolena at Scala, after the theatre forced the soprano to appear despite her illness. The loggioni, boo and shout and even call her names during the performance! The background I've heard from an Italian friend who was at the performance that night might help us understand why all this fuss. There were two lobbies in Italy at that time: The Callas widows who would not have any other soprano sing a role Callas brought back to La Scala and the lobby who wanted to see younger singers on stage. Usually you would get one or the other but that night Caballe faced both as she ticked all the boxes. Performances of the young Aliberti during those years turned the two lobbies against each other and reportedly, things got physical in the galleries!
The most memorable moment in this performance for me is the mad scene. The high note in the recitative comes out badly and the loggioni quickly booo and someone shouts witch! All Caballe does then is hold a gorgeous piano note for a little bit longer showing her control of her voice at this very difficult moment and goes on to give a stunning performance of A dolce guidami. I wasn't expecting her at that age (not to mention condition) to deliver such a beautiful and moving aria. If only the rest of her performance was as good but unfortunately her singing comes across as effortful in many places and as I said before the tone isn't always pleasant. Obrazova was at the time touring the world with her big voice and if she doesn't quite have the charm to make Henry's affection believable, she has enough power to impress me.
Plishka's bass sounds baritonal here and totally spoils it for me. I like strong and grand voices in this role. Siepi sang the role with Caballe in Barcelona a month before and it's a shame he didn't follow her to La Scala. Savastano and Zilio, both adequate do what they can to rescue the performance but who listens to Percy and Smeton when the Queen is being booed!
Despite the problems, it's Caballe's only commercially available Anna Bolena (and Myto is squeezing every penny out of it!) so if you've always wondered how Caballe would sound in the role, here is your chance. As your first Bolena you could try the studio Decca set which apart from Souliotis' ups and downs, has many strengths while live, Ricciarelli, Gencer and Callas are all recommendable for different reasons.