When Maria Callas decided to slim down, rumor has it she swallowed a tapeworm. When EMI decided it needed to slim down Callas' two compact discs of Verdi arias to one, it shuffled the tapes and issued the result in its Great Recordings of the Century series as Verdi Heroines. Did this plan of action come to Maria Callas' rescue? Not really, as the product of this labor consists of one-half great Callas and one-half good to just OK Callas.
In the LP era, Callas made studio recordings of Verdi arias in the equivalent of three albums worth. The first batch of arias, made in September 1958 in London, resulted in the LP release Callas Portrays Verdi Heroines, which is certainly one of her finest hours in terms of studio recordings; the original front cover to that fabulous piece of plastic here is represented in miniature on the booklet cover. However, that is not quite what is inside, at least not in its entirety. Two scenes from Nabucco from the 1958 album are withheld in order to accommodate a wider range of studio recordings drawn from Paris-made 1963 and 1964 sessions that produced the EMI albums Maria Callas sings Verdi Arias (1964) and Maria Callas By Special Request (1970), the latter being 90 percent Verdi. By late 1963, Callas was already slightly past her prime, whereas by 1964 the strain on her voice is noticeable: in 1958, Callas is confident, commanding, compelling, and regal. In 1964, Callas sounds quite good at times, but is at others tentative, evasive, and sometimes sobs rather than sings her characters -- her depth of emotion, effective as it is, also serves as a kind of coverage for a renegade voice that she can no longer make behave. "Ave Maria, piena di grazia" from Otello is particularly rough going -- she reaches for the high note and misses it, subtly transforming it into a sob, falling back on her abilities as an actress to make up for her lack of vocal control.
One wonders what EMI had in mind when it gave 40 minutes of the 80 minutes on this disc over to these later recordings rather than reproducing the 1958 Callas Portrays Verdi Heroines verbatim and then fill the rest of the disc with other recordings. Callas' hardcore constituency is going to be well equipped in this genre anyway, likely by way of late-'80s EMI CD packages with their blurry, none-too-flattering color cover images of Callas. However, the news isn't all bad. These tracks are newly remastered and very well done; the opening of "Nel di della vittoria" from Macbeth literally jumps out of the speakers with such depth and clarity that you'll swear there is simply no way it was recorded in 1958. Even though Verdi Heroines is a midline CD, it does contain the texts to the arias with translations in English. So, for a beginner's Callas disc, this isn't a bad second choice, though a few more shekels will bring you La Divina and that really is the best place to start.