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'Fresh Air' marks the 100th birthday of legendary opera soprano Maria Callas

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Many critics consider soprano Maria Callas the greatest singing actress in the history of opera. She died in 1977 at the age of 53, and this December would mark her 100th birthday. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says that several new releases celebrate both her singing and her acting. Here's Lloyd's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEDEA, ACT 1: 'DEI TUOI FIGLI LA MADRE' (MEDEA) [LIVE]")

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MARIA CALLAS: (Singing in Italian).

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: That was Maria Callas in a live performance at La Scala in 1953, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The opera was Luigi Cherubini's 1798 "Medea," a neglected work in which Callas' thrilling and complex performance revived new interest. The sorceress Medea has been abandoned by her lover Jason, the father of their two children. In the aria, she's both accusing Jason of cruelty and begging him for pity. Who but Callas was capable of expressing simultaneous extremes of pathos and rage?

Both her live and studio performances of "Medea" are part of a new 135-disc box set just released for her 100th birthday. The set is called "La Divina: Maria Callas In All Her Roles," which is not 100% accurate since no audio seems to exist for Callas in at least a couple of her earliest roles. But the set includes at least one complete recording of each of the operas she made commercially, as well as live performances of operas and concerts, her famous master classes at Juilliard, Blu-rays of her few televised performances and even alternate takes and working studio sessions released here for the very first time. If you're brand-new to the Callas phenomenon, this gigantic collection would be one-stop shopping.

Another well-timed Callas birthday release is a new Blu-ray of her only movie. It's also called "Medea" and is part of the Criterion Collection's new box set of nine films by the powerful and disturbing Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. His 1969 "Medea" is a very personal, political, visceral and violent take on the same Euripides tragedy that inspired Cherubini's more austere and formal opera. In the film, Callas is not so much a classical heroine as a more primal priestess wallowing in bloody rituals. She doesn't sing a note, and the music here has the unoperatic quality of Middle Eastern and Eastern European folk music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

SCHWARTZ: Callas's acting is overwhelming. Even though Medea doesn't speak very much, Callas's eyes alone reveal her profound spirituality, sexual turmoil, motherly affection and unbridled desire for revenge. When Medea does speak, she has hair-raising things to say, which brings me to my one major reservation about this movie. Callas and Pasolini evidently loved working together, but for some reason he didn't seem to like the way she spoke Italian, even though she sang most of her operatic roles in Italian, even in operas that were intended to be sung in German or French, like "Medea." But in the most widely distributed version of the film - the one in Italian, which is the one in the new Criterion set - Medea's speaking voice is the voice of Rita Savagnone, an actress who dubbed the Italian voices of such English speaking stars as Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Collins, Whoopi Goldberg and Liza Minnelli. At least a version of the film exists in which Callas actually dubbed her own voice in English. Here is Medea praying desperately to her lost gods.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEDEA")

CALLAS: (As Medea) Speak to me, Earth. Speak to me, sun. You are disappearing, never to return again. I can no longer hear what you are saying.

SCHWARTZ: And here's Medea, the tender mother, soothing her two young sons just before she's about to murder them.

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(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEDEA")

CALLAS: (As Medea) Come, my love. Come, my little man. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.

SCHWARTZ: And it's Callas who gets the inexorable final line of the movie in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEDEA")

CALLAS: (As Medea) Now your tears are nothing. You will understand when you are old.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I beg you in the name of the god you hold dear, please let me touch once more those poor, innocent bodies.

CALLAS: (As Medea) No. And don't ask again. It's useless. Nothing is possible anymore.

SCHWARTZ: As far as I know, the only way to hear the English version is on a British Film Institute DVD, which requires an international DVD player. But what's even more tragic is that Maria Callas didn't make more movies.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz reviewed "La Divina: Maria Callas In All Her Roles" on the Warner label and the new Blu-ray of Pasolini's film "Medea" by the Criterion Collection. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, the New Yorker's Jonathan Blitzer talks about the chaos surrounding the next speaker of the House. We'll also talk about Jim Jordan, who lost his bid as speaker but remains the head of the powerful Judiciary Committee and is heading up some controversial investigations. I hope you'll join us.

To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN DI MARTINO'S "ISFAHAN")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN DI MARTINO'S "ISFAHAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lloyd Schwartz
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.