WELCOME, NOEL

The legendary 1952 Christmas album, not released until the following Halloween because the diva’s perfectionism resulted in the nervous collapse both of her and the album. It could not have helped things that Aristotle Onassis had taken up with a cheap hooker, moved her on to his yacht and pooh-poohed Maria’s tearful protestations by claiming the girl was just their illegitimate daughter. Maria, desperately in love with Onassis, was willing to believe all his lies, even the one about the faces on Mount Rushmore being a natural formation. Despite these tensions (or because of them?), Callas is splendid here — tender, reverent, sweet. And those are just the hand gestures. The only cause for concern comes in “The Little Drummer Boy.” There is a hint of dry warble in the “rum-pum-pum-pum.”

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THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS

Callas’ voice began to rapidly suffer damage from informal training that had consisted mostly of yodeling while working construction. Yet in 1956 she undertook the notoriously difficult role of Frederica in Donizetti’s Osso Bucco at La Scala. Audiences were electrified when, during the mad scene, Callas hit four high C’s while rolling herself up in a Persian carpet. Only three days later she unrolled herself and recorded this enchanting holiday classic — but who can guess at what cost to her marvelous instrument? The legend: Callas enters the studio booth, changes from Gucci couturier into a hospital gown, and begins her warmup exercises. Her producer quickly intuits that she does not have the vocal strength to get through more than the first eleven days of Christmas. He takes her aside and suggests an old recording “trick” of singing into the microphone through thin slices of raw zucchini. Maria, livid, shoves him aside and says she will julienne the vegetables herself.

For this CD release, the warmup exercises, of great interest to the aficionado, have been remastered and left out.

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“DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?”

“Indeed I do know what I hear,” wrote critic Arturi Fendetz of this now beloved seasonal treasure, “and I do not care for it any more than I did Renata Tebaldi’s album of Mississippi prison blues.” It should come as no surprise that Fendetz was later recognized as a philistine, deported by steamboat and, once home, made to denounce his mother, father and fondness for sweetbreads at a sensational “show” trial. As for poor Maria, at this time she is undergoing tremendous stress in her personal life. Her voice makes something of a comeback after she accidentally swallows acupuncture needles, mistaking them for toothpicks. Then — disaster. She is fired from the Metropolitan Opera after clashing with manager Sir Rudolf Bing over a new production of the “Ring” cycle. He expects her to go on as her own understudy in the long but vocally undemanding scene in which the Valkyries core apples. Callas simply refuses to attend rehearsal. She stays in her hotel suite bleaching yellowed press clippings in the bathroom sink, playing her old recordings on the mechanical pianaforte and in general bemoaning life. “Meanwhile” (as opera buffs like to say) Onassis is planning fresh heartbreak. In the years since he has grown from mere magnet shipper to shipping magnate, his ego also has grown out of control. Not satisfied with a great yet aging diva who is only too happy to lend him her chignon, Onassis now is determined to woo away and win the hand of some world leader’s wife. Out on the yacht he already is entertaining actress Monica Viti — only eight weeks after her wedding to Paul VI.

The real fun here is Poulenc’s setting of “I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus” (Hélas! Madame, je t’ai vu…)

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“A CLASSICAL CHRISTMAS

Mostly highlights from Handel’s “Messiah.” The voice is now frail, but Callas courageously manages to sing a few of the strings, the Vienna Boys Choir and the conducting. Onassis has taken to calling her on the phone and taunting her by cracking eggs on his gray head. Maria tries to keep busy teaching masters’ classes, but is so withering in her criticisms she is allowed only to oversee the cafeteria at lunch. She sits at a table by herself and, removing the processed cheese slice from her sandwich, presses it against her cheek, as if for solace.

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THE MANY MOODS OF CHRISTMAS

Unable to sing at all and devastated by Onassis’ engagement to Rose Kennedy, Callas recorded this, her last holiday album and first (and also last) album of sound effects. It begins with chesnuts roasting on an open fire and concludes with gusting sobs. A treat.