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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca - Opera in three Acts
Floria Tosca………………..Maria Callas
Mario Cavaradossi………… Giuseppe di Stefano
Baron Scarpia………………Tito Gobbi
Cesare Angelotti……………Franco Calabrese
Spoleta……………………..Angelo Mercuriali
Sacristan…………………… Melchiorre Luise
The chorus and orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Victor de Sabata
Recorded at La Scala, Milan in August 1953
EMI CLASSICS (‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series) CMS 5 67756 2

[109:34]


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This album is a fitting celebration of EMI’s 100th release in its ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series.

All honours must go to the meticulously considered conducting of Victor de Sabata; a true tour de force. De Sabata was famed for his lack of enthusiasm for the recording process and as such his legacy is sparse, but, as Richard Osborne comments, "as a memento of his art and genius, this Tosca is all we need. I cannot resist quoting from Conrad L. Osborne’s assessment of this recording in The Metropolitan Opera Guide: "De Sabata shows the essential operatic understanding – that of how each accent, each rhythmic event, each melodic scrap or harmonic tint, can be used without distortion or undue highlighting to help impel the dramatic moment, to build the dramatic arch and maintain suspense. The power of his Te Deum is unequalled in my experience, and in the confrontations of Act 2, the conductor unleashes orchestral storms that are all the more vicious for being so disciplined and focused". Indeed, and Walter Legge clearly indulged de Sabata allowing two sessions, six hours, to record the Te Deum with Gobbi and de Sabata going over some passages as many as thirty times. Tosca’s entry with its five-fold cry of ‘Mario’ was endlessly experimented with to obtain the required distance and atmosphere. This mono recording is so finely calculated, so considered in the creation of its wide perspectives that one hardly misses any stereo refinement. Just listen to the dynamics and perspectives of the bells awakening Rome at the beginning of Act II, for instance. De Sabata clearly has thought through every bar starting from the very beginning where the orchestra’s underlining of the escaping prisoner, Angelotti’s anxiety and urgency is more palpable than in any other Tosca I can recall.

I do not need to add to the miles of text extolling the virtues of Callas’s Tosca in this recording. She probed deep into the psychology of the role to discover all Tosca’s jealousies and histrionics yet also her conscientiousness, graciousness and piety. Her duets with di Stefano are spellbinding but the highlight is of course her moving rendering of "Vissi d’arte".

Tito Gobbi brings an oily, merciless malevolence to the role of Scarpia. Richard Osborne observes that Gobbi was advised that "Scarpia was a vulture … looking down on people ready to pounce and therefore regarding them from a height …" He is the perfect foil to Callas’s jealous entreaties and vengeful anger, and to di Stefano’s vainful heroics.

Sadly, no mention is made of Giuseppe di Stefano’s contribution in Richard Osborne’s otherwise excellent notes (perhaps, mention was edited out through lack of space?). Di Stefano might be criticised for sometimes taking liberties, short-cornering some of the text, but that lovely legato tone and undeniable virility must certainly be admired. Actually I think he fared even better in the 1971 Karajan recording with Leontyne Price as Tosca and Giuseppe Taddei as Scarpia (Decca 421 670-2DM2).

While thinking of Osborne’s notes, he makes the interesting point that Alec Robertson and several other critics writing in 1953 were not very impressed with this recording preferring, to Callas, "Tebaldi’s beauty of tone and perfection of control."

Mention should also be made of the expressive quality of Melchiorre Luise’s sanctimonious Sacristan – a portrayal almost as odious as Scarpia.

In short this is the Tosca to die for – a true classic of the gramophone and a set that just has to be in every opera-lovers’ collection and a fitting celebration of 100 EMI Great Recordings of the Century.


Ian Lace

 


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