Recorded live at the Royal Opera House this Tosca can’t
measure up against contemporaneous studio sets. On the other
the sound is far better than on many of the Cetra operas
issued at about the same time. The orchestral tuttis are
on the whole full and punchy while the voices tend to come
and go in accordance with stage movements. There are also,
inevitably, some stage noises but, since many present day
sets are also live recordings, this is something we have
come to expect.
Alexander Gibson in his Royal Opera House debut conducts with
a sure sense of drama unfolding, maybe not with any special insights
but without any quirky idiosyncrasies. He gives the soloists
the space they need in their set pieces. Overall it is a
sympathetic performance; ‘sympathetic’ to be interpreted
in accordance with the composer’s wishes and the singers’ needs.
The main reason for issuing – and buying – this set is to hear the
three main soloists caught live. Both Milanov and Corelli
recorded their parts on commercial records, Milanov just
a couple of weeks after this performance, in Rome with Björling
and Warren for RCA Victor. For Corelli it took another ten
years before he made it, for Decca with Nilsson and Fischer-Dieskau.
He is impressive on that set but had during the intervening
years adopted some less attractive vices, being more showy
and extreme in nuances. His was a marvellous instrument with
that rare combination of baritonal timbre in the middle register
and tremendous power and glory in the uppermost part of the
voice. His ability to scale down to a marvellous pianissimo
is also there, something that more often than not might be
felt to be more exhibitionistic than artistically valid.
Here, though, he is mostly well-behaved but the thrill is
there throughout. “Recondita armonia” is glorious but not
very subtle but his “Qual occhio al mondo” is ravishingly
done. In act two his cries of “Vittoria! Vittoria” (CD1 tr.
8) seem to last for ever but he is at his best in the third
act with “E lucevan le stelle” (CD2 tr. 15) restrained. “O
dolce baci” is sung with warmth and a quite unbelievable
diminuendo on “disciogliea dai veli”. The applause afterwards
is of the never-ending kind. He also delivers a lyrically
beautiful “O dolce mani” (CD2 tr. 17). This was actually
his London debut.
Zinka Milanov in one of her signature roles is not quite in that league.
She sang Tosca some on hundred times and this was number
95. Never the possessor of a very youthful voice she had
at this stage, when she was well past 50, become a little
shrill and in places unsteady. That said her identification
and dramatic conviction is never in question and she too
can be very thrilling, not least in the second act confrontation
with Scarpia. This role is taken by the then quite young
and little known Gian Giacomo Guelfi, a singer who unfortunately
recorded very little. The only other recording I could find
in my collection was the DG Cavalleria rusticana under
Karajan with Bergonzi and Cossotto. He had an impressive
voice though not one of the subtlest perhaps; in this respect
he was largely inferior to Gobbi and Taddei. However he could
be menacing and cynical and also ingratiatingly oleaginous
and insinuating, making his Scarpia an assumption reckon
Among the secondary parts Michael Langdon’s dark-hued and sonorous
Angelotti and Forbes Robinson’s larger-than-life Corena-like
sacristan stand out. Robinson sings his “Angelus Domini” with
impressively full, round and black tone.
The set as a whole doesn’t out-manoeuvre any of the established recommendations:
Sabata with Callas, Di Stefano and Gobbi; Karajan with Price,
Di Stefano and Taddei and possibly Colin Davis with Caballé,
Carreras and Wixell. It is however worth investing in for
the sake of the young Corelli on glorious form and the opportunity
to hear Guelfi.