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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca - opera in three acts
Tosca, Maria Callas (sop); Cavaradossi; Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor); Scarpia, Tito Gobbi (baritone); Angelotti, Franco Calabrese (bass); Spoletta, Angelo Mercuriali (bar); Sacristan, Melchiorre Luise (bar).
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Victor de Sabata
Recorded August 1953 in Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Restoration Engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110256-57 [2CDs: 42.35+65.56]


Of all opera recordings that have become iconic, none has done so to a greater extent than this performance of Tosca. Walter Legge and Columbia (Angel in the US) were really working their new diva hard in 1953, the first full calendar year of their new contract. This was the fourth Callas recording to be set down by the company that year. Whereas Callas’s friend and mentor, Tullio Serafin, had conducted the first three, this venture was to be under the baton of Victor de Sabata, reigning music director of La Scala where he had been based since 1929 no less. He had served under Toscanini and inherited, or acquired, something of the great man’s incandescence and demand for perfection. Indeed, the end of Act I was recorded thirty times before he was satisfied (biography of Legge quoted in the leaflet). Like the ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’, number three in the sequence that year, this Tosca was recorded in the La Scala theatre, as the contract required. However, this was to be a problematic recording venue, and a severe restriction on the enjoyment of this and many other recordings made there subsequently. In succeeding years EMI has made various attempts at ‘cleaning up’ the sound, including a simulated stereo version on LP, but without great success. Despite the sonic limitations it was only with the emergence of the recording as a ‘GROC’ (Great Recording of the Century) that EMI offered the performance at less than full price. I have to say that whilst the GROC issue was acoustically clearer than the original LPs, it sounded artificial to my ears. This re-mastering by Mark Obert-Thorn, derived from no fewer than ten LP sets, is the first time I have listened to this performance with pleasure. And that is after fifty years of trying and having owned various of the previous efforts.

As to the performance, what is left for a critic to say? Well, in my first sentence I was careful of the tense I used. When first issued the performance was not greeted with the unalloyed joy that came with the arrival of sliced bread! By absolute standards none of the three principals is vocally perfect. Callas herself does not always sustain a perfect legato, Gobbi has raw patches in his tone and Di Stefano is stretched at climaxes. However, these failings are more than adequately compensated for by the strengths. Di Stefano sings with ardent lyrical beauty in his great solo pieces (CD 1 tr. 4 and CD 2 tr. 22) and particularly in the Act III duet with Tosca. No Scarpia on record has been so threatening, or snarled so effectively, as Gobbi; his taunting of Tosca in the Church, prior to the Te Deum, is chilling (CD 1 trs. 14-15). But, above all, what makes this performance truly great is Act II where Gobbi and Callas, as they did in so many theatres, act off each other. The sparks of the drama, aided by the orchestral tension built up by de Sabata, really fly. There are in this set exalted moments of involvement and identification of singer and role rarely caught on recording. These include Callas’s spitting out of the word ‘Quanto’ (How much, CD 2 tr. 11) as she demands to know Scarpia’s price for the release of her lover, and later, as she asks him, after stabbing him, ‘Ti suffoca il sangue’? (Are you choking on your blood?) and then demands ‘Muori! Muori! Muori!’ (Die! Die! Die! CD 2 tr. 17), before, in an abrupt change of tempo and mood, ‘E morto, or gli perdone’ (He’s dead. Now I forgive him. Tr. 18). It is, in my view, the vocal acting and dramatic tension built up in Act II that justifies the iconic status of this recording.

Despite the foregoing, this Tosca would not be the only version of the opera on my shelves. Karajan’s 1962 recording (Decca Legends) is my personal favorite. Of that cast Di Stefano repeats his Cavaradossi, but more roughly hewn and without the lyric beauty of tone found here. Taddei as Scarpia, doesn’t have the snarl of Gobbi, but covers and colours his tone better, and in his different way is chillingly effective. As Tosca, Leontyne Price has a smoky middle to her voice similar to that of Callas. She is more musical but less dramatic; she doesn’t spit out ‘Quanto’ with the vehemence of Callas, but inflects the question with sufficient fearful meaning. The Decca recording, in stereo, is far superior to even the improvements Mark Obert-Thorn has managed here and Karajan, whilst adopting some slow tempi at times, also manages to build great tension where appropriate.

It was only two or three years ago that EMI issued highlights of this performance. It played for a mere 56 minutes and cost the same as this Naxos issue of the complete work. It also had all the limitations found on the previous EMI issues of the complete work. Now all lovers of opera can confidently add this re-mastered version of a truly great, iconic, recording to their collections. Highly recommended.

Robert J Farr

Christopher Howell also discusses this recording with comments from Mark Obert-Thorn Robert E. Seletsky


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