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