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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca (1900) [68:36]
Maria Callas (soprano) - Tosca; Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) - Cavaradossi; Tito Gobbi (baritone) - Scarpia; Franco Calabrese (bass) - Angelotti; Angelo Mercuriali (tenor) - Spoletta; Melchiorre Luise (bass) - Sacristan; Dario Caselli (bass) - Sciarrone/Jailer; Alvaro Cordova (boy soprano) - Shepherd
Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Vittore Veneziani
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Victor De Sabata
rec. 10-14, 16, 18-21 August 1953, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy. ADD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93927 [66:22 + 62:14]

Experience Classicsonline

This is a reissue on Brilliant of the classic 1953 recording of Tosca; it was originally released on EMI (562890). Before that: Columbia (CDS7 47175-8 and 33CX1094/5 5312).

It's a superb performance, not only for the presence of Callas (Tosca), Di Stefano (Cavaradossi) and Gobbi (Scarpia), but also for the momentum, sensitive pace and convincing sound-world. For these we thank De Sabata.

Tosca was premiered in Rome at the Teatro Costanzi on 14 January 1900. That makes this benchmark performance drawn over ten sessions at La Scala only eight years after the end of World War II closer in time to the work's composition than to today.

With over a dozen DVDs available to give the full 'home theatre' experience, an issue for many listeners will be the quality on these CDs of the sound from tapes made 55 years ago. It's actually remarkably good. Because there is much movement in the opera - the stances of Tosca in her exchange with Scarpia, the offstage torturing of Cavaradossi, the placing of principles and supporters in the final scene - depth and breadth are almost essential to the drama. So it's as well that the transfer has not only preserved the focus of the original mono, but also managed to confer a real spatial presence on the digital stereo.

It's no exaggeration to put Callas's 1953 Tosca in one of the dozen greatest opera recordings so far. Overseen by recording producer Walter Legge, the re-mastering of these two CDs (by Christopher Parker) was originally engineered by Robert Beckett. They must take a significant part of the credit for what - especially at the price, under £7 the pair - is a real bargain.

If you don't have a Tosca and want to experience the opera in one of its first recordings or if you want to supplement a later recording with singing from another generation, this reissue should not be passed over. Other recordings to consider are those by Karajan on Decca  (452620) or Caballé under Davis on Philips (438 359-2PM2). But not Callas's 1964 recording with Bergonzi under Prêtre, EMI Studio (69974), to which this reissue is superior.

In fact, for all her legendary - and at times mythical: there is much misinformation about Callas - status, hers remains the pure, finely-tuned, at times quizzical, always assured, often poignant and always wholly beautiful voice. At 29, it's Callas's bravura, her élan and effortless sheen that draw you back time and again to this recording. The supporting roles of Cavaradossi and Scarpia are excellently performed, full of insight and strength - not to mention tenderness and evil respectively.

There's more: what makes the 1953 Callas/De Sabata Tosca such a satisfying experience is an amazing freshness borne of his (their) approach to the opera as a drama. There is no sense ever of rushing from one show-stopping, applause-garnering aria to another. The tension is sustained from first note to last as if we, the audience, were absent! It has its own life. Although the principals were - and are - world famous, demanding recognition as such, although the blood runs hot through all those French Revolution era Roman veins, and although this was a recording celebrating Italian nationalism as much as anything, conductor, singers, orchestra - and producer - pay their greatest tributes to Puccini and his librettist. The result is that this Tosca is not a 'show'; it's ultimately very human, very real - and very credible.

Although the booklet contains a track-listing and brief synopsis of the three acts, the libretto itself is only available online as a PDF at Brilliant's website. Neither that, nor doubts about the recorded sound, should deter anyone wanting an emblematic opera recording from buying this bargain. Splendid.

Mark Sealey


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