Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Tosca (1900)
Carmen Melis (soprano) – Tosca
Piero Pauli (tenor) – Cavaradossi
Apollo Granforte (baritone) – Scarpia
Giovanni Azzimonti (baritone) – Angelotti
Antonio Gelli (bass) – Il Sagrestano
Nello Palai (tenor) – Spoletta
Giovanni Azzimonti (baritone) – Sciarrone
Uncredited – Shepherd Boy
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan/Carlo Sabajno
rec. Milan, 1929-1930
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 047 [43:46 + 63:19]

As always with re-masterings from Pristine Audio – this time Ward Marston has done the job – one marvels at the lifelike sound. Just imagine: the 28 shellac sides were recorded over 80 years ago! Marston has worked with three sets of records in mint condition and discriminatingly chosen the best side in each specific case. He also patched in passages from the other sets when necessary. One expects revelations when he is in charge and once again the results in terms of dynamics and detailed orchestral picture will impress. Having been fascinated by and listened to historical recordings in various transfers for more than forty years I have long since come to grips with dim recordings, crackly surfaces and limited frequency range. That said, I can honestly say that hearing this set should be no problem for even moderately experienced listeners. Naturally enough the result can’t compare with today’s state-of-the-art recordings but most lovers of opera must have listened at least occasionally to recordings of Björling and Callas from the 1950s and quite possibly been able to enjoy them from a sonic point of view; the sound here is roughly comparable. Just listen to the harp and the pizzicato strings in the third act. You could hardly hear clearer recording today. The timpani at the end are also stunningly realistic. I urge readers to give this issue a listen!

Sonics being no problem there still remains the question of musical quality. With La Scala forces under HMV’s house conductor Carlo Sabajno, those of us who have heard a number of his complete sets already know that we can rely on high professionalism and a sense of authenticity. He was born in 1874 and thus was 26 when Tosca was premiered. This means that he belonged to a generation who assimilated this opera from the sources. For several years he was Toscanini’s assistant and he was also one of the most frequently employed conductors of complete operas during the pre- and inter- war years. His first recording was Ernani as early as 1904 followed by Pagliacci 1907 (though some sources say that the composer himself may have been the conductor). During the next 25 years he committed no less than 24 operas to disc, recording Tosca a first time in 1918-1919. Until 1932, when he recorded Otello, he was the house conductor for the Gramophone Company and evidently conducted very little in opera houses. The present recording is a fine example of his art with sensible tempos and dramatic flair.

The singing is also mostly good with a strong but rather anonymous Angelotti, and a light-voiced but expressive Sacristan. Spoletta is no more than ordinary and the shepherd boy is a liability. Of the three central characters Cavaradossi is, unfortunately, rather weak. He has a good legato but the tone is pinched and very forwardly produced. The best thing is in fact E lucevan le stele, which is marred by the climactic note being sadly out of tune.

No such problems with the real protagonists. Apollo Granforte (1886–1975) was one of the great Italian baritones during the inter-war years. He was the possessor of a magnificent voice, rounded and vibrant. With his mix of authority and malice he was ideally suited to the role of Scarpia. The Te Deum scene in act I is grandiose with a punchy chorus adding extra weight. The second act, which is in effect a drawn-out mental combat between two strong personalities, must alongside Callas-Gobbi and Price-Taddei rank among the foremost recorded versions ever. Carmen Melis may not be a household name today but hers was a voice of superb quality and with dramatic ability to match. She is a grand Tosca in the Tebaldi mould with ravishing beauty of tone and a thrillingly irresistible expansiveness at climaxes. Poor Piero Pauli, her Cavaradossi, only reaches this Tosca to the waist and is totally out-sung in the big duet in act I. In act II she has a worthy partner in Granforte. In the midst of this high-octane fight she delivers a magical and silvery toned Vissi d’arte. It is such a pity that there wasn’t a better tenor available. With a singer of the calibre of Pertile this could have been a definitive recording of Tosca.

Even as things stand it is a version well worth owning and I will return to it in particular for the second act at least as frequently as to the two versions mentioned above.

Göran Forsling

A version well worth owning.