For this revival of Tosca in 1955, the Royal Opera took the hitherto unusual step of recruiting not only three star Italian singers to sing the opera in Italian but also an Italian conductor; otherwise, the production was staffed by very competent UK home-grown artists. Critics were unanimous in their praise of the principals, who were all by then established recording artists: Tebaldi for Decca, Tagliavini for Cetra and Gobbi for Columbia’s La Scala series. Certainly it would be hard to find such a cast today; the recording also has special historical interest as it was made on the second night of Tebaldi’s Covent Garden debut as Tosca.
In my recent review, I was less than complimentary about ICA’s remastering of the 1959 Callas La traviata in that they had shaved off too many of the top frequencies; this Tosca is better but there are noticeable uncorrected defects in the original tape, including a good deal of flutter and some skips and drop-outs, such as afflict Gobbi’s “tre sbirri” at around two minute into the aria. The first disc seems much clearer than the second, although prominent hiss comes and goes on both. This will never be an audiophile’s treat and one of its great disadvantages is that it can make Tebaldi sound shrill and harsh, especially as her very large voice never took that kindly to the recording techniques of the 1950s. Compared to the celebrated Callas studio recording, also mono, made in 1953, this is dim, dull and dry – but listenable with a will.
Tebaldi is very impressive with her huge, supple tone and powerful rhetorical gestures but her characterisation is inevitably generic compared with Callas and I am not always sure that the stridency on her top notes is the result of the edgy recording. Still, she hits all the top Cs securely and is suitably tigerish in despatching Scarpia; “Muori, dannato. Muori! Muori!” is gripping and her lower register telling. I don’t like the staccato cheating on “le voci delle cose!” which is supposed to be sung legato but she is mostly exemplary without being especially memorable in the way that Callas’s phrasing imprints itself indelibly on the memory.
I was surprised by how completely Tagliavini makes a success of Cavaradossi. Even though he had by this stage moved into heavier roles and would soon lose the velvet in his voice, here he still has the famous “honeyed tone” and makes a fine job of his big moments like “Vittoria!” I could do without a tendency to introduce some phrases with a little bleat but otherwise he is a lyric-dramatic tenor of the old school, tasteful yet stirring in his delivery.
Having praised the lovers, however, I have to say that the palm must go to Gobbi, who is in sovereign voice, singing as well on this evening as I have ever heard him sing anywhere. There is little evidence of the bleakness that sometimes afflicted his top notes and he gives us a near-perfect account of a favourite role for which he was justly celebrated. The snarl, the sneer, the oleaginous irony, the sexual rapaciousness barely concealed beneath the urbanity, the casual cruelty – all the requisites for the complete refined sadist are on display. When Gobbi declares “Bramo. La cosa bramata perseguo” you have no choice other than to believe that he means every word he sings. I love the way he can accelerate the flickering vibrato and crank up the bite in his tone when he wants to intensify expression. Were it not for his performance having already been immortalised in better sound for EMI Columbia, this set would be worth buying for him alone. As it is, if you want a live recording, this or the recently released 1962 Metropolitan live recording on Sony with Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli and Cornell MacNeill would be the only competition; it’s in better sound, too – but MacNeill is no Gobbi.
I like Francesco Molinari-Pradelli’s way with the score; he keeps things moving but is generous with rubato when the singers require it. As much as I enjoy this set, however, the obvious supremacy, both in sound and artistry, of the classic EMI version, means that I am far more likely to turn to it again than to this ICA issue when I want to hear Tosca.