Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Review: Puccini - Tosca - Callas, di Stefano, Gobbi - 1953

The definitive recording of Puccini's Tosca?

Of course not. There is no such thing as definitive recording – at least not of truly great music and not for people who really care about it. Well, both claims have been hotly disputed. For some Tosca is a "shabby little shocker" (or was it "shoddy"? ask Joe Kerman), and there are many opera connoisseurs who have never come to grips with Puccini's darkest creation. If you belong to one of those groups and want but one recording of Tosca, just as a reference, this is definitely the one.

But for me, personally, Tosca is one of the finest music dramas (not operas, mind you!) ever created. It's a work of astonishing dramatic power, far too brutal and violent for the faint-hearted. The music combines ravishing melodies with leitmotive technique of Wagnerian versatility, totally relevant both to the characters and to the drama. It's been fashionable for decades to degrade Puccini in this respect, but these nasty commentaries by eminent experts (Mosco Carner, Charles Osborne) say more of their authors than of Puccini's masterpiece. Never mind. My point is that if you feel about Tosca as I do, there are at least three other recordings very much worth checking in addition to the "definitive" one: 
Price/Di Stefano/Taddei/Karajan (1962), Tebaldi/del Monaco/London/Molinari-Pradelli (1959) and the wonderful film-opera, shot on location in Rome, with Kabaivanska, Domingo and Milnes under the baton of Bruno Bartolletti.

It is true, however, that it is very seldom that one finds an opera recording in which everything fits so swimmingly as it does in this 1953 EMI Tosca. To begin with, it is recorded in an absolutely unbelievable for its time mono sound. Producer Walter Legge and tonmeister Robert Beckett certainly knew their job. (Or were they just lucky? Their 1955 Rigoletto is sonically hideous.) The dynamic range, the clarity, the presence, the balance between orchestra and voices are truly fabulous here. Many a stereo recording, including quite a few digital ones, has failed to capture the greatness of opera with half the vividness and immediacy of this – let me repeat the year – 1953 production. It is truly one of the greatest glories of the gramophone.

Nor is it often that you find an opera recording where all principals are perfect for their parts and captured in their absolute prime. This is the case here.

In 1953 the vocal problems of Callas still laid in the future and she is in glorious voice here. Certainly the dramatic episodes are her forte, for here she is indeed mesmerizing, but she also does a fine job with the lyrical passages. Tosca is a monstrous part that gives ample opportunity to display both extremes. It says a great deal that I enjoy this performance enormously – for I am not a Callas fan at all. I think she must have been fabulous live on the stage, as evident from her vocally distressing but dramatically stupendous 1964 video recording of the second act (again with Gobbi, he too in vocal decline but with awesome dramatic presence). But I have never liked the voice even in her prime, much less after the mid-1950s when she became increasingly wobbly, not to mention trying parts clearly unsuitable for her voice (Gilda, Butterfly). And though I have learned to appreciate her artistry intellectually, that's a poor substitute for the real, emotional response.

The famous cliché "acquired taste" doesn't apply here. Unlike many clichés, this one is pure nonsense. Rather to the opposite: taste is immediate, instinctive and purely emotional phenomenon; the intellect plays some part in its development, perhaps, but it can never create an emotional response in the first place – which is the real understanding of music (or any art), all of the rest being intellectual rationalizations of dubious value. All the same, it is an indisputable fact, quite independent of personal matters like taste, that this Tosca by Callas is dramatically outstanding and vocally flawless.

As luck would have it, I am no fan of Gobbi, either. But here again tremendous performance easily overcomes personal prejudice. He is his prime too, and he is a terrific singer-actor, that is a singer who can act with his voice. Scarpia, a sadist and rapist of epic proportions, is one of the nastiest characters ever to have (dis)graced the opera stage, and he requires vocal acting of the highest calibre. There are no pretty tunes or show-stopping high notes in his part, but there is certainly a masterful characterization. Gobbi delivers splendidly – and chillingly indeed – every single note, with perfect diction and many a subtle nuance. No, he is not the "definitive" or "the best Scarpia ever". But few have matched the intensity and the coherence of his portrayal, that's for sure.

Cavaradossi is generally – and very stupidly, if I may add – regarded as the least important character in the opera, probably because his part is the most lyrical among the three principal ones. Again we are embarrassingly fortunate to have Giuseppe di Stefano in top form here. Less than a decade later, when he came to re-record the part with Karajan in 1961, not much was left of Pippo's glorious voice, and he sounded strained and stiff. But in the 1953 the man was in glorious voice: pure, ringing, agile, passionate. "E lucevan le stelle" from this recording is justly famous: just note the diminuendo of "disciogliea dai veli". Few tenors have conveyed Cavaradossi's erotic visions with such consummate ease and shattering power, yet without resorting to cheap sentimentalizing or hammy histrionics.

Last but not least, there is on the rostrum Victor de Sabata, probably the most criminally under-recorded among great conductors. Like the trio of great singers, de Sabata is virtually perfect in terms of everything: expert pacing, grand climaxes, exemplary orchestral detail (but not excessively so á la Maazel). By modern standards the tempi may seem brisk. But nothing is ever rushed or shoddy. This is a spectacular conducting by a man who obviously was, not just a great conductor, but in possession of intimate knowledge about the score. It's a veritable cornucopia of orchestral insights into a most remarkable work.

Finally, a word about the remastering that appears to have caused some disturbance among reviewers. I have heard only this edition, the one you should be able to see above (photo of Callas in the centre of a record label). I don't know if this is the same remastering as the one in the Great Recordings of the 20th Century series, but to my ears the sound is impeccable. Special bonuses include low price and very nice liner notes by Richard Osborne (very nice except for his total and unforgivable neglect of Di Stefano!). Otherwise the booklet contains only track-by-track synopsis, which is terribly insufficient. Unless you know the libretto by heart, be sure to get one from another collection or from the Web or from wherever. Listening to Tosca without an intimate knowledge of its libretto doesn't make any sense.

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