Saturday, 16 August 2014

Tebaldi on Video: Tosca (1961), Forza (1958), A Portrait (1956-67)

Renata Tebaldi: A Portrait (1956-67)

This set of two DVDs contains mostly previously released material, but much of it has long been out-of-print and hard-to-find. Only the Butterfly bonus tracks, due to their inferior picture quality, have never been released before, and it is fascinating to compare them with the “official” versions from 1959. All these are, to put it in a decidedly confused way, live performances recorded in studio. In other words, the excerpts from operas are staged, sung and shot on the spot, more or less as if they were given in front of live audience; the few songs in between are concert performances. By modern standards, the production values may look old-fashioned and even ludicrous. Many reviewers have remarked on the hideous dress and make-up used for “Vissi d’arte” and, alas, I have to agree. Nevertheless, these television appearances are a fine tribute to Renata’s art.

The first disc is almost exclusively dedicated to Tebaldi in her dazzling prime. The two excerpts from Butterfly, joined together with a short narrative that summarises the intervening plot, are shot in ravishing colour and performed with Tebaldi’s customary passion, less smoother than a Freni, for example, but no less compelling. Note, also, that for a rather big woman with large hands Tebaldi’s movements are remarkably graceful. (Unfortunately, Pinkerton’s entry and the orchestral explosion in the finale are cut.) The famous excerpt from La Boheme, which includes not just the love duet that concludes the first act but also the two arias that precede it, suffers badly from grainy picture. But who cares? The singing is divine! I’m saying this as a non-fan of Bjoerling. The same performance can also be found on The Art of Singing DVD with improved picture quality, but slightly cut at the beginning (Mimi’s entrance and the search for the key).   

The rest of the first disc is not quite so entrancing, but everybody not indifferent to Renata’s voice would find it delightful. The selections from Tosca, the love duet and part of the meeting with Scarpia in Act 1, are exceptional because they don’t come from the archives of Bell Telephone Hour but from the 1961 live performance of the opera in Stuttgart also released on DVD (see below). The arias from Mascagni and Ponchielli are notable for the austere and atmospheric sets. They were recorded in 1967 when Renata was 45 and slightly past her prime, having been on the opera stage for more than twenty years. The top notes are slightly strained, but the sweetness of the middle and low registers is intact.

The second disc is the complete “Concerto Italiano” from 1965, hosted by the dour Dr Boyd Neal and with the pleasant participation of the young baritone Louis Quilico; his rendition of Michele’s soliloquy is terrific, but he is neither London nor Guelfi. Consequently, the Act 2 finale of Tosca is not among Tebaldi’s most high-profile collaborations. It is nicely shot from several angles, though, and you have several wonderful opportunities to appreciate one of the most under-appreciated sides of Tebaldi’s artistry: the acting she does with her face. She does a lot of it, and it repays careful watching. The real gem on the second disc is Rossini’s La Regata Veneziana, a charming cycle of three short songs describing a Venetian regatta. These tuneful trifles are performed much less often than they deserve, but I suppose Renata does them full justice. She loved the cycle, sang it often in her late years, and even recorded it with Richard Bonynge and the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1969.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino (1958)

This is arguably the finest Forza ever recorded, video or audio, mono or stereo, analogue or digital, whatever. Many connoisseurs argue in favour of the 1953 live recording under the incandescent baton of Dimitri Mitropoulous, but I think the conducting is just about its only real advantage. Otherwise it is either equal to this one (Del Monaco = Corelli, Simionato = Dominguez, Tebaldi is equally stunning both times) or inferior (Protti < Bastianini, poorer sound, no picture). The 1955 studio recording is among the best efforts from Decca’s early stereo era, but there we have Siepi and Corena replacing, respectively, Christoff and Capecchi. For my part both substitutes are unfortunate. Not that Siepi and Corena are bad; far from it; Christoff and Capecchi simply are incredible. But there is no accounting for taste. For some people the best Forza is Sinopoli’s 1985 studio version with the screechy Plowright and the wobbly Carreras.

Renata Tebaldi owns the part of Leonora di Vargas. It is that simple. No other soprano comes within hailing distance from her portrayal of the “infame figlia”; not Cerquetti, not Milanov, certainly not Callas. Tebaldi must have felt singularly inspired that night in Naples 56 years ago. She sings with élan and gusto that equal, to say the least, her stupendous performance from 1953 and far surpass her studio effort from 1955. I guarantee you have never heard, much less seen, “Son giunta… Madre pietosa vergine” sung like that. This is the advantage of video recordings: seeing is believing. Another unbelievable highlight is the great duet with Boris Christoff in the end of Act 2. And yes, Tebaldi is a much better actress than generally given credit for; note the exquisite piece of comedy when she blocks Alvaro’s arm with the gun in Act 1 or the tragic poignancy of the final scene, to name but two examples.

How immensely lucky we are to have this treasure on video! The grainy picture and the constrained sound are meagre price to pay for Tebaldi, Corelli, Bastianini, Dominguez, Christoff and Capecchi at the height of their powers. What a sextet! The singing is incredible! So, for the most part, is the acting; Corelli and Bastianini are somewhat limited in this respect, but with voices like these they can well afford it. Corelli’s effortless delivery of the horrendously difficult “O tu che in seno agli angeli” is yet another thing you have to see in order to believe. Once upon a time such feats really were possible on the opera stage. Likewise, Ettore Bastianini tosses off “Son Pereda” and “Urna fatale” (plus the cabaletta) with ease that defies belief. The imposing Padre Guardiano of Boris Christoff, the deliciously funny Melitone of Renato Capecchi and the flirtatious Presiozilla of Oralia Dominguez are among the all-time greatest achievements in these roles.

The old-fashioned sets and costumes, not to mention Christoff’s notorious wig and fake beard, may look quaint, but I, for one, prefer them to the sick perversity of modernist directors bent on “reinterpreting the old masterpieces”. The sound is excellent for a live recording in the theatre from 1958. If you have ever wondered why some people consider Forza one of Verdi’s masterpieces, this DVD is all you need to see and hear. You will become a convert.

Giacomo Puccini: Tosca (1961)

Tebaldi’s Tosca is one of the greatest glories in the history of recorded opera. We are extremely fortunate to have, in addition to two studio and who knows how many (at least seven!) live audio recordings, two complete performances on video. The other one, also from 1961 but recorded in Tokyo, has Gianni Poggi and Gian Giacomo Guelfi as Cavaradossi and Scarpia, respectively. Neither is any improvement over what we have here. In fact, Guelfi is distinctly inferior, both vocally and dramatically, to London. The picture and sound quality of the “Tokyo Tosca” are no great shakes, either.

Now, the “Stuttgart Tosca”, as you must expect from a live performance captured in those ancient times, is very far from the aural and visual standards we have come to take for granted. The picture is black-and-white and slightly fuzzy. The camera work is crude and far too distant. The sound is fine as far as the voices are concerned, but for the orchestra you’ll have to rely more on your knowledge of the score and musical imagination than your ears. The production is entirely conventional but quite serviceable.

Renata had gained some weight since the late 50s, but she still looks stunningly beautiful, and she is capable of conveying Tosca’s alluring seductiveness without a single move. The voice is fabulous beyond description. No strain, no hard edge, no signs of age or fatigue whatsoever. The superb diction and the numerous subtle inflections of the text are every bit as fine as in Tebaldi’s other live recordings – and far better than in her studio efforts. Tosca is a monstrous part that requires a voice of great versatility; dramatic and lyrical moments follow one another seamlessly, often reaching extremes. Renata scores an A at all fronts. As this video performance confirms, there is more, much more in her than just a great voice.

Much has been written about Tebaldi’s “poor acting skills”, especially in comparison with La Divina. This is tosh. Certainly, Renata didn’t have the histrionic intensity of her nemesis, but neither did Callas, even in her prime, have a voice even remotely comparable to Tebaldi’s. This is precisely the point. Renata’s rather restrained acting was the perfect complement to her incredibly expressive voice, while Maria’s highly dramatic acting compensated for her vocal shortcomings. In the few places where their roles overlap – Tosca, incidentally, being the most notable example – it is clear to me that the world needs both great divas. The justly legendary second act of Tosca with Gobbi and Callas from Covent Garden (1964) makes a most fascinating comparison with the completely different take of Tebaldi and London in Stuttgart. This is the ultimate proof that masterpieces do survive – indeed, demand! – variety of interpretation.

And yet, there are still people who complain that Tebaldi is too static. What do they expect Tosca to do? Jump through the window? Hit Scarpia with a chair? Dance tarantella? Well, see and judge for yourselves. Just about the whole thing is available, piece by piece, on YouTube.

The supporting cast is excellent. George London needs no introduction: his Scarpia combines the best of Gobbi’s histrionics and Bastianini’s gorgeous tone. This is a towering performance, certainly one of the finest on record. London was, of course, Tebaldi’s Scarpia on her second studio recording (1959), so both knew their parts and each other pretty well. The mysterious Eugene Tobin is one of those tenors that would have been superstars today but were unfortunate enough to be born in the era of Del Monaco, Corelli, Di Stefano and Bergonzi. The fact that he is completely forgotten today and the likes of Rolando Villazon are superstars speaks volumes about the modern decline of operatic voices. The even more mysterious Heinz Cramer does a beautiful job with the Sacristan, wonderfully refusing to turn him into a caricature. 

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