Sunday, 5 October 2014

Callas's Second Recording of Tosca



I haven't heard this set in maybe 20 years. It was one of the first complete opera sets I owned, the De Sabata being unavailable when I first started collecting in the late 1960s. Originally intended to be the soundtrack of a film, a project that fell through, EMI obviously wanted to cash in on the success of Callas and Gobbi's performances together in 1964 and 1965 in London, Paris and New York. Considering how closely they are associated with their respective roles, it is a surprise to find that before the Zeffirelli production at Covent Garden, they had only once before played opposite each other in the opera, and then only in a performance of Act II at a Paris Opera Gala, and yet they cast their shadows over the opera as no others do.

Let's first get the caveats out of the way. Pretre doesn't have De Sabata's grip on the score, but he has his moments, and the torture scene is particularly thrilling; Callas's voice is considerably trimmed down from the first recording and some of the top Cs are closer to screams than actual notes, though, in this new pressing, they don't seem anywhere near as bad as I remember them; Gobbi too has lost some of his vocal sheen, but is as authoritative as ever.

However, we should remember that this recording was made at about the same time as Callas and Gobbi were appearing on stage. Even without seeing them, you sense their deep rapport. The producer John Copley was Zeffirelli's assistant on the Covent Garden production, and he once told me that rehearsing with Callas and Gobbi was not like rehearsing with opera singers at all. Zeffirelli would let them run a whole scene, improvising their moves as you would with actors. They would then sit down and discuss what had worked, what hadn't and go back over the scene incorporating any new ideas that came up. In all his career, he said, he has never come across such complete actor-singers. This ability to play off each other comes across in all their scenes on disc. 

I do miss Callas's ability to soar and swell the tone at a line such as Egli vedi ch'io piango, but their are compensations. When she cries Non posso piu in Act II, this is literally the sound of a woman at the end of her tether, and her chest tones in son io che cosi torturata rend the heart. In the last act, her recounting of the murder lacks the power of the De Sabata, though she manages Io quella lama gli piantai nel cor better than expected with an exciting plunge into chest voice. Here too the top C sounds better than I remember; I assume this must be something to do with the improved sound picture. Her Tosca on this set is more feminine, more vulnerable, if you like, with dozens of lovely touches in the love duets, if not the ability to ride the orchestra that she had in the first recording. 

Gobbi still sounds superb. I doubt I will ever hear another Scarpia to rival him. His Scarpia is a gentleman and a thug and more interesting because of that. A man of impeccable manners, who never gets his hands dirty, making sure he has minions to do his dirty work for him. His performance, too is full of detail. The unconcerned way he sings La povera mia cena fu interrotta, cruelly feigning surprise at Tosca's distress, the ironic tone he adopts at violenza non to faro, gradually piling on the pressure. 

Cavaradossi? Well Bergonzi sings beautifully, but I missed Di Stefano's ardour, his personality, and he is in especially good voice in the De Sabata recording. Beside him Bergonzi sounds a bit anonymous.

The orchestra play well for Pretre, but they are not the equal of the La Scala players, and of course this set will never replace the classic De Sabata Tosca, which will always be the one to have. This one isn't entirely without merit, though, and Callas completists will want to have it in their collection. Others should stick with De Sabata.

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