Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Possibly the most famous opera recording ever made?




What can one say about this famous recording of Tosca that hasn’t been said before? It regularly appears in lists of the greatest recordings ever made, and it seems now that its legendary status is confirmed.

Because of it, Tosca has often been considered the quintessential Callas role, but, though she sang it a fair amount in her early career, she pretty much ignored the role after this recording, until it became the vehicle for her operatic comeback in London in 1964. Indeed she never sang it, or any other Puccini role, at La Scala, which was her cultural home at the height of her career. A few months after making this recording she sang the role at a couple of performances in Genoa, then promptly ignored it, except for her two seasons at the Met in 1956 and 1958. In 1964, Zeffirelli managed to get her to choose it as the vehicle for her comeback, but, typically for her, she would only agree if they could do Norma as well, which he staged for her in Paris.

The Zeffirelli production, which was shared by Paris and London, became one of the most famous in operatic history (and in fact Covent Garden only retired it a few years ago). Indeed one could say the photos of Callas in that red velvet dress she wore in Act II have since become iconic, even though Callas herself often voiced her disdain for both the opera and the role.

True, it may not have offered her the vocal challenges of Norma or Medea, of Violetta or Lady Macbeth, but in 1953 her voice was an amazingly limpid and responsive instrument, enabling her to easily encompass its demands, whilst rendering the score with an accuracy the likes of Tebaldi and Milanov could only dream of. Take, for instance, the lightness and grace with which she sings a line like le voce delle cose in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta. Most Toscas are clumsy here, but Callas sings it with elegant ease. Furthermore at this stage in her career, she can swell the tone to a refulgent climax at Arde in Tosca un folle amor, which she can’t quite manage by the time of the second recording, which was recorded around the same time as the London and Paris performances.

Interestingly, though, in terms of interpretation, there are not that many differences between Callas’s Tosca of 1953 and 1964; a few minor details here and there, but for the most part the character of Tosca is as musically finished here as it was to be histrionically in Covent Garden. Though Zeffirelli may have helped her with odd bits of stage business, it seems sure that her conception of the character had changed little in the intervening years. The main differences are vocal, and here she rides the orchestra with power to spare, the top Cs, that emerged as little more than shrieks in 1964, full throated and solid as a rock. Vissi d’arte (which Callas used to say should be cut as it held up the action) is both beautiful and heart-rending. So it is in 1964, but the ending taxes her to the limit there, whereas here it is full throated and easy.

Iconic photo of Callas in the 1964 Zeffirelli production of 1964

Of course there are other reasons why this set has retained its place as the best of all Tosca recordings. Gobbi is also in fuller, securer voice here than he was in 1964, and his loathsome, reptilian Scarpia is a towering achievement. As usual, he and Callas strike sparks off each other, their confrontations bristling with tension. Di Stefano, who also appears on the first Karajan recording, is here in his best voice, an ardent, youthful and passionate Cavaradossi. Both duets with Callas are erotically charged affairs, as they should be.


Sonically it is surely the best of all Callas’s studio mono sets from La Scala. One hardly notices the lack of stereo; voices are perfectly placed and the orchestra sounds richer and more full-bodied than was often the case. This transfer has also corrected some of the errors that crept into previous CD incarnations, not least the terrible GROC version.

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