“As a very credible Scarpia he was low-voiced, even honeyed. Renato Bruson – even at an age when Chiefs of Police normally retire – had retained his superb caressing legato, making him a satanic tamer of his subjects. When he wanted to stress his points, to show his powers, his voice was no longer the pliable instrument it once was. The force was there but also a heavy old man’s vibrato that developed to an ugly wobble. It would have been totally unsuitable for a nobler character but for Scarpia it was adequate.”
This quotation is from my review of a DVD live from Bari and published in 2001. Twenty years earlier, when the present EMI set was recorded, there were no misgivings as to the quality of Bruson’s voice. His isRead more plainly the most beautiful singing of the role ever. Whether it is also the best interpretation of the role is another matter. His marvellous legato and smooth delivery has been a constant pleasure to wallow in on a great number of recordings, nowhere more in evidence, I believe, than on his Donizetti recital, once available on Decca in the Grandi Voci series. This is bel canto singing of a kind that hadn’t been heard since the days of the legendary Mattia Battistini. What has been lacking in his singing has been a couple of notes in the lowest register and more variation of tonal colour and for the role as Scarpia this is a serious shortcoming. There is no lack of intensity and vitality and with the visual aspect added his reading of the role would probably have been a highly satisfying portrait of this disgusting Chief of Police, but without the visuals one misses the inflexions and the ‘face’ of some other Scarpias: Tito Gobbi (twice with Maria Callas), Giuseppe Taddei (on Karajan’s first Tosca with Leontyne Price), maybe also the sinister George London (on Tebaldi’s stereo remake) or Ruggero Raimondi (on Karajan’s second Tosca and also on DVD from Verona as recently as 2006, see review). Still Bruson’s is a reading to live with and I far prefer it to exaggerated histrionics and ugly delivery.
It may seem perverse to start a review of Tosca with an assessment of the villain of the drama, but since this reading is the most controversial I wanted to sort it out first of all. Those who can’t imagine a bel canto Scarpia can stop reading here. This set is not for them. James Levine’s conducting has sometimes been controversial too but here he leads a kind of middle-of-the-road performance: rather rough-hewn with tremendous fortissimos in a recording with very wide dynamic contrasts. It is thrilling, no doubt but in a moderately sized listening venue like mine the problem is that if I want to remain on speaking terms with my neighbours I have to turn down the volume several notches from my ordinary setting and then the solo voices become recessed and indistinct. It is possible to adjust the volume with the remote control every so often but this takes away some of the pleasure of listening. In some of the lyrical passages I felt that Levine lost interest and there the reading lacked tension. The playing of the Philharmonia is first class and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus, trained by John McCarthy, are excellent with a grandiose Te Deum as the pinnacle.
Placido Domingo is a brilliant Cavaradossi, who delivers a strong Recondita armonia without many nuances. Later in the first act he is more sensitive in the long scene with Tosca and in the last act he sings an inward E lucevan le stele and caresses O dolci mani. Cavaradossi has been one of his most frequent roles and this is certainly a reliable reading. His Floria Tosca is Renata Scotto and at this stage of her career her voice has lost some of its bloom and she has adopted a rather wide vibrato at forte and above – not unlike Maria Callas’s in fact and her reading is also in the Callas mould, detailed and full of insight. Her Vissi d’arte is restrained and beautiful; here the vibrato is kept well in check.
The supporting roles are excellently cast. John Cheek makes a strong character of Angelotti and his vocal resources are such that he might as well have been singing Scarpia. The veteran Renato Capecchi, almost 60 at the time, is a good Sacristan who avoids too much caricature. That he had retained his magnificent voice is amply demonstrated in the phrase tutta devota e pia. Andrea Velis is a light voiced Spoletta and master violinist Itzhak Perlman is probably the most sonorous gaoler on any recording – a surprising cameo, indeed!
While hardly a first choice this recording has still a great deal to offer. My favourites are still the old Sabata mono recording with Callas and Gobbi and the spectacular Karajan set from around 1960 with Leontyne Price and Giuseppe Taddei. On both sets Giuseppe Di Stefano sings Cavaradossi.
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International Read less