Notes and Editorial Reviews
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Price pours forth a flood of rich, glorious tone
We have been needing a new Tosca for a long time. Admittedly as a performance the Callas/Gobbi/de Sabata set is never likely to be surpassed, but the recording now shows its age, and stereo after all is specially welcome in an opera which has us revelling in cantatas, shepherd songs and bell-effects off-stage. The earlier RCA set is practically ruled out by Leinsdorf's funereal conducting and the later Tebaldi—the only stereo version so far available—by the combination of del Monaco's coarseness and George London's unfocused singing as Scarpia. Last year
there were rumours of a new Callas version being prepared with Maazel conducting, but alas plans came to nothing.
All of which leaves the field wide open for the new set, and with joy I am able to report that on the whole it fills just the place I hoped it would. After her Butterfly I feared that Leontyne Price might spoil the characterization of Tosca too by trying too hard, by injecting those uncomfortable shrieks and laughs which are sometimes a substitute for characterization. But like Tebaldi before her Price gives a comparatively straight performance. This is not to say it lacks conviction in any way dramatically: just that it does not have the characterful dominance of a Callas performance. When Price in the Act 1 love duet tells her lover to give the painting of the Magdalene black eyes and not blue ones like the Marchesa Attavanti's ("Ma falli occhi neri"), Price's wistfulness is merely engaging without the fascinating, ominous overtones of Callas's enunciation of the phrase.
But vocally this is not a performance I would fault at all. Price pours forth a flood of rich, glorious tone and her attention to detail is exemplary with the little grace-notes on the "Mia gelosa" theme from Act 1 done with superb clarity. Her "Vissi d'arte" is predictably beautiful, from memory more moving than her account on a recent recital disc. And when it comes to the famous words of obituary on Scarpia, "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma", Price wisely opts out of a snarl or even a chesty throb, and simply sings the notes straight with a hint of agonized exhaustion. Some may find it dramatically disappointing, but at this very point in the coda to the act Karajan is at his most intense. At the very end of Act 3 too Karajan keeps things taut, when Price is not at her most convincing.
I was at first a little disappointed with a lack of size in Taddei's Scarpia, but that is possibly the result of John Culshaw's balancing of voices and orchestra (the recording was made by Decca for RCA) and you have to get used to the orchestra being nearer and the singers farther away than usual, and in the Te Deum ending Act 1 the pot-and-pan noises of the orchestra are much closer than the chorus, and even than Scarpia himself.
But even if the house-rattling amplitude of a Guelfi is not here, there is everything else to praise. Taddei hardly matches the Gobbi snarl of course, but as with Gobbi his range of expression and tone-colour is marvellously wide. The opening scenes of Act 2 are specially impressive with the catlike satisfaction of the first secticm exactly matching Karajan's 'pussy-footing' style and the pizzicato accompaniments made more sinister by slight distortions of the rhythm. Then in the scene with Cavaradossi Taddei's black tone emerges in its full impressiveness, only to be turned in a flash to a far lighter, warmer tone for the beginning of the duet with Tosca and later still to a fresh expansion when the torture is described. On record, I think, only Gobbi has outshone this in a complete set.
Giuseppe di Stefano is the snag. I fear the voice is not quite what it was, as became very clear in the Boheme performances at Covent Garden last month. There is a hint of insecurity particularly towards the top, but happily—whatever the recording balance—there is no hint here of any lack of volume. The opening of "Recondita armonia" had me beginning to worry about what was to come, but in fact di Stefano's obvious need nowadays to take more care vocally prevents him from committing those overstrained climaxes which have often marred his singing. But perhaps to cover insecurity he does play around with simple, quiet passages which demand straight singing. So the opening of "E lucevan le stelle" is crooned not with the permissible beautified tone of a Gigli or Tagliavini but in a careless off-hand way with sliding between notes. Similarly in the duet at "O dolci mani".
But for all his shortcomings I cannot think that di Stefano will turn anyone away from the set with its other fine qualities. After all we are well used to putting up with faults in Italian tenors. Among the others Corena must be mentioned as the Sacristan, though I fear his voice is not as steady as it once was, and he covers up with some near sing-speech, very characterful and jolly, but not my ideal even in this part.
Karajan clinches the argument in favour of the set, and the experiment—first made in the Decca Aida and later in the Decca Otello—of having the recording sessions in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic lending refinement has paid off splendidly. It is a joy to hear Puccini's orchestration— so much subtler than many realize—brought out with such precision, and often as in the opening scene with the Sacristan, I am only too delighted after all that Mr. Culshaw does have the orchestra close up. But Karajan's impressiveness consists of more than drawing brilliant playing from the Vienna Philharmonic. Rightly he has avoided the restrained style he adopted for his Aida and there is no pulling of punches at the nodal points when one or other of Scarpia's themes is roared out and the three 'victory' climaxes which Puccini inserted in balance half-way through each of the three acts have their full impact. The tension-building in Act 2 is wonderfully controlled and the final killing of Scarpia has one on the edge of one's seat. Only in the reunion of the lovers in Act 3 when the "Mia gelosa" theme surges out in full triumph .do I feel the need for richer treatment, and that is the most marginal of disappointments. As for the gentler moments Karajan's control of tension shows itself at its most impressive. I have already mentioned the coda to Act 2, and all the way through one always has the sense of someone firmly in control.
One snag about having the recording in Vienna was that the shepherd-boy had to try and imitate a throaty Italian style and did not come to it naturally. Herbert Weiss does very well, but cannot quite throw off the Vienna Boys' Choir halo of innocence. The full chorus is as impressive in its accuracy as the orchestra.
The recording is spacious and clear with the off-stage effects balanced nicely—not only the major ones like the chorus of bells but such things as the clanging of grilles which provide a reasonable enough indication of entrances and exits. I am glad that for the first part of Tosca's Act 1 duet with Scarpia very genuine-sounding chimes are 4 used with cathedral-like out-of-tuneness, a very atmospheric touch. The firingsquad's shot in Act 3 is perhaps too diffuse, a real fusillade with echo rather than the short sharp crack which is still so impressive on the early Decca, now Ace of Clubs, set.
As yet I have heard only the mono version, but it is clear enough from that how excellent the recording is. I am confident that the sense of atmosphere will be still more gripping in stereo.
-- Gramophone [11/1963], reviewing the original release
Works on This Recording
Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
Alfredo Mariotti (Bass),
Giuseppe Di Stefano (Tenor),
Giuseppe Taddei (Baritone),
Fernando Corena (Tenor),
Leontyne Price (Soprano),
Piero de Palma (Tenor),
Carlo Cava (Bass),
Leonardo Monreale (Bass),
Herbert Weiss (Boy Soprano)
Herbert von Karajan
Vienna State Opera Chorus,
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1900; Italy
Date of Recording: 09/1962
Venue: Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria
Length: 113 Minutes 30 Secs.
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