on 24 October 2008
I appreciate that the assumption is always that the de Sabata recording with Callas is definitive but I would encourage any lover of the opera to consider this one. I have both recordings and, fabulous as the Callas recording undoubtedly is, it is this one that I would take to my desert island. It is much better recorded for a start, in true stereo. The sound on the La Scala recording is thin and pinched in comparison. De Stefano is audibly older in this recording but this is still a wonderful performance and Karajan gives him more time to really open out some of those glorious moments and to truly act with his voice. Taddei is more overtly theatrical and over-the-top than Gobbi. Gobbi is the better actor but Taddei's vocal histrionics are utterly overwhelming and he is recorded at the peak of his vocal powers. This Scarpia may not be subtle but he is certainly a believably villainous presence. We all know that Leontyne Price can sing, but she is a good actress as well and there is absolutely no question that her voice is in a different league to Callas in terms of sheer vocal allure. The Vienna Philharmonic are also streets ahead of the La Scala orchestra in precision, subtlety and power. Karajan seems utterly inside the piece and is able to support his singers sensitively with the superb Vienna orchestra. Perhaps there are occasional moments (the death of Scarpia and Tosca's final scene on the battlements) when Callas's vocal acting is unsurpassed by any Tosca on record but this opera has to be more than the sum of a few great moments. The minor parts (Angelotti, the Sacristan, Spoletta) are all more vividly characterised and much better recorded than in any other version that I have heard. I suppose that I would have to concede that I could do with less of Corena's comic "mugging" as the Sacristan. The recording itself comes from a golden era of Decca production and the sense of theatrical space and the atmosphere around the voices is wonderful.
In short, this is a "high gloss" professional "product" compared to the more idiomatic and punchy Italian recording of de Sabata but I find it a compelling theatrical and musical experience. Utterly irresistible and strongly recommended.
on 27 July 2012
One has only to listen to the opening ff chords of this Tosca to hear that Karajan is putting his very personal stamp on it. But this is the Karajan of September 1962 recording for Decca, and a (relatively) youthful energy courses through this personal interpretation. It is clear early on (even, by contrast, in the opening) that Karajan refers on and off to his (and most people's) favorite recording of Tosca, the Triestine Victor de Sabata's 1953 recording with Callas-Di Stefano-Gobbi and the La Scala forces.
But those opening chords, which at a first hearing were so surprising to me they gave me goose bumps, are slower, more willful, and more stylized than de Sabata's, done almost in slow-motion, as if looked at through an acoustic magnifying glass. They introduce us into a world of power, evil and unabashed elegance (they are Scarpia's chords), and they allow the Wiener Philharmoniker to show their force and volume to the hilt. Immediately thereafter, Karajan releases his grip and launches into a lean, well-balanced, lively and romantic reading. Always a master Puccinian, he has no problem unleashing all the beauty and power of the score. It is also clear from those opening chords that the Vienna forces are superior to the La Scala orchestra. And that Culshaw's Decca recording forces are superior to EMI's 1953 team.
Culshaw contributes delightful touches to the effort, aside from the famous Decca clarity and fullness. The bells in Scarpia's Act I dialogue with Tosca ("Tosca divina....") are realistic church bells, ever-so-slightly out of tune so as to be an ambient sound rather than integral part of the orchestra; the cannon sound before and during the slow (Warwick Thompson in his liner notes says "daringly slow") Te Deum is a distant but menacing realistic cannon sound, giving the scene a darkness that is a perfect companion piece to those opening chords. And the firing squad gunshots are believable gunshots (one of Culshaw's masterly touches appears in Karajan's Carmen from the same period: the Act III gunshot that frightens Micaela as she wanders into the gypsies' world makes me jump every time).
It is of course true that Maria Callas is THE Tosca in the 1953 recording, and no one disputes that. She was a supreme actress, and no one can touch that. It is however also true that, to be blunt, her voice had weaknesses, weaknesses that one forgave given the amplitude of her artistry and temperament. I grew up with that 1953 Callas Tosca, and for years could not bear to compare other recordings to it. But Leontyne Price is so satisfying as Tosca that I don't feel the need to compare. Her voice is gorgeous. And, in true belcanto style, she is one of the few sopranos whose voice does not change when she moves from one register to another and does not get shriller when she reaches the high notes. Extraordinary. She may be a lesser actress than Callas at times (this is most evident in Act III), but she sings better.
Di Stefano performs beautifully as Cavaradossi: it is true that some of the freshness has gone out of his voice in the higher register and his high notes sound throaty and strained, but for the rest he sounds pretty much the same as in 1953.
If Callas is the paradigm for Toscas to come, I believe that Gobbi is the paradigm for all other Scarpias. I like Taddei a lot, and he is a fine singer and actor. But I confess I find myself comparing. No matter, in any Olympic podium there are three places, and Taddei fits on it.
on 10 October 2012
Get this Tosca because of Leontyne Price's singing and Karajan's powerfull conducting. Taddei as Scarpia is a every inch the villain. Now for my BUT...
I think Di Stefano is poor here. I know it's shocking but his B flat at the end of Recondita armonia is shouted and thin. All the way though he struggles with the upper line of the role. I don't know whether it was a bad day or signs of deterioration, or both. But when you consider who was around in 1962 it brings tears to my eyes. I stress that I talk about his singing in this recording and not his famed collaboration with Callas, Gobbi and Di Sabata.
Callas had deteriorated by her second recording of this opera but makes up in other ways, Di stefano here does not.
I want to end on a positive note, so I repeat, for Price, Taddei and a thunderous Te Deum from Karajan and the Vienna Phil it's worth buying.