Puccini: Tosca
Maria Callas, soprano (Tosca); Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Cavaradossi); Tito Gobbi, baritone (Scarpia); Franco Calabrese, bass (Angelotti); Angelo Mercuriali, tenor (Spoletta); Melchiorre Luise, bass (Sacristan); Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Victor de Sabata, cond.
EMI CMS 67759 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 1:49:34
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Puccini: Tosca
Renata Tebaldi, soprano (Tosca); Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Cavaradossi); Ettore Bastianini, baritone (Scarpia); Nicola Zaccaria, bass (Angelotti); Rinaldo Pelizzoni, tenor (Spoletta); Carlo Badioli, bass (Sacristan); Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond.
Premiere Opera, Ltd. (2 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 1:59:08
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EMI Classics, as part of its Great Recordings of the Century series, has reissued one of its greatest - the 1953 Maria Callas Tosca. Actually this GROTC issue represents the third CD release of this extraordinary document.

Thousands of words have been written about the superb and unique aspects of this recording. Suffice it to say that this EMI Tosca captures three glorious singing-actors - Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, and Giuseppe di Stefano - at the height of their powers. They are under the inspired leadership of Victor de Sabata, a brilliant conductor woefully underrepresented on disc. All of these artists, along with the La Scala Orchestra and Chorus, join forces to deliver a performance that, fifty years after its first issue, remains the touchstone by which all others are judged.

I suspect that most people reading this review already own this classic recording, either in its LP form, or in one or both of the previous compact disc issues. And so of course, the $64,000.00 question (actually, it's closer to a $26.00 question) is whether one needs to acquire the GROTC version as well.

The answer, I think, is a resounding "yes."  The previous compact disc issues offered remarkable clarity and detail, as well as the absence of LP surface noise. But those CD releases were also marred by a sonic harshness that made listening a fatiguing experience. On this new GROTC issue the sonic picture retains all the detail of the previous releases, but in a much warmer and more natural acoustic. In short, this magnificent performance is finally available in sound that does it justice. The deluxe box contains a large booklet, featuring texts and translations, along with an essay by Richard Osborne on Tosca and the EMI recording. A separate booklet contains an essay on Callas by Tony Locantro. There are also post cards with a picture from the recording session, as well as stills of Callas and Gobbi in costume.

Another compelling Tosca, again with forces of La Scala, is now available from Premiere Opera, Ltd. The performance, broadcast from the stage of the Brussels Auditorium on 20 June 1958, features another stellar cast. The one carry-over from the EMI recording is Giuseppe di Stefano's Cavaradossi. The tenor is not quite in the rarified form captured on the EMI studio recording. Still he is in fine voice (certainly far better than in the 1962 recording under von Karajan) and passionately involved. Di Stefano's Act II denunciation of Scarpia is the most gripping I've heard. The tenor's beautiful rendition of "E lucevan le stelle," with a protracted diminuendo and fiery climax, justifies the audience's ecstatic response.

Renata Tebaldi made two commercial recordings of Tosca for London (1952 and 1959). They find this wonderful soprano in excellent voice and are well worth hearing. But even if you own one or both of those commercial recordings, I think there is much to be gained from hearing Tebaldi perform one of her greatest role before an audience, where she seemed inclined to give more of herself, both vocally and dramatically. A 1956 broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera with Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, and Dimitri Mitropoulos is a fine representation of Tebaldi's "in the flesh" Tosca. But that recording may be difficult to acquire, particularly in the United States. It's gratifying then that the 1958 Brussels Tosca presents Tebaldi in equally superb voice and dramatic form.

Even if this Brussels Tosca featured a pedestrian Scarpia the performance would be worth purchasing for the contributions of di Stefano and, especially, Tebaldi. But the Scarpia is the wonderful Italian baritone, Ettore Bastianini. And since Bastianini (unlike di Stefano and Tebaldi) never participated in a commercial recording of Tosca, this release is of even greater value. This is not to suggest that Bastianini's Scarpia is anything special from an interpretive point of view. He cannot, for example, begin to touch Gobbi's varied and subtle approach. To a great degree, Bastianini is content to allow the majesty of his voice portray Scarpia's menace and power. But since Ettore Bastianini's remarkably vibrant and dark-hued voice was one of the glories of the post-war era, his Scarpia emerges as a commanding presence. Both the Te Deum and Act II confrontation with Tosca ignite more than their share of fireworks.

Conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni admirably maintains the flow and tension of the performance. The broadcast sound has considerable presence and clarity (including a constantly audible prompter). The packaging includes a cast list and performance date. There are no texts and translations.

K.M.  (May 2002)