A clutch of Decca Toscas

For this comparison, I have chosen five different recordings of Tosca, all available from Decca Classics.

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First off I revisited the 1984 Solti Tosca but have to say I got bored before the end of Act I and then just tried various bits in the other two acts. The sound is great. Apart from that the best thing in it is Aragall, though I wouldn’t prefer him to Di Stefano, Domingo, Carreras or Bergonzi, all of whom appear on other more recommendable recordings. Nucci is a dead loss and Te Kanawa out of her depth as Tosca. Solti’s conducting has little to commend it either, too slow in places and too fast in others. It just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole, and considering it was all recorded piecemeal, that’s hardly a surprise. I remember this set was originally issued in a blaze of publicity, but it didn’t sell well and was quickly remaindered. A totally forgettable performance. 

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Where I found the Solti a bit of a bore, this 1966 set is quite interesting, but often for all the wrong reasons. First of all Maazel’s conducting is fussy beyond belief. He can hardly let a phrase go by without pulling around the tempo or trying to bring out some detail in the score. There is no lyrical flow or sweep and ultimately Puccini gets lost on the altar of Maazel’s ego.

Fischer-Dieskau’s Scarpia is, as you would expect, intelligently thought out, but it never sounds idiomatic. He is an artist I admire in the right repertoire but Puccini was not for him. Corelli is, well, Corelli. He is definitely the best of the three principals, but he emphasises the heroic at the expense of the seductive. Nonetheless, as always, there is much to enjoy in the sound of the voice itself.

Then there is Nilsson. Well the top notes are fabulous of course, but this isn’t really a good role for her. She often overdoes the histrionics, as in her first scene with Scarpia where she adds a surfeit of sobs. She can also be a little clumsy in the ligher sections and Non la sospiri la nostra casetta is clumsy and unpolished. Ultimately, like Fischer-Dieskau, she sounds as if she had strayed into the wrong opera.

For all that I found this more enjoyable than the Solti, which is just plain dull. At least all the singers here have a personality.

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So I’ve moved on to the 1978 Rescigno in this mini challenge and there’s little here to detain us. In fact I’d be tempted to place this below the Maazel, which at least has interest value. Rescigno was a favourite of Callas’s, recording many of her recital albums and delivering at least one great performance in the live 1958 Covent Garden Traviata but his conducting here is just plain dull. Like Te Kanawa, Freni is completely out of her depth, the voice just too light even at this stage of her career. I expected Milnes to be more interesting, especially when you think of his Jack Rance, but for some reason his Scarpia just isn’t nasty enough. Which leaves Pavarotti, who sounds out of sorts vocally. The velvet has gone from his voice and he often sounds plain whiney. Not surprisingly his Vittoria! is very small scale when set beside Corelli’s. And small scale is what personifies the whole performance, but that’s not what Tosca needs.

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At last a real Tosca voice! Aside from at the very top of the voice when she can be a bit shrieky, Tebaldi fulfils almost all the demands the role asks of her. I say almost, because she doesn’t quite have Callas’s flexibility and lightness of touch in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta, but then few do. The beauty of the voice is well caught and she is a convincing Tosca. It’s not a particularly subtle performance, from any of the singers, but they do all have splendid voices of the requisite size and weight. Del Monaco is much better than I remembered, though he still bawls from time to time and his arias lack poetry. George London is the best of the Scarpias so far, his voice dark and threatening.

What lets this set down is the routine conducting of Molinari-Pradelli. He is a good accompanist, nothing more. Still, worth hearing for the three lead singers. The 1959 recording sounds good for its age.

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So I’ve come to the end of my mini Decca Tosca challenge and what a difference the conductor makes. This 1962 recording is in an altogether different class from the others and the chief reason for that is Karajan’s elastic conducting, which is incredibly controlled without being rigid. Where Maazel’s conducting draws attention to itself because of the way he fusses with the rhythms, Karajan’s rubato is entirely natural. He has at his disposal a cast as well nigh perfect as any other assembled on disc. Taddei’s Scarpia is the best I’ve heard since Gobbi, sounding equally dangerous but in a completely different way. You feel this man could lash out viciously at any second. Gobbi’s Scarpia would be unlikely to get his own hands dirty, but you feel Taddei’s not ony would but would enjoy doing so. Di Stefano is in slightly fresher voice for De Sabata but he is still an excellent Cavaradossi, and I actually prefer him to both Corelli and Del Monaco. He fulfils all aspects of the character, artist, lover and revolutionary, finding the poetry in his arias and an almost crazed fervour in his cries of Vittoria. He brings more “face” to his character than anyone. Truly this was one of his very best roles.

Which leaves us with Price and here I have a feeling I might be treading on controversial ground. The voice is, of course, absolutely gorgeous, her characterisation sensuous and feminine, and her singing is deeply felt (Vissi d’arte is really lovely). She is a good deal preferable to Nilsson, Freni or Te Kanawa, but I would still place Callas and Tebaldi ahead of her in the Tosca canon. The Callas/De Sabata I know so well that it tends to play in my mind’s ear whenever I hear the opera, but I had also just listened to Tebaldi in the role and she sounds more like a natural for it to me. It’s hard to put my finger on what is missing, but I’d no doubt be perfectly happy with her Tosca if I hadn’t heard Callas and Tebaldi in the role. Nonethless she is one of the best Toscas on record and in very good company.

So now having heard all five of these Decca recordings, my final ordering would be

1. (by a fair margin) Karajan
2. Molinari-Pradelli (the only other really worth hearing, mostly for Tebaldi’s Tosca and London’s Scarpia)
3. Maazel
4. Rescigno
5. Solti

The De Sabata would still be my ultimate first choice, but the Karajan has also stood the test of time and anyone wanting an audio Tosca would be happy with either. If stereo sound is a must, then Karajan is the obvious first choice.

 

Franco Corelli – Great Operatic Tenors

This two-disc compilation is drawn from the EMI catalogue and includes arias taken both from complete sets and recital discs.

People often go misty-eyed at the mere mention of Franco Corelli and he still inspires a huge following among opera lovers. For many he can do no wrong, and certianly the voice was a magnificent one, unique and no doubt a God-given gift. For me it’s more often a case of (to paraphrase the song from A Chorus Line) voice ten, artistry three. Not always, I hasten to add, and, if the performances on this set are anything to go by, he did respond to a strong hand at the helm. Predictably the best of them tend to be taken from complete sets, particularly those conducted by Zubin Mehta (Celeste Aida), Lovro von Matacic (Vesti la giubba) and Tullio Serafin (Pollione’s Meco all’altar di Venere from the second Callas Norma), which is arguably the best of all).

These are all on Disc One, where elsewhere there is just too much can belto sobbing. Manrico’s Ah si, ben mio, from the Schippers complete set, is delivered at a relentless forte (why not his stunning Di qella pira, I wonder?), as are the excerpts from the Santini recording of Andrea Chénier. Worst of all is the graceless, over-loud version of Roméo’s Ah, lève-toi, soleil, sung in execrable French. Listen to this and then to Bjørling, Kraus, Gedda or Alagna to hear how beautifully poetic the aria can sound.

Disc 2 has even less to commend it, I’m afraid. The best performances are taken from a recital record with an unknown orchestra under one, Franco Ferraris. Cavaradossi’s Recondita armonia lacks poetry, but E lucevan le stelle is much better, though he rather ruins the final measures with an excess of sobbing. Cielo e mar is also a fine, sensitive performance, with the added bonus of those gloriously free and ringing top notes.
The less said about some of the other items though, the better. After the operatic arias, we are treated (I’m not sure that is the correct word) to a selection from, presumably, a record of sacred arias, all in absolutey ghastly arrangements. Handel’s ubiquitous Largo from Semele is mangled almost beyond recognition, the Schubert and Bach/Gounod Ave Marias sung through a sort of treacle soup, and Rossini’s Domine Deus from the Petite Messe Solenelle bludgeoned to death. Franck’s Panis angelicus, taken, by the looks of things, from another album, doesn’t fare much better, nor, surprisngly does Lara’s Granada from the same album. Not entirely Corelli’s fault, as the arrangement is quite possibly the most ghastly I’ve ever heard, the tempo pulled around so much the piece loses any sense of flow. What price Wunderlich’s gloriously ebullient and sunny version for DG? Corelli sounds plain angry, but who can blame him when the accompanment is so awful?.

Fortunately the final two items somewhat redeem this sorry mess. The arrangements might not be much better, but in Cardillo’s Core ‘ngrato and De Curtis’s Torna a Sorriento, one just basks in the Mediterranean warmth of Corelli’s glorious tenor. It is moments like these that remind us of why we listen to him.

Callas and Corelli in Poliuto _ La Scala, Milan 1960

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Paolina in Donizetti’s Poliuto was Callas’s final new role. The opera opened the 1960/1961 season at La Scala, an honour granted to Callas five times since her official debut in I Vespri Siciliani in 1951. It also marked her return to the house since her last performances of Imogene in Il Pirata in 1958. The opera was to have been directed by Luchino Visconti, but he had withdrawn from the project in protest after his film Rocco e suoi fratelli had been censored by the Italian authorities. The sumptuous designs were by Nicola Benois, and Herbert Graf took over from Visconti as director.

The opening gala was attended by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the Begum Aga Khan, Onassis and what one might call the worldwide glitterati, all of whom had come not for Donizetti, but to see the most famous woman in opera, Maria Callas. Callas herself had had only two other engagements in 1960, singing Norma at the ancient amphitheatre in Epidaurus in Greece (the first time opera had ever been staged there) and making her second recording of the same opera for EMI. Nor did these performances signal a return to her erstwhile busy schedule. Her 1961 schedule was not much busier. She made her first disc of French arias, sang some arias with Sir Malcolm Sargent at the piano at a concert at St James’s Palace in London, and appeared in a new productions of Medea in Epidaurus and at La Scala. After a couple more performances of Medea at La Scala in 1962, she didn’t return to the stage until 1964 for the Covent Garden Tosca and the Paris Norma.

Paolina may seem a strange choice for Callas, considering that she is something of a secondary character to that of her husband, Poliuto, but publicity accompanying her every move was now at such a feverish level, that she no doubt thought it would take some of the pressure off her comeback at La Scala. An example of the hysteria which now surrounded her every move is the prolonged ovation which greets her first entrance, so loud and long that Votto has to stop the introduction to her aria and re-start after the hullabaloo has died down.

The reason I mention all this is that it helps place this performance in context, giving us an insight into Callas’s state of mind and the condition of her voice, and there is no doubting she seems nervous and uncharacteristically tentative at her first entrance. It is evident she is treading with caution, though, characteristically, her phrasing is as eloquent as ever. In Act II she appears to have gained in confidence, and the duet with Severo goes quite well. However she is still cautious in the upper reaches and an attempt at a top D at the end of the act is soon abandoned.

Her most eloquent singing comes in the Act III duet with Poliuto, and though the top of the voice is no more secure here than elsewhere, her singing is reminiscent of some of her best work. I remember a recording of this duet sung by Montserrat Caballé and her husband Bernabé Marti, but, though Caballé’s tone may be more ingratiating, her handling of the music is clumsy in comparison to Callas’s, nor does she make anything of the descending scale passages in Un fulgido lume, which Callas imbues with such significance.

Corelli is a splendid Poliuto, his voice burnished and golden, and less likely to indulge in those annoying sobs he often introduces into his singing of verismo, and the opera is cast from strength, with superb performances from Bastianini and Zaccaria. Votto, though he makes some swathing cuts to the score, is a reliable, if not particularly inspired, leader.

Being from 1960, the sound on this recording has always been quite good, and this new Warner master would appear to be a new transfer of the EMI one, which was also reasonably acceptable. A qualified success then. Not Callas at her best certainly, but definitely worth a listen.

 

Callas in La Vestale – La Scala 1954

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7 December, the feast of St Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, is the official opening date of the La Scala season, and for the third time in four years, Callas was granted the privilege of opening the new season with a new production. This was also the first time she worked with Luchino Visconti, who was lured into directing opera by the prospect of working with Callas. He had first fallen under her spell when he saw her as Kundry in Rome in 1949; from that day onwards he tried to catch as many of her performances as he could . Between 1954 and 1957 he directed Callas in some of La Scala’s most iconic productions, La SonnambulaLa TraviataAnna Bolena and Ifigenia in Tauride. He was also to have directed her return to the theatre in 1960 in Poliuto, but he withdrew in protest after his film Rocco e suoi fratelli was censored by the Italian authorities.

This was Callas’s first appearance in Italy after the spectacular success of her first season in Chicago, which was her US debut. Her hair was now blonde (a short lived effect) and the transformation from everyone’s idea of an overweight prima donna to a svelte, elegant picture of glamour was complete.

With designs by Pietro Zuffi and sets by Nicola Benois, the production certainly looked stunning, and was cast from strength, with Franco Corelli as Licinio, Ebe Stignani as La Gran Vestale and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Il Sommo Sacerdote, but, for all the splendour of the staging and the excellence of the singing the opera failed to ignite the imagination the way Medea (even more unknown) had the previous year, and there the fault must lie with Spontini. whose music resists even Callas’s attempts to bring it to life. Though the opera is often dubbed a “junior” Norma, the character of Giulia has none of Norma’s inner turmoil or ultimate sacrifice, her sentiments, whether mooning over Licinio or gazing upward to Vesta, all too similar.

Callas does what she can, filling the music with her customary passion and wide palette of tone colour, and she moulds the phrases beautifully, her legato in such sections as O nume tutelar well nigh impeccable. Thrilling too is her propulsive singing of the cabaletta to Tu che invoco, but Spontini’s music never allows her to make the impression she does as Norma or Medea, or even Alceste.

The cause of the opera is not helped by Votto’s stodgy, soggy conducting. Maybe it needs a John Eliot Gardiner to bring it to life, as it rather resists even Riccardo Muti’s efforts in his recording.

For the rest, we have Corelli, compensating for some less than stylish singing with the clarion brilliance of his voice, Stignani a matronly Gran Vestale, which is apt enough for the character, I suppose, and Rossi-Lemeni dramatically committed, if woolly toned.

The sound here is no better nor worse than any of the other transfers I’ve heard, and distortion and overloading is, as it was in Alceste, pretty bad. I am happy that we have this document of a key production in Callas’s career, but, truth to tell, it is not an opera I turn to often, finding that the best of Giulia is to be heard in the three arias Callas later recorded in the studio with Serafin for the Callas at La Scala recital disc.

Callas’s 1960 Studio Norma

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Recorded 5-12 September 1960, Teatra alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellineck, Balance Engineer: Robert Gooch

This was actually the first opera set I ever owned, and, so it comes with a host of memories. I was only 18. Why Norma for a first opera, you might ask. Well I had recently discovered Callas, and at that time very little of her recorded repertoire was available. I knew that Norma was considered her greatest role, so I thought it would be a good place to start. Collecting opera was expensive in those days, and my older brother, who was working by this time, bought the set for me for Christmas. I was unbelievably excited, my excitement only slightly tempered by the discovery that no libretto was included, only a synopsis, and that I would have to send off for it, not of course that I waited for its arrival before sampling the set.

It being my one and only opera set for a good few months, I got to know the opera pretty well, and of course Callas’s unique inflections will for ever be part of that knowledge. Since then of course, I have heard a fair amount of other Normas, Sutherland, Caballe, Eaglen, Bartoli (please, never again), Sass live at Covent Garden (disastrous) and plenty more by Callas herself; the live 1952 Covent Garden, the 1954 studio, the 1955 Rome broadcast and, best of all, the live 1955 La Scala, as well as excerpts from many others, right up to her final performances in the role in Paris in 1964.

So how does it hold up? Well, pretty well actually. True, notes above the stave have taken on a metallic edge, and they don’t always fall easily on the ear, but the middle and lower timbres have a new found beauty, and a characterisation that was always complex and multi-faceted has taken on an even greater depth, parts of it voiced more movingly here than anywhere else.

There are other gains too. The cast here is a vast improvement on the earlier studio one, Corelli in particular being a shining presence. Fillipeschi was a liability on the earlier set, but, whilst not quite a paragon, and chary of some of the coloratura in his role (Serafin making a further cut in the great In mia man duet to accommodate his lack of flexibility), Corelli’s is a noble presence, and his clarion voice is ample compensation. Zaccaria may be less authoritative than the woolly voiced Rossi-Lemeni, but his tones are distinctly more buttery. Ludwig is an unexpected piece of casting, but she too is an improvement on Stignani, who, great singer though she was, was beginning to sound a bit over the hill by the time of the first Callas recording (she was 50 to Callas’s 30). Ludwig sounds, as she should, like the younger woman. Her coloratura isn’t always as accurate as one would like, certainly no match for Callas, but she sings most sympathetically in duet with her older colleague, and Mira o Norma is, for me, one of the greatest performances on disc. After Ludwig states the main theme, Callas comes in quietly almost imperceptibly and at a slightly slower tempo with an unbearably moving Ah perche, perche, her voice taking on a disembodied pathetic beauty. When Ludwig joins her for the section in thirds, she perfectly matches Callas’s tone on her first note, before Callas joins her in harmony, a real example of artists listening to each other in a sense of true collaboration.

One should I suppose mention the losses from the earlier recording. Yes, some of Callas’s top notes are shrill, and we lose some of the barnstorming heroics that were a part of Callas’s Norma right up to 1955. This Norma is more feminine, more vulnerable, if you like. How much this had to do with interpretive development, and how much with declining vocal resources is a moot point, but there is no doubt Callas is still a great singer, doing the best she can with what she has. Some sections are more moving here than in any of her other performances. I’ve already singled out Mira o Norma but the earlier duet is its equal, Callas wistfully recalling her own awakening to first love.

The beginning of Act II always brought out the best in her, and here she is sublime. Dormono entrambi is an unusual piece which alternates passages of recitative with arioso, rather like Rigoletto’s Pari siamo. Callas draws on all the colours in her palette to express Norma’s contrasting emotions. You can almost feel the chill that comes over her at un gel me prende e in fronte si solleva il crin followed by the choked emotion of I figli uccidi! The arioso of Teneri figli is couched in a tone of infinite, poignant sadness, but then her tone hardens with her resolve at Di Pollion son figli, before, with a cry she drops the knife (and we can almost hear the precise moment), crying out Ah no, son miei figli! Operatic singing and acting on the highest level.

Serafin’s conducting is much as it was in the first set. He has the virtue of not conducting the opera as if it were Verdi, as so many do. Sometimes I’d like him to get a move on a bit, but his pacing of the final two duets (one in public, one in private) is superb, and he perfectly judges the climaxes in the Grand Finale, one of the greatest in all opera.

I’ve always found it difficult to choose between Callas’s studio recordings of Norma. I wouldn’t want to be without either. Nor would I want to be without her 1955 live La Scala account, with Del Monaco and Simionato, which is where voice and art find their greatest equilibrium. One thing is for sure, Callas remains the quintessential Norma. No singer has yet challenged her hegemony in the role.