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.

 

Callas’s 1953 Tosca Revisited

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I first reviewed this set when it was reissued by Warner back in 2014 and posted it in my blog shortly after starting it on this platform. You can read that review here and add this review as a sort of codicil.

Though now considered one of the greatest opera recordings ever made, this justly famous recording of Tosca was not universally acclaimed when it was first issued, Alec Robertson comparing Callas’s assumption of the title role unfavourably to Tebaldi’s more dramatic performance. He died in 1982. I wonder if he ever ate his words. Dyneley Hussey made the strange observation that much of Callas’s singing was unrhythmical, which, given Callas’s legendary musical exactitude, now seems entirely incredible.

In all respects (conducting and singing) this Tosca is a more musical performance than the Tebaldi/Erede with which it was being compared, where dramatic effect is applied rather than arising from the music itself.

Despite the excellence of the three principals, the star of the recording for me is Victor De Sabata, who doesn’t so much conduct as mould the score, and consequently the real winner is Puccini, as it should be. Apparently Karajan had John Culshaw play sections of the De Sabata recording to him during sessions for his own equally famous recording of the opera with Leontyne Price. According to Culshaw, “One exceptionally tricky passage for the conductor is the entry of Tosca in act 3, where Puccini’s tempo directions can best be described as elastic. Karajan listened to de Sabata several times over during that passage and then said, ‘No, he’s right but I can’t do that. That’s his secret.'”

Of course De Sabata is immeasurably helped by his cast, who in turn are inspired to give of their best. How Alec Robertson could have thought Campora characterised Cavaradossi better than Di Stefano, who sings not only with his customary face but also with a degree of musical accuracy he didn’t always achieve, is beyond me. Gobbi was, is, and no doubt will always be a touchstone for the role of Scarpia,  a gentleman thug, smoothly reptilian and much more interesting than the conventional villain he is often portrayed. As for Callas, the objections meted out at the time not only seem churlish, but far off the mark. Infinitely feminine and vulnerable, her Tosca is a long way from the cane-touting, flamboyantly capricious character she was usually portrayed in those days, and maybe that was why AR found her less dramatic. She is in her best voice, with scalpel-like attack on the high notes, the voice wonderfully responsive and she brings a welcome bel canto approach to this verismo role.

66 years after it was recorded, it remains the best of all recorded Toscas, a fact brought home to me recently when I compared five of the recordings at present available on Decca. These were Te Kanawa/Solti, Nilsson/Maazel, Freni/Rescigno, Tebaldi/Molinari-Pradelli and Price/Karajan and I will shortly publish my findings. 

Ljuba Welitsch – Complete Columbia Recordings

 

 

Ljuba Welitsch, for the short time her star was in the ascendant, was undoubtedly a star, glamorous both of voice and personality. Renowned the world over for her Salome, a role in which Strauss himself had coached her, she was also known for her Tosca and Donna Anna. Unfortunately she had developed nodules by 1953 and thereafter, though she didn’t retire completely, confined herself to character roles, like the Duenna in the Schwarzkopf/Karajan recording of Der Rosenkavalier.

This two disc set showcases her Salome, Donna Anna and Tosca, as well as Johann Strauss (the Czardas from Die Fledermaus and Saffi’s Gypsy Song from Der Zigeunerbaron). The rest is devoted to Lieder and songs by Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Darogmizhsky, Mussorgsky, Marx, Mahler and Strauss, all with piano accompaniment, even the Vier letzte Lieder.

Whilst we get a good impression of the glamour and the silvery purity on high, the recordings do also rather show up her limitations. Best of the items is the 1949 recording of the Final Scene from Salome under Reiner, though, even here, I prefer the earlier performance she made under Lovro von Matacic in 1944, which, to my mind, has a greater degree of specificity. There is just the suspicion here that she had sung the role too many times; there is a touch of sloppiness in the delivery, which is complelely absent from the earlier recording.

She makes an appreciable Tosca, and something of her stage personality comes across here, but, I hear little of Callas’s detail or Price’s or Tebaldi’s vocal opulence. A tendency to be careless of note values is even more evident in the Donna Anna excerpts, where we also become aware of an unwillingness to vary the volume or colour of her singing. John Steane had similar misgivings in his book The Grand Tradition.

It is hard to think of a voice with a brighter shine to it, or of a singer with greater energy and more sense of joy in that sheer act of producing these glorious sounds. Even here, however, one notes that subtlety is hardly in question; there is little of the lithe seductiveness which Schwarzkopf and Güden bring to the [Fledermaus] Czardas, for instance. And this limits much of her best work, even the Salome in which she made such an exciting impression on her audiences.

 

These limitations are even more evident in the songs with piano, and, though there is still much to enjoy in disc one, I found much of disc two something of a trial to listen to, the voice just too bright and unrelentingly mezza voce. The Strauss Vier letzte Lieder can work with piano, as witness a recording by Barbara Bonney, but here I just longed for the greater subtlety and range of expression of Schwarzkopf or Popp, of Norman or Fleming. The Mahler had me thinking of the shattering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the piano accompanied version, and the Schubert and Schumann songs hardly begin to challenge versions by a range of different sopranos from Welitsch’s time onwards.

If I were to choose but one representation of Welitsch’s art, it would absolutely be the 1949 live recording from the Met of Salome under Reiner, but, for a recital I’d go for EMI’s old LP and CD transfer of the 1944 Salome Final Scene, which also has on it a glorious version of Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, a disc I reviewed a couple of months back here. This present two disc set is, I’m afraid, a mite disappointing.

Ljuba Welitsch – Salome closing scene and other arias

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Tchaikovsky; Eugene Onegin – Tatiana’s Letter Scene
Verdi: Aida – Ritorna vincitor
Puccini: Tosca Vissi d’arte
Puccini: La Boheme – Quando m’en vo
Weber: Der Freschütz – Wie nahthe mir der Schlummer – Leise, leise
Strauss: Salome – Closing Scene

Ljuba Welitsch shot through the operatic firmament like a comet in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Unfortunately she developed nodules on her chords by 1953 and her international career was over almost before it started. In that brief time her Salome at least became the stuff of legend, and to this day is considered one of the greatest of all times, though a prodjected complete recording with Reiner conducting never materialised. There are two live perforances from the Met, from 1949 and 1952. The latter has the best all round cast, but she is in fresher voice in the former.

These recordings all date from the 1940s when her voice was at its silvery best, and the final scene from Salome, conducted by Lovro von Matacic dates from 1944, when Strauss himself chose her to sing the role at the Vienna Opera in a production, which was to celebrate his eightieth birthday. They worked on the piece for six weeks, with Strauss himself attending the rehearsals, so, from that point of view at least, we should consider her performance here as authentic. Indeed this must be exactly the voice Strauss had had in mind. It remains silvery, youthful and light, and yet cuts through the heavy orchestral textures with no apparent effort. Not only that, but her word painting and identification with the role is so vivid that at the end of the scene one literally feels Herod’s distaste when he commands his soldiers to kill her. This scene alone is indispensable, whether one has one of the complete live recordings or not.

The other arias were all recorded between 1947 and 1949, when the voice was still in fine shape, but they do expose some of her weaknesses. The best of them is Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, here sung in German, which teems with girlish impulsiveness and teen-angst longing. There is no sense of strain and the high notes ring out gloriously. Please also take note of the wonderful horn playing of Dennis Brain. This scene ranks as highly as the Strauss in the Welitsch discography.

Musetta’s Waltz makes its effect well, with loads of personality, but she misses the anguish and contrasts in Aida’s Ritorna vincitor, and her Vissi d’arte is rather penny plain. Neither scene really registers anything at all and she has a tendency to rush the beat, which can be quite annoying. The Weber is better, but she still lacks the poise and control evinced by such singers as Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

When the voice started to let her down, she did not retire, but moved to character roles, most famously singing the Duenna in Karajan’s first recording of Der Rosenkavalier. As late as 1972, she played the role of the Duchess of Crakentorp in a Fille du Régiment at the Met.

Not a recital in the true sense of the word, as all these performances were recorded for 78s, this compilaton is essential none the less for the Strauss and Tchaikovsky at least.

Callas as Tosca – Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1964

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I’d forgotten that I hadn’t reviewed the final opera in Warner’s Callas Live Remastered, so, rather belatedly, here it is.

This Tosca marked Callas’s triumphant return to the stage after an almost two year hiatus. She had been lured out of semi-retiremet by Zeffirelli who was also to stage Norma for her in Paris, with the two opera houses sharing the two productions, though, in the event, the Paris Norma never made it to London. Paris did however get to see the Covent Garden Tosca. It was also the vehicle for her last ever stage appearance the following year when she agreed to sing, against doctor’s orders, for a Royal Gala. A couple of months before she had collapsed on stage and was unable to complete a performance of Norma.

At this performance, though the voice is not what it was when she made the famous De Sabata recording eleven years earlier , she is in remarkably good form, and her interpretation has deepened even further, no doubt the product of weeks of intensive rehearsal and her deep rapport with Tito Gobbi. John Copley, who was Zeffirelli’s assistant on the production, once told me he had never before or since come across such complete actor/singers. At rehearsals, Callas and Gobbi would improvise their scenes and then discuss what had worked, what hadn’t, before returning to the scene to incorporate any new ideas, just as straight actors do on stage. According to Gobbi, so close was their connection that they were even able to do this during a performance, so that if anything unusual happened, as it did one night when Callas’s hairpiece caught fire in one of the candles, they could incorporate it into their stage business.

The production has gone down in history as one of the greatest opera productions of all time, and those who were alive to see it still talk about it today. Act II has been preserved on film and goes some way to revealing the Callas magic on stage, but why oh why didn’t they record the whole thing? What a missed opportunity. The fame of the Zeffirelli staging, the iconic photos taken from it and the 1953 recording are no doubt the reason Callas is so much associated with the role, though it was not a favourite of hers, and, truth to tell, she rarely sang it after making the recording, and never at La Scala during her glory days there.

The first thing to be said for this release is that Warner have discovered a new sound source for the performance, and it is a lot better than anything we have heard before. There is a good deal of stage noise to be sure, but both voices and orchestra come across very clearly. It almost sounds like stereo, so clear is the acoustic.

The performance largely justifies its reputation, and is absolutely gripping from start to finish. Cioni is its weakest link, the voice a little thin and reedy, and, possibly intimidated by appearing alongside two such dramatic giants, with a tendency for empty overacting. He is certainly no replacement for Di Stefano in the 1953 recording, or Bergonzi in the 1964 studio recording, on which Callas is in less secure voice than she is here. He’s not at all bad, just not outstanding.

As for Callas, the voice lacks the beauty and velvet of her 1953 self, but, histrionically she is more inside the role than ever. Her Tosca is more feminine, more vulnerable, even more volatile, but somehow more endearing, and her singing is peppered throughout with wonderful little details. She is particularly charming (not a word one usually associates with Callas) in the Act III duet with Cavaradossi, girlishly happy in the way she looks forward to her future, which contrasts brilliantly with her utter despair when that future is cruelly snatched away from her.

Gobbi’s voice has also lost some of its velvet since 1953, but he too is wonderfully inside the role, his vocal acting so vivid you can almost taste the words. Actually one of the pleasures of the set is being able to hear the words so clearly, not only from the three principals, but also from all the excellent comprimarii. Cillario conducts an exciting performance, if without the many subtleties and revelations of De Sabata in the studio, which remains a first choice for the opera. That said, this one is highly enjoyable and I would place it above Callas’s second studio performance. It may not be not the essential listening of some of the other operas in Warner’s live box set are, but it is certainly worth hearing, and nicely rounds off the set, which thus covers almost all of her international stage career, from Nabucco in 1949, just two years after her Italian debut in Verona, to this Tosca, recorded the year before she sang for the last time on the operatic stage.

 

 

Callas’s 1953 Studio Tosca

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Recorded 10-21 August, 1953, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

What can one say about this famous recording of Tosca that hasn’t been said before? It regularly appears in lists of the greatest recordings ever made, and it seems now that its legendary status is confirmed.

Because of it, Tosca has often been considered the quintessential Callas role, but, though she sang it a fair amount in her early career, she pretty much ignored the role after this recording, until it became the vehicle for her operatic comeback in London in 1964. Indeed she never sang it, or any other Puccini role, at La Scala, which was her cultural home at the height of her career. A few months after making this recording she sang the role at a couple of performances in Genoa, then promptly ignored it, except for her two seasons at the Met in 1956 and 1958. In 1964, Zeffirelli managed to get her to choose it as the vehicle for her comeback, but, typically for her, she would only agree if they could do Norma as well, which he staged for her in Paris.

The Zeffirelli production, which was shared by Paris and London, became one of the most famous in operatic history (and in fact Covent Garden only retired it a few years ago). Indeed one could say the photos of Callas in that red velvet dress she wore in Act II have since become iconic, even though Callas herself often voiced her disdain for both the opera and the role.

True, it may not have offered her the vocal challenges of Norma or Medea, of Violetta or Lady Macbeth, but in 1953 her voice was an amazingly limpid and responsive instrument, enabling her to easily encompass its demands, whilst rendering the score with an accuracy the likes of Tebaldi and Milanov could only dream of. Take, for instance, the lightness and grace with which she sings a line like le voce delle cose in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta. Most Toscas are clumsy here, but Callas sings it with elegant ease. Furthermore at this stage in her career, she can swell the tone to a refulgent climax at Arde in Tosca un folle amor, which she can’t quite manage by the time of the second recording, which was recorded around the same time as the London and Paris performances.

Interestingly, though, in terms of interpretation, there are not that many differences between Callas’s Tosca of 1953 and 1964; a few minor details here and there, but for the most part the character of Tosca is as musically finished here as it was to be histrionically in Covent Garden. Though Zeffirelli may have helped her with odd bits of stage business, it seems sure that her conception of the character had changed little in the intervening years. The main differences are vocal, and here she rides the orchestra with power to spare, the top Cs, that emerged as little more than shrieks in 1964, full throated and solid as a rock. Vissi d’arte (which Callas used to say should be cut as it held up the action) is both beautiful and heart-rending. So it is in 1964, but the ending taxes her to the limit there, whereas here it is full throated and easy.

Of course there are other reasons why this set has retained its place as the best of all Tosca recordings. Gobbi is also in fuller, securer voice here than he was in 1964, and his loathsome, reptilian Scarpia is a towering achievement. As usual, he and Callas strike sparks off each other, their confrontations bristling with tension. Di Stefano, who also appears on the first Karajan recording, is here in his best voice, an ardent, youthful and passionate Cavaradossi. Both duets with Callas are erotically charged affairs, as they should be.

Then of course, there is De Sabata on one of his rare excursions to the studio. The La Scala orchestra play superbly for him, and he unerringly paces the score just perfectly, with a sure sense of the work’s inner impetus, his use of rubato  brilliantly controlled. In a performance such as this, the one true winner is Puccini.

Sonically it is surely the best of all Callas’s studio mono sets from La Scala. One hardly notices the lack of stereo; voices are perfectly placed and the orchestra sounds richer and more full-bodied than was often the case. This transfer has also corrected some of the errors that crept into previous CD incarnations, not least the terrible GROC version.

Still the Tosca to have, and blow stereo digital sound.

Callas’s 1964 studio Tosca

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Recored July 1964 and January 1965, Salle Wagram, Paris.

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Paul Vavaseur

 

I hadn’t heard this set in maybe 20 years. It was actually one of the first complete opera sets I owned, the renowned 1953 De Sabata recording being unavailable when I first started collecting in the late 1960s. According to Zeffirelli, the recording was originally intended to be the soundtrack of a film, a project that unfortunately fell through, but, in any case, EMI obviously wanted to cash in on the success of Callas and Gobbi’s performances together in 1964 and 1965 in London, Paris and New York. Considering how closely they are associated with their respective roles, it is a surprise to find that before the Zeffirelli production at Covent Garden, they had only once before played opposite each other in the opera, and then only in a performance of Act II at a Paris Opera Gala, and yet they cast their shadows over the opera as no others do.

Let’s first get the caveats out of the way. Pretre doesn’t have De Sabata’s grip on the score, but he has his moments, and the torture scene is particularly thrilling; Callas’s voice is considerably trimmed down from the first recording and some of the top Cs are closer to screams than actual notes, though, in this new pressing, they don’t seem anywhere near as bad as I remember them; Gobbi too has lost some of his vocal sheen, but is as authoritative as ever.

However, we should remember that this recording was made at about the same time as Callas and Gobbi were appearing on stage. Even without seeing them, you sense their deep rapport. The producer John Copley was Zeffirelli’s assistant on the Covent Garden production, and he once told me that rehearsing with Callas and Gobbi was not like rehearsing with opera singers at all. Zeffirelli would let them run a whole scene, improvising their moves as you would with actors. They would then sit down and discuss what had worked, what hadn’t and go back over the scene incorporating any new ideas that came up. In all his career, he said, he has never come across such complete actor-singers. This ability to play off each other comes across in all their scenes on disc.

I do miss Callas’s ability to soar and swell the tone at a line such as Egli vedi ch’io piango, but their are compensations. When she cries Non posso piu in Act II, this is literally the sound of a woman at the end of her tether, and her chest tones in son io che cosi torturata rend the heart. In the last act, her recounting of the murder lacks the power of the De Sabata, though she manages Io quella lama gli piantai nel cor better than expected with an exciting plunge into chest voice. Here too the top C sounds better than I remember; I assume this must be something to do with the improved sound picture. Her Tosca on this set is more feminine, more vulnerable, if you like, with dozens of lovely touches in the love duets, if not the ability to ride the orchestra that she had in the first recording.

Gobbi still sounds superb. I doubt I will ever hear another Scarpia to rival him. His Scarpia is a gentleman and a thug and more interesting because of that. A man of impeccable manners, who never gets his hands dirty, making sure he has minions to do his dirty work for him. His performance, too is full of detail. From the unconcerned way he sings La povera mia cena fu interrotta, cruelly feigning surprise at Tosca’s distress, to the ironic tone he adopts at violenza non ti faro, this is a man completely in control.

Cavaradossi? Well Bergonzi sings beautifully, but I missed Di Stefano’s ardour, his winning personality, and he is in especially good voice in the De Sabata recording. Beside him Bergonzi sounds a bit anonymous.

The orchestra play well for Pretre, but they are not the equal of the La Scala players, and of course this set will never replace the classic De Sabata Tosca, which is considered one of the classic opera recordings of all time. This one isn’t entirely without merit, though, and Callas completists will definitely want to have it in their collection.