BBC Music Magazine
An all-consuming experience
Maria Callas (Tosca)
Giuseppe di Stefano (Cavaradossi), Tito Gobbi (Scarpia), Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan/ Victor de Sabata
Warner Classics 2564634103
Recorded in August 1953, in the middle of a Milanese heatwave, this classic set exudes all the white-hot passion one could wish for from this most hypertheatrical of operas. It’s a no-holds-barred performance, made in the days of bigbudget studio recordings when there was both time and money to get absolutely everything just right. Conductor Victor de Sabata and producer Walter Legge were notorious perfectionists, insisting on countless takes, but boy, was it worth it. Mono sound? Who cares?
Though the musical merits are numerous, it’s the acting that really impresses here, all three principals – soprano Maria Callas as Tosca, tenor Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi and baritone Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia – adapting their vocal colour by the bar to capture the twists and turns of the drama. The result is a performance that is all-consuming, which will take you on an exhilarating ride and spit you out emotionally ragged at the other end.
Callas is in her element here, a prowling tiger from her first offstage cry of ‘Mario’, the intrinsic rawness to her voice just right for this heroine on the edge. Gobbi, meanwhile, exudes cruelty without playing the pantomime villain: within the space of a short soliloquy in Act Two he is transformed from dull functionary to snarling animal. Too often with Tosca one gets a soprano and baritone who act their socks off and a tenor who is only there for the top notes. But in Di Stefano we get the whole package: convincing characterisation and the most gloriously bright-timbred Italianate voice. O languide carezze indeed.
All the big numbers are superlatively done: a ‘Vissi d’arte’ aria in which every note is a sob; a spine-tingling Te Deum; an
This is an exhilarating ride that will spit you out emotionally ragged
Act One love duet of searing intensity. But what makes this recording stand out is the attention to detail, the careful crafting of small moments in Puccini’s score that are easily overlooked: the way, for instance, in which Tosca fronts up to Scarpia like an insolent hooker on a street corner and asks for his price; or the icy chill followed by a blast of fire in those long held notes at the end of Act Two.
It is all just so perfect. To put this recording at the top of the list may not be an original choice – it’s regularly lauded as one of the greatest opera recordings of all time – but frankly, will it ever be bettered?