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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca - Renata Tebaldi (soprano)
Cavaradossi - Ferruccio Tagliavini (tenor)
Scarpia - Tito Gobbi (baritone)
Angelotti - Michael Langdon (bass)
Sagrestano - Howell Glynne (baritone)
Spoletta - David Tree (tenor)
Sciarrone - Ronald Lewis (bass)
Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 30 June 1955.
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO121 [2 CDs: 110:15]

If they had taken a more sensible approach to their label, this performance might have been a prime candidate for the Royal Opera House's own Heritage series. Unfortunately, like the New York Met, the ROH entered the historical CD market just as it was collapsing. Although the Met issues were at bargain price, the ROH compounded the problem by going for high quality production values with beautiful packaging and thick booklets including full librettos with translations, making them unnecessarily expensive, and the Heritage series ended after just 12 issues. As a result this performance was released last year by ICA (review).

The cast of this issue gave four performances of Tosca in the run. All the principals were singing their roles for the first time at Covent Garden, though all three had made their house debuts with the Scala company when it visited London in 1950 when Tebaldi had sung Desdemona, Tagliavini Nemorino and Gobbi Ford and Belcore. Gobbi had made his company debut when he substituted for an indisposed Jess Walters in one performance of Ballo in Maschera in 1953.

The first voices we hear in this performance are immediately arresting; the comprimario roles are taken by members of the resident company and in no way let the side down. Michael Langdon’s Angelotti is ideal in its richness and gravity, and the Sacristan of Howell Glynne is equally good, making the character more than just the usual comic turn. When Tagliavini enters, I felt a slight disappointment. “Recondita armonia” is musically phrased and isn’t just bawled like Corelli’s in the ROH performance from 1957 which was issued in the Covent Garden Heritage series. That said, the voice is a little unsteady and the legato nowhere near as good as I had expected; to call it choppy would be unfair, but the notes are not linked seamlessly in the way that the music really demands both here and in the love duet. Like Corelli, he is at his best in “E lucevan”, giving a passionate and detailed performance, though “O dolci mani” demonstrates another of his less-creditable mannerisms in its swoopy phrasing - just the wrong lesson to be learnt from listening to Gigli. The more heroic parts of the role clearly push him to the limit even in the Act 1 love duet, though the “Vittoria! Vittoria!” is pretty good and “Trionfal” in Act 3 very exciting.

Gobbi was always at his greatest as Scarpia; indeed one of my major problems with him is that he makes almost every role he sang sound like Scarpia - even his Don Giovanni sounds like Scarpia. Although it may not have been as effective in the house, the microphone placing makes his entrance in this recording simply tremendous, a truly terrifying display of the character’s power. He then modulates his volume and timbre very effectively to contrast the lines where he is talking to himself with those where he addresses the others in the church. He is perhaps a bit too hectoring in the Act 1 duet with Tosca, he is more subtle in his studio recordings, though I loved the ironic, mocking smile at “In chiesa”; Tebaldi’s phrasing of the reply “Dio mio perdona. Egli vede ch’io piango” is heartbreaking. He indulges in some shouting in the “Te Deum”, which he does not need to do in his studio recordings, but this is forgivable in a live performance with so much else to battle against. In the opening soliloquy of Act 2, there is rather too much vagueness of pitching — is this just me? This is the other big problem I have with Gobbi, but no-one else seems to mention it — but in their subsequent duet he and Tebaldi give performances which grab you by the lapels and don't let go until the end of the act.

This set shows us again that to hear the real quality of Tebaldi, you must go to the live performances. To call her studio recordings wooden would be overstating it, but they are often stolid, however well vocalised, and only live do we see what a compelling stage animal she could be. After a slightly tepid start, she sings with great drama and by the Act 1 duet with Scarpia, she is giving a real performance. According to Rosenthal in Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden, Tebaldi was “not in her best vocal estate” for these performances, but that is certainly not how it comes over in this recording; the sound is often gorgeous and the top notes have a real lustre. It is perhaps not as detailed a performance as Callas. For example, “ma falle gli occhi neri” has none of the little-girly coquettishness hiding Tosca's absolute seriousness which can make this line such a telling indication of character. On the other hand, Tebaldi does not disappoint at any of the main points and attains a real intensity in the Act 2 scene with Scarpia. “Vissi d’arte” is a superb performance - detailed, passionate, with lots of light and shade and glorious tone. At the end of the opera she shows the true verismo style at its carpet-chewing best. If you know Tebaldi only from her Decca recordings, this set is an essential buy; you will fully understand why she and Callas were the two reigning dive of the period.

Molinari-Pradelli was generally considered a bit of a routinier at the time and is a largely forgotten name now, but his conducting here is excellent. He is very supportive of the singers, breathing with them at all times, but not at the expense of excitement and commitment. He may not quite have the hawk's eye for detail of a de Sabata or a Karajan, but I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed by his conducting. The orchestra itself is also very fine, responding to everything Molinari-Pradelli asks of them with passion, sensitivity and accuracy.

I'm afraid I have rather bad news for anyone who bought the ICA set - the sound on this issue is markedly better. Andrew Rose has had access to a much better sound source made by a professional recording studio, directly cut onto disc from a very early VHF broadcast, and the result is a recording for which very few allowances need be made. On the ICA set the voices came over pretty well, but the orchestra was very boxy and constantly afflicted by a slight pitch instability which was particularly noticeable on sustained woodwind and horn notes. There is almost none of that in this Pristine issue, and the usual magic that Andrew Rose is able to perform on recalcitrant recordings is here used to ensure a sound quality which only those exclusively wedded to mere hi-fi would find problematic.

This is a superb performance, in sound which is first rate for its age and provenance, and I recommend it wholeheartedly even to those who already possess an earlier issue.

Paul Steinson



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