The best recording of Puccini’s Tosca

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 hyper-theatrical of operas. It’s a no-holds-barred performance, made in the days of big-budget 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 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?

Three other great recordings of Puccini’s Tosca

Raina Kabaivanska (Tosca)
(Deutsche Grammophon 073 4038; DVD)

What a package! This 1976 film boasts superb singer-actors, ravishing orchestral playing, and the real locations in Rome. Kabaivanska’s lyrical Tosca – more coquettish than vixen-like – is unusually sympathetic and Plácido Domingo as Cavaradossi is virile, ardent and vocally at the top of his game. Having a Scarpia no older than Tosca changes the dynamic of the piece and the stand-off between Sherrill Milnes’s suave, smiling villain and the lovers is truly thrilling.

Maria Caniglia (Tosca)

(Naxos 8.110096-97)

The flexible approach conductor Oliviero de Fabritiis takes to tempos may not be what we’re used to nowadays, but it gives an insight into what Puccini might have heard, in this recording made in 1938, only 14 years after his death. Beniamino Gigli, lighter-toned than the later heavyweight Cavaradossis, sings with tremendous emotional immediacy. Caniglia exudes taut anger and the fatal confrontation between her and Armando Borgioli – an unusually lyrical Scarpia – is brilliantly acted. It is at once exciting and moving to hear a performance that is so old yet so vividly alive.

Renata Tebaldi (Tosca)

(Urania WS121236)

This 1958 recording strikes a good balance between sheer vocal beauty and a vivid sense of drama. Tebaldi is a far more lyrically beautiful Tosca than most, yet sacrifices nothing in terms of character. Mario Del Monaco is a golden-voiced Cavaradossi bursting with ardour and anguish. George London perhaps doesn’t have the bite of some Scarpias, but the super-sensuous lovers, combined with a sensitively etched interpretation from Molinari-Predelli, make for a highly satisfying set overall.

And one to avoid…

With a starry cast that includes Mirella Freni as Tosca, Decca’s 1978 recording should have been a winner, but the indulgently slow pace of Nicola Rescigno’s conducting saps the life out the piece. There is abundant glorious singing – notably Pavarotti’s exuberant ‘Recondita armonia’ – but precious little acting. Freni possesses exquisite purity of tone, but doesn’t quite convince in this role. The tension starts to hot up in her confrontation with Sherrill Milnes but overall this interpretation fails to take flight.

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