Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi etc; Teatro alla Scala/Victor de Sabata (1953) EMI 966 8152

It was the legendary recording producer Walter Legge who brought the 29-year-old Maria Callas to the EMI stable in 1953, thereafter recording with her between two and four operas each year until the end of the decade. She was already a rising international star and an experienced Tosca – she had first sung the role in Athens in 1942 when just 18.

The set marked her first collaboration with the baritone Tito Gobbi, who himself sang the role of Scarpia on stage more than 800 times, though he and Callas did not perform the opera together live until 1964 at Covent Garden; a single performance of the same production the following year would mark Callas’s last appearance on the operatic stage.

But in 1953 she is caught at her peak, her voice perfectly under control and the characteristic insights she brought to its tiniest details fully developed. Giuseppe di Stefano, too – another artist who would suffer a premature vocal decline – had recently sung Cavaradossi with Callas in Mexico City, and his voice here is at its most lyrically graceful and refulgent.

The conductor, Victor de Sabata, is both under-recorded (this Tosca is his only studio opera set) and to a degree under-valued. But his career in the concert hall and especially as Toscanini’s successor at La Scala (where this recording was made) was of the first order, and his combination of fire and clarity make this the most exciting Tosca on disc. Opera sets rarely get absolutely everything right; this one does.

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