Record Guide: Puccini’s Tosca

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Since its premiere in 1900, Giacomo Puccini’s thriller Tosca has been a worldwide success. Hardly a season goes by without Puccini’s blood-curdling drama, with its perfectly sculpted naturalistic form, being performed on the world’s opera stages. Over the years, the opera has also been recorded with great success.

One of the first recordings was made in 1938 by Oliviero de Fabritiis and the Rome Opera Orchestra, with Beniamino Gigli as Cavaradossi, Maria Caniglia as Tosca and Armando Borgioli as Scarpia. An interpretation that, 86 years later, is still a must in any Tosca collection, not least because of Gigli’s uniquely warm, golden voice.

Renata Tebaldi is one of the truly great Toscas on record, and she made two complete studio recordings. The first, made in 1952 on Decca with the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, is her finest, in which she sings with such beauty and passion that it takes your breath away. Neither Giuseppe Campora in the tenor role nor Enzo Mascherini as Scarpia can compete with the performances on the later stereo recording, but they are still impressive enough to make the whole very convincing under Alberto Eredes’ usual solid conducting.

Cetra has released two recordings of Tosca. The first, with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI (1952), is conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli with Adriana Guerrini as Tosca. Her interpretation is not the most subtle or beautiful, but she makes up for it with power and passion. Gianni Poggi makes an impressive Cavaradossi, temperamental but also elegant, and Paolo Silveri’s Scarpia is intense and convincing.

The second, from 1956 in perfectly acceptable mono sound, is a vocal success with two underrated great singers in the leading roles – Gigliola Frazzoni as Tosca and Ferrrucio Tagliavini as Cavaradossi. The best is still Giacomo Guelfi, who gives one of the best interpretations of Scarpia ever recorded, with brilliance, power and conviction. The downside of the recording is the somewhat pale orchestral playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI under Arturo Basile.

The advent of stereo sound has greatly increased the number of recordings of the work and there are several very good versions to suit all tastes. If you’re looking for great orchestral playing, it’s hard not to recommend Giuseppe Sinopoli’s 1992 version on DG with the Philharmonia Orchestra, although Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo’s voices sound a little tired and strained compared to their earlier days.

Nicola Rescigno’s 1979 Decca recording with the National Philharmonic Orchestra has a fine sound with Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Sherrill Milnes in the main roles, but overall it’s still a version that lacks a bit of personality and character, as does James Levine’s 1980 EMI/Warner recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and a slightly strained Renata Scotto. Sir Colin Davis’ recording with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden has a lovely singing Tosca in Montserrat Caballé, but suffers from tame and undramatic orchestral playing.

 

One of my favourites is Lorin Maazel’s version on Decca (1967) with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, which has a raw energy and an almost brutal power. There are more refined versions, but few with the tension of this one. Birgit Nilsson makes an unusually dramatic Tosca. Franco Corelli gives his all and is one of the most passionate Cavaradossi on record. The big minus is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who is completely wrong in the role of Scarpia.

For many, it’s Erich Leinsdorf’s recording (RCA, 1957) with the Rome Opera Orchestra that counts. The singing trio is hard to beat – Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling and Leonard Warren. Few, if any, have sung Cavaradossi as beautifully as Björling, and Leinsdorf’s interpretation is monumental.

Zubin Mehta is well suited to Puccini’s music and his version with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, Leontyne Price, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes (RCA, 1973) is dramatic and intense. Price, as always, is a very powerful and passionate Tosca. Domingo is a reliable Cavaradossi and Milnes gives the right chills as the demonic police chief.

Few conductors can match Antonio Pappano in Puccini. On this 2001 recording (Warner) with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, he also has access to really good singers – Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Ruggero Raimondi. There is a youthful freshness and vitality to the vocal partnership of Gheorghiu and Alagna, who were married at that time.

There is no more vocally intense recording than the one with Francesco Molinari-Pradelli and the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Decca, 1960), which gives us a traditional Italian interpretation. Renata Tebaldi’s performance is as sensitive and beautiful as ever. Mario del Monaco is in many ways unbeatable as Cavaradossi, passionate and with enormous power in his voice. George London also gives us a demonic Scarpia.

The very best stereo version is Herbert von Karajan’s first recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1963. Decca’s sound is excellent with dynamics and clarity. Herbert von Karajan’s interpretation is of outstanding power and beauty. Leontyne Price gives us a dramatic and sensual Tosca and Giuseppe Taddei’s Scarpia is probably the best on record with weight, elegance and character. Giuseppe di Stefano’s performance is also of a high standard, of course, but his earlier recording is better.

Karajan’s later recording of the work for Deutsche Grammophon in 1980 unfortunately lacks the vocal splendour, and neither Katia Ricciarelli nor José Carreras have sufficiently dramatic voices for the main roles. However, Ruggero Raimondi’s powerful Scarpia is impressive. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic also offer the most dramatic interpretation of the work on record to date.

In my opinion, the best recording of Tosca is Victor De Sabata’s 1953 mono version on Warner with the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, a classic that has not been surpassed. Maria Callas’ Tosca is in a class of its own, an interpretation full of despair and passion. Giuseppe di Stefano was at the height of his career when he sang Cavaradossi, and Tito Gobbi gives a brutal portrait of Scarpia. De Sabata’s interpretation is superbly controlled, dramatic but also thoughtful.

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