|About this Recording
8.110256-57 - PUCCINI: Tosca (Callas, di Stefano) (1953)
Giocomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Born in Lucca in 1858, Puccini showed early signs of musical talent, and was an organist and choirmaster by the time he was only nineteen. With the aid of a grant secured by his mother, he entered the Milan Conservatory, where he studied under Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of La Gioconda. With Ponchielli’s encouragement, he entered his first opera Le Villi into a competition for the composition of a one-act opera, organised by the publishers Sanzogno, but was not successful. However Le Villi was thought good enough to be produced in Milan in 1884, and as a result of this, the publisher Ricordi commissioned Puccini to write another opera. This was to be Edgar, which failed at its premiere, also in Milan, in 1889. Puccini’s next two operas were much more successful: both were first performed at Turin, Manon Lescaut in 1893 and La Bohème in 1896. Puccini’s first verismo opera (the term used to describe operas with a supposedly ‘realistic’ character) Tosca was premiered in Rome in 1900, once again to great popular success. With its combination of melody, drama, and vivid orchestral colour, it confirmed Puccini’s position as the leading Italian composer of opera of the time. Madama Butterfly, first performed in Milan in 1904, had to be recast before it gained the popularity of the earlier operas, and took longer to establish itself, as did all of Puccini’s later works. These included La Fanciulla del West, first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910, La Rondine (Monte Carlo, 1917), and Il Trittico (New York, 1918). Puccini’s last opera, Turandot was left unfinished at his death in 1924, and was first performed in this state, conducted by Toscanini, at La Scala, Milan, in 1926.
Tosca was based on a melodrama by the French playwright Victorien Sardou, whose works provided a rich seam of material for operatic composers (two of Giordano’s operas, Fedora and Madame Sans-Gene, were based on plays by him, as was Millöcker’s earlier operetta Der Bettelstudent). Sardou’s play was adapted into a highly effective operatic libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who had also created the libretto for La Bohème. Giacosa was to comment succinctly on the differences between the two libretti in a letter to the publisher Ricordi in 1896: ‘While La Bohème is all poetry and no plot, Tosca is all plot and no poetry’.
This recording of Tosca was the fourth to be made for EMI’s Columbia label featuring the soprano Maria Callas. Whereas the previous Lucia di Lammermoor, I Puritani and Cavalleria Rusticana had been conducted by Tullio Serafin, for Tosca the conductor was the then current musical director of La Scala, Victor de Sabata. It is his unique mastery and realisation of Puccini’s powerful score that has earned this recording recognition as one of the greatest ever made of a complete opera, in addition to the immensely strong contributions of all the principals involved. In his memoirs, On And Off The Record, Walter Legge, who had negotiated Columbia’s contract with Callas and who produced this recording, recalled that de Sabata was unrelenting in his perfectionism: the finale to the First Act was recorded thirty times before the conductor was satisfied. For Tosca’s chilling final words at the close of the Second Act, ‘E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma’ Callas ‘was put through de Sabata’s grinding mill for half an hour – time well spent.’ Having used ‘miles of tape’ Legge requested de Sabata to help select what was to be used in the finished master. De Sabata’s reply was disarming but revealing: ‘My work is finished. We are both artists. I give you this casket of uncut jewels and leave it entirely to you to make a crown worthy of Puccini and my work.’ Legge certainly succeeded, describing the result as ‘the supreme Callas recording’. de Sabata’s conception of Tosca is dark and threatening. In his hands the score is drama not melodrama. The powerful orchestral passages at the opening of the first act and during the second, for instance are tightly focused and powerfully inflected. As is the case throughout de Sabata uses every accent, rhythmic figure, harmonic colour and melodic fragment to create and heighten the drama. In his hands the forces of La Scala give of their very considerable best.
The singers chosen by Legge do not let the maestro down. Legge recalled that for the recordings sessions, held in La Scala itself during August 1953, ‘Callas had arrived in superb voice and, as always in those days, properly prepared’. Her instinctive and deeply dramatic realisation of operatic characters was perfectly suited to this role, which was also to be the last that she was to perform on the operatic stage (Covent Garden, July 1964). The highly individual colour of Callas’s voice heightens the sense of Tosca’s uniqueness and individuality. Her intuitive and varied vocal shading grasps the listener’s attention from first to last. Callas’s conception of Tosca is complete: dignified, strong and intelligent, as well as passionate and volatile. Beside her Giuseppe di Stefano is a perfect foil as Cavaradossi. His naturally brilliant tenor voice immediately suggests the heroism of the character, and his unrestrained style of singing creates great excitement, for instance in the outbursts of the second act. Yet he is also able to supply subtlety when required, as in the duet with Tosca in the third act. Towering dramatically over the two lovers is Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia, without question one of the most powerful realisations of the rôle recorded. His highly individual baritone voice immediately creates a sense of disquiet upon his entry in Act One, while his mezza-voce is equally threatening in another way, serpentine and repellent. As with Callas and Tosca, Gobbi as Scarpia is the complete villain, glorying in his evil. Legge set these outstanding performances within excellent recorded sound, with a depth and atmosphere unusual for the period. To hear this recording is to witness not only a great moment in operatic history, but also a realisation of Puccini’s score that has never been equalled.
CD 1, Act 1
 The opera opens in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome. On the right is the Attavanti Chapel and on the left a scaffold with a large painting on it, covered with a cloth, with painter’s brushes and colours and a basket on the platform. The orchestra plays three sinister chords, symbols of the villainous Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia. Angelotti, in prison clothes, enters, exhausted and fearful, making his escape. He looks around, thinking at last that he has found safety, as he sees the column with its stoup of holy water and statue of the Madonna, where his sister has told him she has left the key to the Attavanti Chapel, which he now unlocks and enters, in trepidation, fearing that he may have been followed.  The sacristan now appears, carrying a bundle of paint-brushes and talking to himself, complaining about the work the painter gives him, cleaning the place, and surprised when he finds the painter Cavaradossi not there. He climbs onto the platform and looks into the painter’s basket, but finds nothing has been touched. The Angelus sounds and the sacristan kneels in prayer, as Cavaradossi comes in and climbs onto the platform, unveiling his painting of Mary Magdalene.  The sacristan rises and exclaims out aloud when he sees the painting, which he recognises as that of a gentle lady who comes each day to pray. Cavaradossi praises her beauty, at which the sacristan is scandalised.  The painter starts work, while the sacristan busies himself cleaning the brushes. Cavaradossi then takes from his pocket a miniature, at which he gazes, comparing it with the painting, to which his dark-haired Tosca offers a contrast yet a resemblance. The sacristan continues to complain at what he regards as the artist’s disrespect for religion, before taking his leave.
 Angelotti now emerges from hiding, takes alarm at first, but then recognises Cavaradossi. Eventually the painter realises the identity of the intruder, and quickly climbs down from the scaffolding and shuts the side door to the church.  The voice of Tosca is heard calling from outside. Cavaradossi gives Angelotti his basket of food and hurries him into the chapel, as Tosca enters. At first Tosca is suspicious of Cavaradossi, since she has heard him talking to someone, and has found the church-door locked.  She offers the flowers she has brought, before the statue of the Madonna and turning to Cavaradossi urges him to meet her that evening after the theatre and to go together to his little villa. She sings of this idyllic cottage and their future happiness, and he submits.  Then, looking over his shoulder anxiously, he tells her to go, while he continues his work.  She turns to leave, but then sees the painting and seems to recognise the subject, a woman she has seen before and now recalls as the Marchesa Attavanti. She is jealous of this possible rival.  Cavaradossi calms her fears, assuring her that no beauty can compare with hers. Tosca would be happier were the Magdalene to have black eyes like her own, rather than blue.
 As Tosca leaves, Cavaradossi goes to the chapel where Angelotti is hiding and opens the gate for him. They shake hands and the artist explains that Tosca is loyal and true, but will tell all in the confessional. For this reason he has not confided in her. Angelotti explains how his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, has prepared to help him escape over the border by leaving a disguise for him, and Cavaradossi tells him how moved he has been at her appearance each day at the statue of the Madonna. She has striven to save her brother from the machinations of the wicked Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia, a man that Cavaradossi also detests, hypocritical in his pretence of religion. The painter agrees to help him escape in woman’s disguise and tells him to wait in the garden, where he will later meet him. At the same time he tells him of a place to hide, if need be, at the end of a secret passage in the wall of the garden-well. The sound of the cannon is heard, a signal that Angelotti’s escape has been discovered. They leave the chapel together.  The sacristan rushes in and is surprised to find that Cavaradossi is not there, as he had hoped to alarm the heretic with bad news for him. Priests, acolytes and singers of the choir crowd noisily in, and the sacristan tells them his good news, that Napoleon has been defeated, an event for general rejoicing and bringing extra work and extra money for the singers, who are doubly delighted.
 When the tumult is at its height, Scarpia unexpectedly enters and all immediately fall silent, as he upbraids them for such sacrilegious behaviour and sends them about their business. He detains the sacristan for further questioning and tells his henchman Spoletta to search the building thoroughly for any sign of the fugitive Angelotti. Scarpia finds the Attavanti Chapel open, and entering discovers there only a fan, which seems to Scarpia to indicate the connivance of some accomplice. Finding on it the coat of arms of the Attavanti family, he now suspects the Marchesa Attavanti, and he is still further struck when he sees the portrait of the Magdalene, in which he recognises the features of the Marchesa. That the painter is Cavaradossi, as the sacristan tells him, can only deepen his suspicions. One of Scarpia’s men comes out of the chapel carrying the basket, now empty, a sure sign of the painter’s involvement, as he infers from the sacristan’s account of the matter. The food must have been given to Angelotti.
 Tosca comes in, agitated, and Scarpia hides behind the column, plotting to use the fan as Iago used Desdemona’s handkerchief, to excite a lover’s jealousy, since he too has designs on Tosca. The sacristan tells Tosca that Cavaradossi has disappeared, and she at once supposes him untrue. Scarpia emerges from hiding, offers Tosca holy water, and praises her beauty and goodness, in contrast to women who come to church only for assignations with their lovers. He looks pointedly at the portrait and shows her the fan, immediately prompting a renewal of her jealousy.
 He consoles her, as she leaves, intent on interrupting the supposed meeting between the Marchesa Attavanti and her Cavaradossi.  People begin to crowd into the church, and Scarpia signals to Spoletta, telling him to follow Tosca. The Cardinal and his attendants move towards the high altar, the Swiss Guards making way for them through the crowd, while Scarpia gloats over his victim. Scarpia now has two desires, to see Angelotti hanged and to possess Tosca, his evil desires in contrast to the Te Deum with which the choir now celebrates victory over Napoleon.
CD 2, Act II
 The second act opens in Scarpia’s rooms, on an upper floor. There is a table set and through the window of the apartment can be seen the courtyard of the palace. It is night, and Scarpia is taking his supper, and occasionally breaking off in thought. He looks at his watch impatiently and remarks out aloud on the usefulness of Tosca in leading him to his victims, Angelotti and Cavaradossi. He rings a bell and the police agent Sciarrone comes in and in response to Scarpia’s enquiry tells him he has had Tosca sent for. He opens the window and the sound of music is heard from the lower floor, where the Queen of Naples is giving a ball to celebrate the recent victory, an event at which Tosca is to sing. He gives Sciarrone a note to make certain that Tosca will come to him, in order to save her beloved Cavaradossi.
 Scarpia sings of his own lack of romantic charm and his desire for power. Sciarrone returns and announces Spoletta,  who explains how he and his men have shadowed Tosca to Cavaradossi’s villa, where they found nothing. Scarpia is angry at this failure to capture Angelotti, but is slightly mollified when Spoletta tells him that he has arrested Cavaradossi, who surely knows where Angelotti is.
 Scarpia paces the room, and then through the window is heard the victory cantata. This means that Tosca has arrived. Scarpia prepares to examine Cavaradossi, in the presence of the executioner Roberti and the judge and his clerk. Scarpia bids Cavaradossi be seated, but he indignantly refuses. As the interrogation proceeds, the sound of the choir below is heard, with the voice of Tosca.
 In irritation Scarpia shuts the window, and demands to know the whereabouts of Angelotti. Cavaradossi claims ignorance and denies having helped the fugitive. Scarpia tries gentler tactics, wheedling and threatening. Tosca enters, anxious, and rushes to embrace Cavaradossi, who tells her to divulge nothing of what she has seen. Scarpia hands Cavaradossi over to the executioner and judge for questioning in the adjacent torture-chamber, himself remaining alone with Tosca.  Now, he says, let us talk, and proceeds to question Tosca, using the fan discovered in the chapel as a means to arouse her jealousy.  He calls to Sciarrone, who reports that the prisoner has admitted nothing, and then turns back to Tosca and explains the torture that her lover is undergoing in the next room. A prolonged groan is heard, and Tosca, in increasing agitation, begs for mercy and calls out to her lover, who tells her to be brave and keep silent.  Scarpia tells her to speak and when she refuses bids Roberti continue the torture, to Tosca’s increasing horror. When she still refuses to tell anything of what she knows, Scarpia tells Spoletta to open the door to let her hear her lover’s groans and orders further torture. Eventually, when she sees what is happening to Cavaradossi, she gives way, in spite of her lover’s protestations and admits that she knows the whereabouts of Angelotti, the well in the garden, where she had earlier followed her lover in jealousy.  Scarpia commands that Cavaradossi be brought in, and Tosca, appalled at what he has suffered, kneels by his side, in tears.
 Cavaradossi realises, however, that Tosca has betrayed him and thrusts her from him, as Sciarrone rushes in, excitedly announcing news of a new victory for Bonaparte. Cavaradossi greets the news with jubilation, while Tosca tries to silence him, and Scarpia threatens execution. Cavaradossi is dragged away, to Tosca’s protests, and she is left alone with Scarpia.
 He calmly takes up his wine-glass, polishes it with a napkin and suggests that together they find a way to save Cavaradossi. Tosca asks the cost.  Scarpia demands her honour. She jumps up, aghast, and threatens to jump from the window if he comes near her. Then she makes a move to appeal to the Queen, in the apartments below, but Scarpia makes it clear that such an appeal will be at the cost of Cavaradossi’s life.  She tells Scarpia that she hates him, but this arouses still further his desire for her. A drum-roll is heard and Scarpia bids Tosca look out of the window to see the prisoners being led to execution.  He watches her coldly, as she passionately declares her devotion to art and goodness.  She kneels in supplication to Scarpia, and begs for mercy for her lover, but Scarpia remains determined. Spoletta rushes in to announce that Angelotti has poisoned himself, before he could be captured, and Scarpia commands that his body be hung on the gallows. Spoletta seeks orders for the treatment of Cavaradossi, and Scarpia allows Tosca a moment to make her decision. She nods assent, and Scarpia goes on to propose his plan. Cavaradossi is to appear to be shot, in the same way as Count Palmieri, but not with real shot. Spoletta understands his true instructions well enough, but Tosca is deceived into believing that Cavaradossi will really be allowed to live. Spoletta leaves to carry out his orders,  and Tosca, seeks a safe-conduct for herself and Cavaradossi, a request to which Scarpia readily assents.
He goes to his desk and begins to write, breaking off to ask Tosca which road they will take. As he writes, Tosca approaches the table, and sees a knife, which she takes and hides behind her.  Scarpia finishes writing, adds his seal to the document and seeks to embrace her, but she raises the knife and stabs him full in the chest. He curses her, as he falls, and she taunts him, as he lies dying.  She then goes to the table and takes water to wash her hands, and straightens her hair before the glass. Searching for the safe-conduct, she finds it clenched in Scarpia’s fist, takes it, and is about to leave, when she turns back and takes two candlesticks, standing on a side-table, and lights them from the central candelabra, which she extinguishes. She places the candles at Scarpia’s head, takes a crucifix from the wall and places it on the corpse. A distant roll of drums is heard, as she makes her way quietly out of the apartment.
 The third act is set on a platform on the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Below the little staircase that leads to the platform there is a casemate, a room set in the wall of the fortress, with a table, bench and chair. On the table there is a lamp, writing materials and a large register. There is a crucifix on one of the walls, with a lamp beneath it. In the distance can be seen the Vatican and St Peter’s. It is night, with a clear sky, in which the stars shine brightly. Sheep-bells can be heard, and the voice of a shepherd-boy, singing his distant song of love unrequited.  The matins bell rings and the bells of other churches are heard, some distant, some near at hand.
 A gaoler, carrying a lantern, comes up the stairs and into the room, lighting the lamp before the crucifix and the lamp on the table. He goes up to the parapet and looks down into the courtyard, where executions take place. He exchanges a few words with the sentry, patrolling the battlements, and then returns to the room and sits down, sleepy. Cavaradossi is escorted by soldiers onto the platform, and brought into the room. The gaoler stands and salutes the sergeant, who hands his prisoner over. There is still an hour to go, before the execution, but Cavaradossi rejects the offer of a priest, only asking leave to write a last letter to Tosca, and promising the man his last possession, his ring.
 Cavaradossi sits down and starts to write, but breaks off to reflect on his love for Tosca in happier times.  Spoletta comes up the stairs, with the sergeant, and followed by Tosca. He tells the sentry to watch the couple, and leaves them together. Tosca, too full of feeling to speak, rushes over to Cavaradossi, and gives him the safe-conduct she has taken from Scarpia. She goes on to explain what Scarpia demanded in return, and how she had killed him.  Cavaradossi marvels that such gentle hands could be so strong.  She then reveals to him her plan, and the mock execution that she thinks Scarpia has ordered, after which they can escape together.  Cavaradossi tenderly tells her of the bitterness he felt at dying without seeing her, but now they will be together.
 Returning to reality, Tosca warns Cavaradossi to fall down when the firing-squad shoots, and as the soldiers of the firing-squad approach, the two lovers sing of their coming joy and final triumph. Dawn breaks, and a bell is heard striking four, the hour of execution that Scarpia had set. Tosca warns Cavaradossi once again to remember to fall when the men fire. He takes leave of her, and follows the officer, while she looks on, impatient. Cavaradossi refuses a bandage for his eyes and the ritual of execution proceeds slowly.  Tosca waits in anxiety. The soldiers raise their guns and the officer gives the signal. The men fire and Cavaradossi falls. The sergeant inspects the body, and Spoletta prevents the sergeant from giving the coup de grace. The soldiers now withdraw, and Tosca tells her lover to lie still and not to move until it is safe.  She looks over the parapet and goes back to him where he lies, telling him to stand up and make his escape, but to her horror finds that he is really dead: Scarpia has outwitted her. Tosca is in despair, and now cries are heard from a distance, as the murder of Scarpia is discovered and the alarm raised. Spoletta and Sciarrone mount the staircase to seize Tosca, but she pushes Spoletta, so that he nearly falls backwards down the stairs. She rushes to the battlements and leaps over to her death, now to meet Scarpia again before the throne of God. Sciarrone and some of the soldiers rush to the battlements and look down, while Spoletta stands aghast, as the curtain falls.
A New-Old Tosca
While this great performance is now held as the standard for other Toscas to meet, early critics did not hail it unanimously, some even comparing it unfavorably against Renata Tebaldi’s first recording in the title role, released by Decca in 1952.
Producer Walter Legge, later in life, called it Callas’ best recording. Yet it is well-known that Callas openly disliked this opera altogether, preferring to concentrate on the restoration of bel canto works. Indeed, while Callas’ interpretations eclipsed those of other singers, audience members at her Metropolitan Opera Toscas in the mid-1950s—while she was still at her peak—wrote that they were surprised because she seemed to bring no new insights to this particular role, as she did to virtually everything else.
The 1953 Tosca, the third of EMI’s Scala series with Callas, transcends the work’s reputation for some as a “shabby little shocker,” to quote Joseph Kerman in Opera As Drama, owing to the perfectionism of music director Victor de Sabata, one of the most creative and dynamic opera conductors of the twentieth century. The demands he made for his vision of this recording were matched by Callas’ own uncompromising tenacity: for example, she recorded the final line of the second act more than thirty times before she, de Sabata, and Legge were all satisfied. Such high-level work was required of everyone associated with this recording throughout the project in August 1953, a true ensemble effort.
The sound of the original LPs was hailed as brilliant and ground-breaking. Indeed, compared with Callas’ first three EMI efforts, Lucia di Lammermoor, I Puritani, and Cavalleria Rusticana, none produced by Legge, there is here a marked improvement in recording and editing sophistication; Legge’s hand can easily be detected. Nevertheless, EMI continued to emend Tosca incrementally as LP pressing and playback equipment—as well as perceived public preferences—evolved, but never quite contradicted its original sonic concept until the first digital remastering of 1984. First issued on LP, and then on CD in 1986 (EMI 7 47175), the first digital version disappointed critics with muffled, overly-large vocal sound and boomy, opaque orchestral presentation. The next digital incarnation as a 1997 “Callas Edition” entry (EMI 5 56304), still available, was apparently a variation on the same digital tapes. The sound was clarified, bringing it closer to the LPs, but it still lacks forward LP vocal presence and focus. Sadly, at first release, it contained an arguably disastrous, new, uninformed editing point that disfigured an interpretive subtlety at Callas’ entrance. It was not until I brought this error to EMI’s attention and made it public that it was corrected for future—though unidentified—pressing runs.
The latest official edition, issued in 2002 as part of the “Great Recordings of the Century” series (EMI 5 67756), has been described as EMI’s best attempt at the digital remastering of this recording. Yet in some ways, the 1997 issuance bears a closer resemblance to the LPs, the 2002 version’s overly reverberant and artificial textures achieved at the expense of clear vocal diction and natural acoustical clarity. Moreover, while the pitch of this recording has wandered slightly through years of reissues—and, to a lesser extent, within the recording itself from the outset, it is here more inaccurate than ever before, a quarter-tone flat and commensurately slower, adding a minute and a half to the original length of the performance.
The Naxos version at hand is based on a number of old LP copies. Surface noise has been removed without resorting to heroic means, pitches have been corrected and stabilized, and the original quality of LP sound is preserved with far greater care than in any analogue-to-digital transfer of this important recording to date.
Robert E. Seletsky
(author of “Callas at EMI: Remastering and Perception,” The Opera Quarterly, Spring 2000)
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