07 Jan 2007


Decca loves to repackage this set. Your reviewer first acquired it as a low-price "Double Decca" release, with no libretto. Just a couple years ago saw another incarnation, with a great cover pic of Price and Karajan locked in an embrace - Karajan as Scarpia? Or Cavaradossi - take one's pick.

Now under the double sobriquet "Legendary recordings - The originals" comes a remastering, with the original cover art restored. The sound effects come across as vividly as ever, including hands down the best cannon-shot accompaniment to Scarpia's act one closer. In headphones, the channel-switching from line-to-line could be more subtle; otherwise, the recording has a clarity and presence that fully complement the dramatic reading of the score.

Of course, for studio recordings of Tosca, the appellation "benchmark" invariably goes to the early 50s set with Callas, di Stefano in his prime, and Gobbi under Victor de Sabata. But greatness in recordings need not be a zero-sum game - and this Decca set very much has its own strengths. Your reviewer can't say one set is better than the other - they are both tremendous.

Callas, of course, portrays a Tosca on the edge - as fierce in her love for Cavaradossi as she is passionate in her desperation before Scarpia. With Price, one has a Floria whose incomparable tonal beauty in act one tilts the drama, effectively, toward the perspective of a tragically doomed love affair. When she sings of the little house she wants to share with Cavaradossi, Price's security and creaminess have no equal; the sense of an erotic idyll conveyed here haunts the memory when much later Cavaradossi in despair also recalls their meetings. Similarly, "Vissi d'arte" does not get pulled and huffed to underline the drama of the moment - Price understands that the music can speak for itself. Her performance has no rivals for sheer gorgeousness.

Di Stefano had come through some rough years by 1963, and he responds to Karajan's confidence in him by providing one final great performance. Yes, the freshness that marks his performance 10 years earlier has gone. In its place a new depth, a rough-edged heroism appears. From the second act onward, at any rate, Cavaradossi is a man who has been tortured and faces death. A little hoarseness should be expected. The core quality of di Stefano's great instrument still comes through.

And what a Scarpia this set has - Giuseppe Taddei, in total command of every vocal aspect of the role, and riding the creepy slow-pace Karajan sets for the "Te deum" section with ominous power. As with the comparison of Price to Callas, we have with Taddei, as opposed to the undeniably great Tito Gobbi on the earlier set, a singer who lets his impeccable performance of the music itself provide the drama. From wicked enjoyment in his own cruelty to the silky murmurings of a smooth seducer, Taddei's Scarpia finds all the characterization necessary in the glory of Puccini's writing.

The Vienna Philharmonic roars and purrs under Karajan's leadership like a barely domesticated lion. As is not unknown with Karajan, a sense of manipulation lies just behind the amazing display of conducting craftsmanship, but why fight the maestro? Give in.

Whether those who already own this set need the remastering must be a personal decision. But for lovers of this opera who do not know this recording - get it. It makes its own case for greatness, all comparisons aside.

Chris Mullins