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Reviews

<em>Maria Callas: Tosca 1964</em>; a film by Holger Preusse
25 Apr 2018

Maria Callas: Tosca 1964: A film by Holger Preusse

When I reviewed Tosca at Covent Garden in January this year for Opera Today, Maria Callas’s 1964 Royal Opera House performance was still fresh in my mind. This is a recording I have grown up with and which, despite its flaws, is one of the greatest operatic statements - a glorious production which Zeffirelli finally agreed to staging, etched in gothic black and white film (albeit just Act II), with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, if not always as vocally commanding as they once were, acting out their roles like no one has before, or since.

Maria Callas: Tosca 1964; a film by Holger Preusse

A review by Marc Bridle

 

This disc might well be worth the price alone just to see the film of Act II, still rather grainy, but sounding rather better than I have heard it before, because it is just such an extraordinary artistic achievement. The Zeffirelli/Callas/Gobbi Tosca is, like Schnabel’s Beethoven or Gericault’s Raft of Medusa, imperfection in art raised to the level of genius.

Renzo Mongiardino’s sets and Marcel Escoffier’s costumes - which have been so influential in dictating the historical settings of so many Tosca’s since, not least Jonathan Kent’s at Covent Garden, last staged this January - give an epic, Romantic realism to the opera that are fundamental to its success, and quality, as opera on film. In lesser hands, it might come across as melodramatic; in fact, the combination of Zeffirelli, Callas and Gobbi gives us something that is searing, powerful and often ravishing. Beyond its value as art, the film is important because it preserves one of the very few examples, and certainly the most significant visual document, of Maria Callas in a staged performance.

Callas’s voice, even in her prime in the early 1950s, was never particularly prone to beauty, but she was often mercurial - and she totally absorbs the role of Tosca. There is no denying that there is unevenness at the very top of the register but, as Jürgen Kesting points out in the documentary about this legendary production, Callas spends much of Act II “permanently screaming her lungs out”. “Doing that with calm reason, or cold precision, requires extraordinary self-control”, Kesting adds, and this is the apotheosis of Callas’s Tosca. Callas’s darker voice, the steadiness of her mid-tones and lower register, the deeper psychological impact her singing conveys, the humanity that is a hallmark of her vocal complexion, the brilliance of the coloratura, makes her Tosca more haunting than is usual. It’s often suggested that Maria Callas disliked the role of Tosca; there is some truth in this, though I’ve always thought it was closer to suggest she approached the part with the darkness and despair she brought to Verdi heroines like Lady Macbeth, Desdemona or Elisabetta. I think if one’s keystone for a performance of a great Tosca is a sumptuous vocal legato and a ravishing top-note, one should probably ignore Callas altogether and opt instead for Caballé or Leontyne Price.

Tito Gobbi, too, has had his detractors over the years. Some find his assumption of Scarpia, especially vocally, to be hectoring and loud, though even a decade after his recording with Maria Callas and Victor de Sabata he was still capable of astonishing vocal power and had lost none of his Italianate elegance when it comes to phrasing. This is by no means the subtlest performance of the role - the voice is huge, even cavernous - but I find the seismic, stentorian power of his baritone compelling and even in 1964 much of the part of Scarpia was still very comfortably within his range. I have heard many singers take on the role of Scarpia who are under-powered, or bass-baritones who struggled with the upper range of the role - and none who would probably use their bare hands to extinguish smouldering flames because his Tosca got too close to a candle, as Callas did during one of the 1964 performances. Perhaps only Taddei, Raimondi and Ramey have come close to embracing Gobbi’s domination of the part of Scarpia since the early-to-mid 1960s, though even these great singers struggled when their Tosca wasn’t a great one.

Holger Preusse’s documentary, Maria Callas: Tosca 1964 is, in many ways, a peculiar film. It tries to be two things and doesn’t really succeed in being either. On the one hand, it’s a critical commentary on the performance of Act II itself; on the other, it is a sociological documentary on the themes of fame, marriage, love, gossip - a Greek Tragedy whose subject has become the narrative for a celluloid piece of tabloid newsreel. The problem I had with much of the film is that editorial decisions resulted in people being interviewed either being asked the wrong questions (or, no questions at all) resulting in opinions that were either meaningless, or plain bizarre. Rufus Wainwright’s statement that Act II “is my favourite music in the opera” tells us everything about Wainwright but nothing about Callas. I found completely pointless the German fashion designer, Wolfgang Joop, suggesting that were Callas alive today she would be “resurrected” as Lady Gaga rather than Madonna. It’s the kind of statement, once heard or read, that one can’t, unfortunately, erase from the mind. The narrative of Callas’s failed relationship with Aristotle Onasis, her mental and physical decline, her struggle with weight loss, and withdrawal from the opera stage are recycled ad nauseum - though offer nothing new. As Brian McMaster reminds us, people queued in the freezing January weather, even taking to sleeping overnight outside Covent Garden for almost a week, to get hold of tickets - much as they had done over a decade earlier for Toscanini’s Philharmonia Orchestra concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. The Internet has rather changed the functionality of booking for opera performances today - but even if it hadn’t, I can’t imagine there are artists with the selling-power to turn the pavement of the Royal Opera House into a make-shift shelter.

More interesting are the musical insights into Act II. Jürgen Kesting is surely right to suggest that the “second act is torture chamber music”, something which Thomas Hampson alludes to as well, particularly in his succinct description of the role of Scarpia as almost definitively captured here by Gobbi. I think there is a general consensus that both Callas and Gobbi were beyond their best - but it matters not the slightest. Kristine Opolais views this as the greatest Tosca she has ever seen and go beyond the individual criticisms of the singing and focus on the bigger picture and it’s difficult not to reach the same conclusion.

Anna Prohaska’s comment that Callas’s voice “goes beyond the outer limits of beauty” is echoed by Rolando Villazón who, perhaps more critical than most of those interviewed here, described Callas’s technique as “not at all impeccable”. He’s just as critical of Gobbi - but concedes that the “fusion” of these two unique singers together brings out an unusual humanity. Thomas Hampson describes the magic between them both as “magnetism” and adds: “What they had in common (Callas and Gobbi) was that you listened to the people - characters - they were singing”. For Antonio Pappano the magic of Callas and Gobbi had less to do with their vocal command of the roles and more with their stage presence. “Great singers sing through their eyes - Callas and Gobbi sing through their eyes as well their physical movements”. It’s one of the more revealing comments because this is a Tosca you simply become drawn into watching; the chemistry between these two artists is so spellbinding. Jürgen Kesting draws attention to the lascivious gesture of Gobbi caressing Callas’s arm with his quill and states, quite correctly, that it is “beautifully acted by them both”. McMaster is still astonished today by the sight of Gobbi stamping his feet, with the cellar door suddenly opening and Cioni’s heroic tenor emerging from it. Half a century after it was staged, everything about this Tosca is as fresh and compelling as the day it was first seen.

There is no information suggesting the film of Act II has in any way been remastered for Blu-ray - and I’m not sure I really detect any improvement over picture quality in the DVD copy I already own. It does, however, continue to have a distinctive vintage feel to it, with darkness and shadows depicted intuitively, and the heavily “Gothic” nature of the production - or “lurid”, as Antonio Pappano describes it - still magnificently captured, even if it clearly feels much older than the year in which it was filmed. It’s hugely atmospheric, however, the black and white film perhaps doing so much more than colour would have for the billowing grey tones of the smouldering fire place and the shadows cast by the multiple candles. Whether a major opera company would even get away with a production that looks such a fire risk as this one is highly debatable today. I do think there is some minor clarity in audio, however, and this is really only noticeable in the tonal range of the voices.

Whether the documentary will be of much interest will really depend on your enthusiasm for all things Callas. I’m not sure it adds much to our understanding of the singer, and only marginally to the production and performance of Act II itself.

Marc Bridle

Maria Callas: Tosca 1964

A Film by Holger Preusse; filmed in HD. Picture Format: 1080i, 16:9. Sound Format: PCM Stereo; Subtitles Documentary: English, German, French, Korean, Japanese; Subtitles Opera: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Korean, Japanese; Region Code: 0; Total Time: 97 minutes [Documentary: 52 minutes/Opera 45 minutes]; C Major 745104 Blu-ray;

Bonus: Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Tosca (Second Act)

Maria Callas (Tosca); Renato Cioni (Cavardossi); Tito Gobbi (Scarpia); Robert Bowman (Spoletta); Dennis Wicks (Sciarrone); The Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden; Conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario; Stage Designer and Director, Franco Zeffirelli; Costumes, Marcel Escoffier; Scenery, Renzo Mongiardino; Lighting, Franco Zeffirelli and William Bundy; Filmed at Covent Garden 9th February 1964.

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