Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

Walk for 10 minutes or so due north of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and you come to Brunswick Square, home to the Foundling Museum which was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for children lost but lucky.

O19’s Phat Philly Phantasy

It is hard to imagine a more animated, engaging, and musically accomplished night at the Academy of Music than with Opera Philadelphia’s winning new staging of The Love for Three Oranges.

Agrippina: Barrie Kosky brings farce and frolics to the ROH

She makes a virtue of her deceit, her own accusers come to her defence, and her crime brings her reward. Agrippina - great-granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, sister of Caligula, wife of Emperor Claudius - might seem to offer those present-day politicians hungry for power an object lesson in how to satisfy their ambition.

Billy Budd in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera’s Billy Budd confirms once again that Britten’s reworking of Melville’s novella is among the great masterpieces of the repertory. It boasted an exemplary cast in an exemplary production, and enlightened conducting.

Vaughan Williams: The Song of Love

From Albion, The Song of Love featuring songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams and pianist William Vann. Albion is unique, treasured by Vaughan Williams devotees for rarely heard repertoire from the composer’s vast output, so don’t expect mass market commercial product. Albion recordings often highlight new perspectives.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):