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Have you heard or seen Tosca recently? How many times? Have you heard Maria Callas in her 1953 recording?

New York’s Metropolitan Opera offered us another chance to see Tosca by streaming its 1978 production. It is part of its daily streaming of productions new and old during the pandemic. It is a redoubtable show by any standard, but you may wish to complain about the pre-digital age video. You should not.

Tosca requires three topnotch singers: a soprano, a tenor and a baritone. With some exaggeration one can state that almost every topnotch soprano, tenor and baritone has recorded Tosca, many more than once, but more about that later.

The production streamed for us featured Shirley Verrett as Tosca, Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi and Cornell MacNeil as Scarpia. That is star power. Verrett started as a mezzo but had the high notes to sing soprano roles and she does a stunning Tosca. She has a richly toned voice and dramatic talent, and her Tosca has grand emotional depth and strength. She is coy and jealous in the beginning but progresses into a woman who is deeply in love in the duet with Cavaradossi. Her “Vissi d’arte” is almost a prayer and we relish her murder of Scarpia as she glorifies in her stabbing and cries “Muori donato! Muori, Muori!”

Luciano Pavarotti, who dominated the tenor repertoire, made his Met debut in the role of the heroic Cavaradossi. He sings with ease and assurance and his splendid middle range is a delight while the high notes seem to come effortlessly. Much younger then, he is physically adroit and gives us a memorable Cavaradossi.

Cornell MacNeil was one of the foremost baritones of the era and interestingly was directed by another outstanding Scarpia – Tito Gobbi. Gobbi sang Scarpia in perhaps the greatest recording of Tosca, the one with Maria Callas in 1953. MacNeil as Scarpia is made to look like Gobbi did in the role especially in the 1964 production at Covent Garden. That production, with Maria Callas of course, was directed by Franco Zeffirelli part of it is available on YouTube.

Gobbi’s adept production is Zeffirellian in its approach. He wants us to see details of the church in the first act and the room in the Palazzo Farnese in the second act as well as a giving us a good impression of the Castel Sant’ Angelo in the third act.

Zeffirelli produced his version of Tosca at the Met in 1985 and it was revived numerous times for the next 25 years. It starred Hildegard Behrens, Placido Domingo and Cornell MacNeill. It is lavish, opulent, stunning, vocally and physically. Enough said. Just see it.

Zeffirelli’s unforgettable production was replaced by Luc Bondy’s staging in 2009 and it was roundly booed. In 2017 Bondy’s production was replaced by one directed by David McVicar. The latter avoided Bondy’s pitfalls and gave a traditional production laden with many fine details that made it look fresh. It was a success.

Opera listeners come in several categories. Normal people who see and listen to standard repertory productions. They come in various gradations of dedication to the art. In the other extreme are the opera buffs or aficionados. There dedication has no bounds – they are nuts – who want every recording of their favourite opera or singer and argue about her high notes, his wobbly low notes and everything in between.

If you see one production of, say, Tosca, you want to see a couple more, no? Yes. But which one do you choose? In 1978, a critic reviewed recordings of Tosca and listed a mere 24 complete recordings starting in 1920. That is a pittance, and most aficionados would have had no difficulty acquiring most of them. Digital recordings, videos and streaming arrive, and the number of recordings goes through the roof. It seems that there are more than 250 recordings of Tosca today. Trying hearing, seeing or buying most of them!

But mention Tosca and all afficionados will immediately point to the 1953 Callas, Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano recording. It is spectacular in every aspect and listening to the enhanced CD has the advantage of letting you imagine the action. As I said almost every soprano has recorded Tosca and you will not go wrong with Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballe and many others. But like a Muslim going to Mecca, you cannot go though life by not hearing that recording.

There is no shortage of Tosca recordings available on DVDs and on YouTube. In 1976 Gianfranco de Bosio made a notable film with Raina Kabaivanska, Placido Domingo and Sherril Milnes in the main roles. It has the advantages of a movie without interfering with the music or the libretto We see the exteriors and interior of Sant’ Andrea Della Valle Church, get a view of the Palazzo Farnese as well as the Castel Sant’ Angelo. The great scenes are a bonus to the stunning performances of the young singers. A couple of hours well spent.

But things do not always work out. If you want to see the “big names” together in a production that stinks, see Tosca in the 2000 production at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma. The stage looks like something you find in a high school auditorium. It has no real orchestra pit and the musicians are encroaching on the playing area which is tiny. The set is pathetic, what you can see of it when the camera is not relentlessly zeroing in on the faces of the singers.

It was the 100th anniversary of the opera and Franco Zeffirelli directed it. He did not have much to work with and crammed whatever he could on the tiny stage. Venezuelan soprano Ines Salazar as Tosca sang forcefully and well but she looked like she just stepped out of the shower and had no time to do her hair. Luciano Pavarotti sang Cavaradossi and wowed the audience. They gave him thunderous applause and Juan Pons was Scarpa. Fine singing but simply awful production values.

Covid-19 is making life hell but a few hours with Tosca, Maria Callas and a few others like her and life will seem a lot better.

December 11, 2020

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