What a treat to see La Tebaldi at the peak of her powers in a role that was perfectly suited to her! This live performance was taped on June 3, 1961 at the Stuttgart Staatsoper, and although there is much about this document that is imperfect, the flaws seem unimportant in the face of such old-fashioned operatic greatness.
From the moment she glides onstage, to her last curtain call (where she is practically pelted with flowers), Tebaldi is the consummate diva: statuesque, coolly elegant, and gracious. Two years earlier, her high notes were a little more beautiful than they are here, but there's nothing about singing Tosca that Tebaldi doesn't know. Callas was more of a realist, of course, but with Tebaldi, the artifice is the truth. Simply sitting on Scarpia's divan, singing "Vissi d'arte" with that glorious voice, she sums up an entire era that is sorely missed.
Tebaldi and George London recorded these roles together in 1959 for Decca, but of course seeing them interact with each other onstage is another thing altogether. London's sinister Scarpia seems to have come right from hell, in spite of his powdered wig and flashes of cold charm. At the same time, London avoids caricature in a role that can freely invite it. If he seems rigid, it is the rigidity of man whose lust for political power is indistinguishable from his lust for sex. Other Scarpias are more Italianate, but I'm happy to trade the fluency of Gobbi (for example) for London's darker voice.
Who is Eugene Tobin? I'd never heard of him until I saw this DVD. He's not a particularly adept actor, but his heroic Cavaradossi is sung in a manner doesn't embarrass his company. Especially from "E lucevan le stelle" to his execution, he is vocally eloquent – "O dolce mani" works particularly well. If Tobin were around today, he'd be a star. We need more of his kind today.
The other singers are variable. As the Sacristan, Heinz Cramer creates a vivid character: he inspects his fingernails while absent-mindedly reciting the Angelus, cavorts with the choirboys, and cowers under the critical gaze of Scarpia. Hubert Buchta's rat-like Spoletta (think of Peter Lorre) also is very effective. I think the Shepherd is an adult woman; whoever she is, she and the orchestra aren't in synch at the start of Act III. The less said about the singing of the Jailer, the better. Patanè brings professionalism and sensitivity to the score, and the orchestra makes reasonably Italianate sounds.
The scenic design is frankly ugly, making me wish that the cameraman had used more close-up shots. The lighting isn't very flattering either, although it is hard to tell what it looked like in the theater. The occasional video artifact isn't too distracting. The monaural sound is good, considering the source; there is a little distortion here and there, but there worst problem – only infrequently noticeable – is flutter.
The no-frills DVD offers English subtitles, if you want them, and 28 tracks.
This Tosca is a treasurable document of opera as it used to be, warts and all. Tebaldi fans will not be disappointed, and anyone who simply loves this opera will find plenty to enjoy here.
Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle