Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Puccini: Tosca (NHK; Yokohama, Japan, November 22, 1975)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a 1975 video of Puccini’s opera Tosca from Yokohama, Japan (it’s sometimes referred to as the “Tokyo Tosca” but that’s not where the filmed performance was given, though it’s possible the production toured and was given in more than one Japanese city) which has become legendary less for anyone who was in it than for someone who wasn’t: Maria Callas. In 1973-74 Callas and tenor Giuseppe di Stefano had given a world tour, performing opera selections accompanied only by piano instead of full orchestra, which was a financial success even though most professional critics agreed it was an artistic disaster. (My source for the complete Tosca also contained a video of the Callas-di Stefano recital from London in November 1973, and though Callas’s voice was pretty wrecked by then — the infamous wobble that had been a problem for her even in her best years now afflicted every note above the staff, and not having a full orchestra to support her didn’t help — her chops as an actress were very much intact even in a recital format, and the performances came off better when you could look at them instead of merely listening.) As a follow-up, di Stefano and Callas announced that they would perform Tosca complete in Japan in 1975, only at the last minute Callas withdrew and Montserrat Caballé, then at the peak of her powers and familiar with the role of Tosca, stepped in at the last minute and took over. A lot of patronizing crap has been written about di Stefano over the years; in his memoir Putting the Record Straight John Culshaw said of di Stefano, “He was by far the most intuitively sensitive of all the Italian tenors of his generation, but he had squandered his gifts. I don’t think he had any regrets either. He enjoyed life, and when he was not enjoying it he simply ran away like a child.[1] John Ardoin’s comments on him in The Callas Legacy are even nastier; in his chapter on the 1973-74 Callas-di Stefano tour he wrote, “From di Stefano one expected little. He had never withdrawn from his career as had Callas, but his star had long before gone into eclipse because of his routine singing and the abuse with which his voice had suffered.” From writing like that I’d expected that a performance from 1975 with di Stefano as Cavaradossi would be pretty horrible; in fact he turned out to be surprisingly good.

No, his voice hadn’t weathered the years anywhere near as well as such genuine operatic Methuselahs as Melchior or Domingo, and he didn’t sing Cavaradossi in 1975 with anywhere near the melting lyricism he’d brought to the part 22 years earlier in the legendary recording with Callas, Tito Gobbi and conductor Victor de Sabata that’s still the consensus choice as the best-ever recording of Tosca (and a surprising number of critics hail Leontyne Price’s first recording, from 1963 with Karajan conducting and also with di Stefano as Cavaradossi, as the second-best). But despite a few high notes with a wayward resemblance to pitch (something that, like the Callas wobble, had been a problem even in di Stefano’s glory years: in the 1952 Mexico City Rigoletto he had encored “La donna è mobile” and sung the climactic high note flat both times), he certainly turned in more than a competent performance even though it was hardly a great one. The rest of the 1975 Tosca could be described that way — competent though not great — hamstrung by Alberto Ventura’s poky conducting (one reason the Callas-di Stefano-de Sabata Tosca is the greatest recording of the opera is de Sabata’s fast tempi; Tosca is an out-and-out melodrama and it needs all the energy it can get from its conductor!) and an O.K. but not great supporting cast. It’s a pity the old-times’-sake nature of this production, especially as originally cast, didn’t led the producers to sign Tito Gobbi as Scarpia — he was old then and still sang occasionally, and the role would still have been within his powers — instead they hired a nondescript baritone named Nicolae Herlea who sang the role decently but not brilliantly. One nice thing about this Tosca is that it actually takes place when and where Puccini, librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, and Victorien Sardou (author of the source play on which Tosca was based), intended — Rome during Napoleon’s occupation of Italy in the early 19th century — instead of doing it in modern dress or in one of those impossibly stylized productions mashing together different places and times that have become the plague of modern opera settings. The set for Act I is clearly recognizable as a church; Act II is obviously an office (Scarpia has essentially set up a live-work space in the Palazzo Farnese) and Act III is the roof of a castle/prison.

The video quality is a bit murky (this appears to have been someone’s home tape of a professional TV broadcast and it’s probably gone through several generations of copying), and it’s inevitably a bit annoying for an English-speaking viewer to sit through a video of an Italian-language performance with Japanese subtitles (which seem to feature an awful lot of slanted exclamation points!), but at least this Tosca is faithful to the original intent of composer and librettists — and given what we’ve seen lately from the Met in their telecasts (Rigoletto relocated to early-1960’s Las Vegas — which actually worked surprisingly well — and ridiculously stylized productions of Traviata and Parsifal which didn’t) this was a refreshing change even though Montserrat Caballé made her entrance with her long hair swept back (usually she wore it in a bun) and carrying a bouquet in one hand and a staff, taller than herself, in the other. The hair and the staff made her look less like an orphan who’d been raised in a convent and had grown up to be an opera singer than a Valkyrie who had somehow got lost in Rome on her way back to Valhalla. Nonetheless, Caballé at her career peak was absolutely gorgeous to listen to even though Tosca was never one of her great roles; she sang it impeccably but brought almost no drama to it, either here, when she performed it live in San Francisco with Pavarotti in 1978 or when she made her commercial recording that same year with José Carreras and Colin Davis (a first-rate British conductor who was not one of nature’s Puccinians). Had Callas not added the Japanese Tosca to her long list of late-in-life cancellations (at least two productions of Traviata, including one that would have co-starred Pavarotti and been the basis of a recording, and the Verdi Requiem as well as several other stillborn projects, included the aborted duets album with di Stefano in 1972-73) she wouldn’t have sung it anywhere nearly as well as Caballé did but she would have acted the part far more vividly.

As it is, this Tosca is a perfectly adequate representation of a standard repertory opera, and if it were possible to wipe out the Japanese titles and substitute English ones this would be an eminently recommendable performance for an English-speaking audience even though it’s hardly a great one. A decade ago the Met did a Tosca production that moved the time of the opera up from the early 1800’s to the 1940’s, when Rome was under German occupation, and though the producers didn’t get so obvious about it as to parade swastikas up and down the stage (let’s face it, a lot of the people whose money keeps the opera world going are Jewish and they get understandably tetchy about that sort of thing), the Nazi motif was suggested through an angular set for Act II done up in the Nazis’ colors, red and black. I remember that as one of the better modern-dress opera productions I’ve seen even though it got savaged by the critics (as did the even more oddball Tosca with which the Met ultimately replaced it), though quite frankly the most interesting Tosca I’ve seen from a visual standpoint was the Franco Zeffirelli production whose second act was filmed by the BBC in 1964 with Callas, Gobbi and the whiny (but nicely basketed) tenor Renato Cioni as Cavaradossi. It was also the best-acted Tosca I’ve seen, and it’s a real pity the proposed complete film of Tosca with Callas, Gobbi and tenor Carlo Bergonzi never happened — thanks to Aristotle Onassis, who took over the negotiations for the rights and depending on what account you believe either was in over his head dealing with the movie business or deliberately sabotaged them because, as Arianna Huffington put it in her Callas biography, “He wanted a slave — and a new career is not conducive to slavery.” There, I’ve done it again: Maria Callas is such a fascinating character I can’t help but keep bringing her up even in reference to a production in which she did not appear!

[1] — Actually the passage I meant to quote came from earlier in Culshaw’s memoir (pp. 154-155), when he’s discussing the 1957 recording of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda with di Stefano and Zinka Milanov: “[A]t the mere mention of his name stage and recording producers had been known to turn white and run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. He had little respect for most of his fellow artists and hardly any at all for conductors. Rehearsals bored him. Above all he liked the elegant pastimes of life (such as fine food and fast cars), and he was a compulsive gambler with a miserable track record. Yet I took to him at once. Although he was still a relatively young man, his voice was already beginning to show signs of the wear and tear imposed by the life he lived; but he was in all other respects intelligent, and as a musician he was a natural. The eventual, almost total breakdown of his voice some ten years later was attributable to a lifestyle he could not abandon because it meant more to him than singing.” It’s interesting that the cover of the di Stefano boxed set on the Bravissimo Opera Library label shows him wearing a racing helmet and sitting behind the wheel of a sports car.