Giocomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Born in Lucca in 1858, Puccini showed early signs of musicaltalent, and was an organist and choirmaster by the time he was only nineteen.With the aid of a grant secured by his mother, he entered the MilanConservatory, where he studied under Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of LaGioconda. With Ponchielli's encouragement, he entered his first opera Le Villiinto a competition for the composition of a one-act opera, organised by thepublishers Sanzogno, but was not successful. However Le Villi was thought goodenough to be produced in Milan in 1884, and as a result of this, the publisherRicordi commissioned Puccini to write another opera. This was to be Edgar,which failed at its premiere, also in Milan, in 1889. Puccini's next two operas were much more successful: bothwere first performed at Turin, Manon Lescaut in 1893 and La Boh?â?¿me in 1896.Puccini's first verismo opera (the term used to describe operas with asupposedly 'realistic' character) Tosca was premiered in Rome in 1900, onceagain to great popular success. With its combination of melody, drama, and vividorchestral colour, it confirmed Puccini's position as the leading Italiancomposer of opera of the time. Madama Butterfly, first performed in Milan in1904, had to be recast before it gained the popularity of the earlier operas,and took longer to establish itself, as did all of Puccini's later works. Theseincluded La Fanciulla del West, first performed at the Metropolitan Opera inNew York in 1910, La Rondine (Monte Carlo, 1917), and Il Trittico (New York,1918). Puccini's last opera, Turandot was left unfinished at his death in 1924,and was first performed in this state, conducted by Toscanini, at La Scala,Milan, in 1926.
Tosca was based on a melodrama by the French playwrightVictorien Sardou, whose works provided a rich seam of material for operaticcomposers (two of Giordano's operas, Fedora and Madame Sans-Gene, were based onplays by him, as was Millocker's earlier operetta Der Bettelstudent). Sardou'splay was adapted into a highly effective operatic libretto by Giuseppe Giacosaand Luigi Illica, who had also created the libretto for La Boh?â?¿me. Giacosa wasto comment succinctly on the differences between the two libretti in a letterto the publisher Ricordi in 1896: 'While La Boh?â?¿me is all poetry and no plot,Tosca is all plot and no poetry'.
This recording of Tosca was the fourth to be made for EMI'sColumbia label featuring the soprano Maria Callas. Whereas the previous Luciadi Lammermoor, I Puritani and Cavalleria Rusticana had been conducted by TullioSerafin, for Tosca the conductor was the then current musical director of LaScala, Victor de Sabata. It is his unique mastery and realisation of Puccini'spowerful score that has earned this recording recognition as one of thegreatest ever made of a complete opera, in addition to the immensely strongcontributions of all the principals involved. In his memoirs, On And Off TheRecord, Walter Legge, who had negotiated Columbia's contract with Callas andwho produced this recording, recalled that de Sabata was unrelenting in hisperfectionism: the finale to the First Act was recorded thirty times before theconductor was satisfied. For Tosca's chilling final words at the close of theSecond Act, 'E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma' Callas 'was put through deSabata's grinding mill for half an hour - time well spent.' Having used 'milesof tape' Legge requested de Sabata to help select what was to be used in thefinished master. De Sabata's reply was disarming but revealing: 'My work isfinished. We are both artists. I give you this casket of uncut jewels and leaveit entirely to you to make a crown worthy of Puccini and my work.' Leggecertainly succeeded, describing the result as 'the supreme Callas recording'.de Sabata's conception of Tosca is dark and threatening. In his hands the scoreis drama not melodrama. The powerful orchestral passages at the opening of thefirst act and during the second, for instance are tightly focused andpowerfully inflected. As is the case throughout de Sabata uses every accent,rhythmic figure, harmonic colour and melodic fragment to create and heightenthe drama. In his hands the forces of La Scala give of their very considerablebest.
The singers chosen by Legge do not let the maestro down.Legge recalled that for the recordings sessions, held in La Scala itself duringAugust 1953, 'Callas had arrived in superb voice and, as always in those days,properly prepared'. Her instinctive and deeply dramatic realisation of operaticcharacters was perfectly suited to this role, which was also to be the lastthat she was to perform on the operatic stage (Covent Garden, July 1964). Thehighly individual colour of Callas's voice heightens the sense of Tosca'suniqueness and individuality. Her intuitive and varied vocal shading grasps thelistener's attention from first to last. Callas's conception of Tosca iscomplete: dignified, strong and intelligent, as well as passionate andvolatile. Beside her Giuseppe di Stefano is a perfect foil as Cavaradossi. Hisnaturally brilliant tenor voice immediately suggests the heroism of thecharacter, and his unrestrained style of singing creates great excitement, forinstance in the outbursts of the second act. Yet he is also able to supplysubtlety when required, as in the duet with Tosca in the third act. Toweringdramatically over the two lovers is Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia, withoutquestion one of the most powerful realisations of the r?â??le recorded. His highlyindividual baritone voice immediately creates a sense of disquiet upon hisentry in Act One, while his mezza-voce is equally threatening in another way,serpentine and repellent. As with Callas and Tosca, Gobbi as Scarpia is thecomplete villain, glorying in his evil. Legge set these outstandingperformances within excellent recorded sound, with a depth and atmosphereunusual for the period. To hear this recording is to witness not only a greatmoment in operatic history, but also a realisation of Puccini's score that hasnever been equalled.
CD 1, Act 1
 The opera opens in the Church of Sant'Andrea della Vallein Rome. On the right is the Attavanti Chapel and on the left a scaffold with alarge painting on it, covered with a cloth, with painter's brushes and coloursand a basket on the platform. The orchestra plays three sinister chords,symbols of the villainous Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia. Angelotti, in prisonclothes, enters, exhausted and fearful, making his escape. He looks around,thinking at last that he has found safety, as he sees the column with its stoupof holy water and statue of the Madonna, where his sister has told him she hasleft the key to the Attavanti Chapel, which he now unlocks and enters, intrepidation, fearing that he may have been followed.  The sacristan nowappears, carrying a bundle of paint-brushes and talking to himself, complainingabout the work the painter gives him, cleaning the place, and surprised when hefinds the painter Cavaradossi not there. He climbs onto the platform and looksinto the painter's basket, but finds nothing has been touched. The Angelussounds and the sacristan kneels in prayer, as Cavaradossi comes in and climbsonto the platform, unveiling his painting of Mary Magdalene.  The sacristanrises and exclaims out aloud when he sees the painting, which he recognises asthat of a gentle lady who comes each day to pray. Cavaradossi praises herbeauty, at which the sacristan is scandalised.  The painter starts work,while the sacristan busies himself cleaning the brushes. Cavaradossi then takesfrom his pocket a miniature, at which he gazes, comparing it with the painting,to which his dark-haired Tosca offers