Maria Callas: Tosca 1964: A film by Holger Preusse

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 J¸rgen 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 CaballÈ 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. J¸rgen 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 VillazÛn 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. J¸rgen 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.

image_description=Maria Callas: Tosca 1964; a film by Holger Preusse
product_title=Maria Callas: Tosca 1964; a film by Holger Preusse
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