Every soprano who sings Tosca tries to make her opening words — frantic calls of her lover’s name, before she’s even onstage — sound suspicious. The title character of Puccini’s great opera is an acclaimed prima donna in Rome in 1800. Tosca is passionate and jealous. So she must be wondering why the door to the church where her beloved Mario is painting a mural is locked. And who did she just hear him whispering with?
But on Maria Callas’s classic 1953 recording of the opera, she gives us more than jealousy. Her opening cries of “Mario” are also panicked, almost desperate. A touch of fragile neediness comes through as this rattled Tosca calls out Mario’s name three more times.
This fleeting episode, only a few seconds long, is one of countless indelible moments in an account of “Tosca” that has often been called the greatest opera recording ever made. Even though it was done under studio conditions, Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano (as the idealistic Mario) and Tito Gobbi (as the villainous police chief Scarpia) are thrillingly alive and subtle for the towering maestro Victor de Sabata and the forces of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. It’s hard to think of a recording of any opera that nails a work so stunningly, that seems so definitive.
That achievement is built moment by moment. So I’ve chosen 10 short excerpts (including the one above) to make a case for this landmark “Tosca,” trying to avoid the obvious (no arias, for example). What better way to prepare for the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Tosca” production, which opens on New Year’s Eve?
Now let’s go back to the beginning.
In just the first 90 seconds of this “Tosca,” the incisive attack and hurtling energy of de Sabata’s conducting hook you, starting with the malignant grandeur of Scarpia’s theme. Yet this conductor also brings shape and direction to Puccini’s frenzied bursts of descending chords, which cut off at the ends of staggered mini-phrases, as if the orchestra is gasping for breath. As the music subsides into searching, suspenseful quiet — the escaped political prisoner Angelotti is fumbling in a shadowy church — de Sabata draws out mournful undercurrents.
When Mario, who’s protecting Angelotti from the police, seems hesitant about Tosca’s plans to meet at his villa that night, she turns on the charm. Singing this beguiling, seemingly playful passage, Callas is coquettish, seductive and determined — all at once. When she mentions nightingales, she sings like one, in an ornate phrase that rises to an airy high B flat, as if showing off her character’s prima donna technique. But when the music shifts briefly into F minor at the mention of murmuring woods, her softly throbbing sound makes clear the ultimate purpose of this rendezvous.
Tosca returns to the church a bit later to tell Mario about a change of plans. He’s not there, but Scarpia is and senses exactly how to manipulate this diva, whom he lusts after. Some distant church bells start ringing, and with warm sound and smooth legato phrasing, Gobbi sings a gentlemanly line that complements the bells. You’re reminded that Scarpia is an aristocrat. Hints of malevolence slowly infuse his phrases, until he finally brings up “other” women who come to church to meet their lovers, working on Tosca’s jealousy. “Le prove!” (“Your proof!”), Callas demands, flinging the word at him with raw tone and vehement determination.