Eva Marton, Jose Carreras, Juan Pons, Istvan gati, Italo Tajo, Hungarian State Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas
The Last copy available. Still factory sealed and in mint condition.
If you want a modern version of Tosca that is freshly conceived, excellently sung and played, this one is well worth investigating.
An innocent ear hearing Tosca for the first time in this performance might marvel at the opera as a refined, almost diaphanous score. Tilson Thomas, coming to it without the benefit of any experience in the opera house, has obviously approached it with fresh ears, and appreciated the degree of delicacy in the orchestral writing. That is entirely beneficial in much of Act I and most of Act 3. I have seldom heard several passages, especially the opening scene of the latter, played with such lightness. The conductor is also concerned here, and in some of the more heavily scored passage, to allow light and air into the texture and it repays the sensitivity of such scrupulous attention. The obverse of this reading is a certain lack of punch and of raw passion in Act 2. Put beside de Sabata (EMI) or Karajan (Decca) it's as though a boy had been sent to do a man's job—and inevitably something essential is lost. But for his keenness of ear, and also for the welcome concern to keep the singers in the forefront of things, this is a set well worth hearing, even before one turns one's attention to the singers.
Eva Marton, as she suggests in the interview on page 707, certainly warmed to Tilson Thomas's ways; as she says, her singing is more lyrical than it otherwise might have been. At the same time hers is nearer to the conventional Tosca spinto that we have heard on a new version for a very long time. Her vibrant, soaring almost Turandot-like tone easily rides the climaxes of Act 2, contrasting with the sensuous, floating character she brings into her singing in both love duets and in "Vissi d'arte". All in all she is a richly experienced Tosca, yet one who never betrays signs of routine. It's only when you start to compare her with the more heady, seductive sound of Leontyne Price (Karajan), even more Caballe (Davis on Philips) that you find Marton at all wanting. And it's Callas (de Sabata), of course, who makes more than anyone of Tosca's jealousy and temperament by virtue of her colouring of the text. As was the case with her recent Gioconda (also CBS), Marton treats the part in a more generalized way than her famous predecessor.
By contrast Carreras sings winningly off the words. Time and again he breathes new life into Cavaradossi's part through his savouring of the text. In that respect he easily surpasses his performance on the Davis set. For instance, in "E lucevan le stelle" the range of dynamics and the colouring of words have a Gigli-like individuality, and like his great predecessor he now takes the first climactic A, pp rather than ff "Ah", you'll be saying that is to compensate for a loss of strength in his singing after his illness. It's true that in the first two acts he sometimes sounds strained and the As and B flats develop a beat, but in the third the voice seems close to its former self, ringing and vibrant, and the whole reading is filled with Carreras's peculiar blend of artistry and involvement.
Juan Pons may be an unusual choice for Scarpia, but I recall his arresting Tonio in Pagliacci and so was hardly surprised at the sense of character and feeling shown here. Like his fellow singers, he clearly appreciates Tilson Thomas's generous support—as at "Un nobile esempio" in Act 1, where his wheedling, suave tone as he moves in on Tosca, strikes just the right egregious note. He also finds the preening attitude for "Gia, mi dicon venal". Occasionally one feels the role a shade high for him and he doesn't show quite the confidence and inner knowledge of the part as do Wixell (Davis) or Taddei (Karajan), let alone Gobbi (de Sabata), but I never found Pons less than thoughtful and imposing. Veteran Italo Tajo, mouthing more than singing, gives an object-lesson in making much of little as the Sacristan. Other roles are well taken by Hungarian singers.
And the Hungarian orchestra deserves much credit for the pleasure of this performance. It's almost an advantage, given the conductor's approach, that it doesn't play with the sumptuous sound of the VP0 on the Karajan set which, beside the new version, sometimes seems to suggest that this is an orchestral piece with vocal obbligato. And the execution is more astute than that of the Royal Opera House Orchestra for Davis, helped by an ideally balanced and natural recording—one entirely without gimmicks or false focus.
Nothing is ever likely to replace the Callas/de Sabata for dramatic tension or vocal illumination, but if you want a modern version that seems to me freshly conceived, excellently sung and played, this new one is well worth investigating. Superior to its most recent rivals, not as grand or exciting as the Karajan, although vivid and interesting.
-- Gramophone [10/1990]