Although it was the first to be recorded, this Tosca is the third of Karajan’s Puccini sets on Decca to receive the lavish audiophile treatment. Presumably released to coincide with Leontyne Price’s 90th birthday, it features a new 24 bit, 96kHz remastering presented on two CDs as well as Blu-ray audio disc – but it’s a shame that Decca don’t also offer a hi res download option.
It dates from 1963, and the sound itself has moments of both brittleness and full-flight magnificence. Generally this is a much more variegated affair than Price’s robust RCA remake – recently reissued in that label’s birthday box-set. Giuseppe Di Stefano, a decade on from singing the role opposite Callas for EMI, is a light-voiced, sunny Cavaradossi. He offers beautiful enunciation but can also sound desiccated, without the necessary ringing timbre or robustness for the character’s heroics. Giuseppe Taddei is an at times shockingly forceful, brutish Scarpia. Fernando Corena’s Sacristan rather overdoes the buffo shtick.
Price’s interpretation is not especially vividly drawn, but she is in gorgeous voice, sounding seductive and with plenty of satin sheen high up. But you notice the lack of forcefulness in the middle of the range in particular: this is very much a lyrical account of the role – in terms of both voice and dramatic approach. Karajan’s conducting is clearly symphonically conceived, building momentum and emotional power over longer paragraphs, sometimes to the detriment of dramatic detail – some passages seem to be allowed to sag just to give the subsequent build-ups greater impact. However, the sense of lyrical sweep he does gradually build up in, for example, the long Act 1 duet is undeniably impressive.
Listening in detail to this recording in its cleaned-up guise also emphasises the extent to which John Culshaw’s production shapes what we hear. A note from him reproduced in the lavish hardback booklet discusses certain sonic effects, none of which is particularly intrusive, even if they seem somewhat inconsistently applied.
What’s more troubling are the shifts in perspective, the sonic zooming in and out, often signalled by clunky edits. Some exchanges are almost whispered, others fully sung-out. The microphones pick up plenty of detail in the orchestra (the harp often sounds prominently), but the sound picture never feels natural. The shifting focus, meanwhile, often serves to make the singers’ characterisations feel strangely generalised.
There’s certainly some great playing, some great singing and great conducting, then, but this reissue underlines the fact that Karajan’s Vienna Tosca is also something of a curate’s egg.