Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
The booklet cover of this CD issue from Bel Canto Society says it all, with "CORELLI" emblazoned at the very top. "Corelli," of course, Franco Corelli, the dynamic Italian tenor who recently celebrated his 80th birthday. During the course of a long and brilliant career, Franco Corelli sent audiences into frenzies with his matinee-idol looks, golden tenor voice, and atomic high notes, often held for what seemed an eternity. Many critics found Corelli's style extraordinarily self-indulgent, but few denied his unique magnetism.
This Tosca was recorded in performance at Parma's Teatro Regio on January 21, 1967. On the booklet cover, the tenor is quoted as saying: "Cavaradossi? This one's my best!" And indeed, it would be hard to disagree. On this occasion, Corelli is in absolutely spectacular voice, and he knows it. Cavaradossi's opening aria, "Recondita armonia," is taken quite broadly, allowing Corelli to caress the vocal line and to deliver a stunning (and prolonged) B-flat at its climax.
Corelli's performance is brimming with such moments. Perhaps the most spectacular occurs in Act II, after Cavaradossi has been returned from Scarpia's torture chamber. When Cavaradossi learns of Napoleon's victory, he leaps to his feet and sings "Vittoria!" The second "Vittoria" is sung on an A-sharp that Puccini directs be delivered allargando molto ("very broadly"). But even Puccini could not have dreamed of the twelve(!)-second elongation Corelli accords this high note, driving the Parma audience into an absolute frenzy.
The love affair between Corelli and the Parma audience continues into the opera's final act. As in his first-act aria, Corelli takes "E lucevan le stelle" at a markedly slow tempo. The opening of the aria is notable for its hushed beauty. And then, Corelli arrives at the sequence beginning "O dolci baci, o languide carezze" ("Oh sweet kisses, languorous caresses"). At the high A on the word "disciogliea," Corelli sings a protracted and beautiful diminuendo, continuing on the same breath to the conclusion of the phrase. The stunned audience responds with a collective, audible gasp. Corelli then delivers the final climax of the aria with almost superhuman strength.
At this point, the Parma audience breaks into sustained cheers, applause, and finally, rhythmic clapping, as they beg Corelli for an encore. It is not forthcoming -- at least not immediately. But after the conclusion of the opera, an upright piano is wheeled on stage to accompany Corelli in a stunning rendition of the Neapolitan song "Core 'ngrato."
I doubt that we will ever again hear a performance like this. First, it is unlikely that a tenor with Corelliís remarkable gifts will come this way again. Second, even if he did, I can't imagine any of today's conductors allowing the kinds of freedoms Corelli takes with the score. Many will view that as a positive development -- I do not.
The remainder of the cast is fine, although certainly not on Corelli's level. Virginia Gordoni is a vibrant, fiery Tosca who has occasional difficulty with her upper register. Attilio D'Orazi is a firm-voiced and malevolent Baron Scarpia. Through all of Corelli's liberties and audience participation, conductor Giuseppe Morelli does an admirable job of holding the performance together.
The booklet cover states that the recording- -- made, it seems, from a well-positioned location in the audience -- is in stereo. I don't believe that to be the case, but in any event, the sonics are quite clear, generally with minimal distortion in climactic passages. There is far more recorded distortion in Corelliís encore. However, as an appendix, this set provides a recording from a different source tape of the same music (as well as of the "E lucevan le stelle"). The alternate source has considerable hum and compressed dynamics, but less distortion.
The CDs contain more index numbers than typical for issues of this opera, with many "Corelli highlight" moments isolated for easy access and repeated pleasure. If you love Franco Corelli, and don't already own this set, you will definitely want to acquire it at once. For those who have yet to become acquainted with the magic of this great, if controversial, tenor, I truly cannot think of a better place to start.
K.M. (April 2001)