Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vishnevskaya;s Blazing, Bloody Tosca!

Oh where to begin with this set? Why not, with the diva herself? Vishnevskaya. Never the most purely technical of singers, there are moments when the voice sounds ready to implode upon itself – while other moments are full of rich, nuanced beauty. There are moments, too, when her very Russian accent dominates the sound, and yet few sopranos (Italian or otherwise) can put across Tosca's opening music with that necessary studied casualness and juicy sensuality that Puccini gives to this fascinating creature. Vishnevskaya's voice in 1976 is oh so fascinating - it's big, it’s small - she can scale back the sound, lighten high notes and phrase like an Italian knowing this music from birth. Listen the phrase in her first aria:

"Al tuo fianco sentire
per le silenziose
stellate ombre, salir
le voci delle cose!... "

I've heard numerous otherwise great Toscas massacre that magical phrase, altering vowel sounds in order to get that arpeggiated melody out by any means necessary. One can sometimes almost hear (and visualize) a soprano's facial contortions trying to put across this music that Puccini wants sung as light as air. Vishnevskaya? She nails it - the voice is fleet and liquid, capable of incorporating a lightness of sound - every note measured and weighted precisely and perfectly. When you hear this music sung as intended - just that one little phrase can cause your face to light up. Or at least, cause mine to!

Later, as the scene plays out between Tosca and Mario, Vishnevskaya turns a little ragged at the top - a bit of a wobble creeping in (not a wide one, but that unique slant often prevalent in Slavic female singers). What makes this “wobble” even odder is that, you begin to get used to it and – all of an instant – she’s switched gears and being pouring out this gorgeous liquidy wet sound (I’m reminded of her Swedish contemporary, Elisabeth Soderstrom). Vishnevskaya finishes the scene as though using the arsenal of an accomplished spoken actress more so than your typical opera diva. That is to say, her employment of a wide range of dynamics and voice coloring, is of the kind almost entirely unheard of in opera singing today. Additionally, she tosses off pianos and pianissimi that are just meltingly beautiful – simply ravishing and possibly the envy of more canary-like singers. I understand many opera fans want a more consistently warm and balanced sound, but, for me such a sound is NOT for Tosca. Almost more than any other diva vehicle, Puccini’s heroine allows for crazy, zany alterations and gradations of text painting, particularly when working with a sympathetic conductor. Fortunately for Vishnevskaya, she had that (and much more) in her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich. The work they put into this pays off in spades and Galina – a diva from her temples to her toenails, does Tosca proud.

I remember when this recording first appeared – it was considered “controversial” – but in restrospect – like the Callas 66 recording – it’s one of the most theatrical sounding recordings of Puccini’s potboiler – the audio range remarkably broad. This, too, may frustrate some listeners, but others will find that that broadness infinitely adds to a freshness to a melodrama that can sometimes feel arch and overfamiliar.

Rostropovich finds a mostly excellent band in the Orchestre National de France, and he coaxes them in a reading that is one of the richest sounding on recordings – (a friend and I used to joke “he out Karajan’s Karajan). This broadness of dynamics makes for particularly big fun in moments like Scarpia’s entrance, the cannons and chaos of the choirboy rehearsal and, ultimately, the Te Deum. Rostropovich explores the score mining it for nuances glossed over by more famous conductors of this work, and while some of his choices sound surprising to us today – unsettling even, he offers some of the most viscerally thrilling soundscapes one is likely to hear in this opera, and in some of the most surprising places. An example, take that little bundle of notes before Tosca utters “Dove son?” and then continues “Potessi coglierli, i traditori!” . . . it has NEVER been more etched in mystery, the winds adding eerily familiar yet utterly strangeness to the mix – an almost late 20th century minimalism quality affixed to it – but never letting go of its Puccini-ness, and Slava lets it build until Tosca’s shouted “Tu non l'avrai stasera. Giuro!” The Tosca/Scarpia exchange ends and what happens next is one of the greatest homages to Puccini’s masterpiece as I have ever heard. After the Tosca/Scarpia exchange ends explosively, Slava shapes the score as though he himself is composing it himself on the spot; each of the numerous motifs pours out, one bleeding directly into the next: love theme, Scarpia, the Sacristan chaos – it’s all in there. I don’t know of another conductor (not even Serafin, de Sabata and certainly NOT HvK) who creates so seamless a transition through these eight or so minute sequence - morphing directly into the Te Deum – it’s a positively dizzying swirl of sound, Scarpia, chorus, children, cannons, organ, bells . . . all winding down a single path to the gloriously explosive finale.
Matteo Manuguerra’s slightly fruity, edgy, twisted baritone pours his liquid sinew all over the place, but his “Va, Tosca!” is something special. No, it’s not the greatest of baritone voices, but the way he shades, his flawless understanding of the line makes him an unusually subtle (and thus, creepier than usual) Scarpia. His exchange with Mario in Act II is one of the more exciting on record. Like everything else, Mario’s exit music to the dungeon for this scene is milked for maximum drama. Like the Callas 66 set, there are special sound effects – as though this had been intended as a soundtrack. Also, like the Callas set, Vishnevskaya’s Act II high notes can strip the paint off a car, but you know what? You won’t care (or at least you shouldn’t!) Any subtleties Galina provided in Act I are here, thrown out the window as she lets loose spraying blood all over the place. It may not always be pretty, but it’ll sure as hell let you know what she’s all about.

While Franco Bonisolli never won a prize for subtlety (if he did, I’ll eat my hat), but in 1976 he could offer a visceral, impassioned and wildly over the top young painter with a penchant for and well matched to his Tosca’s. He lets his sound “break” during the fever pitched scene singing from the dungeon and ne’er has there been a more horrific male scream (though, blessedly muffled in the sound mix) before Tosca blurts out Angelotti’s hiding place.

From here on in we’re in for one long wild rollercoaster ride of nearly unrelieved depravity, treachery and high dudgeon from all three stars. While this kind of hell-for-leather take will definitely put some off, others (like me) will find it gloriously old-fashioned and exactly what is missing from too many Tosca’s today. As close to the brink of disaster as he lets it get, Slava knows when to reign it all back in and it’s a fucking thrill a minute here.

Vishnevskaya takes an almost naturalistic, prayerful approach to Vissi d’arte, Slava introducing a far brisker pace than most will be used to, but oh its works! This is all, or course, mere prelude to one of the most terrifying go’s at the murder ever, and an “E morto orgli perdono..." that could give Callas herself the shivers (and one of the just plain weirdest deliveries of “e evanti a lui . . . “ you’ll ever hear). The attention to detail Rostropovich pays here, the music almost disappearing into the floorboards of the stage, then rising, vapor like as if in a blood mist. It makes me wish all the more I could have experienced his Tosca in the theatre.

Bonisolli does nicely enough through “E lucevan la stelle” with a sort of old-fashioned declamation in the first half, then finishes it exactly as you might imagine: milking every last yelp and sob – the equivalent of silent movie eyes, and yes, it, too feels germane to these proceedings. Of course Slava (again!) rolls the postlude into a thrilling springboard for Tosca’s penultimate entrance in this show of shows. The lilting (almost Austrian sounding) upward sweeping glissandi during the scaffold scene as Tosca awaits her lover’s execution underscores the grand horror about to unfurl . . . and we wait with her – and then “e con Artista!” is screamed out with zeal, love, pride and abandon.

Yes, her soprano can be wild, uneven, almost crude at times – but there is no doubt that Vishnevskaya has thought about and fleshed this character out so meticulously that, I find myself coming back to it as often as I do the more famous versions by those Greek and Roman woman. It's that damn good!

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