tosca_amazonThis review was not going to be primarily about Shirley Verrett. She is not a singer I am all that familiar with and when I was sent this DVD of Tosca to review a week ago, I focused more on the director of the production, baritone-turned-producer Tito Gobbi, than on the singers.

But sometimes life is very unfair, and just as I was beginning to really discover Verrett as an artist, she is gone. So I hope no one will be offended if I take advantage of this truly unfortunate timing of events to turn the review I was writing into more of a tribute.

Some performances are memorable, some are impossible to forget. This 1978 Tosca is of the latter kind. This is a thrilling night at the opera is an immediate contender for pride of place in one’s DVD collection, and we can thank our lucky stars that it has finally been released. Verrett has a marvelous role debut as the Roman diva, and she is supported (practically surrounded) by monumental talents. This is not just a great performance. In many ways it is a benchmark.

Before I get to Verrett, a word about the production.  Gobbi, who seemed to understand this opera and these characters like no other, draws performances of remarkable complexity out of Verrett and everyone else onstage. Every moment of this performance is informed by his attention to detail and motivation. One example: how often do we actually see Cavaradossi follow through on painting the Magdalena’s eyes dark? Several of his choices as a director are revelatory. One of the boldest choices is in act three. Here, Cavaradossi immediately understands that his mock execution is going to be very real. He allows Tosca’s last moments with him to be happy, keeping her dreams alive even as he faces death. This lends the love duet a desperate passion. Now that I have seen this interpretation, I don’t think I can imagine it any other way.

The role sits very high for Verrett, and that shows to a certain extend, but her Tosca is, from a dramatic standpoint, simply the best I have ever seen. Sopranos often play up Tosca’s strength: her passionate jealously, her fortitude, her resourcefulness. Verrett plays Tosca’s weaknesses and it is fascinating. This Floria Tosca may be a temperamental diva, but underneath the grandeur there is a neurotic, sensitive woman who is driven to desperate lengths. This Tosca is more like a startled hind than a tiger; look how her initial encounter with Scarpia unsettles her; even before she knows how much of a monster she is, she does not like this man. Her anguish in the act two torture scene is remarkable, and when Scarpia lays out his terms, it as if she has been punched in the gut.

She is left alone on stage for “Vissi d’arte,” which, for once, is not sung prostrate on the floor. Her voice blooms as her fervor grows, and the high b-flat seems to be effortlessly unleashed from her body like an extension of her tears. It’s heartbreaking.

The lead-up to the murder is edge-of-your-seat suspenseful. This Tosca has been defeated, a woman who has lost everything, and when she picks up the knife, it is almost against her will. Even as she stares at the blade, she seems conflicted whether to put the knife down or not. It is possible that this Tosca would not have gone through with it at all had Scarpia not tried to embrace her, at which point she snaps and stabs him viciously. After he is dead, she lays out the candles with a sense of revulsion, and is anything but collected as she rifles through his papers. As the curtain falls, she lingers at the doorway, staring in anguish at the corpse.

Verret’s two leading men are thankfully up to the task, particularly Luciano Pavarotti for his exemplary Cavaradossi. He is in top vocal form, and there is little better in the history of civilization than Pavarotti in top vocal form. He begins by launching “Recondita armonia” practically into the stratosphere, and never comes back down. The act one love duet is ravishing, the A-sharp in the  “Vittoria” seems to last forever, and “E lucevan le stelle” is gut-wrenchingly anguished. Pavarotti’s reputation as a singer capable of smilingly sleepwalking his way through a performance was well earned (especially later in his career), but here Gobbi brings out the best in him. He is alert and dramatically apt throughout the opera. From his impatient byplay with the Sacristan to his final, despairing look at Tosca, Pavarotti does some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen him do.

Cornell MacNeill’s Scarpia is in significantly better shape than he was seven years later for the Met’s second telecast of the opera (opposite Behrens and Domingo in that Zeffirelli thing). His sneering Baron is very polite even when torturing political undesirables, but there is just a hint of the beast underneath peaking out from underneath the veneer of refinement. The supporting cast has a strong showing, with Andrea Velis’ lap-dog of a Spoletta being an especially welcome presence. Fernando Corena, king of the buffos, is a hilariously unpleasant Sacristan and John Cheek (only a year into his four decade-long association with the Met) is in fine voice as Angelotti. Treble Robert Sapolsky sings unusually sweetly as the Shepherd.

James Conlon, only 27 at the time, conducts the opera as if his life depended on it. He never lets the momentum, or the tension, flag, and the result is a taunt, nervy performance that never forgets what is at stake even in its most lyrical moments.

Only the picture of the DVD disappoints slightly. Although the sound quality is excellent, the image is rather dark, making it difficult to decern the details of Rudolf Heinrich’s sparse set. (His costumes, despite a rather anachronistic turban for Ms. Verrett in act one, are better). The quality is totally acceptable, though, and the DVD, in addition, has unusually generous bonus features. One features footage of Verrett, Pavarotti and Conlon rehearsing the act three finale, and another is an informative talk between Conlon and James Levine about Puccini’s use of themes and motives in the score. The third, which is of indispensable value to any baritone or stage director, features MacNeill and Gobbi chatting about Scarpia.

Much more not need be added, it remains to say that this performance has immediate pride of place in my DVD collection, miles ahead of the competition. Ms. Verrett’s passing only makes my recommendation stronger.