"Tito Gobbi: Highlights from Tosca, Rigoletto, Gianni Schicchi"
With Scotto, Robson, Collier; Wicks, Howlett; various orchestras, Downes. ICA Classics ICAD 5118, 86 mins., subtitled
Although these excerpts from three of Tito Gobbi's greatest roles were all recorded and broadcast in 1965, the results are markedly different. With Rigoletto, we are given a scattershot mosaic of small excerpts, performed in television studio scenery with studio lighting, lip-synched to a prerecorded performance of the music. Gobbi plays the role as he would in a large opera house, wild and commanding, with much of the effect coming from his eyes. "Cortigiani, vil razza" is a rendition full of teeth, figuratively and literally. The changes in his carriage and his gestures graphically illustrate the huge burden Gilda's abduction has placed on him after Act I. Yet the remarkable aspect of these short scenes is that the character of Rigoletto is just as completely revealed through the voice alone. The vocal line is unfailingly sustained, both in the production of sound and in the direction of the line. The visual element, which feels distant because of the lip-synching, ends up superfluous. Renata Scotto, in the bloom of youth in 1965 and sporting a couple of forty-pound wigs, pours on the legato as Gilda. Edward Downes is a fine conductor, reaching for dignity rather than desperation in Monterone's curse.
Everything changes for Gianni Schicchi, in which the excerpts are fewer but longer and, to all appearances, the singing must have been done live. Gobbi is unrecognizable as the man who sang Rigoletto; he looks like a puffy Red Skelton, acts like Ed Wynn on occasion and revels in both the sarcasm of the role and his own mastery of it. He refrains from capitulating to Lauretta until her very last high note in "O mio babbino caro," then stifles a tear, winks at her and carries on. The action is directed by an uncredited hand in admirably clear fashion. Sadly, we are not given the scene in which Schicchi re-dictates the will, but Gobbi, delightfully, plays the curtain speech directly to the camera. Downes does an expert job of catching the whispering, slimy machinations in the orchestral music.
The Tosca excerpts share the disappointments of Rigoletto in the distancing effects of the lip-synching but also the enjoyment that the music is sung so beautifully. Scarpia's big solo in Act II is how the character sees himself. Gobbi's Scarpia is supremely self-confident, humbled for only a moment by the choral singing of the "Te Deum." He toys with Tosca as if he long ago had mastered this game, smiling indulgently when she can see him and sadistically when she cannot. Even when he is not singing, his thought processes are always evident on his face. Gobbi's famous video recording of Act II with Maria Callas still takes precedence, being live, but it is good to see him in some of Act I. Marie Collier (better known on this side of the Atlantic for her Chrysothemis in the Solti recording of Elektra) holds up her end of the bargain as Tosca. Gobbi, whose autobiography is well worth the search, was one of our supreme operatic performers, but he wasn't allowed to demonstrate it consistently in this project.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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