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spacer Kabaivanska; Labò, Mastromei; Union of Japan Professional Choruses, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Fabritiis. 
VAI 4548, 121 mins., subtitled (plus embedded Japanese subtitles)


One remembers Raina Kabaivanska fondly as an uncommonly attractive young soprano at the old Met in the 1960s, where she was particularly touching as Mimì and Don Carlo's Elisabetta. The soprano was seen fairly often during the Bing regime, returning after a hiatus only briefly in 1979 as a marvelous Tatiana in Eugene Onegin. In the interim — and since then — she established herself as a superstar in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, acquiring a devoted public. In the U.S., she has a passionate following as well, albeit one that laments having missed so much of the work of this remarkable singing actress — a term used in this case in the best sense, as her acting was never a substitute for fine singing.

Kabaivanska already boasts a glamorous 1976 film of Tosca, shot on location and mimed to a lip-synched soundtrack, in which she shares honors with Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes. This release from the treasure-hunters at VAI provides a look at the soprano's live Tosca, documented in Japan in 1973, when visiting Italian opera provided vivid evenings, many of them televised and preserved on video. Although the setting is traditional, the image somewhat murky and the rest of the cast more adequate than stellar, Kabaivanska's presence makes this a Tosca worth adding to one's collection.

From her first entrance, she is every inch a Floria Tosca one can love, commanding the full attention of one's eyes as well as one's ears. Her instrument has always possessed a rather pronounced spinning vibrato, something that perhaps endeared her more to Italian than to American tastes. The placement of her upper voice resembles that of Magda Olivero; Kabaivanska employs the same visible lift in the mask of the face to achieve it. And in her filmy Act I Empire gown, there is more than a trace of the legendary girlish Callas Tosca in her body language. Yet this is no copy but an original who is steeped in tradition. (Earlier in the year of this performance, Kabaivanska was directed by Callas in I Vespri Siciliani.) The love duet (opposite the Cavaradossi of Flaviano Labò) is loaded with myriad vocal colors and a feline energy that lives up to Scarpia's later lustful description of her. But beneath it all is an appealing vulnerability. At the climax of her duet with Scarpia in the same act, Kabaivanska achieves a thrilling Olivero-esque crescendo on the climactic "Egli vede ch'io piango!"

In Act II, the diva — by turns impulsive, incendiary, protective, terrified — looks ravishing, filling all the famous Tosca moments one anticipates. "Vissi d'arte" is delivered in the grand manner on the floor, the hurdle of the treacherous climactic phrase managed easily, with an abundance of breath and dynamic control. Her Act III description of Scarpia's murder is hair-raising, capped with a long-sustained high C; and her sense of relief and optimism are so intense that we find ourselves believing for a moment that all will be well.

Labò is a fine Cavaradossi; he was always a bit short on magnetism but long on voice, so all the famous high-note moments are delivered generously, "Vittoria! Vittoria!" earning him a brief ovation. But "O dolci mani" lacks the ultimate vocal caress to balance Tosca's preceding account of the murder. Gian Piero Mastromei is a Scarpia personally coarse, yet vocally nuanced — an interesting combination. And while Carlo Mericiani's Angelotti sounds terrific, his costume gives the impression that prison food was both abundant and delicious. The Sacristan of Guido Mazzini is beyond the valley of caricature. Oliviero De Fabritiis leads the excellent NHK Symphony Orchestra in a reading that supplies the requisite tension while allowing the singers plenty of room for expression. spacer


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