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spacer Malfitano; Domingo, Raimondi, Prestia, Gatti; Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of RAI, Rome, Mehta. Director: Patroni Griffi. Kultur/Warner Classics BD 4602 (Blu-ray), D 4602 (DVD), 114 mins., subtitled


When it made its debut in July 1992, this Tosca was quite literally a worldwide event. The brainchild of producer Andrea Andermann, it was filmed and telecast "in the locations and at the times of" Puccini's opera. Act I was aired at noon from Rome's Sant'Andrea delle Valle, Act II at 8:00 that evening from the Palazzo Farnese, and Act III from the Castel Sant'Angelo the following dawn. The credits cite "la partecipazione delle televisioni di 107 paese."Of course, not all of those 107 countries enjoyed accommodating time zones; and when this Tosca finally made the leap to the U.S. six months later, it landed in a single installment that drew not just from the two-day live transmission but from two earlier trial runs. That, I'm assuming, is what's offered here: Kultur being as stingily no-frills as ever (no bonus, no booklet, not even a cast listing on the packaging), I'm able only to indulge in an educated guess. 

Without the special frisson of you-are-there participation in the event, this performance enters into more direct competition with another on-location venture, Gianfranco de Bosio's from 1976, with the late Bruno Bartoletti conducting Raina Kabaivanska, Sherrill Milnes and a Plácido Domingo still sporting his baby fat. That film was put together in a more conventional way, in segmented takes, with the singers lip-synching to their prerecorded selves; and its sound is more naturally balanced than this one's, where (wired for the occasion) they're responding to Zubin Mehta's two-miles-distant baton. Visually, too, there are misfires: Scarpia, for instance, is denied a properly dramatic entrance; and in the last act, Cavaradossi rushes toward a Tosca whom he (and we) can't yet see. Still, there's an adrenaline-fueled kick to this Tosca that its more studied predecessor lacks, and the cinematography of the great Vittorio Storaro makes the settings look even more scrumptiously alluring. Within them, director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi delivers a traditional, no-nonsense show with plenty of telling close-ups — Angelotti fumbling for the chapel key; a servant setting the fatal knife on Scarpia's table. 

There's many a better-sung Tosca out there, on CD and DVD, but the three principals of this one are up to the opera's peculiar challenges and give it everything they've got. Catherine Malfitano was singing the title role for the first time, and she deserves plaudits for pluck under pressure. But her voice sounds overbright and monochrome, and her acting is both fussy and broad. Watch a bit of Callas, Tebaldi, Olivero or Kabaivanska, and you'll see how Malfitano's more is substantially less. Domingo, here looking trim and handsome at a mere fifty-one, is in fine vocal trim, too — he nails a really stirring "Vittoria!" in Act II — and compares well with his even younger self. But the camera's darling is clearly Ruggero Raimondi, a mesmerically menacing presence who makes his points subtly and sinuously, despite an occasional mezza-voce hoarseness. The young Giacomo Prestia is a strong Angelotti, and Giorgio Gatti's Sacristan shows welcome restraint. Mehta and his tuxedoed studio musicians do themselves proud; abetted by Storaro's camera, the opening of Act III sounds especially gorgeous. De Bosio and Bartoletti have the more artful prima donna, but this is the "in situ" Tosca I'd turn to for visceral thrills. spacer


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