Tosca – Corelli (1956)

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Corelli and the voices of Caniglia and Guelfi; De Fabritiis; Rome Opera Chor. & Orch.; Gallone, dir.

In Italian, with English narration. (1956). 112m. Color.

The film that made Corelli a star.

The Met Guild Screens our Tosca, Act III

On March 12, 2004, The Metropolitan Opera Guild screened Act III of our transfer of Franco Corelli’s 1956 Tosca film (Video #453) at Celebrate Corelli! at Alice Tully Hall, in New York City. The event was a Corelli memorial and a Guild benefit.

“This is the Cavaradossi of post-World War II opera and, as such, a performance not to be missed.”–David McKee, The Opera Quarterly. (Scroll down for full review.)

The print of this Tosca used for Video #540 has no subtitles or narration. Because the film was produced in a wide-screen ratio, we letter-boxed the transfer, reducing the size of the images.

Corelli is furious with another company for putting out a version that is a quarter-tone sharp. He says the result accentuates his vibrato, making him sound like a buzz saw or a goat, and is injurious to his reputation. Both Bel Canto Society versions are squarely on pitch.–Stefan Zucker

Franco’s Big Break: How his brother, who plays Sciarrone, got him this role.

John Steane, reviewing in Gramophone

“‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ No wonder all the backroom boys and torture-chamber skivvies pile in during the course of that top note to see what is going on. And there he stands too, smiling and looking like a million dollars. Corelli was 35 when the film was made, but at such moments, and indeed most others, could well be in his mid-twenties. It would be too much to say that he acts well–for half the time the camera shows little interest in him, so we can’t tell–and he will often seem not very sure about exactly what to do (at the arrival of Tosca on the battlements, for instance, he shows no particular surprise or delight but thankfully studies the safe conduct instead). Still, when he sings ‘O dolci mani’ the face as well as the voice tells of real feeling, and in ‘Amaro sol per te’ the sight of him certainly supports the sound, which is magnificent.”

David McKee, reviewing in The Opera Quarterly

“If ever an opera had the makings of a crackerjack film, Tosca is it. The tersely constructed libretto has the purposeful compression of a cinematic thriller, while the action transpires in a series of grand Roman settings through which the characters skulk and conspire. Though this 1956 affair doesn’t wholly cash in on Tosca’s cinematic potential, it passes two hours very entertainingly. It’s certainly more fluent than many comparable syntheses of opera and film that emerged from Italy in the 1950s. Some of these were the handiwork of Carmine Gallone (1886-1973), who helms this Tosca and whose career displayed survival skills even Talleyrand might envy. A veteran of the silent era, Gallone emerged as one of the prominent directors of the ‘white telephone’ era of Italian filmmaking under Mussolini. He directed the Beniamino Gigli vehicle Solo per te (and its German-language version, Mutterlied) and earned himself permanent infamy with his Scipione l’Africano (1937). A cinematic panegyric to Mussolini’s imperial ambitions in Africa (and with a screenplay allegedly touched up by Il Duce himself), Scipione’s wristwatch-wearing Roman senators and papier-mâché elephants have become classic filmic solecisms.

“After World War II, Gallone rehabilitated himself with a series of adaptations of Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books. He also made movie versions of famous operas, including La forza del destino and Rigoletto, both with Tito Gobbi. Ironically, one of his precursors to this Tosca was a 1946 flick entitled E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma. Gallone would eventually shoot approximately ninety feature films, the last in 1963.

“The action plays out in large, lavish sets, which–to facilitate Giuseppe Rotunno’s deep-focus photography–are flooded with light, giving the proceedings that hothouse look familiar from the early days of Cinemascope, before the aesthetic challenges of the medium had really been ‘cracked.’ Gallone’s direction favors lengthy takes and a roving camera, with little cross-cutting and rarely anything closer than a waist-shot. This doesn’t always do the actors a favor, as they sometimes find themselves stranded in long shots (both in distance and duration) with insufficient direction, lending the proceedings a seriocomic awkwardness.

“That said, it must be acknowledged that Gallone generally handles the action in a basically sensible way. There is little or nothing that seems just plain idiotic (as opposed to any of Franco Zeffirelli’s filmed-opera imbecilities). The one place where Gallone just plain falls down on the job is the Te Deum, where he fails to keep tabs on Scarpia, concentrating his visuals on a sheepish crowd of extras who form a procession of school-play tentativeness. There are some passing foibles, as when a couple of altar boys are shown lounging about during Cavaradossi and Tosca’s ostensibly intimate encounter in act 1. The diva favors the camera with an ‘Oops!’ take when she finds the knife, and Scarpia isn’t stabbed near any particularly vital organ. After a beautiful visual treatment of the shepherd boy’s vignette, set amid old Roman ruins in a beautiful dawnscape, the action shifts to a lamentably obvious soundstage evocation of the Castel Sant’Angelo (complete with painted backcloth), and the opera’s finale looks no different than any stage production–you half expect a swag curtain to drop.

“Not all cinematic opportunities are missed, though. At the very start, we are shown Angelotti descending the Castel Sant’Angelo ramparts, and Gallone vouchsafes us a good, long look at the workings of Scarpia’s torture chamber. Scarpia’s henchmen are a forbidding bunch, with a Spoletta who’s a dead ringer for Franz Liszt. The courtly gavotte in act 2 gets ‘extended play’ treatment, presumably to justify the large set and numerous supernumeraries involved. All that’s missing is battle footage from Marengo, but Gallone generally keeps the focus of his drama where Puccini did–squarely on the three protagonists.

“No question the star is Franco Corelli, a dashing, playful Mario, as handsome as the contemporaneous Rock Hudson and only minimally stagy in his acting. He’s attentive to his leading lady, feigns indifference to Scarpia’s interrogatories wonderfully well, and conveys a moving, last-second premonition of death. Better still, Corelli’s voice rings out with a freedom, clarity, and brilliance that are sorely missed today. ‘Recondita armonia’ is sung with smooth, rich tone and graceful turns of phrase. One can forgive him small liberties here and there, or an overgenerosity of forte, in exchange for singing like this. When the film was released in America, one critic scolded Corelli for a ‘Vittoria!’ that could easily be heard clear to Marengo. So it could, but that’s part of the fun, especially when voiced in such lusty tones as these (Corelli looks pleased as punch, as well he might be). The recitative preceding ‘E lucevan le stelle’ has ambrosial tenderness, and the aria itself is sung in rubicund tones and with plangent, stylish phrasing. Corelli delivers a master class in Puccini style, with the passion in his singing, not in a superimposed vehemence. Basically, this is the Cavaradossi of post-World War II opera and, as such, a performance not to be missed.

“While we get to hear and see Corelli, his costars come in duplicate. Maria Caniglia and Giangiacomo Guelfi supply the voices of Tosca and Scarpia, while Franca Duval and Afro Poli mime for the camera. The matronly, unsteady tone of Caniglia’s offstage ‘Mario!’ doesn’t augur favorably, but she quickly proves herself a first-class technician, and Caniglia’s inflections are those of a master. Her voice can be harsh at forte, giving way to some hooting in Tosca’s moments of distress, and her B-flat is wiry. However, she can still float a piano with the best of them, and ‘Vissi d’arte’ is spun out splendidly. The soprano is always communicating, limning a character, as in her gripping recapitulation of Scarpia’s murder. Her visual counterpart, Duval, is not so adept at nuance. In fact, she’s an extraordinarily laid-back Tosca, whose stately return to Sant’Andrea della Valle in act 1 belies the score’s agitation. Is she even hearing the music? Duval’s certainly oblivious to the little behavioral clues embedded in its fabric. Her Tosca is more calculating than impulsive, one whose physical expression doesn’t measure up to that of Caniglia’s singing. Looking like a hybrid of Lollobrigida and Streisand, with her full, sensual lips and long, elegantly tapered nose, Duval’s easy enough on the eyes. Yet, when recoiling from Scarpia with an ‘Oh, Dio!’ she could be just complaining of indigestion. Caniglia’s vocalism suggests a tougher adversary, particularly during the murder (‘Avanti a lei tremava tutta Roma!’)

“Tosca’s would-be seducer, on the other hand, ravishes her like he really means business. The split performance of Poli and Guelfi plays as one. The character doesn’t get off to a good start, ambling downstage in unmenacing fashion. If Poli pitches his reactions to the balcony, he has craggy features, leonine eyebrows, and a good line in baleful glares. As for Guelfi, he rolls his voice around Scarpia’s phrases with relish and intent, his voice taking on a tenorish sheen up top.

“Vito de Taranto’s Sacristan is standard buffo issue, here outfitted with a limp as well as a tic. The bass’s plump tonal pudding is more voice than this part usually gets, though. The Angelotti, though basically handsome of aspect and voice, is pretty stiff at both singing and acting. The uncredited shepherd is quite fine, the chorus quite dreadful.

“Though a little careless of detail (and working with an orchestra that’s scarcely top-notch), Oliviero De Fabritiis offers an object lesson in how Tosca should go. He’s alert and responsive to the nuances of the score. For instance, the Sacristan’s entrance has a wonted, sprightly lilt, while the love duet is paced with sensuous flexibility, both of phrasing and pulsation.

“If you fancy Tosca-as-a-Movie, this is the version to obtain. The more high-tech, gimmicky ‘live, on location’ telecast on Teldec isn’t much more acute dramaturgically. As for its protagonists (Malfitano, Raimondi, and an aging Domingo), they’re not a patch on Caniglia, Guelfi, and Corelli at his youthful finest.”

Click for additional reviews of this and other Corelli titles by Richard Fawkes in Opera Now.

Stefan Zucker: Did your pleasing looks contribute to your success?

Franco Corelli: I believe pleasing looks are useful in the theater. People want physique du rôle. If I were awkward or had a tiny voice I probably would not have made the career that I have.

It was not only Corelli’s singing and appearance in this film that made him a star but also his charisma. It’s in his voice and movements. Certainly he never looked more romantic.

Corelli lightened his voice in the 60s, to sing the lyric French repertory and because of his studies with Lauri Volpi. According to me the voice was more satisfying at the time of this Tosca, when it was, so to say, closer to its natural state. It had more pasta in the middle register, also more brilliance, thrust and core. Intriguingly, he opened his mouth less wide than later. He himself disliked his flicker vibrato, which he didn’t succeed in fully eliminating until 1959. (In this Tosca this vibrato comes and goes.)

In the solo “Qual occhio al mondo,” in the Act I duet, he gives spinal chills. It’s easier to make a diminuendo if you start out at less than full tilt, but he attacks the first high A in “E lucevan le stelle” fortissimo and then reduces his voice, ravishingly, to a thread of sound. In the scenes with Tosca he’s playful, indulging her jealousy in the first act and her acting lesson in the third.

If I were Scarpia I’d be terrified of Caniglia’s Tosca, so assertive is she. At

“Quanto?…Il prezzo!” she’s like a fishmonger or a streetwalker. But at the role’s most dramatic moments this assertiveness is an asset. Her screams at “Dov’è Angelotti?” are more penetrating than anyone else’s, and her

“Muori dannato!” has enough impetus all by itself to send Scarpia straight to hell–the dagger was superfluous! Her “E avanti a lui….” is full not of wonder but scorn.

Her voice is less acerbic here than on her commercial recordings with Gigli of Tosca, Chénier, Ballo and Aïda from the 40s. She uses more chest resonance than Olivero (who thinks it unhealthy vocally) or even Callas. Caniglia carries it up even to middle-voice A-flat on “gli piantai nel cor.” She had an ample middle voice, so it wasn’t for more volume that she used chest resonance. No doubt her response to the music and drama flushed it out of her. She remarked, “It was a losing battle against myself to control and save my forces….I did not spare one ounce of my being. ”

Guelfi’s Scarpia has more head resonance than Gobbi’s. No one inflects his voice more than Gobbi. But the head resonance gives Guelfi a palette of colors unavailable to Gobbi from the 50s onward. At times Guelfi is even tender. He covers his passaggio and top notes less here than in the 60s. (The passaggio is the area of the voice where head resonance begins to predominate over chest resonance.)

The Bel Canto Society print of this Tosca is on pitch. The version of this title from another company is off pitch to the point that the voices are compromised in tone quality.

This Tosca is one of the two most famous opera films of the 50s. (The other is Video #553, Aïda, with Sophia Loren and the voices of Tebaldi, Stignani, Campora and Bechi.)

In 1986 we screened this Tosca at Columbia University’s Casa Italiana. Although Corelli was not present, the audience cheered his arias and “Vittoria! vittoria!” and at the end gave him a huge ovation.

Maria Caniglia (1905, Naples-1979, Milan) studied at Naples’s San Pietro a Maiella conservatory with P. A. Roche (Stignani’s teacher) and made her debut in 1930, at Turin’s Teatro Regio as Chrysothemis. Her first successes were in Genoa as Magda in Respighi’s Campana sommersa and in Rome as Elsa. She made her Scala debut in 1930 as Rosaura in Mascagni’s Maschere and sang there until 1951 (leaving, she said, because the management favored Tebaldi and Callas). In 1935 she sang Alice in Falstaff in Salzburg and in 1937 participated in the world premiere of Respighi’s Lucrezia. She appeared in Vienna, Prague, Buenos Aires, London, the Verona Arena and at the Maggio musicale fiorentino and, in 1937-39, the Met. In 1955 she guested at the Brussels opera as Tosca. Her husband was Pino Donati, director of the Verona Festival and the Bologna opera. Caniglia appeared in many complete opera recordings, her favorite being Forza.

Giangiacomo Guelfi (1924, Rome- ), after forsaking the study of jurisprudence, took lessons with, among others, Titta Ruffo and made his debut in 1950, in Spoleto, as Rigoletto. After success at Catania in 1952, he was engaged by La Scala. In 1954 he took part in the world premiere, in Naples, of Pizzetti’s La figlia di Jorio. He sang in Chicago, Palermo, Rome, Cairo, Rio, Lisbon, Verona, London and Berlin. In 1969-70 he appeared at the Met as Scarpia and Rance. In addition to a Cetra Tosca, Cavalleria and duet album (with Corelli), he is heard on a considerable number of live-performance recordings. —Stefan Zucker

Carmine Gallone directed films for a full half-century (1913-62) not only in Italy but throughout Europe and was responsible for that paean to both Italian history and Italian fascism, Scipione L’Africana (with a script rumored to have been by Benito Mussolini!). A survivor at any cost, he was director of the anti-fascist 1946 film E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma. From around 1940 he was involved primarily in opera films, including many in this catalog. He had some worldwide hits in the 1950s with his Don Camillo series.–Joe Pearce, President of The Vocal Record Collector’s Society