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Subject: Re: Vishnevskaya (was Re: Heather Harper)
From: "G. Paul Padillo" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:G. Paul Padillo
Date:Mon, 9 Jul 2018 00:08:51 -0400
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Yes, as she aged, the voice lost some of that lustre and beauty, and there were late career 
moments when the voice sounds ready to implode upon itself, yet still, she would blow my 
mind with the pure opposite:  sounds full of rich, nuanced beauty.

Her 1976 recording of "Tosca" was controversial for many, but for me, it remains one of the 
most exciting of this frequently recorded opera. There are moments when her very Russian 
accent dominates the sound, yet few sopranos (Italian or otherwise) put across Tosca's 
opening music with that necessary studied casualness combined with a juicy sensuality 
Puccini gives this fascinating creature. Vishnevskaya's voice in 1976 could be a paradox:  
it's big, it’s small - she can sound too "loud" then scale back the sound, sound incredibly 
Russian, but then lighten high notes and phrase like an Italian born to the manor.  A perfect 
example occurs in Floria's first aria:

"Al tuo fianco sentire
per le silenziose
stellate ombre, salir
le voci delle cose!... "

I've heard even many great Toscas massacre that phrase, altering vowel sounds in order to 
get that arpeggiated melody out by any means necessary. Vishnevskaya? She nails it - the 
voice is fleet and liquid, capable of incorporating a lightness of sound - every note measured 
and weighted precisely . . . perfectly. 

As the duet between Tosca and Mario, progresses Vishnevskaya turns a little ragged at the 
top - a bit of a wobble creeping in then she suprises by switching gears and pouring out this 
gorgeous liquidy wet sound reminiscenther Swedish contemporary, Elisabeth Soderstrom. 
Vishnevskaya finishes the scene as though using the arsenal of an accomplished actress 
more so than your typical diva. Her employment of a wide range of dynamics and vocal 
coloring is of the kind almost entirely unheard of in opera singing today. Additionally, she 
tosses off pianos and pianissimi that are just meltingly beautiful – simply ravishing and 
possibly the envy of more canary-like singers. I understand many opera fans want a more 
consistently warm and balanced sound, but, for me such a sound is NOT for Tosca. Almost 
more than any other diva vehicle, Puccini’s heroine allows for crazy, zany alterations and 
gradations of text painting, particularly when working with a sympathetic conductor. 
Fortunately for Vishnevskaya, she had that (and much more) in her husband, Mstislav 
Rostropovich. The work they put into this pays off in spades and Galina – a diva from her 
temples to her toenails, does Tosca proud.

Like Callas' 66 recording – this is one of the most theatrical sounding recordings of Puccini’s 
potboiler – the audio range remarkably broad. 

Rostropovich finds a mostly excellent band in the Orchestre National de France, coaxing 
them in a reading that to my ears is one of the richest sounding on recordings – I once told 
a friend "he out Karajans Karajan!. This broadness of dynamics makes for particularly big 
fun in moments like Scarpia’s entrance, the cannons and chaos of the choirboy rehearsal 
and, ultimately, the Te Deum. Rostropovich explores the score mining it for nuances glossed 
over by more famous conductors of this work, and while some of his choices sound 
surprising to us today – unsettling even, he offers some of the most viscerally thrilling 
soundscapes one is likely to hear in this opera, and in some of the most surprising places. 
An example, take that little bundle of notes before Tosca utters “Dove son?” and then 
continues “Potessi coglierli, i traditori!” . . . it has NEVER been more etched in mystery, the 
winds adding eerily familiar yet utterly strangeness to the mix – an almost late 20th century 
minimalism quality affixed to it – but never letting go of its Puccini-ness, and Slava lets it 
build until Tosca’s shouted “Tu non l'avrai stasera. Giuro!” The Tosca/Scarpia exchange 
ends and what happens next is one of the greatest homages to Puccini’s masterpiece as I 
have ever heard. After the Tosca/Scarpia exchange ends explosively, Slava shapes the 
score as though he himself is composing it himself on the spot; each of the numerous 
motifs pours out, one bleeding directly into the next: love theme, Scarpia, the Sacristan 
chaos – it’s all in there. I don’t know of another conductor (not even Serafin, de Sabata and 
certainly NOT HvK) who creates so seamless a transition through these eight or so minute 
sequence - morphing directly into the Te Deum – it’s a positively dizzying swirl of sound, 
Scarpia, chorus, children, cannons, organ, bells . . . all winding down a single path to the 
gloriously explosive finale.

Matteo Manuguerra’s slightly fruity, edgy, twisted baritone pours liquid sinew all over the 
place, but his “Va, Tosca!” is something special. No, it’s not the greatest of baritone voices, 
but the way he shades, his flawless understanding of the line makes him an unusually 
subtle (and thus, creepier than usual) Scarpia. His exchange with Mario in Act II is one of 
the more exciting on record. Like everything else, Mario’s exit music to the dungeon for this 
scene is milked for maximum drama. Like the Callas 66 set, there are special sound effects 
– as though this had been intended as a soundtrack. Also, like the Callas set, 
Vishnevskaya’s Act II high notes can strip the paint off a car, but you know what? You won’t 
care (or at least you shouldn’t!) Any subtleties Galina provided in Act I are here, thrown out 
the window as she lets loose spraying blood all over the place. It may not always be pretty, 
but it’ll sure as hell let you know what she’s all about.

While Franco Bonisolli never won a prize for subtlety but in 1976 he offered a visceral, 
impassioned and wildly over the top young painter and well matched to his Tosca. He lets 
his sound “break” during the fever pitched scene singing from the dungeon and ne’er has 
there been a more horrific male scream (though, blessedly muffled in the sound mix) before 
Tosca blurts out Angelotti’s hiding place.

From here on in we’re in for one long wild rollercoaster ride of nearly unrelieved depravity, 
treachery and high dudgeon from all three stars. While this kind of hell-for-leather take will 
definitely put some off, others (like me) will find it gloriously old-fashioned and exactly what 
is missing from too many Tosca’s today. As close to the brink of disaster as he lets it get, 
Slava knows when to reign it all back in and it’s a thrill a minute.

Vishnevskaya takes an almost naturalistic, prayerful approach to Vissi d’arte, Slava 
introducing a far brisker pace than most will be used to, but oh its works! This is all, or 
course, mere prelude to one of the most terrifying go’s at the murder ever, and an “E morto 
orgli perdono..." that could give Callas herself the shivers (and one of the just plain weirdest 
deliveries of “e evanti a lui . . . “ you’ll ever hear). The attention to detail Rostropovich pays 
here, the music almost disappearing into the floorboards of the stage, then rising, vapor like 
as if in a blood mist. It makes me wish all the more I could have experienced his Tosca in 
the theatre.

Bonisolli does nicely enough through “E lucevan la stelle” with a sort of old-fashioned 
declamation in the first half, then finishes it exactly as you might imagine: milking every 
last yelp and sob – the equivalent of silent movie eyes, and yes, it, too feels germane to 
these proceedings. Of course Slava (again!) rolls the postlude into a thrilling springboard for 
Tosca’s penultimate entrance in this show of shows. The lilting (almost Austrian sounding) 
upward sweeping glissandi during the scaffold scene as Tosca awaits her lover’s execution 
underscores the grand horror about to unfurl . . . and we wait with her – and then “e con 
Artista!” is screamed out with zeal, love, pride and abandon.

Yes, her soprano can be wild, uneven, almost crude at times – but there is no doubt that 
Vishnevskaya thought deeply about Tosca and fleshed out her character out so meticulously 
, I find myself coming back to it as often as I do the more famous versions by those Greek 
and Roman women. 

p.

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