Historical spotlight: Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca”

Legendary performances of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Salzburg Easter Festival 1988: The first act of the opera Tosca takes place in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. The set design is by Günther Schneider-Siemssen.
(Photo: Siegfried Lauterwasser/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca, which is the focus of this year’s Easter Festival in Baden-Baden in a new production, occupies a special place in the history of the Berliner Philharmoniker. At the beginning of the 1980s, the orchestra and its then chief conductor Herbert von Karajan recorded the work – with a top-class ensemble of singers: Katia Ricciarelli as Tosca, José Carreras as Cavaradossi and Ruggero Raimondi as Baron Scarpia. The recording was followed by a concert performance in the Philharmonie in February 1982, an event which seemed to be ill-fated. The press railed in advance that Puccini’s “shabby shocker” was performed in every opera house all over the country, and to present it without scenery was simply a “high-profile superfluity”. There was outrage over the horrendous ticket prices which cost between 40 and 165 DM. To make matters worse, the chorus of Deutsche Oper which had been involved in the recording, had prior commitments, and its intended replacement, the National Choir from Bulgaria, was at short notice denied permission to leave the country by its government.

Cheering in Berlin ...

At the last minute, with only four days to prepare for the concert, the RIAS-Kammerchor came to the rescue. All in all, the worst possible conditions, but this Tosca performance – as the critics expressed unanimously – turned out to be the event of the century and a magical musical moment. “In no opera house is this brilliant thriller ever so vivid or heart-wrenching, so dense or oppressive,” said the BZ while Die Welt wrote: “A highly vibrant performance which throbs consistently with musicality [...] At the same time, it had a visual violence that no stage performance has ever achieved.” It praised Karajan’s “later style”; his conducting had gained in warmth and seriousness. The sole criticism of the otherwise highly acclaimed performance was that the excellent vocals were occasionally drowned out by the orchestra.

... restrained applause in Salzburg

After this acclaimed concert performance, expectations were correspondingly high when Karajan and the Philharmoniker presented Tosca in a new production at the 1988 Salzburg Easter Festival. The conductor, who that year celebrated his 80th birthday and was honoured by the orchestra in a ceremony among the stage scenery, was in charge of both the musical and the stage direction. Tosca was sung by the then only 24-year-old Fiamma Izzo d’Amico, and the male leading roles were filled by Luis Lima as Cavaradossi and Franz Grundheber as Scarpia. The festival audience was delighted by the staging, but the press was disappointed, especially by the interpreter of Tosca, whose voice and appearance were, in the opinion of the critics, too lyrical and girlish for the role. “The Berliner Philharmoniker often sing with more delicacy from the pit than the stars on stage,” wrote Die Welt.

Revival with Luciano Pavarotti

However, the work was programmed again for the Easter Festival the following year – this time with a new ensemble of singers. As Cavaradossi, Luciano Pavarotti was engaged: the leading performer of this role at the time who sang it around the world. Against his strong, bright and metallic tenor which dominated the performances, it was difficult for the other two main characters to hold their ground: if the press reports are to be believed, neither the English soprano Josephine Barstow as Tosca, nor Alain Fondary as Scarpia had the vocal requirements to stand up to Pavarotti. The playing of the orchestra was praised: “The wonderful lyricism of the strings surprises again and again, the elegant, etching-like, delicate trumpet chords in the second act, the powerful synthesis of music and drama” (Die Welt). The Salzburg Tosca was the last major opera event conducted by Herbert von Karajan. But even then, there were already signs of things coming to an end: conflict had arisen between the conductor, who was in poor health, the orchestra, and the Berlin Senate. Four weeks after the Easter Festival, Karajan submitted his resignation as artistic director and chief conductor of the Philharmoniker. Three months later, he died in Anif.

1982: Katia Ricciarelli was the acclaimed Tosca in the concert performance in Berlin
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
1988 Salzburg Easter Festival: Franz Grundheber as Baron Scarpia
(Photo: Siegfried Lauterwasser/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
1989 Salzburg Easter Festival: Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi and Karajan in rehearsal
(Photo: Siegfried Lauterwasser/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
1988: Herbert von Karajan is honoured by the orchestra on his 80th birthday.
(Photo: Siegfried Lauterwasser/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)