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Met to air 'Tosca' on radio: lots of releases to use for comparison

Puccini's ''Tosca'' is a favorite of great singers and audiences alike. It offers splendid roles for a tenor and a baritone, and of course, the title role is the dazzling showcase for a galvanizing prima donna. It opens the Metropolitan Opera's radio broadcast season on Saturday, Dec. 5 (check local listings).

The opera has been recorded at least 16 times, starting with a La Scala recording from 1929 with Renata Tebaldi's teacher Carmen Melis (available on the German Discophilia label). A 1938 Rome Opera House effort with Maria Caniglia and Beniamino Gigli (currently on Seraphim 6027) packs a fine punch, with both protagonists in fine voice.

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In 1953 Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Titto Gobbi, and maestro Victor de Sabata along with the forces of La Scala Opera gathered to make recording history - the finest ''Tosca'' of all times, and one of the greatest recordings of an opera on records (Angel BL-3508).

From then it has been mostly downhill. An intermittently wonderful performance now exists from RCA Victrola (VICS 6000), with Zinka Milanov, the superlative Jussi Bjorling, and Leonard Warren, Erich Leinsdorf conducting. Renata Tebaldi made a more-than-serviceable stereo set (no longer available) to replace a good mono set (Richmond 62002). Herbert von Karajan offered an often spectacular (and sonically stupendous) performance with the young Leontyne Price , di Stefano, and Giuseppe Taddei (London OSA - 1284).

Price's remake is disappointing despite Zubin Menta's volatile conducting, and the presence of Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes (on RCA). Callas's remake is vocally raw though often viscerally exciting (with Gobbi and an elegant Carlo Bergonzi (Angel SBL 3655). Monsterrat Caballe has her moments, as does Jose Carreras, but Ingvar Wixell is vocally woolly, and Sir Colin Davis is no Puccini conductor (Philips 6700 108).

Nowadays, sweet lyric sopranos are being cast in this mighty role, and not one of them is persuasive or dynamic enough. Karajan's re-recording (DG 2707 121 ) is superb sonically, but his Tosca, Katia Ricciarelli, is undernourished and wan, Carreras is in poor voice, and Ruggiero Raimondi never once convinces as Scarpia.

Mirella Freni is equally at odds vocally with the role, though at least her attempt (London OSAD 12113) comes from the grand old tradition. Luciano Pavarotti is not up to par, and Milnes, while better than on the Price remake, manages only to sound awkward and American.

Finally, Renata Scotto is the often-interesting heroine on a brand-new digital recording (Angel DSBX - 3919). She is intelligent, dynamic, vocally uneven, and very small-scale. Placido Domingo is the loud Cavaradossi, Renato Bruson the insightful Scarpia, James Levine the brilliant conductor.

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