January 2012


MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Phyllida Lloyd, Harry Fehr, Simon Keenlyside, Raymond Aceto, Liudmyla Monastyrska, Elisabeth Meister, Nigel Cliffe, Ian Lindsay, Steven Ebel, Dimitri Pittas, Will Richardson | Opus Arte

If the concept behind Phyllida Lloyd’s direction at the Royal Opera House production of Verdi’s Macbeth (the 2002 production revived here under director Harry Fehr) isn’t immediately obvious and doesn’t seem totally coherent, it’s perhaps because the marriage of Verdi and Shakespeare itself in this earlier opera of the composer (unlike the magnificent later adaptations Otello and Falstaff) isn’t the most consistent or coherent either. Rather than attempt to impose a personal reading into some kind of structure or workable concept onto the work, or bring it closer into line with the dramatic intentions of Shakespearean original, Lloyd’s production rather impressively remains faithful to Verdi’s imperfect interpretation of the work, working closely to mirror the tone of the production with what Simon Keenlyside, in an accompanying interview on the DVD and Blu-ray, vividly describes as the “black tides” of Verdi’s score.

There are a couple of strong themes within the work that the director successfully latches onto in order to put that wonderful score right up there on the stage in visual terms. The most evident is the colour scheme (reflected in the poster designs and the packaging of the DVD) of black, white and red. That’s an obvious means to reflect the moral absolutes that are raised in the work, as well as the bloody violence that ensues from their transgressions, but it also effectively matches the colour of Verdi’s musical dynamic. Gold also features, as the prize of the crown, but also the “gilded cage” that entraps Macbeth. The other theme, one that is perhaps reflects the Shakespearean themes as much as Verdi’s treatment of them, is in how the production strives to make the horror itself and the full consequences of it visible. Here the violence is not something that takes place off-stage, but rather its true nature is made ever present, and its consequences must be lived with. The reign of blood that is embarked upon is visible throughout here and no amount of hand-washing will completely erase it.

Macbeth
Accordingly, right from the opening of Act 1, the witches - red turbaned and mono-browed – make their prophesies to Macbeth and Banquo, but instead of vanishing into the mist, they remain on the stage and appear throughout the opera at key moments – a witch can for example be seen delivering Macbeth’s letter directly to his wife, and one places the crown into Macbeth’s hands, another hands him the knife that takes the lives of the children of his rivals – a constant visual reminder to the audience of their prophesy being fulfilled, just as it the score and libretto also make direct reference to it. The stage is often littered with the bodies of Macbeth’s crimes that usually take place off-stage, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions here made plainly visible in all their horror. The announced execution of the former Thane of Cawdor, leading to the fulfilment of the first of the prophesies, is shown here and made real – Banquo’s ghost is not just the figure of a fevered imagination, his dead body serves as a physical reminder and his apparition is up there on the stage. There’s no holding back either on the “original sin” of Duncan’s death, his bloody and mutilated body displayed for all to see. Nor is there any sparing from showing the killing of children or the masses of victims among his own people that number among the king’s crimes. And since all this is so vividly described in Verdi’s score, why should it not be?

Macbeth

Verdi’s Macbeth is an opera nonetheless that needs a little bit of personality injected into it. It’s not entirely successful on its own terms, and playing as such, it can never entirely convince. Directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano seems determined to tease out some greater subtleties in the score that aren’t really there. It’s consequently a little bit too delicate, when a bit of a heavier punch would be more appropriate, but it does manage to tease that gloomy darkness out of the work. This Macbeth isn’t Shakespeare, it’s early Verdi, and yes, there are signs of the composer’s later greatness here, modernising and moving away from the Italian opera conventions for a purer dramatic tone (the bel canto coloratura of Lady Macbeth’s arias ‘Si colmi il calice di vino eletto’ and Macbeth’s mad scene notwithstanding) that is in keeping with the darker tone of the work, but with its Verdian patriotic laments and choruses (‘Patria oppressa!) it’s still not the most sophisticated or faithful treatment of Shakespeare.

Or perhaps I’m underestimating Verdi’s work here, because there are interesting elements that can be drawn out of the opera’s score and its treatment of the subject. The rather more daring 2010 production at the Paris Opéra under the direction of Dmitri Tcherniakov with Teodor Currentzis conducting makes a strong case for it, but if there’s any attempt to bring those elements out here, there’s a sense that the performances, the orchestration and the staging of the Royal Opera House production aren’t always working in common accord. For all its efforts to put the horror up on the stage and the close attention paid to the score, there’s initially a detachment between the orchestration and the performances in Act I at least, which seems to be down to there not being enough attention paid to the acting. Things warm up a little by the end of Act II, Act III’s potions, prophesies and apparitions are delightfully staged, and thereafter the deepening horror of the drama and the score starts to make the full extent of its presence felt.

At the very least, the listener will be beaten into submission – as they should be – by the singing and presence of Lady Macbeth. The formidable ringing tone and sheer power of Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska’s voice certainly achieves that, even if there isn’t always an emotional depth behind her pronouncements and her acting ability is practically non-existent. With that voice, and Verdi behind it, that’s not something to worry about in this particular opera however. On the lighter end of the register Simon Keenlyside is a true Verdi baritone. His consideration of his lines and delivery of them makes real the forced bravado and the underlying horror of his fate that lies in his character. That’s quite impressive, particularly in his death scene aria ‘Mal per me’ (the opera working from Verdi’s 1865 revision of the opera, but successfully reinstating some of the 1847 cuts). Banquo is also well served by American bass, Raymond Aceto, and his Gran Scena ‘Studia il passo, o mio figlio’ is sung very well.

The Blu-ray release of Macbeth is up to the expected high standards, the strong high contrast lighting showing good detail, while the mixing on both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks give a fine account of the score, the mixing (along with Pappano’s conducting), achieving a good balance between the orchestration and the singing voices. Extras on the BD include a Cast Gallery. Behind the Scenes Rehearsals and Interviews with Simon Keenlyside, Raymond Aceto and Liudmyla Monastyrska. I enjoyed listening to their views here on their characters and the challenges of the opera. The booklet contains an essay by Mike Ashman which considers the nature of the opera as it is presented in this production, and revival director Harry Fehr provides a detailed walk-through synopsis that is related to what is sung.

Carlo

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2012 | Asher Fisch, Jürgen Rose, René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann, Boaz Daniel, Eric Halfvarson, Steven Humes, Anja Harteros, Anna Smirnova, Laura Tatulescu, Francesco Petrozzi, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Tim Kuypers, Goran Juric, Levente Molnár, Christian Rieger, Christoph Stephinger, Rüdiger Trebes | Live Internet Streaming - 22 January 2012

It’s become popular of late, even more so with the recent 150th anniversary of the reunification of Italy, to view Verdi’s operas less in the historical period of their setting than in the time and the politics of their composition. Dealing with power, religion, the rule of fear and the merciless suppression of revolutionary elements that threaten the prevailing authorities, Don Carlos in particular fits in very well with the complexity of the political situation during the Risorgimento, but then it was undoubtedly meant to. If this production of Verdi’s magnificent 1867 Five-Act Grand Opera for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich doesn’t make overt reference to the Italian political situation of the time, it at least fully draws out those elements that Verdi, a prominent figure in the Risorgimento, raises in relation to the exercise of power.

At the time of the opera’s composition in 1866, the unification of Italy was still underway but unresolved with regard to the position of the Papal State in the new nation, and it wouldn’t be until 1871 that Rome finally became part of the new Italy and its capital. The writing of the opera coincides also with the Papal Syllabus of Errors 1864 that resolutely set the Catholic church in opposition to those revolutionary ideals of freedom of speech and religious tolerance, and there is consequently a strong anticlerical stance in Don Carlo that also reflects Verdi’s complex relationship with the Church. The Bayerische Staatsoper production, broadcast live on the internet on the 22nd January 2012, uses the more commonly performed Italian version of the opera that was originally written in French, and judging from the lack of prelude and extended prison scene, it would appear to be the original rather than the revised version of the opera. The production focuses less on the romantic element of the story at the centre of the opera between Don Carlos and Elisabeth – their unexpected love for each other at an arranged marriage of political convenience cruelly dashed by the decision of Carlo’s father Philip II to marry Elisabeth himself – and instead places emphasis on the unjust wielding of power by an old conservative establishment and the denial of liberty that this represents.

Carlo
The staging, if it is rather stark and dimly lit throughout, reflects Carlo’s deep despair at the turn of events which seems to be less to do with romantic inclinations here than a deeper personal crisis at being rendered powerless to control his own destiny by higher powers, one that he attempts to restore through his subsequent throwing himself into the affairs of the Flemish struggle. Stark it may be, but two elements dominate the set throughout and have an important influence over the whole tone of the production. The first is a huge crucifix that hangs over the setting of all five acts, whether it’s the Forest of Fontainbleau, the Cloister at San Yuste, the bedroom/study of the King or a prison cell, its presence dark and oppressive (like much of the score) rather than comforting, and the second is the image of the Friar/the ghost of Philip’s father, who is not only a brooding ambiguous figure in the opera, but a hooded image of him holding a skull also materialises in the background, usually at the beginning and end of acts, again with religious significance for death and the afterlife.

There is only one point in the opera where neither of these images are present, and that is during the auto-da-fé scene at the end of Act III, but the only brightness there is here is cast by the flames of burning heretics condemned by the Grand Inquisitor, and a garish procession of tableaux vivants depicting Catholic iconography in all its glorious bloody violence. It’s the one scene in the opera that strives to make a big impression and, coming as it does during Verdi’s famous March and Chorus at the Grand Finale of Act III, it’s meant to be a powerful sequence, one where Don Carlo finally rebels and is moved to political activism against the cruelty of the ruling powers. Everything about the production, though it may not be pretty to look at, consequently is completely in service to Verdi’s themes and works to put the emphasis in all the right places. Even the division of the opera with the two hours of first three acts ambitiously played without an interval (the basic setting allowing for this), allows the division between the two halves of the opera to be all the more strikingly contrasted.

Carlo

This, of course, is a vital aspect of the whole opera, the divisions not just being political, but between love and duty, between the personal and the public faces presented by each of the figures, and by the changing nature of their relationships to one another. This aspect was magnificently drawn out in last season’s production of Don Carlo at the Met, particularly in the fine acting of the principals, but while there is less nuance in the acting in this production, the singing is of a sufficiently high standard to convey everything that is implicit in the libretto and the score. Most impressive is Rene Papé, whose first words in the aria ‘Ella giammai m’amo! (“She never loved me!”), coming as they do directly after the interval, typify that divide in the opera and the characters, the merciless authority that Philip yielded in the first half, now seen in private as a man who may wear a crown and can bend others to his will, but would give it all up to be able to understand and sway the human heart. Pape’s terrific performance makes Philip’s dilemma real – that there is a higher power, albeit in the earthly guise of the Church, that even he must obey – his delivery of the aria revealing the humanity beneath the hard surface that is buckling under the demands of duty in such a way that one can’t help but sympathise with him.

The same conflicts, and the dark fatalism that underlies it, are likewise brilliantly expressed in the main arias of each of the figures, in Eboli’s Act IV ‘O don fatale’, wonderfully delivered by Anna Smirnova; in Elisabeth’s ‘Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo’ (“You who knew the vanities of the world, and enjoy in the tomb profound repose”), another strong performance from Anja Harteros, where she concludes that “the heart has one desire: the peace of the grave!”; and in the figures who indeed take that idealism to the grave with them – Rodrigo and Carlo, in the belief that they will find a better place for them in the afterlife. Jonas Kaufmann may seem to make less of an impression here than he usually does, but Carlo indeed is not a leading role that takes centre stage. He’s the catalyst by which we define the divisions and the conflicts within each of the characters, an idealist who himself is defined by and at the mercy of those forces that are greater than himself, whichever direction he turns.

Kaufmann doesn’t seek to make Carlo any more romantic or heroic than he is, remaining within the defined limits of the character, but within that – as written and scored by Verdi – there is a great deal of development that can be seen to reach a peak at the opera’s finale. Here Kaufmann’s powerful delivery and the considered performance of the role shows the true quality of his voice and his ability to suit the demands of a thoughtful and well-performed production of Don Carlo that strikes a perfect balance in every respect to Verdi’s arrangements and their intentions.

BolenaGaetano Donizetti - Anna Bolena

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna 2011 | Evelino Pidò, Eric Génovèse, Anna Netrebko, Elīna Garanča, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Francesco Meli, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Elisabeth Kulman, Peter Jelosits | Deutsche Grammaphon

The first of Donizetti’s operas to be a major international success, Anna Bolena is a tragedia lirica that sets the tone for a number of subsequent works in the same dark, historical vein – Lucrezia Borgia and the two other operas that comprise the composer’s Tudor trilogy, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. First performed in 1830 and reflecting perhaps the revolutionary spirit of the times – the depiction of Henry VIII here is in marked contrast to that of the merciful Metastasian kings of the past – these works differ considerably in tone from the now mostly forgotten comedy works by Donizetti that preceded them (and indeed from the more popular but considerably better written comic works that followed such as L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale), but the qualities and the value of Anna Bolena as a key work of the composer itself haven’t always been recognised either. It took an astonishing performance from Maria Callas in her prime in Milan in 1957, in a Luchino Visconti production, to once again bring this particular work to the attention of the opera-going public, and with it a newfound appreciation for Donizetti’s work.

In some ways, with this new production at the Vienna State Opera in 2011, followed by its appearance on the stage at the Met in New York (two different productions but both featuring Anna Netrebko in the title role), Anna Bolena is again proving to be a key work leading to a rediscovery and re-evaluation of Donizetti as being more than just a composer of bel canto, but one capable of developing works with considerable dramatic power and unexpected depth of character. I can’t think of any soprano at the moment who would be capable of drawing new depths in the work in the way Callas did dramatically, but in terms of star-power and personality, as well as having a voice of great substance to match, Anna Netrebko is among the very the best we have for this kind of role. The Vienna production consequently might not be quite such a revelation this time around, but it’s a creditable performance nonetheless that brings out the true qualities of the work, and often it’s even quite exhilaratingly impressive.

Bolena

Everything good that can be learned by the master Rossini is evident here in the disciple’s work, and it’s also possible to see the huge influence that Donizetti’s treatment of historical and romantic intrigues in Anna Bolena would have on Verdi’s mature works, and not just the early ones. I recently noted the use of duets in Donizetti’s late work Linda di Chamounix, but the dramatic and lyrical strengths of Anna Bolena also lie in such ensemble work, creating a fevered intensity to the love duets and to the confrontations between rivals, but creating additional complexity to the arrangements through quartets, quintets and choral work of remarkable power that carry those contradictory emotions and pronouncements. While such moments are hammered home to great effect and underscored by dark menacing tones, Donizetti’s sense of melody is also just as evident here as in the more tender moments and arias. Those elements are superbly brought out by Evelino Pidò and the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper, the drive of the musical forces being one of the most impressive aspects of this production (and one, I’m pleased to say, that is audible with remarkable detail and dynamism in the High Definition audio channels of the Blu-ray release).

Since the casting and singing is also of an extraordinarily high quality, it’s disappointing then that the stage direction by Eric Génovèse is so rigidly traditional. There is the merest suggestion of the courtly interiors of Windsor Castle, the same mostly fixed location adapted to a throne-room, a courtyard or a park as required, which at least means that there is a fluidity between scenes even if what takes place in them is largely static. It is of course difficult to stage such bel canto works, which are not terribly active dramatically, but the director here finds no imaginative solution, eye-catching arrangements or sets, leaving the performers to stride up and down the stage in the absence of anything much else to do. The costume design is at least impressive, enough to give the production some sense of dramatic realism, and the stage is brightly lit (perhaps with a few additional spotlights for the TV cameras), or at least the stars are well lit to shine brightly against the rather drab backgrounds.

And “stars” is not an accidental choice of words either, because they were undoubtedly the main attraction of this production, generating a great deal of press interest and commanding incredible prices for ticket sales. In the end, they all certainly live up to and almost justify the hype. Anna Netrebko in particular brings great presence to the role of Anne Boleyn. She’s not always the most convincing in the bel canto repertoire – although as Norina in another recent Donizetti role for the Metropolitan Opera’s Don Pasquale, she was outstanding – and this particular role represents a considerable challenge. It’s not just that Netrebko is following in the footsteps of so many great singers who have taken on the role in the past, from Guiditta Pasta – the original Anna B. – through to Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, and unlikely to be able to stand up to the comparison, but her performance in this role also in a way represented more of a personal milestone that would consolidate her standing or define her limitations. In the event, her performance here kind of does both, but it must primarily be judged a great success.

Bolena

Netrebko’s performance of Anna Bolena is a mixed one, but such is her own force of personality and tone of voice that comparisons to other singers soon fall by the wayside, allowing her performance in the role to be judged on its own terms. At times she does seem to be absent from the character, her voice not quite capable either of reaching those deeper emotional depths, failing to find any colour or personality in a scene, but at other times – notably in her duet with Elīna Garanča’s Jane Seymour where she identifies her rival, and in her final death scene – she suddenly seems to let fly with superb control and genuine passion (the same mixed qualities incidentally could also be said applied to Donizetti’s writing for this particular work). She’s at least never anything less than compelling and commanding whenever she is on the stage, the viewer captivated by how she is going to deal with any given scene. The other principals are no less impressive, Garanča in particular entering fully into character and rising to the challenges it represents dramatically and vocally, while Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is a solid and convincing Enrico (Henry VIII). Francesco Meli’s Percy is also worthy of mention, genuinely impassioned and of sound vocal ability, if not always in perfect time with the conductor. Elisabeth Kulman also makes a strong impression in the lesser but vital role of Smeton.

The quality of the Blu-ray release of the 2011 Wiener Staatsoper production of Anna Bolena from Deutsche Grammaphon is outstanding. Filmed for the screen by Brian Large, the veteran opera screen director does well to make the most of the limited dramaturgy and stage movements, the strong lighting making this look just marvellous. The audio tracks, LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, are, as I mentioned earlier, astounding. There such great depth, dynamic and detail audible in the playing of the orchestra, as well as in the singing that you can’t help but be impressed by the performances. In terms of extra features, there are only brief introductions to each of the two acts in German by Elīna Garanča. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, Spanish and French.

AtomicJohn Adams - Doctor Atomic

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2007 | Lawrence Renes, Peter Sellars, Gerald Finley, Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink, James Maddalena, Thomas Glenn, Jay Hunter Morris, Ellen Rabiner | Opus Arte

There is no reason why opera can’t deal with really big subjects. Even in its earliest form, going right back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and dealing with ancient classical mythology, right through to Verdi and Wagner, or even the treatment of the Holocaust in Weinberg’s The Passenger, through the combined artforms of drama and the abstraction of music given expression through human performance, opera has been able to delve deeply into the nature of humanity when faced by the big questions of existence – God, Love, War and the essential matters of Life and Death.

Obviously, those subjects are no less central to many aspects of our lives today and no less important to modern composers. It’s in this context that the operas of John Adams (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) deal with contemporary or recent ‘headline’ subjects that have had a major impact of our lives or say something significant about the world we live in today. Dealing with Oppenheimer’s development and testing of the first Atom Bomb in June 1945, leading to its deployment in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Doctor Atomic tackles with one of the most significant developments of the 20th century – if not actually the biggest since it deals with the potential annihilation of the entire human race – but one wonders whether this subject may indeed not be too big for opera, or at least for the limitations of composer John Adams and librettist and director Peter Sellars.

Atomic
Whether they succeed in their aims or not, no-one at least can accuse the authors of lacking in ambition. The decision to condense all the personal, moral, philosophical, political and military considerations around the development of the Atom Bomb into a 24 hour period, confining it (with some significant temporal twists) to the preparations for the first test of the bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico is perhaps necessary from a dramatic perspective, but it does make it somewhat difficult to get to the human heart of the subject and the personalities involved. In some ways, of course, this reflects the dilemma of the scientists working on the project, caught up in the science of the work and in the middle of a war, there’s some urgency involved that doesn’t perhaps leave a lot of time for consideration of the moral and political implications, to say nothing of the personal toll that the results of the project will later exert over the consciences and lives of those men.

There is consequently some discussion and disagreement in Doctor Atomic between Oppenheimer and Teller not only over the estimated yield of the explosion and the possibly global catastrophic consequences that are as yet unknown, but also concerns voiced about the military application of their work on the Japanese people – without warning – particularly since Germany has already surrendered the war. The tense confrontations between scientists and the military advisors as well as the approaching deadline for the first test create a fraught situation that in only heightened and its dangers made real by the electrical storm that has arrived just at the critical moment.

The opera consequently maintains a high edge of intensity throughout. It’s evident in the discordant notes, and staccato strings of Adams’ score, underscored by rumbling percussion; it’s evident also in the sparse staging and stark lighting for this production at the De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam – a mobile set of wooden scaffolding over a “ground zero” circle that allows for a reasonable flow to me maintained between scenes. Aside from the busyness of Lucinda Childs’ dancers over the circle, the intensity of the production is even more pronounced however – perhaps to a state of being somewhat overwrought – by the singing performances and the delivery of a rather portentous libretto. Drawn from released declassified official documents, with the addition of some passages from Baudelaire and the Bhagavad Gita, the libretto may have authenticity and a sense of poetry that is certainly in keeping with the grandness of the subject, but it does indeed often sound like notes from scientific documents and personal journal observations rather than actual dialogue, and it consequently lacks any deeper insight into the nature of the people involved, or any sense of real human feeling.

Atomic

With a libretto taking in questions of life and death from the god-like stance in relation to such matters wielded by the figures involved, and with nature invoked in the forms of thunder and lightning (to say nothing of consideration of radioactive rain and visions of “cloud-flower” structures), such weighty pronouncements are moreover sung by a cast of powerful deep voices that are predominately baritone or bass-baritone for the main masculine roles (Gerald Finley, James Maddalena, Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink) and mezzo-soprano for the two significant female roles (although Adams reworked Kitty Oppenheimer for soprano Jessica Rivera for this production, it’s still at the lower end of the soprano tessitura). The declarative delivery, against such a musical, scenic and dramatic background with a Chorus that has all the portentousness of a Greek Chorus, is, barring a few brief scenes, consequently never anything less than overwhelmingly tortured and angst-ridden.

Is such an approach justified? Would all these moral questions really have been weighted-up and agonised over in this way over such a short intense period of time, or is this a retrospective look at a significant moment taking in all the implications in the light of what would subsequently transpire in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Either approach would be valid and the scope and nature of the subject itself undoubtedly calls out for just such a treatment, but does it work? There’s no doubting the ability of the composer and librettist to draw these diverse historical references, documents and characters together, poetically working nature and elements into the equation in a manner that is certainly powerful and – by the time one gets to the conclusion – dramatically effective, but rather than being in any way enlightening or instructive about the subject, the overwhelming feeling is that Doctor Atomic is just overwhelming.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release of this 2007 production at De Nederlandse Opera is a strong presentation of the work. It’s filmed often in extreme close-up (under the direction of Peter Sellars) and in High Definition under stark bright lighting, you might get to see right into the pores of the singers more than you would like to. Radio microphones are used for this production and visible on all the performers – whether this was for the stage or to allow better mixing for the recording, I’m not sure, but the Dolby TrueHD 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are well presented. In addition to a detailed on-screen synopsis and cast gallery, there are several short background mini-documentaries on the production, and an extended interview with Peter Sellars.

CastratoThe Castrato and his Wife - Helen Berry

Oxford University Press, New York 2011

ISBN: 978-0-19-956981-6

One of the principal difficulties of writing an academic text about a figure like Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci (1735 - 1790), a noted Italian castrato singer in his day who made his biggest impression in England, Scotland and Ireland, but not as well-known, well-documented or important to the opera scene as Farinelli or Senesino, is in obtaining sufficient documents and accounts of his life. Much of the account of the early life of Tenducci here is therefore presumed from parallel accounts of the experiences of others of a similar social background, since the assumption is that it was rare for anyone to deviate from the social conventions of the day. All the in-all-likelihoods and may-have-beens are inevitable therefore and in all probability true, but in the case of Tenducci, they at least lead to the author researching and exploring exactly what those mid-eighteenth century attitudes were, which is actually where the most interesting part of the book lies, particularly in how those attitudes conflict with the extraordinary circumstances of this particular castrato and the case of his ‘manhood’.

It is this one vital factor of Tenducci’s life that is rather more documented and speculated upon, subjected as it was to a number of legal disputes and trials, since this particular castrato, although a eunuch, was married and even reported to be a father. The Castrato and his Wife consequently examines Tenducci’s position as a public figure, as an Italian and a Catholic, and his reputation as a singer of not inconsiderable talent – J.C Bach, Thomas Arne and Mozart all composed works for him to sing, and he was particularly noted for his performances of Artaxerxes and Gluck’s Orpheo – as well as being a composer himself, and it gives a good if somewhat cursory account of the post-Handel opera scene in London, Dublin and Edinburgh, but principally, it considers the impact and the enigma of Tenducci being a castrato in a society that was fascinated by but didn’t quite know how to treat this indeterminate gender. The nature of the medical procedure that creates a castrato is shrouded in some secrecy – since despite the Catholic church being responsible for the fashion of castrati singers, it was considered a barbaric and immoral practice. It certainly wasn’t acceptable – on pain of death in Italy – for a castrato to marry, and it certainly stirred up some passions when in 1765, Tenducci eloped with Dorothea Maunsell, the 15 year-old daughter of an eminent Irish family – for which the singer was captured, imprisoned and the legality of his marriage eventually tried in court.

Considering the attitudes of Georgian society, and the attraction that the enigmatic figures of castrati exercised over both men and women, almost the entire hook of The Castrato and his Wife consequently hinges upon the question of whether a castrato would have been able to consummate a marriage. Considering that the process of castration was shrouded in mystery and secrecy, subject to much gossip and speculation in his time, the accounts of Tenducci’s divorce trial uncovered by the author therefore provide an interesting insight into the practice and into contemporary attitudes towards it. The Castrato and his Wife can be a little dry and academic, the writing is not particularly engaging and seems somewhat padded out, providing a lot of unnecessary detail and digressions that don’t seem relevant or interesting, and it is also somewhat repetitive, but the question that is – if you’ll pardon the expression – dangled before us, does keep the reader involved.

Ultimately The Castrato and his Wife is less of a biography of Tenducci and more of an investigation into questions of gender, sexuality and celebrity, and there at least it does manage throw some interesting new light on a curious and scarcely documented aspect of the times, as well as consider its contemporary relevance.

ZauberfloteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Teatro alla Scala, Milan 2011 | Roland Böer, William Kentridge, Günther Groissböck, Saimir Pirgu, Albina Shagimuratova, Genia Kühmeier, Ailish Tynan, Alex Esposito, Peter Bronder | Opus Arte

I think the mark of Mozart’s genius in the composition of his strange and still enigmatic final opera is pretty much agreed upon by most critics and its popularity as one of the most performed works in the repertory deservedly still endures, but in terms of presentation on the stage, Die Zauberflöte still represents a challenge that has perhaps been neglected in recent times by the major modern revisionist directors in favour of finding new ways to explore the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy of works – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte. This is perhaps surprising, since The Magic Flute itself is such a rich and interesting work, historically and personally in terms of the nature of its composition towards the end of Mozart’s life, but it’s also notable for the tremendous musical variety and innovation with which Mozart approaches the Singspiel format, the music not only illustrating or illuminating Schikaneder’s playful and sometimes nonsensical libretto, but bringing structure and depth to the work, breathing life into it in a way that makes its mysteries endlessly fascinating. What more can any director possibly bring to the table or bring out of this work that could make it any more entertaining or even comprehensible?

The stage director for this production of Die Zauberflöte at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan may not have any new ideas about the opera’s central theme of light versus darkness being that of man seeking to rise above their baser natures and impulses, seeking enlightenment over obscurantism, or rationalism over superstition, but as an artist, illustrator and animator South African director William Kentridge does at least approach these themes with a very distinct style of his own. The period setting chosen appears to be late 19th century, the beginning of the age of technological advancement, the characters dressed to looking like figures from a Jules Verne or a H.G Wells novel. At the centre of these scientific advances in this production is the camera, a box that in itself represents the use of light – the ingenuity of man – to forge something out of the darkness, much as Mozart uses the music of the magic flute for the same purpose. Within the box of the stage, Kentridge uses shadows and light in a variety of ways that fits in well with this theme, as well as often being visually very striking.

Zauberflote

Thus, in the opening of Act 1, Tamino battles with a snake that is a projection, but rather than being the kind of CGI spectacle that one might expect with the use of modern technology from a production by someone like La Fura dels Baus (one of the conceptual director’s who actually have tackled Die Zauberflöte, but the less said about their unlikely concept of the Magic Flute being a battle between the opposing hemispheres of the brain the better), it’s more in keeping with the chosen time period and created by the three ladies of the Queen of the Night, who form it out of the shadowplay of their arms. So right from the outset, Tamino literally defeats a shadow of the forces of darkness. It might not be as spectacular as some wirework serpents, but it still works effectively and in keeping with a meaningful overall concept. Elsewhere, through black-and-white reversal charcoal designs, animation and even some silent movie footage Kentridge finds a variety of means to illustrate the journey and trials of the protagonists, their acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, as well as reflect the symbolism, numerology and the Masonic imagery that is associated with the themes of the opera.

At times, one might like to see more familiar traditional props and backdrops, but at least the flute and the bells are physical objects here, which is not always something you can count on. Sometimes, the drawings themselves evoke those traditional references, the classic domed canopy of stars that represents the domain of the Queen of Night given a spin here that fits with the artist’s own sense of concept and design. The ideas don’t particularly illuminate this strange, beguiling work in any new way, but neither does the director attempt to impose any ill-fitting concept onto it. It does at the very least have a distinct sense of personality, freshness and originality, which is more than you can say about the only other version of the opera currently on Blu-ray, the Royal Opera House production directed by David McVicar. At times, the imagery here – enhanced it seems by a little post-production overlays for television – is simply spectacular.

In terms of performance however, that earlier mentioned production conducted by Colin Davis, may have the upper hand. The orchestration here sounds somewhat lifeless, and no-one on the stage – with the exception of Alex Exposito’s Papageno, looks like they are having much fun with what should be a delightfully invigorating work. I’m presuming that the arrangement used here by Ronald Böer is period – or more likely semi-period for La Scala – as it’s not orchestrated as lushly as you would normally hear it. That allows for some interesting touches in places that takes it back to its Singspiel origins and there is even continuo for some of the recitative (courtesy of René Jacobs), but it feels like there is a distinct lack of verve in the playing and the performances. In a good interview in the extra features, Böer recognises that Die Zauberflöte contains all the different facets of Mozart’s work, but the complex personality of Mozart himself is in there too, reflected in each of the characters, and that doesn’t always come across here.

Zauberflote

I can’t fault the singing of this production’s Tamino or Pamina. Tamino can be a difficult role to breathe any life into, but you don’t necessarily need to – the character’s (and Mozart’s) purity, youthful idealism and single-minded determination (yet one that is open to new ideas and a sense of betterment) is all there in the music and Saimir Pirgu sings it beautifully. So too does Genia Kühmeier’s Pamina represent the other side of that nature with a similar clear purity of voice – her ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ is one of the loveliest I’ve heard. Alex Exposito is the only figure who demonstrates any kind of life and personality, and he sings Papageno well with clear diction. Where Die Zauberflöte really needs character however, a sense of grandness and imperiousness to give depth and gravity to the work, is in the opposing forces of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, and unfortunately, neither Albina Shagimuratova nor Günther Groissböck are entirely up to the task. Groissböck, so powerful as the Water Goblin in the controversial Munich Rusalka, is particularly disappointing, not really having the authority in presence or indeed the depth to the voice required for a strong Sarastro. Shagimuratova hits all those notes ok, if a little breathlessly, but she doesn’t command that essential presence or menace either as Queen of the Night.

All in all however, if it’s a little dryly performed and lacking a little bit of spark, this is nonetheless a strong performance of Die Zauberflöte that manages to take a fresh approach to the score and the themes of the work. It’s certainly worthwhile for William Kentridge’s unique approach to production design that makes this never anything less than a rich and imaginative spectacle. The Blu-ray is of the usual high video and audio standards, with extra features consisting of a Cast Gallery and a very interesting twelve-minute Interview with the director and conductor. Region-free, BD50, 1080i, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, German language with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

ChamounixGaetano Donizetti - Linda di Chamounix

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2012 | Marco Armiliato, Emilio Sagi, Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, Bruno de Simone, Simón Orfila, Pietro Spagnoli, Silvia Tro Santafé, Jordi Casanova, María José Suárez, Mariola Cantarero, Ismael Jordi, Paolo Bordogna, Mirco Palazzi, Ketevan Kemoklidze, Fabio Capitanucci | 7 and 8 January 2012

As an example of the semiseria opera tradition, where tragedy ensues but everything nonetheless works through to a happy end, the plot of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix shares a familiar plot line that is more than a little overwrought and even in parts ridiculous. Like Halévy’s semiseria Clari, recently rediscovered and revived (not entirely convincingly) by Cecilia Bartoli, it involves a young woman from the country, an Alpine virgin, who runs away to Paris on the promise of marriage to a rich man and in the process not only risks destroying the good name of her family but also losing her virtue and losing her mind when her fiancée seems to be unable to or is prevented from making an honest woman out of her.

In Haléy’s opera - written for the soprano Maria Malibran - this is an occasion then for long-winded opera-seria like virtuoso bel canto singing with extravagant coloratura to suggest the depths of despair, torment and eventual breakdown its heroine endures, as well as emphasising the importance of virtue in a manner that seems terribly old-fashioned by today’s standards and scarcely worthy of revival. Also rarely performed nowadays, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix is similarly encumbered by stern moralising, but the challenges of producing it lie more in the difficulty of finding bel canto singers capable of meeting its comparatively modest, but no less demanding singing roles. This new production from Emilio Sagi for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez in the main roles of Linda and Carlo, demonstrated the importance of the casting for this opera, one that is vital for it to work even half way convincingly.

Making this overall plot work is quite a challenge, but set-up in Act 1 at least is conventional enough. Linda is a pure and beautiful young country girl, the daughter of tenant farmers in the Alpine Savoy region of France in 1760. She is being pursued by the landowner, the Marquis de Boisfleury, a notorious libertine and seducer of young girls, who believes he has some claim to her, having extended her family’s lease on their factory. Warned of the intentions of Boisfleury by the Prefect, her father sends her away to Paris, entrusting her to her childhood friend Pierotto, but it means that Linda has to leave behind her true love, Carlo. Carlo, who has been keeping his identity secret, is the nephew of the Marquis de Boisfleury, promises “before God and man” that he will make Linda his wife, but his mother has other ideas and a more suitable match for the young viscount than a poor country girl.

Chamounix

Many of the difficulties with swallowing the dramatic developments occur in Act 2, where Linda, having been reduced to singing in the streets after Pierotto had fallen ill, has now been rescued by Carlo and installed in a luxurious Parisian apartment. By amazing coincidence, over the course it seems of an hour, she is joyously reunited with Pierotto; is then visited by the Marquis who suspects she is living in such surroundings on the expense of a rich admirer and believes it gives him freedom to make another play for her; is visited by Carlo who is concerned about the upcoming marriage that has been arranged for him; is then petitioned by her father who, when he discovers that the viscount’s mistress is none other than his daughter Linda, furiously repudiates her. To top it all, Pierotto returns to tell Linda that he has seen the preparations for Carlo’s marriage to another woman. Having endued all this, Linda, inevitably, and in the great opera tradition, goes mad.

The plot might sound outlandish and governed by extraordinarily unlikely coincidences, but Act 2 nonetheless manages to present the different facets of Linda’s situation with economical precision. Really, you couldn’t make the complications of Linda’s predicament any clearer. What helps matters and makes the contrivances rather more palatable, is of course the wonderful musical arrangements and the singing. Musically, Linda di Chamounix, coming several years after Lucia di Lammermoor and preceding the masterful Don Pasquale, is a rather more sophisticated affair than earlier Donizetti works. Characters are defined and identified by leitmotifs and the composer’s use of duets allows the dramatic flow to be maintained without the excesses of emotion expression in long arias. Even Linda’s ‘mad scene’ is a rather more restrained affair than the one in Lucia di Lammermoor, and so well orchestrated are the events that lead up to it, and so precise in delivery and expression is the scene, that it’s actually even more moving and tragic without all the excess.

While there may be few and shorter showcase arias than is customary, those that we have are demanding nonetheless and, when delivered by a singer of exceptional quality, certainly have their dramatic and emotional impact and linger in the mind, as much through the fine melodies of the mature Donizetti style as through the sentiments expressed in them and what they reveal about the characters. Diana Damrau’s mad scene consequently received long and enthusiastic applause at the Liceu, as did Juan Diego Flórez’s confidently delivered ‘Se tanto in ira agli uomini‘ in Act 2. Their expression of the characters in this difficult Act 2 was such that Act 3’s happy resolution of Linda being cured from the madness that has afflicted her by the refrain of Carlo’s promise, is capable of being musically satisfying as well as dramatically convincing. In the other roles, Simón Orfila had powerful presence and authority as the religious and moral guide, the Prefect, while Pietro Spagnoli was fine as Linda’s father Antonio.

Chamounix

The difference that this makes was evident from a viewing of another performance of the same production the previous evening with an alternate cast. Surprisingly however, the difference wasn’t exclusively down to the vocal characteristics alone. Both Mariola Cantarero and Ismael Jordi sang well - Jordi in particular fully deserving of the applause received for a fine performance that was a worthy alternative to Flórez, if Cantarero didn’t have quite the beauty of tone or range of Damrau, particularly when it came to holding that high note at the end of the mad scene. There was however a marked difference embodied in their characters, Damrau and Flórez a much more convincing couple who were able to breathe life into the characters that was lacking in the performance of the alternate cast. Mirco Palazzi was a good Prefect here, if not quite as powerful as Simón Orfilia, but I preferred Ketevan Kemoklidze’s Pierotto of the alternate cast over Silvia Tro Santafé, who has a pretty voice but irritatingly sang every note with vibrato. Fabio Capitanucci also made a stronger impression as Antonio, particularly in his duets with Linda and with the Prefect. Paolo Bordogna played the role of the Marquis de Boisfleury with a little more of a comic touch that seems right for the character, but Bruno de Simone’s Boisfleury fitted in better with the more sensitive touch of the Damrau/Florez pairing.

Emilio Sagi’s staging was perfectly in service of the opera without being overly conceptual or too literal. The nature of the Alpine Savoy region was evoked in clean, pure, classical lines, the inhabitants all dressed in white and far more fashionably and expensively than one would expect tenant farmers of a provincial region - but the outer garments were perhaps more of a representation of the inner nature of the characters. The same sense of classical design of Act 2 likewise reflected Linda’s inner purity, even when to outside eyes she appears to be an immoral kept woman in an expensive Parisian apartment. Marco Armiliato directed the orchestra of the Liceu delicately through Donizetti’s score, like the singers and in line with the restrained musical arrangements, maintaining a fine balance that held back any heavy-handed over-emphasis that might tip the work over into sentimental melodrama.

AtysJean-Baptiste Lully - Atys

Opéra Comique, Paris, 2011 | William Christie, Les Arts Florissantes, Jean-Marie Villégier, Bernard Richter, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Emmanuelle di Negri, Nicholas Rivenq, Marc Mouillon, Sophie Daneman, Jaël Azzaretti, Paul Agnew, Cyril Auvity, Bernard Delatré | FRA Musica

In contrast to most of William Christie’s recent productions reviving forgotten gems of early French Baroque opera, this 2011 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1676 opera Atys for the Opéra Comique in Paris is rather more faithful to the period and tradition of the original work. It may be the case that the works of Lully’s successor Rameau are better suited to a more experimental approach that strives to find a balance between the classicism of the subjects and the modern perspective from which they must inevitably be viewed, but the Les Arts Florissantes’ production of Lully’s Armide directed by Robert Carsen shows that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. As a revival of one of Christie’s earliest productions, from 1987, what is fascinating about Jean-Marie Villégier’s production (amply documented in the extra features on this Blu-ray disc), is the careful consideration of how to present works that hadn’t been played anywhere for several hundred years in as faithful a way as possible while still making them relevant and meaningful to a new audience. The fact that a wealthy benefactor was so moved by the original production that he paid for the lavish production to be restaged in 2011 is testament to the fact that the producers got something right, and the reason why a greater audience can share in the enjoyment and beauty of this work in the age of High Definition video.

Inevitably, at this early stage in the revival and presentation of such works, the tendency is to aim towards fidelity to the period and the intentions of the work as closely as possible, but not slavishly so. There are good reasons for this, principally the fact that, even with great amounts of research on the part of Villégier - an expert on the theatre of this period - one can only come up with at best an approximation of how it was originally staged based on the scarce accounts and documentation of the opera’s original performances for the Royal Court of Louis XIV. Secondly, one has to take into consideration the expectations of a modern opera audience to some degree, since Atys itself was written and tailored to the expectations of a contemporary audience, and there’s a huge gulf of history and opera now that lies in-between that cannot be ignored. Any attempt to create authentic props, backdrops and stage effects would consequently only be a representation of a dull and dusty museum piece, making it nothing more than a curiosity of how opera would have looked in Baroque times, but Christie and his collaborators evidently believe that Lully’s Atys (like their revivals of other works from this period) has inherent musical and entertainment value that doesn’t need to be tied to a historical tradition.

Atys

Villégier’s production manages very well in this respect, aiming for period authenticity in the set and costume designs, capturing a sense of the elaborate extravagance of the work - in musical as well as in production terms - without going overboard and cluttering the stage with unnecessary props and effects. The costumes are actually those of 17th century nobility, not the robes and tunics of classical antiquity in a pastoral setting that would have been more likely employed for this subject, so the intention is clearly to give a semblance of the opera in its time rather than how it would actually have been staged. In the same vein, there is just one all-purpose grand palatial room used for all three acts, based on an historical etching, which gives sufficient room for the large cast of singers, dancers and chorus to play out the comedy, drama and tragedy of the work, conveying everything that is required through the quality of the musical and vocal presentation. The splendour and the sense of the work is thus preserved, without the need for programme footnotes to explain the tradition or make excuses for peculiarities of the production design.

The prelude in praise of the Sun King Louis XIV in this particular opera is an interesting one then, since it serves to set out the whole tone of the opera and the approach taken towards it. In the prelude, Time and the Seasons are put on hold while Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, begs leave of the king himself to delay the arrival of Spring so that the tale can be told of the tragic loves of Atys and the goddess Cybèle. It’s a very formal proposal, though it’s enlivened by comic touches, and this production accordingly plays out in the same fashion - respectfully, but with a lightness of touch. The theme, as is often the case in Baroque opera, is a romantic and a tragic one - of lovers who are kept apart by the whims of gods and kings. And, as is also often the case, gods and kings are not immune either from the forces of love. Here, Atys has just discovered that his secret love for Sangaride is reciprocal, but, alas, the discovery comes too late, for Sangaride is about to be married to the King of the Phrygians, Celenus. The lovers appeal to the goddess Cybèle, who has just appointed Atys her high priest, not knowing that Cybèle is in love with Atys herself. The results in such works when the lovers are not united with their true partners, are inevitably tragic.

While that sounds like a typically Metastasian kind of situation for a long-winded opera seria, but while Atys does indeed run to some three and a quarter hours with lots of tragic bemoaning of the cruel twists of fate and the unfathomable will of the gods, it is not a typical opera in this respect. There are no long repetitive da capo arias and no extravagant coloratura, practically no recitativo secco either, rather Atys almost holds to the model that Gluck would aspire to in his opera reforms. There is little that really stands out as an aria, but rather, a wonderful continuous flow to the singing which purposefully carries the drama and the inner feelings of the characters forward in an admirably concise and direct fashion. There are no longeurs, despite the length, the opera having a wonderful rhythm and structure of its own, the ariosos varying in pace and being broken up with ballets and the most beautiful choral arrangements. Even little divertissements, such as the prelude and the quite stunning Sleep quartet of Act III (”Dormons, dormons tous“) have a dramatic purpose, Le Sommeil arriving to transport Atys to the realm of Cybèle. All of this serves to make Atys dramatically engaging at the same time as being spellbindingly entertaining.

Atys

More than just serving these functions as should any good opera, one is equally struck and impressed by Lully’s musical sensibility, which is brought to life beautifully by William Christie and the orchestra and chorus of Les Arts Florissantes. Despite there being some discussion of research into the instruments played and the composition of the orchestra in the accompanying documentary on disc two of this Blu-ray set, it’s not known how much reconstruction, interpretation and improvisation was involved on the part of Christie, but the results are genuinely impressive. It’s not just the interpretation and performance of the music that are successful however, but rather how every element of the production, direction and choreography falls into place with no jarring elements, creating a consistent and fluid dramatic and musical wholeness. It’s within that perfect setting that the performance of Stéphanie d’Oustrac stands out all the more vividly like a sparkling jewel. Her singing is beautiful, perhaps no more exceptional than the other fine performers in the principal roles, but in her acting, in the rush of emotions that flit across her face and rest in her eyes, she brings that much needed humanity that is essential to prevent the opera being just a dry museum curiosity and instead, as Villégier accurately describes it in the documentary feature, “a catharsis of passions” that is recognisable to any viewer of any age or period. It’s all the more impressive that it is a goddess who displays such passions and, likewise, that those all too recognisable human passions can be found in a work that is almost 350 years old.

It’s remarkable too how such an old work can look and sound so fresh on the impeccable High Definition presentation of the Blu-ray release from FRA Musica. The beautifully lit image captures all the beauty in the detail of the costumes and the production design, the direction for television by Francois Roussillon capturing it all wonderfully as ever, allowing the camera to linger on the expressions of the singers at crucial moments. Nothing is missed. The usual PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks are provided and have a similar crystal clarity with fineness of detail. The surround mix in particular on this release makes great use of the additional spacing and separation of instruments. A two-disc set, disc one contains the entire opera, with disc two given over to an interesting 100-minute documentary reuniting most of the creators involved in the original 1987 production recreated here in 2011. Subtitles are in French, English, German, Spanish and Italian. A very impressive set of a production (like Christie’s stunning Les Indes Galantes) that deserves to be retained for posterity.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Jonathan Kent, Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel, Lukas Jakobski, Jeremy White, Hubert Francis, Zhengzhong Zhou, William Payne, John Morrisey | Opus Arte, BBC2

I recently reviewed a production of Tosca on Blu-ray recorded at the Arena di Verona and summed it up by saying “This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.” As if to prove the point, just a few weeks later comes a version of Tosca recorded at the Royal Opera House earlier this year that, if not the best Tosca you’ll ever see (though it could make claims to be up there among the best) you could at least safely say that it is certainly among the best you will hear being produced anywhere in the world at the moment.

In terms of concept, design and staging, there is nothing particularly innovative, imaginative, original or even too exciting about Jonathan Kent’s direction for this Royal Opera House production, which dates back to 2006. It adheres to the period locations and action as they are laid out in the original libretto, each of the three acts recognisably taking place in specific locations in Rome - Act 1 in the church of Sant’ Andrea, Act 2 in the Palazzo Farnese, Act 3 on top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo - actual locations that have been used in the past for filmed versions of Puccini’s opera. If there’s little that is striking about the stage designs, which are functional at best, Kent stages the dramatic action within them to the full extent of the verismo realism that the opera calls out for. All those major moments within each of the three acts - the Te Deum at the end of Act 1, the death of Scarpia in Act 2, and the powerful climax of Act 3 - are designed to achieve maximum impact. Everything is as you would expect it, there’s nothing clever attempted, and really nothing needs to be done with this particular opera. If it’s staged according to the indications of the libretto, if the dramatic action simply allows the score to dictate the pace and drive of the developments and the emotional pitch, and if it’s sung well, you’re more than half-way there with Tosca.

Tosca

What distinguishes a good traditional production of Tosca from many others, including the aforementioned Arena di Verona production, and what makes this Royal Opera House production something special, is the casting and the ability of those performers to bring something of their own unique character and ability to the work. It’s hard to imagine a more stellar contemporary cast in the three principal roles than the one assembled here. As Floria Tosca, Angela Gheorghiu is the ultimate diva playing a diva - a fact that she acknowledges and clearly relishes. Those characteristics can often be pushed a little too far with this particular singer, who often plays the diva whether it’s called for or not, but here at least it’s appropriate and Gheorghiu is totally convincing. It’s more than just good casting of course, since, as ever, Gheorghiu sings superbly. And not just from a technical viewpoint - which is hard to fault - but it’s also an impassioned performance that is perfectly judged with complete understanding of her character and fits in well with the overall tone of the whole production. Consummately professional then - you would expect no less - but Gheorghiu is also genuinely impressive on every level.

Jonas Kaufmann is another performer who continues to impress, slipping effortlessly into whatever role he plays with a great deal of personality, but more than impress, the manner in which he brings that extraordinary voice to bear on such familiar roles is absolutely astonishing and quite unlike any previous account you might have heard of that role, so far is it from a typical tenor voice. His recent version of Massanet’s Werther for Vienna and the Paris Opéra, for example, couldn’t have been more different than that of Rolando Villazon at Covent Garden in one of his signature roles, and likewise, Kaufmann’s powerfully controlled, dark near-baritone boom makes his Cavaradossi here totally unlike Marcelo Alvarez or indeed any how any other classic tenor would perform the role. There is a fear that with such a powerful voice he could end up bellowing the role, particularly as there is ample opportunity for it, but Kaufmann retains complete control over the voice and the character, dropping it to quieter phrasing where it is required. I’m not totally convinced by the heroic nature of his performance here, which doesn’t let in a great deal of humanity, but I suppose that’s how Puccini mainly scores the role.

Tosca

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia likewise has to make the most of how his role is scored and try to strike a balance between a human and a caricature. He also sings wonderfully and certainly looks the part with enough physical presence and steel in his vocal delivery to make the evil pronouncements of the Chief of Police, heavily underscored as they are by Puccini, more than menacing enough, so the additional grimaces and sneers perhaps aren’t all that necessary. The singing performances are all marvellous then, making the most of the roles and trying to find some balance and level of humanity in the characters - which isn’t always easy in this opera - but best of all is how well they work together. On a vocal level the singing is perfectly complementary and there appears to be no struggle for dominance on the acting side either, each of them existing within their own characters but working with each other in a dramatically convincing manner. It makes it very easy then for the viewer to become wrapped up in the melodramatic events that occur over the 24 hour period of the story.

That’s as much to do with the staging however, so while you can criticise Jonathan Kent’s lack of imagination in the production design and the stage direction, it does at least work effectively on a dramatic level. Part of the reason for this is the decision not to downplay the opera’s controversial depictions of violence. Make no mistake, it’s all there in the libretto, from the extended torture scene through to the attempted rape, murder and executions, but some directors might choose to underplay these elements, particularly to mitigate against Puccini’s full-blooded score. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and there’s certainly no right or wrong way to do it. If you are aiming for realism in the set designs and you have singers who are also good actors, then it makes sense to let them fully enter into the roles and the cast here manage to do that without too much operatic grimacing or mannerisms. Matched with a perfectly judged performance of the Royal Opera House orchestra under Antonio Pappano (that has all the dynamism that is lacking in the aforementioned Verona production), the result is an impressive, involving and, yes, near perfect account of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” as you could expect to see done anywhere in the world today.