Arena di Verona


ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Arena di Verona, 2006 | Daniel Oren, Hugo de Ana, Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcelo Álvarez, Ruggero Raimondi, Marco Spotti, Fabio Previati, Enrico Facini, Angelo Nardinocchi, Ottavia Dorrucci | Arthaus

This budget release of Tosca by Arthaus (available for around £6 from online retailers) is an accessible and affordable introduction for anyone interested in discovering just how amazing opera can look and sound on Blu-ray. In the early days of DVD, Arthaus released a couple of ‘DVD Samplers’ that highlighted the latest releases in their catalogue with a selection of trailers, key arias or scenes from their opera, ballet and music documentary titles. This gave a flavour of how certain opera productions were staged, and whether they would be to your taste or not. Arthaus have however come up with a much better idea to introduce new audiences to their Blu-ray catalogue, and that is to include an entire opera along with all the samples, so that newcomers can get a sense of the whole dramatic and musical power of a complete production.

The choices so far have been good ones. The first release, Verdi’s La Traviata, with a stellar cast including Angela Gheorghiu, Ramón Vargas and Thomas Hampson and a sumptuous set at the Scala in Milan, could hardly be a better advertisement for opera on Blu-ray or a better introduction for the newcomer. La Traviata is full of magnificent and familiar melodies, demonstrates virtuoso singing and has a strong dramatically involving and emotionally engaging storyline that moves rapidly along. If that particular production was a little traditional and unimaginative, it is at least a safe option that cannot fail to impress. The same can certainly be said, on just about every level, for the choice of Arthouse’s second ‘Blu-ray Sampler’, Puccini’s Tosca.

Tosca

Filmed in 2006 in the stunning outdoor location of the ancient Roman arena in Verona, there are no grand or avant-garde concepts attached to the production, just a solid, straightforward account of Puccini’s melodrama of a love affair that becomes embroiled in revolutionary political affairs of state and ends in tragedy. No clever concepts need to be applied to Tosca – its themes are there on the surface and not politically engaged in the manner that Verdi would deal with such subject matter – and it’s underscored by the powerful tugging sweep of Puccini’s hugely romantic score. Employing Wagnerian leitmotifs none too subtly, (Dah-dah, DAH every time the villain Scarpia is even mentioned), compressing the drama down to a series of escalating events, the three acts clocking in at under two hours, Tosca is a superbly calculated and orchestrated music drama.

The stage setting here by Hugo de Ana is actually rather unspectacular for a Verona production, but it’s not an opera that needs the extravagant grandeur of a Zeffirelli setting. A few statues are scaled up to create an imposing presence of religion and the state over the affairs, but there are few changes made to the necessarily all-purpose stage for each of the acts. The only real set-piece is the ‘Te Deum’ at the end of Act 1, which involves cannons firing on the stage and the opening of the screen at the back to reveal a line-up of skull-faced bishops, and it’s highly effective, with shock and awe in all the right places. The two other famous set-pieces in the opera – the ceremonial decorating of Scarpia’s corpse with candles and the plunge of Tosca at the finale – are not exactly muted (it’s impossible for them to be muted with Puccini’s score powering them), but they just don’t take them to their usual lengths and they do consequently slightly lose their traditional impact.

Tosca

If the scenes work and are scarcely less effective than usual, it’s down to Puccini’s score to a large extent, but it also needs strong casting to put it across, and this production certainly has that. Best of all is Marcelo Álvarez – better known for his Verdi tenor roles than for Puccini, but Cavaradossi suits him well in this particular opera. Fiorenza Cedolins is fine and occasionally brilliant as Flora Tosca, and Scarpia (Dah-dah, DAH) is in the capable hands of the great Ruggero Raimondi. Obviously each is going to be judged by their showpiece aria – Scarpia’s ‘Te Deum’ in Act 1, Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte’ in Act 2 and Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in Act 3 – and all of them are impressively delivered in singing and in dramatic terms. Daniel Oren conducts here and it’s an adequate account of the work, but a little too smooth, the instrumentation not always well balanced in the sound mix for maximum effect. This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.

The quality of the Blu-ray is excellent. The image is clear and colourful, the high quality PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 sound mixes well distributed, with nice detail. Subtitles are English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. There are no extra features relating to the Verona production of Tosca on this budget release. Intended to showcase the Arthaus catalogue, the 47 trailers on the BD total 140 minutes of extracts from their TDK and Arthaus releases, which are right bang up-to-date and well worth a look through. There are however no subtitles on any of the trailers.

TurandotGiacomo Puccini - Turandot

Arena di Verona 2010 | Giuliano Carella, Franco Zeffirelli, Maria Guleghina, Carlo Bosi, Luiz-Ottavio Faria, Salvatore Licitra, Tamar Iveri, Leonardo Lòpez Linares, Gianluca Bocchino, Saverio Fiore, Giuliano Pelizon, Angel Harkatz Kaufman | BelAir Classiques

It’s not as if there is a gap in the market for yet another performance of Turandot, with there being a few versions already out on Blu-ray, and even one that uses the same Franco Zeffirelli production recorded here at the Arena di Verona in 2010. Taking advantage perhaps of Decca’s recall of their Zeffirelli production of Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in New York due to a fault with the English subtitles, BelAir’s release is a timely one that comes out in the gap before the Met reissue. There’s certainly room in anyone’s collection for another version of Puccini’s final masterpiece, but perhaps not yet another one of this production.

Recorded at the huge stage in the Roman arena at Verona at least gives Zeffirelli quite a bit more scope and an impressive location for the sumptuous sets for this fairy-tale opera. The Met production isn’t exactly understated, but here at Verona, the director can at least double the number of supernumeraries, have room for acrobatics and Chinese parade dragons, but bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better (although try telling Franco Zeffirelli that!). Attempting to fill the stage with people could be seen as making things a little more cluttered, but – provided you don’t have an aversion to Zeffirelli glittery gold extravagance – it does at least give sets like the Royal Palace an appropriate sense of grandeur.

Where there’s room for improvement over the Met version of this classic production – not much, as it’s very good, but just a little in one or two areas – is in the singing. Blow for blow however, there’s not much to choose between the two casts other than personal taste and, perhaps more significantly, the impact of the acoustics on the respective recordings. Maria Guleghina is Turandot on both versions, and here – whether it’s through trying to project to a bigger arena, I’m not sure – she sounds a little shrill and strained in her riddle duel with Calaf, but she’s not perfect on the Met recording either. She does however come through with great regal presence and drama towards the conclusion. Tamar Ivéri sings Liù very well indeed, and I’d be happy with her performance if I didn’t still have Marina Poplavskaya’s deeply emotional performance and unique tone fresh in my mind. Salvatore Licitra is a fine Calaf, but his voice doesn’t always carry and he certainly doesn’t sustain his high notes on Nessun Dorma, although he gives it another worthy effort in an encore (this is Verona and the principal aim is one of popular crowd-pleasing), but he performs reasonably well considering the challenges of the outdoor arena setting.

Ultimately, it’s the occasion and the acoustics of the Arena di Verona that make the difference here at least as far as the singing is concerned. The acting is perhaps turned up a notch to project to the arena and performers all make use of discreet microphones, which means that it doesn’t consequently have the same natural ambience of a traditional theatrical production. If the Met production has the edge then in this regard, the Verona recording has other aspects to recommend. The setting and the occasion are impressive alone, but the performance of the orchestra under Giuliano Carella is also noteworthy and has great presence in both the LPCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 sound mixes.

In all other respects, the same qualities that can be found in the Met’s production also work here. The settings and arrangements fully capture the fairy-tale scale of the opera, but the direction sensitively brings out an appropriate sense of the nature of the characters as expressed though the libretto and in what Turandot’s riddles tell us about the respective personalities involved and how love arises from them. Most importantly, Zeffirelli’s production is perfectly in accordance with the tone of Puccini’s fascinating Oriental-inflected score, and the sense of occasion that the Arena di Verona lends it.

The quality of the Blu-ray release from BelAir is quite good, through not perfect. There is good detail in the image and strong colouration that captures the full glory of the production, but the encoding isn’t the best and movements aren’t the smoothest. This will probably vary according to individual systems however. The audio mixes in LPCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 are both good, allowing finer detail to be heard in the orchestral the arrangements, and covering the singing reasonably well considering the acoustics and use of attached mics. I didn’t however particularly note any extra dynamic on the surround mix. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a detailed synopsis and credits in the enclosed booklet.