BBC


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.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Glyndebourne 2010 | Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Vladimir Jurowski, Jonathan Kent, Gerald Finley, Luca Pisaroni, Brindley Sherratt, Anna Samuil, William Burden, Kate Royal, Anna Virovlansky, Guido Loconsolo | BBC Two

The concept behind Jonathan Kent’s production of Don Giovanni for Glyndebourne 2010 is somewhat tenuous in how its 1950s’ setting relates to the pre-Enlightenment years of the opera’s original period. It’s not that Don Giovanni doesn’t bear up well to modern interpretations – it’s perhaps the Mozart opera most apt and subject to contemporary reworking – it’s just that the production’s supposed “Fellini-esque vision of post-war life” seems a little drab and, even with the free-love of the 1960s just around the corner, it doesn’t really seem to grasp the spirit of the period or present all that convincing a parallel to the Age of Enlightenment.

Mozart and Da Ponte’s treatment of the legend of Don Juan however is still quite shocking and daring right from the outset here, as Don Giovanni rapes Donna Anna and kills her father the Commendatore while trying to escape from her bedroom. Ostensibly a libertine, believing in the pursuit of pleasure above all else – certainly above consideration for other people – the reality is however that the promiscuous nobleman has lost touch with his own humanity and with whatever dubious justifications that could have been made for his beneficent spreading of his love around half of Europe.

The Glyndebourne production at least starts off like it intends to make something of this risqué premise, with a quite brutal enactment of the rape and murder scene, but thereafter, the production settles down to a rather non-committal blandness. The 1950s setting doesn’t really suit the wider European expansive viewpoint of the continental philanderer, but rather closes it down without seeming to bring any exciting or meaningful new ideas to the table in its place. With one of Mozart’s most dynamic scores and Da Ponte’s sparkling, witty libretto that turns at the drop of a hat from comedy to tragedy, that has moments of abject cruelty interspersed with the most exquisite tenderness, there’s no excuse really for a production of Don Giovanni being dull and lifeless.

The drabness and unimaginativeness of the setting (although technically impressive) is unfortunately reflected in the performances, which rather lack commitment. Everyone, but everyone, – particularly Anna Samuil’s Donna Anna – seems to walk around in a trance, scarcely showing any feeling or expression of the predilections and predicaments of their characters. The singing is generally fine throughout, with a delicate touch – the same can be said about the orchestration by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski – all very nicely and smoothly played, but much too nicely, with no passion, no torment, no raging desire and no agony of betrayal. It’s all performed exceptionally well, but with no real fire.

Giovanni

It’s only towards the end of Act 1 that the purpose of the setting and the Fellini-esque elements come into play, with a wonderfully hedonistic party straight out of La Dolce Vita. For all the lack of fire elsewhere, the close to the first Act quite literally sets the stage alight, as the Don Giovanni’s ambitions are unmasked at the party by his guests, their accusations directed forcefully against the libertine, and with it a condemnation that prefigures the damnation of the nobleman for his crimes against humanity. With his Polaroids of the Don’s conquests, Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello here then is the Paparazzo to the Gerald Finley’s Marcello, the two of them on a search for the ultimate high in the swinging lifestyle of the rich and famous. Like Marcello, Don Giovanni has pushed his hedonistic excesses to their limit, losing his humanity in the process, and his only recourse is towards the spiritual or the supernatural. Don Giovanni’s downfall then lies not so much in any kind of divine or infernal retribution as much as the inevitable result of his hubris for believing himself above mere mortals and worthy of dining with those on an unearthly plane.

While the concept behind the staging comes briefly through at this point and there are one or two other fine moments (a tender scene between Zerlina and Masetto and a blood-spurting finale that is more Night of the Living Dead than La Dolce Vita), the remainder of the production unfortunately seems to rather go through the motions of delivering the story and its moral without adding anything new or challenging to the conventional line. The singers likewise seem to concentrate on delivering their lines and on hitting all the right notes at the right points, but without any real fire or ambition. All in all, it’s a fine production that keeps the story accessible and meaningful, but there’s not much here that can be said to be memorable.

RigolettoThe Best of European Opera 2010

BBC Four, Sat 25th December 2010, 7:00pm

BBC Four’s The Best of European Opera 2010 focussed on a number of extraordinarily inventive stage productions of mostly lesser-known or at least lesser-performed operas over the last year, showing that, regardless of the avant-garde nature of some of the works, there is no lack of ambition or drive to attract and engage new audiences. That drive has been evident in the BBC’s programming, most of it for BBC Four, with a series of programmes dedicated to different aspects of opera from a historical and a modern perspective. Anyone who has been following the TV programming of opera will have at least come across two of the exceptional productions featured in this programme, both of them featuring Plácido Domingo in his new reinvented form towards the end of his singing career, as a baritone. Much was made of his debuting his new singing voice (although Domingo did in fact begin his career briefly as a baritone) in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House, and reprised in concert form for the 2010 Proms, and he was indeed in spectacular form, vocally, as well as demonstrating his marvellous acting ability. The two go hand-in-hand, making him still a formidable presence on the stage and, on the evidence of this and the other television highlight of the year, still not ready yet for retirement.

That other event, featured also in the programme, was the live performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, shot in Mantua, directed by the great Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio with Vittorio Storaro as director of photography. Broadcast over two nights, on the actual palatial locations specified in the libretto and at the corresponding times of the day, broadcast live to over 140 countries over the world on prime-time TV, this was an enormous logistically challenge, as well as highly demanding of the performers, but the results were simply spectacular. Magnificently lit and choreographed, the roles were not only superbly sung, but also extremely well-acted, giving the opera a sense of authenticity in the tense emotions on display. The clip shown, a spellbinding scene from the short but pivotal Second Act, gives some indication of just how good this was, with Julia Novokova measuring up well as Gilda to Domingo’s hunchbacked court jester.

The other performances highlighted in the programme were no less inventive in their state-of-the-art theatrical productions. Perhaps surprisingly – but perhaps not, when it is easier to play safe – many of the more risky ventures were not from the major European opera houses. The Birmingham Opera Company, under the direction of Graham Vick, used an abandoned warehouse on an industrial estate for their contemporary, multi-ethnic production of Verdi’s Othello, spectators and performers intermingling in what must have been a thrilling and engaging experience (it would fare less well it seems on screen). A similar new way of engaging the audience in an unconventional theatrical environment was evident in the ever inventive Willy Decker’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron for the Ruhr Triennale, with the seating on moving platforms and the performance taking place in between, making use of projections and the unique qualities of a decommissioned factory floor space.

Moses

The Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona however showed what could be done in a conventional environment, the programme highlighting a remarkable performance by Diana Damrau as Kostanz in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, showing a remarkable new talent in the making. At La Monnaie in Belgium on the other hand, one of the greats, José van Dam, bowed out in style in a spectacular production of Massanet’s Don Quichotte. In Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Martin Kuöej staged Wagner’s Die fliegende Holländer in a contemporary setting, with the Dutchman’s crew a band of refugees set against a conflict between the have-nots and a rich elite.  Two relatively new opera houses had notable productions, the Baltic Opera near Gdansk in Poland setting Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a lunatic asylum in Marek Weiss’s staging, while Oslo’s new Den Norske Opera’s new 2008 opera-house staged an inventive new opera by Gisle Kverndokk, Around The World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout travelling through the world of opera (a clip showed the couple in Paris attending one of la Violetta Valéry’s parties from La Traviata).

A fine addition to the opera programming by the BBC this year, BBC Four’s guide to the Best of European Opera 2010 was a heartening reminder of the enormous vitality and healthy state of modern and classic opera around the world – creatively at least, if not always financially, in these economically difficult times.

The Best of European Opera 2010 will be re-broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 3rd January 2011 at 7pm.