Puccini, Giacomo


Manon LescautGiacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Carlo Rizzi, Mariuz Treliński, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, Giovanni Furlanetto, Aris Argiris, Julien Dran, Alexander Kravets, Guillaume Antoine, Camille Merckx, Amalia Avilán, Anne-Fleur Inizian, Audrey Kessedjian, Julie Mossay | La Monnaie Internet Streaming, January 2013

The story is the same one that opera-goers will be more familiar with from Massenet’s Manon (1884), but former filmmaker Mariuz Treliński’s modern-day updating of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893) transports it into a world that will be more familiar with cinema-goers who have seen the David Lynch films ‘Blue Velvet‘ and ‘Lost Highway‘. Following on the heels of La Monnaie’s similarly hard-hitting and highly acclaimed modern takes on the sordid reality of two other opera heroines who are debased by a hypocritical and exploitative patriarchal society - Lulu and Violetta - Manon Lescaut has two very hard acts to follow. If inevitably it can’t touch those outstanding productions, the fault is less to do with the casting or the direction than the fact that Puccini’s early work - and his first real opera success - falls well short of Berg’s and Verdi’s masterpieces.

As elaborately deconstructed and as beautifully designed as it may be - Boris Kudlicka’s sets matching and complementing the bright, clean, colourful neon-lit modernist productions we’ve come to associate with La Monnaie of late (La Traviata, Lulu, Rusalka) - Mariuz Treliński isn’t able to make quite as much of an impression on Manon Lescaut, and doesn’t find a method that gives any new meaning or new life to the work. It’s not for want of trying, for a lack of ideas or for any shortcomings in the material. The Abbé Prevost’s scandalous novel, banned on publication in 1731, provides plenty of scandal, adventure and colourful locations in its lurid melodrama, and these are factors that can’t help but be enhanced to a considerable degree when the strange worlds of the filmmakers David Lynch and Luis Buñuel are brought into the mix.

Much of the story in this production then takes place in a railway station, or is framed by an opening and closing in a railway station with elements of it interjecting at certain points - a payphone, a bench of waiting room chairs, a subway map and timetable - in a way suggests that it might even be all taking place in the head of Des Grieux, who lies sleeping at the opening here. Trains race past through the underground station to strobing light and a digital station clock marks the passing of time, effects representing the place where the story starts and the beginning of what turns out to be a long journey for Des Grieux. He immediately falls in love with Manon at first sight, rescuing her from a fate in a convent, or worse, left in the hands of a lecherous rich old man (Geronte de Ravoir based rather disturbingly on Frank Booth as played by Dennis Hopper with oxygen mask in ‘Blue Velvet‘). It’s an encounter and an infatuation that, for better or worse, determines the direction of the rest of his life.

Puccini’s version of the Manon story - the libretto worked on by numerous uncredited writers including Ruggero Leoncavallo and Luigi Illica - differs only in minor respects that one might consider regrettable only if familiar with the Massenet version. The modest little table that provides such poignancy in Massenet’s opera is only referred to in passing here, since Puccini’s version excises the period of Des Grieux and Manon’s humble little sojourn in Paris, saving Manon’s arrest and deportation to America for her attempt to leave Geronte’s apartment with her jewels and luxury goods when Des Grieux reappears in her life. In Puccini’s version, Manon doesn’t die in Le Harve while waiting for the prison ship, but is transported to America, and Des Grieux with her, where she succumbs to a horrible death, dying of thirst in the desert outside New Orleans. In Treliński’s production, obviously, they never physically leave the train station.

Puccini makes this version very much his own, finding in it material, isolated situations at different time periods and a structure that he would put to work in a much more satisfactory manner and with considerably more artistry in La Bohème. Musically however, although it does have some lyrical and heartfelt moments, Manon Lescaut is a much weaker work, the score almost insipid, with few melodies, arrangements or character definition that can compare to Puccini’s later work. It’s unfortunate that the composer, at this stage in his career, isn’t musically up to the material, because otherwise all the elements for the melodrama of the tragic Puccini heroine are all in place. That suits Mariuz Treliński, who is able to work with characters that are less one-dimensional than in the Massenet version. His modern, fractured narrative construction recognises Manon’s position as a commodity whose vanity and materialism - much like Lulu - plays a part in her fate or at least in terms of how men are able to exploit her weaknesses. To fit with his concept however, the director imposes more emphasis on Manon as an elusive movie “femme fatale”, an “Obscure Object of Desire” to fire the passions of unwary men.

Manon Lescaut is certainly a lesser Puccini work, but it’s possible to imagine that it could be made to work in the right setting and with the right singers. I’m not sure however that Treliński’s ideas work entirely with the nature of Puccini’s scoring, and the singing in some areas seemed to have a similar problem reconciling the characters as they are defined in this production with the musical descriptions. Eva-Maria Westbroek has the right kind of voice for the stronger Puccini heroine (like Minnie in La Fanciulla del West), but she sounded a little breathy here in places and not always fully committed to what she was singing. Treliński’s directions to the singer that she must be an “impossible puzzle” and that “each scene must be played as if by a completely different actor”, might not have helped matters. When required however, she was certainly able to rise to the occasion. Brandon Jovanovich however was simply superb, demonstrating a gorgeous tone with wonderful voice control. With that strong, lyrical voice, and a well-judged dramatic performance, he was able to be expressive in a way that brought out the impetuosity of his character and infatuation, making this production a great deal more credible that it might otherwise have been. His indisposition on one of the nights during this run (a performance broadcast on Belgian radio) when he was replaced after the interval by Hector Sandoval, must surely have been a surreal experience straight out of Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway‘ or indeed Buñuel’s ‘That Obscure Object of Desire‘ that could surely only have enhanced Mariuz Treliński’s treatment.

La Monnaie’s production of Manon Lescaut is available to view from their free on-line streaming service until 4th March 2013.  Subtitles are in Dutch and French only. Their next streamed opera is Lucrezia Borgia, available for three weeks month from March 22nd.

TritticoGiacomo Puccini - Il Trittico

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Lucio Gallo, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Alan Oke, Jeremy White, Ermonela Jaho, Anna Larsson, Irena Mishura, Elena Zilio, Elizabeth Sikora, Ekaterina Siurina, Francesco Demuro, Rebecca Evans, Gwynne Howell | Opus Arte

An essay in the booklet for the Blu-ray release of the Royal Opera House’s 2011 production of Puccini’s Il Trittico remarks that there’s always a temptation to try and find a common theme between the three short operas that the composer wrote to be performed together, but that essentially they were written mainly to complement each other only in so far as the contrast they provide. That still doesn’t stop producers (or those writing about the work) from trying to find connections between them. Antonio Pappano in his introduction here sees the overall theme as deception, which I like, and it’s a useful theme to keep in mind, but although there could be other commonalities found between the works - young love and dreams being stifled or weighed down by events from the past - the main uniting theme is indeed the diversity of the works. Il Trittico will make you laugh and it will make you cry - you can count on that - but, should you want to, there’s a wealth of riches to explore here in Puccini’s masterful scoring and the variety of themes that he covers.

The variety of the subjects and the manner in which they are written and played out however is more than just for the entertainment of the audience (although this is evidently the primary consideration and there is something for everyone here), but it seem to me that they are also purposely diverse in subject matter, tone and treatment in order to give Puccini as much scope as possible to stretch himself and develop into new musical areas that had been opened up in the post-Wagner world of 20th century opera. Even if the romantic melodrama of Il Tabarro or the tragic opera heroine theme of Suor Angelica are familiar areas for Puccini (the comedy of Gianni Schicchi is however another matter entirely), one can see that he is working musically outside the comfort zone of traditional Italian opera arrangements and arias, working within the constraints of the shorter form in order to concentrate on finding the purest expression of the dramatic and emotional content of the works.

Il Tabarro however is far from familiar Puccini. It is certainly a close relation to La Bohème, being set in Paris, concerned with the hopes and dreams of the lower classes looking for love and security in their lives, their romantic lives stifled by their poverty, and it even makes a few minor references to Mimi and the music of La Bohème behind the scenes, but Puccini’s mature musical perspective is quite different, darker and far heavier. Pappano makes reference to the influence of Debussy and impressionism, which is most obviously evident in the opening sounds of the canal dockyard blending into the music itself, creating a perfectly evocative atmosphere for the dark, misty setting, but the music throughout seems to express the underlying social context, the inner lives of the characters and their pasts, as much as it illustrates the dramatic events that occur in the present. There are no major arias, but the sense of their history and their social position as vagabonds, a life that is slowly grinding them down, is expressed in the singing and in the voices, the intensity of the emotion and expression of temperament as important as they actual words they sing, if not even more so. Puccini brings all that out, fully and with considerable depth, fitting it in with the dramatic developments, all within the compressed space of a one-act opera. It’s masterful.

The dark gritty realism extends through to the sets in Richard Jones’s production that recreates the dark Parisian streets at the banks of the Seine as effectively as Puccini’s score. The excellent lighting is particularly instrumental in establishing the mood. The cast too are terrific, able to spark life into these characters and reveal them in all their humanity. Eva-Maria Westbroek in particular is very strong as Giorgetta, with her Wagnerian range that still has a lovely lyricism. Gallo has the reputation of mugging characters, but he’s strong here as the dark and intense Michele. He doesn’t really have the depth of voice or the acting quality to reveal any unexpected qualities, but he sings the role quite well. There are no concerns at all with Aleksandrs Antonenko, who sings powerfully and brings out that extra dimension that Puccini scores in his revealing duet with Westbroek’s Giorgetta. If Il Tabarro is never thought of as the strongest section of Il Trittico, this production presents it as well as it can be done, Pappano in particular directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House magnificently through the strains and the sweep of Puccini’s score.

If Il Tabarro has a kind of spiritual connection with La Bohème, the fatal tragedy of the romantic heroine of Suor Angelica is aligned closely with the circumstances and the fate of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. If there are differences in the plot, and particularly in the cultural background and the individual circumstances of the central figures, at heart however the emotions and what engenders them is similar, and Puccini couches those female sentiments in much the same kind of musical language. There is however considerable maturity in the through composition of the opera and in Puccini’s attempt here not so much to accompany the action as much as describe the otherworldly aspects that drive it. Aware of the wide range of opportunities this offers - even in a short work of this length - Puccini doesn’t focus solely on the complications of Sister Angelica’s situation, but also delves into the inner lives, the playfulness, devotion, contemplation and secret desires of the other nuns, their conflict between earthly being and a search for heavenly grace all contributing to the fullness of the character study of Angelica.

Forced into a convent, having given birth to an illegitimate child that would bring shame to the noble family name that she belongs to, living in hope for some kind of news from the family that has disowned her, the developments when combined with a religious experience could certainly tip the work over into high melodrama, particularly when scored with such feeling by Puccini. I’m sure there are many who feel that this is indeed the case with Suor Angelica, but it’s clear that Puccini is seeking to express a deeper, more complex view of extreme very specific female emotions where a sense of motherhood has been denied, caught up in religious devotion and monastic discipline. That balance also needs to be maintained in the stage presentation, particularly the handling of the dramatic conclusion, and Richard Jones managed to bring out that inner world described in the music well, with subtle but telling touches. More important than anything else however is the performance of Suor Angelica herself, and Ermonela Jaho not only sings it exceptionally well, but she is completely involved in a role that demands acting of concentrated intensity.

Buoso Donati has just died, his family and loved ones surrounding him, but in the third part of Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, this is not the usual tragic opera deathbed scene, and if there are any tears shed by the assembled mourners it’s on account of their being disinherited in the old man’s will, while it’s more likely to be tears of laughter on the part of the audience (and that’s no exaggeration). The comic opera is certainly not a style you would associate with Puccini, but his treatment of the humour in Gianni Schicchi is nothing short of brilliant. Closer to Verdi’s Falstaff than say Donizetti’s clever but broader slapstick, there’s no heavy comic underscoring here (whatever that might entail, I’m not sure), but rather an almost furtive, subtle, insidious expression of the nature this mixed bag of greedy, grasping, backstabbing, moneygrubbers in all their scheming self-importance. It’s dazzling to hear how a composer of Puccini’s experience and maturity handles himself in this unfamiliar register, from the false sobs scored into the opening notes, through the knowing self-parody of heartfelt (yet still justly famous) arias that don’t express ‘Addio del passato’ as much as ‘Addio to the money’, to the frantic jostling for positions of influence of this motley mob and their eventual well-deserved comeuppance.

Richard Jones’s setting for the Royal Opera House production again fits quite admirably, finding its own sense of style without having to adhere to the period. Somehow the slick sixties suits and garish dresses express the tasteless vulgarity of the rich Donati family and their brood, as does the tacky flowered wallpaper Buoso’s over-sized bedroom. There’s no sharp spiv suit either for the scheming lawyer Gianni Schicchi, but a suitably seedy quality nonetheless to his open-shirted swagger, looking as if he’s just been dragged away from a different kind of bar than the one expected for his profession, differentiating his social class from the pretensions of the Donati family. It’s spot-on characterisation, wonderfully played and sung by the cast - Lucio Gallo switching register wonderfully from the very different role of Michele in Il Tabarro. As Antonio Pappano notes however in the introduction, the comedy in Gianni Schicchi relies greatly on the timing, and while this production gets those laughs, when compared to the English Touring Opera’s recent hilarious production that is still fresh in my mind, Jones’s stage direction doesn’t always make the most of the potential that Puccini’s score and the witty situations of the work present.

It’s Antonio Pappano’s contribution to the production as a whole however that proves to be the critical factor in its overall resounding success. All this richness and diversity, the sense of fun and drama, along with the serious musicological insight and consideration of the deeper qualities of the work is borne out in Pappano’s conducting of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who give a mesmerising performance. With excellent casting and singing, and an appropriate staging, you really couldn’t ask for more.

Opus Arte however also package the set extremely well. In addition to the impeccable technical presentation on Blu-ray, with a crystal clear High Definition transfer and outstanding HD sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that reproduce the music and the singing exceptionally well, each of the three hour-long operas are presented separately and given their own optional introduction that briefly sets out the premise and the treatment. An additional Extra Feature follows Lucio Gallo through make-up, warm-up and last-minute preparations with the conductor for his two roles as Michele and Gianni Schicchi. The full-HD Blu-ray is region-free, dual layer BD50, with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova 2010 | Marco Boemi, Adolf Hohenstein, Renzo Giacchierei, Daniela Dessì, Fabio Armiliato, Claudio Sgura, Nikolay Bikov, Paolo Maria Orecchia, Max de Angelis, Angelo Nardinocchi, Roberto Conti, Luca Arrigo | Arthaus Musik

The principal attraction of this 2010 production of Tosca from the Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova is that it the staging is based on Adolf Hohenstein’s original production designs from 1900. The gritty realism of the sets, particularly the Sant’ Andrea chapel of Act I and in the Castel Sant’ Angelo of Act III, look superb, fitting perfectly with the melodramatic verismo nature of a work that is not so much concerned with grand themes or concepts as much as in relating a human drama of love, jealousy and passion set against the backdrop of revolutionary activity, writ large in the sweep and tug of Puccini’s grand score.

In contrast to another recent production at the Royal Opera House also inspired by the realism of the original locations but which looked somewhat cluttered and cramped, there’s a wonderful sense of space here to allow the drama, directed well by Renzo Giacchieri, to play out without any complications. This is how Tosca was originally meant to be seen, and this is as close as you can get to its original intentions. There’s merit in this alone, but it’s even better when the opera is played and sung as well as it’s done here. The singing is outstanding in all the main roles, the husband and wife team of Daniela Dessì and Fabio Armiliato slipping into the roles like a glove. Claudio Sgura isn’t quite as strong as Scarpia, but it’s a fine attempt at a more human performance of a role that is more often played – and unfortunately scored as such by Puccini – as a caricature baddie.

Tosca

It would be all too easy to just go through the motions in such a well-known opera, in a very traditional production – albeit a wonderfully beautiful and lushly decorated one – and it’s easy for the listener to become blasé about yet another production of Tosca, but there’s no sign of any complacency here from any of the main performers and never any danger of the listener remaining detached from it all. There’s a real sense of commitment in Dessì’s Floria Tosca and in Armiliato’s Caravadossi. Neither are as young as they used to be, and the close-ups in High Definition are rather unforgiving, but there’s no substitute for experience. There’s scarcely a weakness anywhere in their performances or their singing, a perfect pairing who work exceptionally well together. You don’t often get that, and it’s something remarkably special when you get such a connection. Both are clearly aware of the inner nature of their roles and how they need to be sung in relation to one another, and they give it their all.

Listening to Dessì and Armiliato sing it, paying attention to every word of the libretto, weighing and balancing it for maximum impact, the qualities of the work and the depths of emotional content within it (so generously underscored by Puccini and perfectly performed here under Marco Boemi) come fully to life. Neither gives any sense of this being a prestige performance, but both are clearly totally involved in the roles for the sake of the drama. It’s unfortunate then that the performance here includes in-the-moment encores for ‘Vissi d’arte’ and ‘E lucevan le stelle’ that disrupts the flow of the drama, but on the other hand, it is a recording of a live performance of a popular work for a paying public and there’s no question that the encores called for here are merited and impressively reprised. They could possibly have been edited out, but that can easily be done by the viewer if so desired on the flick of the chapter switch.

Tosca

There are plenty of versions of Tosca out there (a 2011 Royal Opera House production featuring Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel will be hard to match when released), but this is an outstanding performance that for now is as good as it gets. Superbly directed for TV, capturing all the intensity and passion of the live performance as well as the beauty of the stage production, this Tosca looks and sounds tremendous on Blu-ray. Image and sound are just about flawless. There are no extra features on the disc and no synopsis in the booklet, but the background to the work and its plot are covered in an essay. BD25, 1080i full-HD, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, All regions, subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

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.

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.

TurandotGiacomo Puccini - Turandot

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Andris Nelsons, Franco Zeffirelli, Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, Marina Poplavskaya, Samuel Ramey, Charles Anthony, Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson, Eduardo Valdes | Decca

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Turandot is an underrated opera, but its most famous aria, ‘Nessun Dorma’, has tended to overshadow the other qualities that the work has to offer. Puccini’s final opera (the last scene completed after his death by Franco Alfano) also has more to it than a superficial look at the fairy-tale nature of the story – based on a work by the 18th century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi – might suggest, or indeed the exotic Oriental inflections of the opera’s music score. Turandot actually contains some of Puccini’s finest musical compositions, the composer bringing his considerable talent to bear on the overall structure and arrangement, while also finding – as he always does – beautiful melodies that express a depth of emotion and character that one might not expect to find in the piece.

There’s a human heart in the story of a cruel princess, Turandot, who demands that anyone seeking her hand in marriage must first give the answer to three riddles that she sets – and where there’s a human heart, few are as expressive as Giacomo Puccini. Despite the consequence of failure being beheading, many noble princes have tried and failed to answer the riddles set by Turandot, and the deaths of so many have cast a long and bloody stain on the Emperor’s reign and despair on the people of his kingdom. An unknown prince however is determined to take his chance, despite the dangers, despite the warnings from the royal court, and despite the pleas of those closest to him, one of whom is Liu, a slave girl who is in love with him.

Puccini sets up the nature of this situation beautifully in Act 1, capturing the full range of the conflicting sentiments of each of the main players, and if the actual staging of the riddle contest in Act 2 is less than perfectly arranged, it’s an occasion for a terrific duel of singing voices between the soprano and the tenor. Although it seems like we have to wait until Act 3 to fully understand what is at stake (and get Nessun Dorma), there are nonetheless hints to the nature of the characters and the conflicting issues between them in the answers to the riddles. It’s hope that lies within Calef, but it is due to die at dawn, his answers to the riddles having failed to melt the burning ice of Turandot, and it’s only through the blood of Liu that the situation is resolved and the true nature of love is revealed. If this doesn’t quite add up to full character development, the beauty of Puccini’s musical arrangements makes up the difference. The Oriental touches are not merely pastiche either – Puccini seems to understand the nature of this foreign and discordant music and the sentiments that lie within it, and he meaningfully and skilfully weaves it into his score to great effect.

Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production for The Met could also be accused of extravagance, kitsch and overstatement, but in reality it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone and the nature of Puccini’s drama. Zeffirelli’s huge sets capture the grandness of the occasion, the decadence of the royal court and the magical qualities of the fairy-tale nature of the subject, but it also pays attention to the details in the costume design, as well as in the position of the characters within the sets and in relation to one another. Those qualities are also borne out in the performance of the Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons, who grasp the full force and dymanic of this extraordinary opera, and in the singing performances from a fine cast. Guleghina and Giordani play well together and rise to the exceptional demands of their roles, but it’s Marina Poplavskaya who positively shines as Liu. Poplavskaya can sometimes be a little inconsistent and out of her depth in certain roles, but she has a great emotional quality in her voice and it comes through here brilliantly. In every respect this production is just magnificent – there’s no other word for it.

The Blu-ray release from Decca has an unfortunate fault with the English subtitles – at least on the initial batch of copies. English subtitles are a full 37 seconds out of sync with the voices, though they seem fine on the other languages (I got by on French). The subs work fine if you access Act 3 directly from the chapter menu (if you want to get to Nessun Dorma, for example), but they cannot be made to synchronise for any of the other acts through this method. It’s a pity, because in all other respects, this is a superb High Definition presentation of the Met’s 2009 Live in HD recording that brings out the full colourful glory of Zeffirelli’s production, and packs a punch on the HD sound mixes. The recording keeps the same format as the HD Live broadcasts, introduced here by Patricia Racette, who also conducts interviews with Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, and Charles Anthony during the interval between Act 2 and 3.

ButterflyGiacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Sferisterio Opera Festival Macerata, 2009 | Daniele Callegari, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Raffaella Angeletti, Massimiliano Pisapia, Annunziata Vestri, Claudio Sgura, Thomas Morris, Enrico Cossutta, Enrico Iori, Nino Batatunashvili | Unitel Classica - C-Major

I know it’s one of the most performed and most popular crowd-pleasers in the opera repertoire, I’ve heard it and seen it performed any number of times (usually in a fairly traditional staging), I know that, derived from a piece of popular theatre by David Belasco, it’s emotionally manipulative, racially stereotypical, riddled with cliché with little cultural authenticity or ethnic realism – but I still won’t hear a bad word said about Madama Butterfly. Even in its most unadventurous and traditional of stagings Madama Butterfly just works. You might not buy the story for a second, but Puccini’s score makes you want to believe it is real, and he does so convincingly.

I won’t have anything bad said about Puccini either. Easy listening it may be, and unchallenging to some, but familiarity hasn’t made his work any less impressive for me, but rather every listening, every new production of his operas, reveals something new about the structure, the composition of his works, his ability to build a scene and hit you exactly the right way at exactly the right moment for maximum impact – and not necessarily in a deliberately calculated or manipulative way, but truthfully, with every sentiment perfectly balanced and weighted. Even now, with the availability on CD and DVD of a much wider range of composers and rare compositions, Puccini’s brilliance never wanes, but rather, one can see how he is the culmination of a long line of a tradition of Italian opera, who is able to draw from the lyricism of bel canto and combine it with the melodrama of Verdi, but also, in his later works, show an influence or awareness of Wagner in his approach to dramatic structuring. Puccini is undoubtedly one of the masters.

So perfect an opera is Madama Butterfly moreover, that it doesn’t need any modern revisionism or high concept staging. It already works on multiple levels – like all Puccini’s work – and if you want it to see it as a straightforward clash between Japanese and American culture that inevitably results in tragedy, then that’s more than enough for it to work successfully. There are other clashes, divisions and incompatibilities brought out in the opera – from the division of imperialism and isolation, destiny or self-determination, modernity versus tradition to simply the clash of ideals between men and women in respect of what each of them hope to gain from a relationship. All these ideas exist in Madama Butterfly, and some of them can be tweaked for emphasis in individual productions, but they are all there to be drawn out by the listener in even the most basic of stagings.

Directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, this production for the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata in 2009 isn’t exactly basic, but it is fairly traditional, aiming for a stylised Japanese setting with silk kimonos, bamboo and paper houses on wooden struts and a cherry tree in bloom. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly can bear such idealism, since in many respects, there is an unrealistic idealism in the minds of the two main protagonists, the American sailor B.F. Pinkerton and the young 15 year-old Japanese bride he has bought, Cio-Cio-Can, known as Butterfly – both however clearly have different ideas about what they expect to gain out of this arrangement. This production makes use of the interlude music after the Humming Song to introduce a dreamlike ballet sequence that depicts this idealised version of the relationship, perhaps in Butterfly’s mind as she sleeps awaiting the return of Pinkerton, and it’s a nice touch that works very well with this idea.

The other notable thing about this production is the open-air performance at the arena which is not traditionally theatre shaped. The long wings to the side of the stage however are well used for processional marches, as well as giving a greater sense of isolation of Cio-Cio-San from the world outside. The walls behind the stage however do add to the reverb on the voices, but not in any overly detrimental way. It does tend to lend a stridency to the singing of Raffaella Angeletti who can certainly hold the high notes as Butterfly, but doesn’t have the delicacy that is required in other passages. She does however deliver where she needs to. Massimiliano Pisapia is a robust and traditional Pinkerton, alternating between confidence and cowardice, between being arrogant and being loving. I liked the tone of his voice here throughout. Claudio Sgura’s Sharpless demonstrates good clear diction, but the microphone or the mixing gives his voice too much reverb, and both his voice and Angeletti’s can occasionally be a little piercing in places. Overall however, the singing is good and this is a fine production of Madama Butterfly, presented on a fine Blu-ray with a strong picture and – allowing for the slight extra reverb of the open-air location – good sound-mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1.

Giacomo Puccini - Il Tabarro & Gianni Schicchi

English Touring Opera | Michael Rosewell, James Conway. Liam Steel, Simon Thorpe, Julie Unwin, Charne Rochford, Richard Mosley-Evans, Paula Sides, Clarissa Meek, Ashley Catling, Andrew Glover, Jacqueline Varsey | Grand Opera House, Belfast - May 26, 2011

Right up to the end of his career, Puccini never allowed himself to be constrained by the limitations of traditional opera subjects or indeed the limitations of the verismo school - even though he often used literature for a source, Puccini would also draw from popular theatre and tackle contemporary subjects. Latter Puccini, for example, takes in the clash of tradition and modernity in Madama Butterfly, while La Fanciulla del West, set in the American Wild West, also sees the composer acknowledging the influence of Wagner and a new approach to musical composition for drama. His last completed work (Turandot was finished and produced posthumously), Il Trittico (1918), being composed of three short one-act operas – Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi – is in many ways a summary and consolidation of his work and themes across a range of subjects, as well as a further extension of what is possible within the operatic medium.

While there are benefits in seeing all three parts of Il Trittico performed one after another for the rich thematic and musical journey that they cover as a complementary set, each of the one-act operas stands alone, and each have very different themes and musical treatments and they are more commonly performed either a duo or singly in conjunction with another one-act opera by a different composer. All of these are valid ways of performing the operas, and it’s often in such double-bills that certain different qualities are highlighted. The English Touring Opera’s Spring 2011 programme pairs two of the operas from Il TritticoIl Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi – that present an interesting contrast in styles, but which together demonstrate the range and ability of Puccini at the end of his career.

Tabarro
Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is based on a play by Didier Gold, ‘La houpperlande‘, that Puccini saw in Paris in 1913. Set in the docklands on the banks of the Seine at the outskirts of Paris, there are certain similarities with Puccini’s other wonderful Parisian opera La Bohème in the opening scenes, where the crew of Michele and Giorgetta’s barge celebrate the unloading of their cargo with a drink and some dancing, disguising the fact temporarily that the times are hard and that tough decisions need to be made about how to continue. Set against the poverty of their situation, Frugola the wife of one of the crew Talpa who is to be laid off, still has dreams of owning a cottage in the country, while Giorgetta would love to just settle down in Paris. It’s a dream that is shared by another of the crew Luigi, who has been having a secret affair with Giorgetta. The loss of their young baby, the sense of a family that Michele would wrap within his cloak, has created a distance between the husband and wife, but also stirred dark passions.

Il Tabarro has all the elements for a romantic melodrama that is to end in violence and tragedy, but what is remarkable about the piece is that, even compressing its story into under an hour, it never manipulates the emotions quite in the same way as La Bohème, nor does it overstate through sweeping strings and overwrought arias. The Wagner influence is there in that the drama is allowed to flow without stopping for interludes, conventional arias or extraneous detail, but it’s still pure Puccini in terms of melody. While still adhering to the dramatic plot, Puccini is still able to capture the colour and flavour of Paris in the musical character, which does recall La Bohème, not least in a cheeky reference to Mimi. Even that however – the coming of spring, the hope of a new beginning – is pertinent to the drama. The touches are smaller, more subtle – a lighted candle, a lover’s encounter above – but masterfully arranged and orchestrated so that they have all the impact of a full-scale opera without the overstatement.

The English Touring Opera’s set design and direction by James Conway was similarly subtle but fully effective, evoking mood, using two levels to show the world on the docks and hints of the world above that reflects and contrasts the situation of the barge owner and his crew. It kept the focus fixed on the relationship between the characters within this intense and highly concentrated drama with gripping performances from the main cast, Simon Thorpe a dark imposing Michele, Julie Unwin a beautifully toned Giorgetta and Charne Rocheford a passionate Luigi, although his voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra.

Gianni Schicchi was inspired by a figure who appears in Dante’s Inferno, whose sin was to “dress himself up as Buoso Donati” to “draw up and sign his will”. Here, Puccini depicts him as a lawyer that the odious Donati family, faking their tears at the deathbed of the recently deceased old man Buoso Donati and angry that he has left all his wealth and property to the monastery at Signa, have engaged to find a loophole that will “correct” the mistake and give them what they believe is their due. Since no-one else is yet aware that the old man has died, Schicchi disguises himself as Buoso Donati and dictates a new will that does indeed reallocate the wealth to the family, but also bequests himself the choicest properties.

Tabarro
Even though there are few even lighthearted moments to be found in any of Puccini’s work – I can’t think of anything outside of a few moments in Act 1 and Act 2 of La Bohème – the composer takes to Gianni Schicchi with a terrific sense of its comic potential and evident black humour. Right from the start of the piece, Puccini puts the sobs of the Donati family to music in a manner that indicates that they are fake and, well, to be laughed at, and his compositions are just as inventive and sprightly elsewhere. Again, Puccini takes full advantage of the format – one would imagine that a comic piece of this type would soon tire very quickly in full-length opera. Certainly, the bel canto composers show that farce can be done at greater length – Don Pasquale, The Barber of Seville and Le Comte D’Ory come to mind as comedies that remain fizzingly entertaining throughout, but Puccini does so within his own musical idiom, while continuing to be ever inventive at propelling the action and the comedy forward.

The staging of the opera by the ETO was simply dazzling in its hilarity, playing-up the full comic potential of the short opera with additional slapstick elements that were perfectly in keeping with the musical and comic timing of the piece. All of characters were grotesque caricatures with pansticked white faces and crooked eyebrows, every gesture was measured and pronounced, but all of it serving to heighten the comedy. As a rather large ensemble piece working within the relatively confined space of a bedroom, everything was nonetheless choreographed to perfection under Liam Steel’s direction. At any given time there would be something funny going on in every corner – although the upper level, to where Schicchi’s innocent daughter Lauretta was banished during all the devious scheming, didn’t feel quite as appropriate here as when it was used for Il Tabarro. It’s Lauretta who gets the most notable aria in Gianni Schicchi (“O mio babbino caro”), admirably delivered by Paula Sides, and although it’s also worth noting Richard Mosley-Evans fine performance as the lawyer Schicchi himself, every one of the cast acquitted themselves marvellously.

The performances of Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi at the Grand Opera House in Belfast were the final shows of the English Touring Opera Spring tour. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden however will be staging performances of all three operas in a new production of Puccini’s Il Trittico from September 2011.

The ETO’s Autumn tour features three Baroque operas (Handel’s Flavio, Xerxes and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen). Tour dates can be found on the English Touring Opera’s website.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

NI Opera, 2011 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Lee Bisset, Jesús León, Paul Carey Jones, Brendan Collins, John Molloy, Andrew Rees | Derry-Londonderry, 1st April 2011

Playing for only three performances in Derry rather than what would seem to be the more natural venue of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, a production of Puccini’s Tosca would seem to be a relatively low-key event and a fairly conventional popular opera for the inaugural production of the newly-formed Northern Ireland Opera. The choices made in the location and the opera itself however proved to be far from just going for a safe choice, the timing of the event coinciding with a security alert on the day that I attended adding a further unpredictable element to the proceedings that made it an occasion that was in reality something rather special.

Some of the most remarkable elements were however indeed through the choice of NI Opera to stage the production of Tosca not in the usual expected venue. Even leaving Belfast aside, the newly built Millennium Forum would have seemed to be the venue of choice for the production’s Derry opening, but instead the company chose to stage each of the three acts of Tosca in three different locations in the city – all within short walking distance of each other, each of them approximating the Rome locations specified in the libretto. The choice of locations proved to be inspired – St Columb’s Cathedral standing in for Act 1’s Sant’ Andrea della Valle church, the fine surroundings of the City Hall The Guildhall turned into the Farnese Palace for Act 2, with the slightly more conventional theatre choice of St Columb’s Hall used for Act 3’s Castel Sant’ Angelo nonetheless having an appropriate position perched on the ancient walls of the city, where the audience were led between acts, following the orchestra carrying their instruments, for the opera’s dramatic finale.

In the event, for the matinee performance on the Friday 1st April 2011, it turned out that Act 1 had to be hastily moved from the Cathedral to the Guildhall due to a security alert that saw the bomb squad arrive with sirens blaring through the narrow streets leading up to the Diamond to deal with a suspect device left in the area of St Columb’s.  The improvised rearrangement of one of the chambers of the Guildhall to represent a church in the first Act was however effectively achieved, and even if they had to make do with a plastic bucket for a font, the natural light through the beautiful stained-glass windows helped create the right kind of environment for the unfolding of Act 1’s religious and political themes. It didn’t need an unexpected bomb alert elsewhere in the city either for the audience to connect with the relevance of the themes in Tosca to the population of Derry-stroke-Londonderry (the hyphenated split in the City’s commonly referred to designation reflecting the strong nationalist/unionist divide in the region). Apart from some non-specific modern dress elements and the visceral blood-stained white tiles of an all too familiar-looking clinical police interrogation room in Act 3, the opera wasn’t updated to make a specific link to the political and religious troubles in Northern Ireland. It would have been contentious - not to say a problematic distortion of reality - to draw a direct parallel between a rebel prisoner on the run being hunted down by brutal security forces under the control of a religious bigot and make it work, but the character types, the attitudes and the actions expressed were still those that a local audience of all ages could certainly have identified with, even if those elements were only able to be hinted at, and even if the connection wasn’t consciously made in the minds of the audience.

This then was the strength of NI Opera’s Tosca – and I’m sure that the relevance of the content of the opera didn’t go unnoticed when it and the location were chosen by the company – but it’s a characteristic of Puccini’s opera and a quality of opera in general that if its themes and their treatment have an authentic ring of truth then an audience cannot help but strongly identify with them. And it’s not just the political and religious content of the storyline – which is somewhat heightened by the compressed structure of the opera – but more importantly the underlying human element of ordinary people trying to conduct ordinary lives while caught up in a political nightmare. I find it hard to relate the romanticism in Puccini’s work elsewhere to the versimo movement that he was nominally a part of, but Tosca is one opera at least that plays to the school of hard-knocks and brutal realism. That aspect was thoroughly and bloodily explored in the wonderful staging, judging by the reaction of the public to each of the acts, but in particular to the hugely dramatic conclusion where the audience were on their feet and roaring their approval even before the curtain fell and while Nicholas Chalmers was still wringing out the opera’s final powerful closing chords from the orchestra.

The Guildhall and St Columb’s Hall locations were certainly instrumental in achieving this effect, bringing the audience close to the performance and allowing them to relate to it in a way one could never get from any opera house in the world – making the richness of the orchestration and the singing even more apparent. We were fortunate in this respect to have Lee Bisset (for the Friday matinee performance only – I didn’t get the chance to hear the main Tosca Giselle Allen who sang the two evening performances) as leading soprano for the occasion, delivering a commanding and sometimes dramatically strident Tosca when viewed close-up like this, but whose powerful voice nonetheless carried all the emotional cry-to-whisper dynamic of a character whose range encompasses lightning switches between jealousy over the model for Cavaradossi’s painting, to love and compassion for the torture he endures while incarcerated, right through to murderous vengeance on the man who would abuse her. Bisset not only made the full force of those verismo emotions felt, she made them credible.

Any attempt to give subtlety or complexity to the character of Baron Scarpia as Chief of Police would have been out of place here, and Paul Carey Jones accordingly played him as a villain through and through, at the same time relating the singing fully to the tone of his character as it is outlined in Puccini’s brooding and evocative score, most evident in the self-important arrogance of political power conflated with religious authority conveyed in the Te Deum. In the location of the Derry/Londonderry Guildhall (standing in for the closed-off Cathedral of course), this Act 1 conclusion needed no additional overemphasis. The only weak element of the singing I felt was Mexican tenor Jesús León as Cavaradossi, whose accented delivery was rather thin and unmusical, closer to speaking his role than singing it or fully feeling it – though I’m sure singing it in English didn’t help. Perhaps however the Guildhall surroundings and the comparatively more powerful singing of his fellow-cast members in the earlier Acts also rather overshadowed his voice (as does my memory of Plácido Domingo in the role). This would seem to be borne out by a much more convincing performance on an actual stage and with the acoustics of St Columb’s Hall behind him, since his E lucevan le stelle there was excellent at conveying the range of emotions his character is going through at such a pivotal moment in his life.

In the short period of their existence since their formation at the end of 2010, Northern Ireland Opera have nonetheless provided me personally with a number of unique opera experiences. Their chamber orchestra production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium at the Mill Theatre in Newtownabbey (another uncommon place for an opera production) introduced the province – or at least a small local audience – to an unfamiliar work from a modern composer in a wonderfully intimate environment. Tosca in Derry was even more ambitious in doing something different from the norm, clearly reaching out to bring opera into the provinces and expand the audience (with an affordable highest ticket price at only £15 – another welcome experience) through making the staging a unique and special event that cannot be replicated anywhere else. (Tosca has of course been staged for film and television in its original Rome locations, but it takes on another dimension when performed this way in Northern Ireland). It was a pity that the very location should prove problematic on this one occasion, and I regret not having the opportunity of seeing Act 1 of Tosca in St Columb’s Cathedral, but while NI Opera clearly have great ambitions for what opera can bring to the people of the province, there are clearly some objectives that just may be a little bit beyond their range of influence.

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