Tosca


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.

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.