This brilliant, and at times devastating, film adds
considerable flesh to the fine soundtrack released by EMI last month
[EMI 7243 5 57173 2 0]. Early reviews
of that set (in quite lavish packaging) have already placed it on an
equal footing with EMI’s other long-famous Tosca, that of Maria
Callas, now almost half a century old. It is frankly not quite that
good, and indeed doesn’t surpass Sinopoli’s spellbinding Tosca
for DG [DG 431 775-2] either, different
as that is mood and drama. However, seen in a visual context it is an
Jacquot’s direction of this film is startlingly vivid,
indeed it almost comes across as pseudo-documentary in style. He uses
black and white, colour and grainy visual effects in a way which adds
immeasurably to the intense drama and emotion of the on-screen acting,
which even given the fact these are not screen actors is of an extraordinarily
high level. The film opens with us in the recording studio – Pappano
seducing his players with impassioned conducting – and we remain there
for quite some time. The first we see of the major characters is in
close-up black and white recording at the microphone, but this quickly
dissipates and we then experience them in the opulence of colour and
It is noticeable that Jacquot concentrates the studio intrusions to
the first and third acts the second remaining almost entirely stage
bound. This proves revelatory – rarely have I ever been so gripped by
this act, the interplay between Angela Gheorghiu’s Tosca and
Ruggiero Raimondi’s Scarpia [left]
spellbinding in its intensity. Visually, this is also the
most startling act – with hovering overhead shots and swirling camera
angles. An extraordinary moment is Scarpia sat at the dinner table plotting
his seduction of Tosca, his face mirrored lingeringly in the blade of
his knife – an appropriate irony given that it is this very knife with
which Tosca will finally kill him. The costumes and sets through out
this act are also finely conceived: Tosca, dressed in a long red dress
in sharp contrast to the black of Scarpia, yet with the power and sexuality
strikingly evident, the fireplace of the Palazzio Farnese near which
so much of the action between the two takes place, and the subtle use
of candle light to off set the darkness: all are magnificent.
The acting of the three principal characters exceeds
expectations. Certainly, Gheorghiu is no Callas (her facial expressions
can occasionally seem contrived) but there is undeniable passion in
her assumption of the role. She is at her best with Scarpia, quite chilling
in fact, but there is also wonderful tenderness in her scenes with Cavaradossi
– her off screen husband, Roberto Alagna.
kisses are smouldering, the eye contact between them rekindling the
kind of memories one remembers from Bogarde and Bergman in Casablanca.
Alagna, ruggedly handsome in Act I, looks genuinely pain-stricken in
Act II, his face be-smeared with blood from the bolts etching into his
temple during his off stage torture (although not that off stage, it
should be said, in this version). When the wounded Alagna sings ‘Vittoria!
Vittoria!’ it is with quite thrilling tone, and much more intensely
than we are used to in the opera house. The mood is exact – threatening
yet heroic. Alagna perhaps lacks the depth of tone for this role which
Domingo brought to it (he can occasionally seem too bright) but it is
still utterly memorable.
In a different league altogether, however, is the Scarpia
of Raimondi. Gheorghiu has been quoted as saying that she found his
acting unbelievably intense, frighteningly so – and this certainly seems
to be case. The only one of the main singers with a credible film history
(having appeared in films by Alain Resnais) he has a natural on screen
personality. His Scarpia is gripping – both vile and frail, both human
and inhumane. It is sung magisterially.
Act III takes us back into the studio – and back to
black and white, with grainy images of the Castel San Angelo interspersed
with scenes of Papanno and the orchestra. An over-angelic James Savage-Hanford
sings the role of the shepherd, with lofty camera angles highlighting
sheep lit like lanterns. Parts of this act take a regressive approach
to the film’s action – scenes from earlier in the film are here played
in reverse, such as Tosca placing flowers at the statue of the Archangel
or Scarpia moving back into the darkness of his rooms at the Palazzio.
The ending has cumulative power – with Tosca throwing herself off the
parapet in more realistic fashion than you would encounter in the opera
The main achievement of this film is that it somehow
maintains the theatricality of this powerful opera. It is at times unimaginably
intense, an opera about violence which isn’t overtly violent to watch.
It is not in any real sense an analytical film – it is filmed exactly
as the libretto directs – but takes as its focal point the drama and
lyricism of its three protagonists. This is a film where the voice is
the star – and even given the diversity, and beauty, of the staging
it remains so. Jacquot makes no concessions – and his cast match his
vision well nigh perfectly. It is certainly one of the finest filmed
versions of an opera I have ever seen.
The bad news for UK film-goers is that this film is scheduled for UK
release on 5 April 2002 at the Chelsea Cinema on the King’s Road. Major
metropolitan centres will follow thereafter.