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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

 

Giacomo PUCCINI: Tosca at the Royal Opera in Stockholm on January 7, 2005 (GF)

 

Tosca was the first new opera of the 20th century when it opened at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on the 14th of January 1900. The critics were mainly negative but the audience at large were enthusiastic and it turned out that they were right: today, Tosca belongs somewhere in the top ten list of most played operas. It reached Sweden in 1904, when on the 15th February The Royal Opera in Stockholm mounted it, directed by August Lindberg. Not until 1964 (!) was there a new production, directed by Bengt Peterson, and it played until May 1998. So when the Royal Opera presented a new production on September 11th 2004, it was only the third one in 100 years. Peterson’s version, realistic, and true to Puccini’s stage directions, became a real Warhorse. I saw it many times from the early seventies, sometimes with international guests, for example Ingvar Wixell, possibly the greatest Scarpia in the seventies, who now and then returned to his old “home stage.”


 

This newest version is directed by Knut Hendriksen, who has worked at the Royal Opera since 1976. The stage sets are by Björn Brusewitz and costumes by Ann-Mari Anttila. This is a Tosca in a mostly traditional staging, and none the worse for that. Some critics complained, of course, but I must say that after seeing so many post-modernist stagings – in Stockholm and other places – it’s a relief to see an opera that plays during the period the composer intended and in period costumes. The most innovative feature is Scarpia’s office in act II, when the room is lifted three or four feet during the torture scene, so we can see the torture chamber that is under the office. Moreover, the wallpaper in Scarpia’s room is a map of Rome, which illustrates how Scarpia controlled the whole city. It gives further emphasis to Tosca’s spoken lines, after killing the chief of police: E avanti lui tremava tutta Roma! (And the whole of Rome trembled before him!) What has been removed, and I don’t know why, is the religious ritual that Tosca undertakes after the murder and which is described in detail in the libretto: she takes two candles and puts them beside Scarpia’s head and then puts a crucifix on his chest. I think we definitely miss something of Tosca’s character, but maybe the director thinks that the de-Christianization of Sweden has gone so far that nobody will understand the symbolism.

 

Musically it is excellent. Romanian born conductor Christian Badea leads a taut performance with well-judged tempos and he whips up the tension in the dramatic moments, of which there are of course quite a lot. But he also exposes the many exquisite touches of orchestral colouring that the score abounds with. In between the violent proceedings there is an almost chamber music sensitivity. He tells us that this opera is far from that “shabby little shocker” that it has been called.

Johan Edholm as Scarpia

 

The solo singing is impressive. The very first voice we hear is Ola Eliasson’s Angelotti, a well modulated bass who has developed considerably since I heard him as Oroveso in Norma a couple of years ago. Another bass, Ketil Hugaas, also impresses as the Sacristan. He gets a good balance between the comic and the serious, for although this monk is a comic character he is no mere clown, and Hugaas is genuinely frightened when Scarpia and his henchmen appear. Johan Edholm as Scarpia is a real find. I heard the premiere on the radio and was impressed by his vocal resources and his intensity. Since then his portrayal of the disgusting chief of police has deepened further and he sings the part with an authority I haven’t heard since Wixell’s heydays.

 

Mario Cavaradossi is sung by the American tenor Theodore Green, who has sung mainly in the US but has appeared also as Rodolfo in Stockholm. He has a well-schooled, rather lyrical voice and my first thought was that Cavaradossi might be a size too big for him. His biography reveals that he has mainly been singing lighter roles: Edgardo, Ernesto and Nemorino, The Duke of Mantua and Alfredo, Almaviva and some Mozart roles, more or less Alfredo Kraus repertoire. And in some places, where the top notes should ring out and ride above the orchestra, he is rather over-powered. Still he gave a good impression, the lyrical moments, of which there are also a lot, sounded well and he cut a nice figure on stage. But I don’t think he should sing too many Cavaradossis before his voice has matured further.

Lena Nordin as Tosca

 

His Tosca is Lena Nordin, and here is an actress and a singer to set beside the greats. She has been singing important roles at the Royal Opera since the late 80s and she is so convincing, so thrilling. Her Norma, a couple of years ago, was masterly. Here, in a role that is forever associated with Maria Callas, she over and over again reminds me of that great predecessor. The voice’s timbre is similar and seeing her in profile she even looks like Callas. And I must say that Vissi d’arte was sung more beautifully than Callas ever managed, so hushed, so inward that it should move anybody to tears. I wish she would get the opportunity to record this opera, preferably on DVD since she should be seen as well as heard.

 

The opera chorus acquit themselves well in the big Te Deum scene in act I, and the minor parts are also well taken. Anyone spending a day or two in Stockholm should grab the opportunity to see this performance. Hopefully it will run for several years, but probably not for 60, maybe not even 40, as its forerunners did.

 

 

Göran Forsling

 

Pictures ©Alexander Kenney/Kungliga Operan

 

 



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