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Seen and Heard International Opera Review
PUCCINI: Tosca at
Conductor and Artistic Director: Arvo Volmer
Director: Raimundas Banionis
Designer and Costumes: Sergejus Bocullo
Lighting: Neeme Jõe
Chorus Director: Elmo Tiisvald
Floria Tosca: Oksana Dyka (soprano)
Mario Cavaradossi: Badri Maisuradze (tenor)
Baron Scarpia, Chief of Police: Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)
Cesare Angelotti, deposed Consul of Rome: Priit Volmer (bass)
Sacristan: Villu Valdmaa (bass)
Spoletta: Urmas Poldma (tenor)
Sciarrone: Olare Vikholm (baritone)
Shepherd Boys: Victor Ivarson, Hannes Heinemann
Chorus of the Estonian National Opera, DalaSinfoniettan and the Sinfonietta of the Värmlands Opera
Children’s Chorus/Linda Jansson
A week ago I reviewed Turandot at Dalhalla (see review, where I also wrote at some length about this fantastic arena) and as the second instalment in this year’s opera festival comes Tosca in the new production from the Estonian National Opera in Tallinn, which was premiered in Tallinn on May 11th this year. This was my third Tosca within little more than half a year, but while the Stockholm and Helsinki were in the main traditionally realistic, the Tallinn version is quite different. The stage design is sparse, minimalistic even, with a backdrop in the shape of a metal construction, a kind of distorted scaffolding (a society or a political system gone astray?).
In the first act, playing in the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle in Rome, Cavaradossi’s easel with the Madonna is placed to the left in the foreground and further back there are a number of oblong, painted screens, indicating church windows. In the second act, in Scarpia’s office in the Palazzo Farnese, the scaffolding is partly hidden behind a wall with several doors and centre-stage is Scarpia’s desk. In the third act the only prop is the gaoler’s little desk, where Cavaradossi later writes his farewell letter to Tosca and sings E lucevan le stelle. There are some inventive lighting effects, the most spectacular being the red light of dawn, projected on the enormous, rough rock walls on both side of the stage. If the staging aims at some kind of timelessness, the costumes are decidedly true to the period, i.e. around 1800, the year when the historical action takes place. Add to this the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt of having some of the stage-lighting fully visible on stage and it seems obvious that the director wants to say that this, to be sure, happens to people in the year 1800 in Rome but it could happen – and does happen – anywhere and anytime. The audience’s interest should focus on the people and the action, not on the setting. The intention is good, but does it work?
I’m afraid it isn’t wholly successful, principally because the main characters seem to be distanced from each other. It is quite a static performance; the actors are, even where they should be close, mentally or physically isolated. Sometimes it verges on absurdism with characters turning their back to the one they are addressing. The acting isn’t very convincing either, rather stiff, rather formal and rather old-fashionedly theatrical. Whether this is due to (lack of) instruction or lack of acting ability is hard to know. There is one brilliant exception, to which I will come back: Sergei Leiferkus’ Scarpia. Some of the action is also almost parodic: the supposedly weak and exhausted Angelotti, recently escaped from long-term imprisonment, runs and climbs like an athlete, Spoletta, the police spy, who should be oily and menacing, also scampers about like a rabbit and even the firing squad in the last act march in and out as if they were in an operetta.
If this may sound unredeemingly harsh, there are other, more successful features - the costumes, for one. Scarpia and his henchmen are dressed in formal black and white, matching the aluminium-grey sets, but the lining of Scarpia’s long coat is red – red as blood. Tosca is in the first act dressed in virginal white but carrying a bunch of red roses – red as blood. In the second act she is dressed all in red – red as blood! The second act Scarpia – Tosca scene, the peripeteia of the opera if you like, is also interesting. After Tosca has consented to Scarpia’s offer – if she becomes his, Cavaradossi’s life will be spared – Scarpia goes to one of the doors at the back of the stage to get pen and paper and Tosca strengthens herself by hastily knocking back two glasses of wine at his table; she finds his knife, she raises it and her first intention is to take her own life. That was my interpretation, but my wife, who has had some medical training and obviously has a more murderous inclination, said that she was only testing how to make the incision. Be that as it may, but after the completed murder – Scarpia lying on his own desk, where he has decided upon so many murders – his corpse is illuminated in red – red as blood! And then Tosca does what she should do, according to the original intentions of Sardou and the librettists: she places the two candle-sticks, which conveniently enough are already on the desk, on either side of his body and then takes off the chain around her neck, which presumably has a cross on it, and puts it on Scarpia’s chest. This symbolism is, I think, essential to the story. The director Raimundas Banionis discusses this in the programme booklet. “Has Tosca a right to kill? Has a human being the right to take somebody else’s life, even if this life is disgusting and abominable? Having gone through this trial, Tosca as a true Christian exclaims – NO. You have not created life and you have not been given the right to extinguish life. Blood can never be washed off your hands – blood will always pursue you. At first sight Tosca’s last words should perhaps have been intended for her lover, Cavaradossi. But no – O Scarpia, avanti a Dio! – O Scarpia, we’ll meet before God! – God is our judge before whom we are all equal. It is to Him that Tosca’s and the opera’s last words are directed.”
No two productions of the same opera tells exactly the same story, there are innumerable ways of reading and interpreting the text. Differences are not necessarily differences in quality and I may well have missed some point in Raimundas Banionis’ reading, but one point I definitely did not miss was the quality of the singing: it was world-class!
The Estonian National Opera’s chief conductor Arvo Volmer – who also has the same position with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra – lead a well-rehearsed performance, free from the over-the-top bombasms that are tempting in this “shabby little shocker” as it has been called. Instead he highlighted, just as Badea did in Stockholm, the many orchestral felicities and the lyrical qualities of this score. He had not brought his own orchestra from Tallinn but was well served by the amalgamated DalaSinfoniettan and the Värmlandsoperan’s Sinfonietta. The Estonian chorus gave us a mighty Te Deum at the end of Act I and the children in the same act were lively, as was the Sacristan Villu Valdmaa, younger-looking and younger-sounding than most Sacristans, but none the worse for that. The other comprimario parts were mostly well taken by regulars of the Estonian company but the world-class label applies to the three main characters.
Sergei Leiferkus, for many years a leading, maybe the leading Iago and Scarpia, is rather small of stature, but he dominates the stage whenever he appears through his bearing, his restrained but well-calculated acting, his facial expressions (difficult to discern at Dalhalla, due to the distance between stage and audience – I was seated on row 16, which is fairly close but since we have that lake, even the front rows are bit off-side; anyway through my binoculars I was able to watch him in some crucial situations). His voice, not beautiful in the traditional sense of the word, but truly expressive, is in itself evil-sounding and he articulates every syllable admirably, spitting out his words with venom. His voice reminds me of Boris Christoff’s, another great singing actor. If there is a weakness it is that he is so obviously an evil person. Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe Taddei, two great Scarpias from an earlier generation, could appear even more dangerous by being honeyed, seductive, but Leiferkus’ Scarpia is obviously so self-assured, trusting his charisma – and possibly his position – that he doesn’t need more sophisticated means. His interpretation is closer to George London’s, a third Scarpia on disc that I have admired through the years. Anyway, Leiferkus’ assumption of the role will not be easily forgotten.
Badri Maisuradze, whose Don
And Tosca herself, the young Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, is nothing less than sensational. Her voice is a true lirico-spinto, absolutely even throughout the range, warm and beautiful and at dramatic high-points she can add some steel to the notes as well. It is a Tebaldi-voice, and that is high praise indeed. She finished her training at the conservatory in Kiev as recently as 2004, although she has been singing at the National Opera there since 2001, and judging from this performance she seems destined to have a great career in the future. And it is not just a glorious voice that rings out magnificently to fill even the largest hall; she can also sing an inward, hushed pianissimo that sends shivers down the spine, even on a jaded opera freak. After the dramatic outbursts in the second act confrontations with Scarpia, she sang a perfectly vocalized Vissi d’arte that made time stand still. One could actually have heard the proverbial pin drop. In this aria she also adopted a lighter, more frail, more vulnerable tone, reminding us that in the rest of the opera she is to a greater or less extent the actress Tosca, but this prayer is her private appeal to the Creator. With further routine and polishing her acting a bit more she might well go to the top of the trade.
There were long and tremendous ovations after this aria and after the performance, which of course ended with Tosca hurling herself from the castle of Sant’Angelo, but not out of sight from the audience; instead she remained fully visible, hanging in mid-air like a red bird in a frozen last picture from a film sequence. A spectacular end indeed.
The Dalhalla surtitles, cleverly placed as subtitles just above the surface of the lake surrounding the stage, are of course helpful to the many visitors who are not regular opera-goers, provided they understand Swedish, but since marketing is to a great extent directed to an international audience, it would be a good idea to have also English translations. The Finnish National Opera is again a good example.
Next year’s opera festival will include Il trovatore in a new production from Tbilisi National Opera in Georgia, and Carmen in a production from Opera Iceland – Kristiansand, Norway, directed by Jonathan Miller, no less. Something to look forward to!
Photographs © Martin Litens