Seen and Heard Opera Review
soloists, Chorus and Orchestra
of the Royal Opera /Antonio Pappano, Royal Opera House
Mario Cavaradossi: Nicola Rossi Giordano
Baron Scarpia: Samuel Ramey
Spoletta: Gregory Bonfatti
Cesare Angelotti: Carlo Cigni
Sacristan: Graeme Danby
Sciarrone: Robert Gleadow
Shepherd: Ben Lewis
Gaoler: John Morrissey
Apart from the completion of a new Ring cycle the new Tosca production was the highlight of Covent Garden’s 2005/06 season. The omens were good - ‘We’re challenging a legend’ said its conductor Antonio Pappano, ‘The challenge is simply to get beyond stereotypes and make her real’ said Catherine Naglestad, who alternates as Tosca with Angela Gheorghiu, around whom the new staging was put together. For four decades Franco Zeffirelli’s production returned time and again for 242 performances. Finally it was retired in 2004 and a new version sought from British director, Jonathan Kent who commented that ‘Each generation has to reinvent these classics or they become museum pieces’.
So did we get ‘reinvention’ or ‘museum piece’ … well, read on. I had seen that previous staging maybe as many as ten times over the years and decided to eschew reading any other reviews until I had a chance to make up own mind. MusicWeb readers, being a sophisticated group, need no introduction to the story of this opera or its background, however I wish this was so for the Covent Garden audience, many of whom were reading the libretto closely with the following comments amongst those overheard; ‘The First Act is rather complicated isn’t it?’ and ‘Has the story anything to do with Shakespeare?’
By the end of Act I this issue had escalated in my mind until I realised that this evening was not meant for me but for those spectacle-seekers who ‘thrill’ at any big West End musical or a Raymond Gubbay ‘in the round’ event at the Royal Albert Hall. It was a triumph of substance over style. Everything has its place and the one for Jonathan Kent’s effort would be the amphitheatre in Verona, I could imagine the set (designs by Paul Brown) from Act I with the arching staircase magnified about 3 times in that magnificent arena dwarfing, even more than at Covent Garden, all the cast. It is a co-production with Palau de les Arts, Valencia and should be a hit there.
Unable to get to see the First XI, I saw the alternate cast and from the start of Act I they all gave ‘blood and thunder’ performances. There was a lot of clambering up ladders, hasty entrances from the back of a split-level stage to get to the top of the stairs in time and much noisy walking up and down the staircase, ruining Tosca and Scarpia’s entrances. To confirm my earlier comment the costumes were straight out of Les Miserables and I realised where I had seen that staircase last – it was in the Sunset Boulevard musical where it was used for Norma Desmond, another ‘diva’. There was little opportunity for intimate performance, and when characters stopped moving they seemed to resort to stock operatic gestures. There was a pleasantly acted scene between Cavaradossi and Tosca over the eyes of that painting, but there was little else to note.
One thing I wondered was - were the surtitles bigger than before? They were certainly no better, because where did they get, for instance, ‘Our nest is befouled’ in Act I and ‘We must dissemble’ in Act II from?
The Act I design, used in a certain way, would have made for a wonderfully intimate setting for Act II. Singers had already been thrust to the front of the stage with their voices thrown forward by a semi-circular church set. However it was all replaced by a monumental library with a large central statue of a mythical figure with a sword. Lots of candlesticks of course, including two handily placed side-by-side on what seemed strangely, amongst this opulence, to be a trestle-table for Scarpia to eat his meal off. The veteran Samuel Ramey snorted like a bull through to his final ‘Tos-ca’ when he expired. He was a black-hearted villain to end all black-hearted ones. Unfortunately the best Scarpias downplay the evil and retain an air of civility even though we know it is only pretence.
Any sense that Antonio Pappano might have any other consideration for this opera that as a ‘Can Belto’ Grand Italian night were dismissed as soon as he allowed Nicola Rossi Giordano’s Cavaradossi to hang on to his top C of ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ seemingly beyond its sell-by date. Tosca (Catherine Naglestad) swept in a beautiful white evening gown with a sweeping train, looking wonderful: however she continued to underplay the role too much acting more like a soapstar rather than a traditional ‘diva’. Her ‘Visse d’arte’ was well-sung but I was not moved by it. The stabbing was messily staged and, of course, she found a use for those candlesticks and they were placed as usual either side of Scarpia’s corpse. She made much of tearing her crucifix from her neck and throwing in down on him but because of what had gone before it left her motivation for this unfocussed.
The Act II set, with some imagination, would have made a wonderful intimate castle scene (I have written this idea before) however no expense had been spared to spend the sponsor’s money for a whole new vista with a long curved wall. There is an outpost to stage right and four execution posts across the front of the stage amongst which the gaoler was at his ablutions. Cavaradossi sings his reflective aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in murky light; the lighting by Mark Henderson was not one of this production’s strengths. Tosca came on stage and appeared to audition for the Mad Scene in Lucia di Lammermoor and hand-in-hand and facing forward the two ‘lovers’ sang their duet at the top of their voices.
I maybe alone here but it all seemed an insult to my intelligence as a Covent Garden regular. Jonathan’s Kent’s brief was obviously to provide a bland uncontroversial evening that would sell-out to the hospitality crowd, the curious and the well-heeled coach parties and, as such, he has done this to perfection. I am not advocating that as he was formerly artistic director of the Almeida Theatre it should have been set in a Baghdad ransacked palace, but there was room here for a modicum of original thought, which was totally absent.
Antonio Pappano and his orchestra seemed on autopilot, only generating light and shade and a more dynamic palette of sound during Act III. Pappano should ooze this score from every pore but it was all a little ponderous and reverential for any of the terror and passion to resonate in any meaningful way. There was little freedom in his conducting: I had expected him to leap onto the podium and into that doom-laden start of the opening Scarpia chords but right from the beginning it was all too restrained.
Mostly all the principal singers just filled their lungs and sang forte all the time. Elsewhere because minor characters were overcast they seemed to be auditioning for a bigger part. They were pushed to the vocal foreground too much without an understanding that this not an ensemble work; it is Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia … and the rest just make up the numbers.
One example that should suffice occurred in the confrontation between Scarpia and Tosca with Cavaradossi off-stage being tortured, Spoletta should mumble a prayer ‘Judex erge cum sedebit …’ Gregory Bonfatti sang full out and completely intruded into Tosca’s travails.
If Covent Garden’s reason to do all this was to fill the house during the World Cup they achieved that splendidly, but in the voices of less stellar names than the first cast (Angela Gheorghiu, Marcelo Alvarez and Bryn Terfel) which makes it less of an ‘occasion’ all they have done is to replace one ungainly old warhorse of a production (which had invaluable accreted history) with just another ‘museum piece’ … albeit with fresher paint.