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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca (1896-99)
Libretto by Giacosa and Illica, after Sardou
Floria Tosca – Maria Guleghina (soprano)
Mario Cavaradossi – Salvatore Licitra (tenor)
Baron Scarpia – Leo Nucci (baritone)
Angelotti – Giovanni Parodi (baritone)
Scaristan – Alfredo Mariotti (baritone)
Spoleta – Ernesto Gavazzi (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti
Directed for the stage by Luca Ronconi
Directed for television by Pierre Cavasillas
Recorded live at La Scala, Milan, March 2000
TDK EUROARTS 10 5008 9 [1 disc: 121 minutes]


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There is no doubt who is being trumpeted as the main draw here. Muti’s name appears as boldly as Puccini’s on the front cover, with everyone else reduced to small print on the back. Well, in these days of marketing machines, who can blame them? Indeed, there was a time in my student days when a new Muti recording was a real event, keenly anticipated. The results were not usually disappointing; I think fondly of his Carmina Burana, Pictures at an Exhibition, Scriabin Symphonies and Aida, to name a few. These performances generally stood out for their controlled abandon, exciting rhythmic drive and ecstatic climaxes, qualities that are in short supply here. That’s not to say there aren’t things to enjoy in his conducting. Now in his sixties, the accent seems to be more on lovingly shaped lyricism and a refusal to give us ‘technicolour’ big moments. This no-nonsense approach is evident from the start, as the camera watches him come smartly into the pit, brief acknowledgements, then straight in with a clean, fairly swift rendition of the big, dramatic opening Scarpia motif. He never lets the singers linger over high notes (as at the end of Cavaradossi’s first aria, Recondita armonia) but waits, in an almost symphonic fashion, for true climactic points, such as Scarpia’s first appearance (Bel rispetto!). This does give cohesion to the whole piece, and the last act, too often seen as a weak epilogue to the main drama (i.e., Scarpia and Tosca) emerges with beautifully controlled passion and warmth. The Scala forces, who must know this score by heart, play well for him, the strings having a supple, singing quality that could withstand any comparison.

So the orchestral texture is certainly a pleasure to listen to. Of the singers, I had little cause for complaint with any performance, but as usual with this opera, Scarpia’s character all but steals the entire show. Here, veteran Leo Nucci (an almost exact contemporary of Muti) shows the younger singers how to do it. Admittedly, Scarpia is written so well as to be hard to ruin, but Nucci impresses with his subtle glances, nasty innuendoes, lack of hammy histrionics and general experience in the art of ‘less is more’. Even during the great Act One climactic Te Deum, he commands our attention with his "Ah, Tosca, now Scarpia nestles in your heart". In Act Two, his cat-and-mouse game with Tosca is well handled, with Nucci finding a balance between pantomime villain (an easy trap) and manipulative politician.

As Tosca, Maria Guleghina is in fine voice, and Muti supports her at every turn. Her great Act Two lament ‘Vissi d’arte’ is beautifully shaped, with phrases carefully structured so as not to peak too soon. It’s even easy to accept her fussiness in Act One, where her character can often be irritating to the listener. The melodramatic jumping off the battlements at the end of the opera is reasonably well handled, though with camera close-up we can clearly see her carefully jumping down on to her safety mattress.

The young Salvatore Licitre sings with fervour and conviction as Cavaradossi. He is the typical Italian tenor, great voice (listen to his ‘Vittoria!’) but physically short and round. Rather like Alan Ladd in the old movies, the director tries to use levels and steps to give him a more heroic presence when in other company (particularly Tosca), and for the most part he gets away with it. His gestures are slightly mannered, with ‘old-school’ declamation and outstretched hands, but again this is not too irritating in the whole scheme of things. Smaller parts are well taken, the Sacristan resisting the temptation to slide into too much of a ‘buffo’ role.

This being La Scala, there is nothing too controversial in the production. It is set in period, and I guess the odd dissenting jeers I thought I detected in the curtain calls are for the stage design. It is a huge space to fill, and the artistic team has gone for a visual concept that is dominated by a jagged, angular perspective. Thus in Act One we have the huge walls of the church set at a steep slope, with crumbling edges. Scarpia’s apartment in Act One has the actors struggling with a steep rake, and a backdrop of massive military portraits set, you’ve guessed it, on an angle. Act Three probably works best, the battlement skyline suiting this approach, but even here Cavaradossi’s prison bars are skewed awkwardly for no reason other than, presumably, visual impact. None of this bothered me (I’ve seen similar sets used a lot at Stratford), but it made me think of the intention of the designer – is it to symbolise a political system in chaos, show us the warped feelings of Scarpia or is it just a designer’s fancy? The booklet doesn’t enlighten us, and there are no interviews with any of the creative team, which is a pity. The whole opera is on one disc, which is good, but it’s a real cheek to put ‘extra feature’ on the box – this is simply a sound-check caption to help cable connection. There is a brief synopsis, but no essays of stimulating interest and not even artist biographies.

Quality of camera and sound production is generally good, and tedious curtain calls between acts (as well as aria applause) is edited down to a minimum. Though it’s no match as a whole for classic sets of the past, this DVD can be recommended to anyone who feels they want to experience the opera more fully in their own home. Muti ensures a tight ship orchestrally, none of the singing will seriously disappoint and some may even find the designer’s ideas a stimulating visual backdrop to the proceedings.

Tony Haywood

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