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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca: Opera in 3 acts: libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Floria Tosca - Angela Gheorghiu
Mario Cavaradossi - Roberto Alagna
Baron Scarpia - Ruggero Raimondi
Cesare Angelotti - Maurizio Muraro
Sacristan - Enrico Fissore
Spoletta - David Cangelosi
Sciarrone - Sorin Coliban
Il carceriere - Gwynne Howell
Un pastore - James Savage-Hanford
Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Terry Edwards
Tiffin Boys’ Choir/Simon Toyne
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano
A film by Benoît Jacquot, premiered at the Venice Film Festival 2001 English Subtitles
Extras: interviews with Angela Gheorgiu, Benoît Jacquot and Antonio Pappano
Picture Format: PAL Regional Codes 2 and 4; 16:9 Anamorphic;
Sound Formats: PCM Stereo; DTS5.1
Notes: synopsis of libretto, soloist biographies and a good short essay on the opera by Roger Parker, Professor of Music, Cambridge University.
Reviewed in both Stereo and in DTS5.1, see below.
BBC OPUS ARTE DVD OA 0883 D [Film 120 minutes, extras 21 minutes]

"Tosca: it is opera, it is Italy. It is desire, passion and murder ..." So gushes the front album cover, whilst the back quotes the Guardian saying that this film "brings this opera vividly to life ... this is a classic of the future." Thus my anticipatory set was to tear it to shreds if at all possible. In this I was aided and abetted by Benoît Jacquot the director who has done some odd things with this film and started my viewing by not only failing to bring the opera to life but by accompanying Puccini’s huge opening chords with grainy monochrome scenes of the studio recording taking place.

However, a big ‘however’, by the time I had watched the entire DVD, replayed some extracts and then re-listened without pictures to the whole of Act 1 I felt that destruction would be very misleading because this just might be a classic of the future just as the Guardian says. My advice to first time viewers is to start with the extras, the three interviews detailed below, and not the opera, so that you do not have to suffer the shocks I did. Normally I would allow a DVD opera to suffer as it deserves, because the majority of weird opera productions on video do little to rescue themselves from directorial whimsy and conceptual mistakes. This one is so well sung, so well played, so well directed, so well acted, so well conducted, and looks so sumptuous that it has to be seen, and seen repeatedly.

Scenically it is spectacularly good, with huge views inside the supposed Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and some impressive shots outside the Castel Sant’Angelo as well. As a visual experience this DVD is often very beautiful. Everyone acts and sings their hearts out but I must make especial mention of a heart-stopping "Vissi d’arte" from Gheorgiu, and of the fearsome evil of Raimondi’s Scarpia. The small role of Spoletta is very well acted (and sung) and adds greatly to the drama. I am a little less convinced by the performance of Alagna as Cavaradossi because he looks less at ease in front of the cameras than his fellows.

In the interviews Gheorgiu talks about her attitude to filming as opposed to staging the work, how her acting has to be adjusted, how much more facial expression matters. She comes over as a very thoughtful performer indeed. The film director explains why he went for the stage to studio inter-cutting. He wanted to show the singers singing as well as miming, not a bad rationale. He intended the film to mix documentary and fiction and states that though he dislikes many of his own films after completion, this one he likes. The conductor Antonio Pappano talks of the "blood and guts" kind of opera this is and of Puccini’s "hair-trigger response" to the words. He also notes that Puccini was one of the great inspirations of film music in the 20th Century. Pappano admits to slowing down more than he would in the theatre, something I noted in the performance but not to its detriment. There is something Wagnerian about the huge power of this masterly score.

There are problems and they should be enumerated.

By mixing opera performance and film of the studio recording two problems arise, scenic dislocation and lip synchronisation errors. The music was recorded before the film was made and so these singers had to mime to themselves some time later. They make a variable job of this but in general I would give them 7/10. The stereo sound track is labelled PCM but don’t be fooled into thinking it is as good as CD; it isn’t. It sounds dynamically compressed and at times spatially crowded. The middle of Act 2 goes very recessed when Tosca is trying to comfort Cavaradossi after his torture by Scarpia’s men. At the same time as the voices go distant the pictures are close up. The orchestra suffers throughout the stereo mix. The DTS sound is much better and though probably not very realistic it does sound impressive. Sound effects are prominent on many occasions but since this is theatre one must allow audio theatricality. After all we did not complain when John Culshaw used a sine wave generator to underpin the great opening chord of Das Rheingold for Decca in 1958.

The prelude to Act 3 is accompanied by previous scenes of the story run backwards. Gorgeous though Gheorgiu is, even she looks strange running backwards! The studio inter-cutting and the scenes of the Castel Sant’Angelo are intentionally grainy and provide an odd contrast with the superb images of the actual opera. At one point the characters speak their lines into the mics whilst singing in the background. At the end of the opera, Tosca having leapt to her death from the battlements, the final thunderous chords are heard against a visual of Gheorgiu’s face, filmed in the studio, clearly transfixed by the drama of the moment. When the music is over, she relaxes with a soto voce "ooh!" of released tension. How much repetition this would bear I am not sure but Gheorgiu says she approved Benoît’s decision to include that clip. Also after the opera is over the end titles are run over a repeat of the prelude to Act 2, which is musically disturbing. The on-screen DVD "chapters" do not include the starting points of Acts 2 and 3, one has to cross reference with the booklet to isolate these.

As I said at the start I did so want to pan this DVD because of its production values but I kept coming back to it and was ultimately won over because everyone is so committed and it is just so overwhelmingly dramatic an experience. There is not much serious competition on video until the "filmed on the spot" performance by Domingo and Mehta arrives on DVD (nasty old VHS tape only I’m afraid). On CD I would go for Sinopoli on DG and of course the old Callas which remains nonpareil. With reservations then, you have to see this!

Dave Billinge


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