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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) Tosca, Opera in Three Acts (1900)
Floria Tosca, a diva: Anja Harteros (soprano); Mario Cavaradossi, a painter, her lover and a revolutionary: Aleksandras Antonenko (tenor); Baron Scarpia, Rome’s feared Chief of Police: Ludovic Tézier (baritone); Cesare Angelotti, a revolutionary escaped from prison: Andrea Mastroni (bass); (baritone); The sacristan: Matteo Pieronne (tenor); Spoletta; a henchman of Scarpia: Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Baritone); Sciarrone, another of Scarpia’s henchmen: Rupert Grössinger (baritone)
Bach Chor Dresden, Salzburg Festival Children’s Choir
Orchestra and Chorus of the Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, 21 & 24 March and 2 April 2018, Salzburg Easter Festival
Director: Michael Sturminger
Set and Costume Designers: Renate Martin, Andreas Donhauser; Lighting: Urs Schönebaum
Directed for TV and Video: Tiziano Mancini
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.0, Picture Format 16:9
Subtitles, Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Japanese C MAJOR DVD 748308 [120 mins]
Puccini’s Tosca, is based on a play by the French poet Victorien Sardou that the composer saw when it was touring Italy in 1889. As Budden (Puccini. His Life and Works, O.U.P. p181) puts it, he was one of those authors whose oeuvres achieved an international recognition during their lifetime. After some vacillation, Puccini obtained the rights to turn the work into an opera in 1895. However, turning the wordy French play into a succinct Italian opera took four years, after which the composer, not unusually, repeatedly argued with his librettists and his publisher, which significantly delayed the completion of the libretto.
Tosca was premiered on January 14th 1900. It was at a time of political unrest in Rome, and the premiere was delayed for a day for fear of disturbances. Despite indifferent reviews from the critics, the opera was an immediate success with the public. While cerebral critics have frequently dismissed the opera as a facile melodrama, musicologist Joseph Kerman famously calling it a "shabby little shocker," the power of its score and the inventiveness of its orchestration have been widely acknowledged and it remains one of the most frequently performed of all operas. According to the libretto, the action of Tosca occurs in Rome in June 1800. Sardou dates it more precisely as taking place on the afternoon, evening, and early morning of 17th and 18th June 1800. The date being specifically designated by the arrival, in Act Two, of the news of the French victory at the battle of Marengo, near Alexandria. After initially seemingly being defeated, fresh French troops had arrived in late afternoon facilitating Napoleon’s fresh and successful attack on the tired Austrians. Rome spent the next fourteen years under French domination.
Puccini’s original is very specific as to the venues of the three Acts. Here, the theatre sets of Act One and two meet those criteria with realistic creations of the church interior and Scarpia’s palace. Not so Act Three, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Castel Sant’Angelo with a parapet for Tosca to jump from. Rather, it looks like a roof-top car park with just a distant vision of a church building adding some realism and the indication we are still in Rome.
Many opera lovers and audiences see Austria and Germany as the homes, and even the progenitors, of Regietheater and Concept Opera. This is consequent on the propensity of productions in those countries, and others too, for updating and altering the nature of productions of standard works that had hitherto stood the test of time and practice. Puccini’s opera Tosca has not been either more or less prone to that treatment, although it could be argued that the melodramatic story is easily translated in that way. In this production, manifest differences and alterations to the plot, to me, put it at the extreme end of the genre. It is not merely the use of hand guns at the start, as Angelotti arrives fleeing Scarpia and his henchmen, but rather the fact that the latter is not killed by Tosca as he attempts to rape her in Act 2, reappearing in bloodied vest at the execution scene as Cavaradossi awaits what he believes will be a mock execution (CH.37). The firing squad is comprised of choirboys whom we have already seen in their dorm - the shepherd song is sung by one of them; another of them is forced to turn Angelotti’s body over and confirm that he is dead. Scarpia then fires the bullets that kill Tosca after she has fired shots at him. She dies, the curtains close and Scarpia sinks to his knees. There is no need of a parapet and a nasty mess on the street outside the Castel in this production, or any likelihood of a bounce upwards into audience view as infamously happened to a renowned soprano! Accept those perversions of the story you know, and this performance might well please you, as musically it has many strengths under Christian Thielemann’s sensitive and idiomatic baton, including the singing of at least two of the principals.
Another of the outcomes of the Regietheater and Concept opera era I have referred to concerns the singers and particularly Anja Harteros. In a generation’s time, opera lovers may come to regret that her film discography is so sparse. She doesn’t appear in New York Metropolitan Opera cinema transmissions or those from Covent Garden, where she has a reputation for cancelling, yet she is one of today’s most distinguished sopranos of quality. What recordings of her work that do exist, are often of this genre, with pistols and similar updating, such as her Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del destino, recorded at Bayreuth alongside Jonas Kaufmann (Sony 88875160649). In this performance, she creates a meaningful character and sings the role quite superbly whilst looking appropriately elegant as a lover and desperate in dealing with Scarpia. The latter role is sung with burnished tone and excellent articulation and feeling for the text by Ludovic Tézier, surely the baritone of choice in this repertoire today. A wig would have covered his silver hair, but then Scarpia is no chicken. Having him change his shirt in front of Tosca in act two however does his incipient paunch no favours! However, his acting and singing throughout would be a credit to any performance. Unusually, after the stabbing, Tosca leaves hurriedly without checking his state or adding the rituals assisting his passage to the next world. Instead he crawls away, very much alive as she hurriedly leaves the scene. As Cavaradossi, Aleksandras Antonenko singing is rougher hewn, too often resorting to power when vocal sensitivity and expression would be more appropriate. In the Met performances of Aida in September 2018, following this recording, he was distinctly the weak link, with his voice showing, as here, overuse, perhaps in roles inappropriate to his vocal capabilities? He wouldn’t be the first tenor to ruin a promising and fine talent by singing Verdi’s Otello and Wagnerian roles too young, without the appropriate and necessary vocal heft.
Regarding the ending of the drama, this is a typical Regietheater production and the final action has no relationship whatsoever to Sardou’s play or what Puccini’s librettists wrote. It is rather a figment of the director’s imagination and their vision in no way does justice to the dramatic conclusion portrayed in the composer’s music. You have a choice and I merely add “to each to his own” when it comes to perverting an opera’s written and musical script.
The chorus and smaller roles are all well taken; Scarpia’s henchmen are appropriately creepy, while the children’s chorus, large in numbers, is excellent and warmly appreciated by the audience at the end.