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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca, Opera in Three Acts (1900)
Floria Tosca – Anja Harteros; Mario Cavaradossi – Aleksandrs Antonenko; Scarpia – Ludovic Tézier; Cesare Angelotti – Andrea Mastroni; Sacristan – Matteo Pieronne; Spoletta – Mikeldi Atxalandabaso; Sciarrone – Rupert Grössinger
Bach Choir Salzburg & Salzburg Festival and Theater Children’s Choir
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, 21 & 24 March and 2 April, 2018, Salzburg Easter Festival, Austria
Stage Director: Michael Sturminger
Costume and Set Designers: Renate Martin, Andreas Donhauser; Lighting Designer: Urs Schönebaum
Sound formats: PCM Stereo DTS-HD MA 5.0, Picture Format: 1080i, 16:9
Subtitles, Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR Blu-ray 748404 [122:05]

“A shabby little shocker,” is the famous assessment of Tosca by a prominent musicologist and critic, the late Joseph Kerman (1924-2014) in his 1956 book Opera as Drama. That phrase is still widely quoted today about the work, but despite Kerman’s considerable influence over the years, it hasn’t fazed the popularity of Tosca. Nor has it sabotaged its artistic standing. I can only say that if it is a “shabby little shocker” then it’s my kind of “shabby little shocker.” On the musical side of things, the performance on this Blu-ray disc goes a long way toward making the case that this is indeed a great opera. But of course there is that sometimes nagging theatrical side to opera—the story. And here, in Michael Sturminger’s staging, it is a bit problematic, and for some may cause the opera to become a “shabby little shocker.”

The opening scene shows a Hollywood-style shoot-out wherein Angelotti escapes the police van in which he was being transported as a presumably dangerous prisoner. Right off, we’re in the criminal underworld of modern day Rome and while updating the story from 1800 to the present isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the radical alterations in the plot that follow will strike many Puccini and opera mavens as anathema. Chief among them is that Scarpia, after being stabbed by Floria Tosca, doesn’t die as Puccini and his librettists intended: he crawls away at the end of Act II and then shows up bloodied for the final scene of the opera. In that scene, after Cavaradossi is executed by a firing squad of choirboys from a Catholic boarding school(!), Tosca and Scarpia kill each other in another shootout. Thus, Tosca doesn’t leap to her death in despair of over Cavaradossi’s death as you would expect. In fact, the ending is almost completely changed from that of a more traditional staging of the opera. Yes, the same three characters end up dying violently in this version of course, and so Sturminger’s account, one can argue, brings us to the same resolution. Does it, though? I don’t think so, but you can decide. Actually, I must point out that one assumes Scarpia dies when he only falls to his knees as the curtain closes, shot in the torso and bleeding badly from the stabbing earlier.

The sets for the most part are reasonably well designed, especially those for the church and palace. One might question the Third Act set design: with its square or oblong shape, multi-level checkered floor, and furnishings that include armchairs, it could hardly be the battlement of the Castel Sant’Angelo. But then, obviously Sturminger isn’t in any way attempting to place the opera’s climax there. All other aspects of the production are first rate, including the lighting and the costuming, and apart from a few other less significant changes (the Sacristan is a priest here), the staging is reasonably faithful to the story. My reaction to my first viewing of this production was that it was effective despite the changes in the plot. It had a shocking sort of effect, but I can’t say whether the shock tilted toward the “shabby” side of things or toward the imaginative side.

As for the performances, Ludovic Tézier as Scarpia is vocally excellent and dramatically quite fine, though he doesn’t come across as evil as Ruggiero Raimondi in three other video recordings: the Royal Opera House from 2000, Antonio Pappano conducting on Arthaus; Teatro Real Madrid from 2004, Maurizio Benini conducting on Opus Arte; and Arena di Verona from 2006, Daniel Oren conducting on Arthaus Musik. That said, Tézier is still dramatically effective and his utterly splendid singing sets him apart from most other Scarpias. Aleksandrs Antonenko is quite good as Cavaradossi, though he does show a bit of strain from time to time and his Recondita armonia strikes you as a little cold, wanting for greater emotional expression. His Act I duet Mia gelosa is impressive though and things continue to get better. He delivers a very convincing Act III E lucevan le stelle. But what makes this an outstanding musical performance is the work of Anja Harteros as Tosca. Of four other video recordings I have of this opera (beside the three already mentioned there is Marco Boemi-led 2010 performance from the Teatro Carlo Felice on Arthaus Musik) she is the best Tosca by a significant margin, and that takes into account impressive efforts by Angela Gheorghiu, Fiorenza Cedolins and Daniela Dessi. In fact vocally, I would rank her in the company of other Toscas by Tebaldi and Callas. She is that good. Try her Second Act Vissi d’arte, sung partly as she lies on a table. She is an outstanding singer and great dramatic actress. Period.

What also adds to the positive side here is the contribution of conductor Christian Thielemann, who is known in opera primarily for his Wagner and Richard Strauss. Here, his way with Puccini is most effective: tempos are moderate but never lacking spirit, instrumental balances well judged, and phrasing in general quite excellent. Not surprisingly, the superb Dresden State Orchestra plays splendidly for him. The camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction on this C Major disc are all first class.

In the end, I can say that to watch this Tosca one time would probably be a worthwhile experience for a good many, but would they want to reach for this Blu-ray disc again and again as a valid and enjoyable version of Tosca? It’s a difficult question to answer because on the one hand you have the excellent performances by the singers and musicians, but on the other you have a controversial and, to some, outlandish take on the story. Personally, I will play this disc again on occasion because of the magnificent performances. Your decision to acquire this recording comes down to this: if you want a musically superb Tosca with a radically different treatment of the story, you won’t be let down by this fine effort. If you’re a traditionalist intolerant of tampering with an opera’s story—avoid! Your choice then.

Robert Cummings

Previous review (DVD): Robert Farr



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