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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca, opera in three acts (1900) [114.14]
Floria Tosca – Anja Harteros (soprano)
Mario Cavaradossi –Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor)
Baron Scarpia – Ludovic TÚzier (baritone)
Cesare Angelotti – Andrea Mastroni (bass)
The Sacristan – Matteo Peirone (bass)
Spoletta – Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (baritone)
Sciarrone – Rupert Gr÷ssinger (baritone)
Bachchor Salzburg (chorus master: Alois Gla▀ner)
Salzburger Festspiele und Theater Kinderchor (chorus master: Wolfgang G÷tz),
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Stage Director – Michael Sturminger
Set and Costume Designers – Renate Martin, Andreas Donhauser
Lighting Designer – Urs Sch÷nebaum
Video Director – Tiziano Mancini
rec. live, March 21 & 24, April 2, 2018, Gro▀es Festspielhaus, Osterfestspiele Salzburg, Austria
C MAJOR Blu-ray 748404 [122 mins]

In my book a production of Puccini’s Tosca is a mouthwatering prospect. I must have attended a dozen or so productions of this perennially popular opera with its turbulent love affair between Mario and Tosca, Scarpia’s attempt to seduce Tosca and the fatal conclusion all set against a backdrop of political intrigue and menace. In recent years I thoroughly enjoyed attending Luc Bondy’s staging at the Bayerischen Staatsoper, Munich, and also relished Carl Riha’s production at the Staastoper, Berlin. In addition, Jonathan Kent’s Tosca which was streamed to cinemas from Covent Garden, London was superb too.

The centerpiece of the 2018 Osterfestspiele Salzburg Tosca was given a new and contemporary production from Vienna born stage director Michael Sturminger with the festival artistic director Christian Thielemann conducting the world class Staatskapelle Dresden. Originally Philipp St÷lz was engaged as the stage director and set designer but during the course of preparations he and the festival management discontinued their collaboration. At Salzburg festivals in 2017 Sturminger was responsible for the successful production of Salvatore Sciarrino’s chamber opera Lohengrin and the new production of Hofmannsthal’s play Jedermann. Maintaining an established partnership, Sturminger’s creative team is Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser of Donmartin Supersets.

The number of traditional productions of Tosca I have seen, including several run-of-the-mill offerings, have made me disposed to see new contemporary interpretations. Although I try to keep an open mind I’m frequently, disappointed but not always. In my view the test of a good staging is whether the opera feels fresh with the ability to affect, whilst remaining cogent and Sturminger’s compelling new production does just that, complete with a prologue and an exciting new conclusion. Sturminger has stated “that Tosca is about people in extreme situations and Puccini depicts them incredibly well in this short but intense work. You could say it has elements of a thriller almost at times of a penny dreadful.” Described as a cinematic staging in the manner of a “film-noir” Sturminger and his designers have moved the action from 1800 the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory at the Battle of Marengo (which is announced by Sciarrone during act two of the opera) to a Mafia underworld world of present-day Rome, which could said to be a stereotypical Italian take. This is a production that has been compared to Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime film Goodfellas but that is rather going over the top. Immediately before the music starts shots are fired and sirens wail as Angelotti seems to have been sprung from an Italian police van in an underground car park ambush. He runs up the metal spiral staircase to appear in the striking Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle which is displayed in its traditional style. Working marvellously well this prologue serves as a convincing explanation to the action which normally begins with Angelotti in the church. Noticeably the image of Mary Magdalene that Mario is working on is a giant, silver coloured statue not the portrait traditionally seen. During the action a large group of boys and girls are using the floor space to sit and draw for a school project. Toward the end of the first act for the Te Deum procession in the church several of the huge marble columns are compressed together leading into the next act set in Palazzo Farnese, in what designer Donhauser describes as “a kind of slow-motion ballet.”

Act two, set in Scarpia’s chamber of the Palazzo Farnese shows the grandeur of the High Renaissance building complete with exceptional fresco reproductions that adorn the walls although several items of furniture are of a contemporary design. The floor is a black and white checkerboard pattern and at the side of the stage is a spiral staircase leading to the dungeons below where Mario is incarcerated and tortured. Here Scarpia sits behind a large wooden desk and there is a small round dining table complete with candles where he intends to intimately entertain Tosca before seducing her. Spoiler alert coming here next. The twist is that when Tosca with all her pent-up emotion plunges the large knife mightily and realistically into Scarpia’s stomach she and the audience are supposed to think he is dead, but he’s not.

A dormitory in the Castel Sant’Angelo is the setting for act three where there are sixteen beds where the boys are sleeping. I notice there is a picture of Pope Francis hung on the wall. For the execution scene we are taken up the spiral staircase to the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo that provides a view across Rome to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Chillingly at the Mafia henchmen’s behest a firing squad of five boys shoot Mario with revolvers. To everyone’s surprise after the execution Scarpia who isn’t dead now appears, looking groggy with his stomach heavily bandaged. Here is another spoiler alert. After Tosca realises that Mario is not feigning and is really dead, she and Scarpia simultaneously shoot each other with handguns. Tosca and Scarpia both fall down dead as the curtain closes. Although a distinct change from the usual scenario, where Tosca throws herself off the castle ramparts, Sturminger’s imaginative take works extremely well and is an improvement on some productions I’ve seen.

In keeping with the Mafia theme, designers Martin and Donhauser have updated the clothes to the present day. Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia has become it seems a Mafia Godfather dressed in smart dark blue blazer and brown trousers, striped shirt and tie. Scarpia’s armed henchmen wear a mixture of clothing all with the obligatory sunglasses and the Sacristan looks more like a Catholic Priest with his smart black suit and clerical collar. Rather stereotypically in the manner of a painter Mario, a romantic with a thick mop of brown hair, is wearing loose, earthy coloured linen clothing. Also wearing his hair quite long is escaped prisoner Angelotti who is decked out in crimson shirt and brown trousers. A celebrated Roman singer, Tosca is elegantly dressed throughout wearing stylish coats; one a beautifully cut long-line in grey and another green leather both over blouses and flared trousers and the inevitable pair of large framed sunglasses. For her act two encounter with Scarpia, who has seduction in mind, she wears a glamorous low-cut, haute couture gown in scarlet red.

In 2015 I remember tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko’s splendid performances as Turiddu and Canio in Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci relayed live to cinemas from Covent Garden, London. An impassioned spinto tenor, Antoņenko sings his heart out as lovesick painter Mario Cavaradossi. Expressive and characterful the tenor has a reasonably secure lower register and a slightly sweet-edged and appealing top. Occasionally when under pressure, I notice a slight strain in his production. With such affectionate heart and sufficient passion and pain Antoņenko steps up to the plate for his major arias Recondita armonia contrasting his love for Tosca to his painting (sculpture in this case) of Mary Magdalene and E lucevan le stelle as he reflects on his times with Tosca and proclaims his love for her whilst awaiting his execution.

German soprano Anja Harteros is one of the finest opera singers around today, although perhaps not too well known in Britain as she tends to sing mainly in opera houses in Germany, Austria and France. I have been fortunate to have attended one of her gala performances in the Semperoper, Dresden and two at Munich notably in Andrea ChÚnier with Jonas Kaufmann at the National Theater and can attest to the quality of her outstanding voice. Harteros’s voice is a most substantial instrument and in the title role her performance is highly convincing portraying a confident and successful young woman. Notable is her smoothness of projection and talent for expression displaying how comfortable she is in her high register. Here she sings quite wonderfully, revealing the vulnerable side of Tosca’s personality as demonstrated by her rendition of the famous aria Vissi d'arte feeling forsaken and asking God why she has been placed in this terrible situation when always trying to live a good life.

Seen in superb form by international audiences as the grey-haired Don Carlo in the recent cinema screening of Christof Loy’s new production of La forza del destino from Covent Garden, London, baritone Ludovic TÚzier again excels, this time as the evil Scarpia. Maybe not the most menacing portrayal of the role, I’ll leave that accolade to the testosterone filled Ruggero Raimondi, Bryn Terfel, Juha Uusitalo and Michael Volle, but certainly one of the best sung. Extremely effective was TÚzier in his first act aria Va, Tosca! Nel tuo cuor s'annida Scarpia!... A doppia mira convincing in his intimidating threats to ravish Tosca or have Cavaradossi hung at the gallows. TÚzier is assisted by the some of the most descriptive and dramatic music ever written progressively ratcheting-up the tension. With steadfast tone TÚzier’s voice has durability, flexibility and reasonable heft, and he is adroit at darkening his timbre.

Of the smaller roles standing out for his excellent acting as well as his singing is bass Matteo Peirone as the Sacristan but there isn’t really a weak link in the cast. Under their respective chorus directors, the Bachchor Salzburg, Salzburger Festspiele and Theater Kinderchor make a significant impression singing with unity, expression and admirable levels of strength. Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden has achieved wide dynamics and plenty of power to complement the on-stage drama. Maybe some might miss the warm, rather subtle orchestral sound one usually encounters, and I wanted additional tension at times too but Thielemann’s approach certainly makes an impact. Recorded live on the huge stage of the Gro▀es Festspielhaus there are no problems at all with the usual sound options: stereo and surround sound. Tiziano Mancini has presided over excellent film quality even if a few more close ups wouldn’t have gone amiss. This C major release is reasonably well presented, and the booklet includes a track listing and an interesting essay titled Tosca - A Film Noir written by Susann Herold which is based on programme notes by JŘrgen Kesting, Michael Sturminger, and Stefan Grissemann. The synopsis also by Herold concerns the traditional plot outline to Tosca and does not contain the adjustments of this Sturminger production. It’s a real shame the disc has no bonus features such as filmed interviews either with cast members, or the director and his creative team.

My first choice Tosca on film has been Jonathan Kent’s exceptional if conventional staging featuring Angela Gheorghiu (my favourite Tosca), Jonas Kaufmann (Mario) and Bryn Terfel (Scarpia) that was streamed live to cinemas and filmed live in 2011 at Covent Garden, London on Warner Classics DVD/Blu-ray. Nevertheless, on C major director Michael Sturminger has produced a most impressive and exciting Tosca, one that I certainly want to keep.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Robert Cummings ~ Robert Farr (DVD)

Other recording details
Filmed in High Definition, mastered from a HD source, Picture Format 1080i, 16:9
Sound formats:
a) Stereo LPCM 2.0ch, 48kHz/24 bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0ch, 48kHz
Subtitles, Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese



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