Routine Tosca lacks lyricism and pathos

Puccini, Tosca : Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Covent Garden, London, 14.6.2011 (JPr)

Production Picture © Catherine Ashmore

A great performance of Tosca is a visceral experience and it takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride that makes you realise Puccini never wasted a note and neither has your evening been wasted. A disappointing one such as this leaves you looking at your watch wondering why Act III does not begin until 10.05pm and how some people are prepared to pay over £200 for a ticket for the privilege.

In 2006 Jonathan Kent’s production replaced the Zeffirelli much-revived 1964 classic one that was famous worldwide from the filmed performance with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. Now in July this Tosca will be filmed to be relayed to cinemas this November: significantly it will not be this cast – directed in this revival by Duncan Macfarland – that will be filmed and after eight warm-up evenings they will be replaced by Jonas Kaufmann, Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel. This seems a bit like the Premier League in football when there are players who earn £40,000 as week and those who earn £160,000. It seems that that the Royal Opera can book the ‘superstars’ if there is other revenue available – such as from a cinema broadcast and DVD – but they cannot afford them if not, yet everyone still has to pay the same sky-high ticket prices. Perhaps it is significant that though most of the theatre seemed full there were empty seats in the more expensive boxes and the stalls.

Fully three-dimensional and monumental Paul Brown’s sets will film well. It is unashamedly traditional and everything you expect is there for the three major locations from the Rome of Napoleonic times; the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Scarpia’s Palazzo Farnese apartment and the scene of the execution at the Castel Sant’Angelo, allowing Puccini’s tale of romance, jealously, betrayal and revenge to unfold relatively unhindered by directorial whim. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately for singers with limited dramatic abilities – the sets are so huge that the performing space is restricted to just the front third of the stage or thereabouts. The costumes also seem to fit the period though I am not sure about painter Cavaradossi’s candy-striped waistcoat and Tosca’s Act II gown seemed rather demure for a diva. The latter maybe due to Martina Serafin who sang Tosca as her costume for this Act seemed to be very different from the photos in the printed programme from previous performances.

I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression that it was a poor performance; it wasn’t. It was just a routine one and Tosca at Covent Garden – with the weight of history and all the legendary singers of previous generations – deserves better. Whose fault is it? The music director of Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano, was in the pit so the buck stops there I suppose. I doubt whether the orchestra has played the score as well as this in recent years but even then his full-blooded account seemed too episodic for me and we moved from one highlight to the next with an overwhelming feeling of febrile anger when what was often needed was much more lyricism and pathos.

This extended to his cast who just basically stood and delivered employing stock-in-trade operatic gestures that they take with them from opera house to opera house. All three leading singers are competent performers and should have been told that often less is more and both Marcello Giordani’s Cavaradossi and Martina Sarafin’s Tosca would have benefitted from turning down their volume a little for the more intimate surroundings of Covent Garden compared to some arenas they may sing in. Giordani is a generous singer with his ringing top notes, his Act II cries of ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ probably reached Napoleon in his Paris mausoleum. There is however a stentorian quality now to much of his delivery and when his important arias required much tenderness (Act I) and then the poignancy of a farewell (Act III), these were qualities to his voice that he could not seem to manage.

Martina Serafin is very experienced in this role and provides the caricature of Tosca I guess she believes the audience wants, she is a little hammy at times and this elicits some inappropriate laughter at certain moments. She uses the words well but her singing often lacked the limpid, melting quality a Tosca needs to gain some sympathy for her plight. I note how her career seems to have already involved some Wagner and I suspect this fine Austrian soprano’s future will be firmly in the German repertoire.

Making his Covent Garden debut was the Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo as Scarpia. I had looked forward to this since hearing him sing some Wagner in concert a few years ago and have seen how his Wagnerian appearances around Europe have been received well. (I have just returned from Budapest and he will sing Wotan there in the Ring next year.) I hope that he is just tired and in need of a rest because he was the biggest disappointment of the evening. Despite his imposing physical presence his character was not right; Scarpia is a snake, a venal seducer, and Uusitalo brought us none of this. He just appeared to be a sadistic scruff who enjoys abusing both his power …. and women. His bass-baritone had a grainy quality to it and was rather monotonous. I found it rather unlikely that all Rome trembled before him, though that is what Puccini wants us to believe.

Jim Pritchard