Fine Orchestral Playing in Tosca Revival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Maurizio Benini (conductor., Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 2.3.2012 (CC)

Cesare Angelotti: Michel de Souza
Sacristan: Jeremy White
Mario Cavaradossi: Massimo Giordano
Floria Tosca: Amanda Echalaz
Baron Scarpia: Michael Volle
Spoletta: Hubert Francis
Sciarrone Jihoon Kim
Shepherd Boy: Michael Clayton-Jolly
Gaoler: John Morrissey

Director: Jonathan Kent
Revival Director: Andrew Sinclair
Designs: Paul Brown
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson

Jonathan Kent’s production was first seen at Covent Garden back in 2006. On this occasion, Andrew Sinclair was the revival director. My colleague Jim Pritchard reported on a performance in June 2011. The cast is different this time, as is the conductor. Maurizio Benini is a name that promises much, given his vast experience in the opera house (he’s been in charge of some of the Met simulcasts I have reported on for this site, each time impressing massively). The orchestra clearly adores him. He has a view of the music that works in large spans, so that the big set arias still form part of a coherent dramatic span. Furthermore, Benini’s ear for texture means that we heard more of Puccini’s score than usual. His conducting technique is fluent and always directed towards his intent, never for show (it was surprising to see him subdivide the beat a couple of times when one would have thought it unnecessary, but the resultant ensemble was faultless with no disruption of the ongoing flow). There was just one unfortunate ensemble moment – as luck would have it, right at the end – but the overall impression was of world-class excellence.

The production itself is nice and traditional – “nice” in the sense of comforting that someone still tries to at least have a shot at what Puccini intended. There is a lot going on onstage in the first act, though, with the painting to extreme left and the final chorus elevated in the background. Scarpia’s apartment at the Palazzo Farnese is huge. Token books in otherwise empty bookshelves seem to point to Scarpia’s insubstantial character. The final act shows desolation well (is the cloud supposed to be a falcon’s wing, picking up on the falcon references in the text?). Lighting is impressive, especially in the shadowy (in all senses) second act.

The cast was good, but really no more. Massimo Giordano stepped in for the confusingly similarly named Marcello Giordani back in 2009 and has essayed the role in many of the major opera houses. He looks and acts the part – young, virile, full of passion, his first act “Recondita armonia” nicely nuanced, his voice fully capable of matching Puccini’s demands on the climactic “Tosca, sei tu!”. Yet he did not seem to have the reserves for the triumphal shout of “Vittoria!” (Act 2) and good though his final act “E lucevan le stelle” was, he was actually outshone by the Royal Opera’s solo clarinet in the moments preceding his entrance.

The Tosca, South African soprano Amanda Echalaz, is another singer who had stepped in for ailing colleagues in her role tonight – this time for Angela Gheorghiu (she shares the role in the run with Latvia Kristine Opolais, who takes the role for the first time at the Royal Opera). Her “Vissi d’arte” was nicely tender, while her acting skills climaxed in the final act. Yet the killing of Scarpia went for little, Tosca’s kiss (“Questo il bacio di Tosca1”) virtually inaudible from my balcony seat. Here, as so often, the drama was in the pit. In the final analysis it seems that Echalaz’s strengths lie in the quieter, more interior moments, and it was here that she was at her most convincing. Together, Giordano and Echalaz created a believable final act without fully dragging us into the drama. Puccini manipulates the spectators’ emotions mercilessly, and demands a full spectrum response from his singers. Anything less, and he can descend either into vapid melodrama or, perhaps even worse, an unengaging experience. And, frankly, this evening approached the latter, despite the consistent excellence emanating from the pit.

A good Tosca demands a good Scarpia. German baritone Michael Volle is a fine singer, with a fine pedigree, but he lacks that stage-controlling presence that the great Scarpias have oozed (think Bryn Terfel, for example). It was not that Scarpia’s evil was being tempered by shafts of proto-humanity shining through, it was just not a full assumption of the role. Neither did he sing badly: his voice is excellently focused, his diction good. But he did not seem to really latch on to the role, and so his lust for Tosca was not really believable.

There was much to celebrate in the smaller roles, however. Jeremy White’s Sacristan was wonderful. White, a Royal Opera principal, projected the Sacristan as a bubbly, clearly well-fed chap, bumbling about busily. Hubert Francis was a splendidly weasely Spoletta, while Michael Clayton-Jolly sang his lungs out as the off-stage Shepherd Boy and Michael De Souza was splendid as the political prisoner-escapee Cesare Angelotti.

There was so much positive to say about what was emanating from the pit that it seems a shame that it was not reflected with what was emanating from the stage. It would be interesting to see what the “other” Tosca makes of the role (Opolais) and, indeed, the “other” Cavaradossi (Yonghoon Lee, who takes the last three performances of the run, from March 20 on).

Colin Clarke