Traditional and Visually Dormant Tosca

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Maurizio Benini (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 4.3.2013 (MB)

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:  Filippo Turkheimer
Gaoler:  John Morrissey

Jonathan Kent (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)
Paul Brown (designs)
Mark Henderson (lighting)

I shall doubtless be behind the curve when compared with many readers concerning Jonathan Kent’s Royal Opera staging of Tosca, first seen in 2006 and now revived by Andrew Sinclair, given that this was my first viewing. There is not much to say about it really. It is certainly not radical in any way, nor does it seem to have anything to say about the work. (To be fair, though, when Kent has seemed to have had something to say, for instance, in his dreadful Flying Dutchman for ENO, it has not always seemed coherent or worth saying.) I doubt that there is anything to which even the most hidebound ‘traditionalist’ (by which I mean a fetishiser of set designs and costumes, who thinks that everything should conform to his or her poor-taste conception of what might be ‘beautiful’) might object. There was certainly nothing so daring as a spot of updating, let alone any sense of dialogue between Puccini’s time, our own, and the time at which the opera is set. The greatest, arguably the only, dramatic jolt came from the third act gunshots. Relatively heavy set designs (Paul Brown) might have added a sense of dramatic claustrophobia, but that would have required something a little more than simply placing singers in front of them and leaving them to it. I can see why having the Te Deum take place a level above Scarpia might visually have seemed an attractive idea; the problem, however, was that it dulled the aural impact of the chorus to the level of background music, when a degree at least of sensory overload should be experienced.

Maurizio Benini, however, delivered a decent account, and sometimes rather more than that, of Puccini’s score. Again, it did not especially challenge, but it brought to life that which remained visually dormant. If my preference would undoubtedly be for something that brought more to the fore the symphonism of which many of Puccini’s contemporaries complained, likewise his modernist anticipations, then that has to remain a preference rather than stipulation. In a relatively straightforward way, Benini, a slightly hard-driven opening aside, supported and shaped the action, the melodramatic dénouement quite thrilling in its way. Turning of the musical screws of torture was accomplished to truly searing effect. A few slips aside, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played well for him, if without quite sounding on the very top of its form. I could not help but wonder, though, what more we might have learned from a great conductor such as Daniele Gatti, whose Salzburg Bohème last summer made a more powerful case for the score than any I have otherwise heard. Gatti of course had the signal advantage too of the Vienna Philharmonic playing for a conductor it loves.

And yet, if that all sounds a little easy-listening, one was must take into account the singular contribution of Massimo Giordano’s Cavaradossi. If a Konzept were entirely lacking in Kent’s staging, Giordano supplied his own element of deconstruction, offering a brave parody of popular conceptions of the ‘Italian operatic tenor’. There was no Kaufmann-esque mezza voce here. Instead we heard one of the most convincing assumptions of the ‘Just One Cornetto’ style I have experienced since – well, since that advertisement. What do you mean: it was not intended as a parody? Was that ‘authenticity’ too, in terms of ‘what Puccini might have expected,’ in the unfeasibly wide vibrato and portamento comprising a decent sized portion of the chromatic scale? In the immortal words of the Princess Royal, replying to Cherie Blair’s urging, ‘Call me Cherie,’-  ‘Let’s not go there.’

Amanda Echalaz, however, offered a detailed, beautifully sung account of the title role. If she never thrilled in the way the Greek soprano who shall not be mentioned has unfortunately led us to expect, then such is a more than usually odious comparison. Michael Volle was perhaps better still, presenting an uncommonly intelligent assumption of Baron Scarpia. Hints of Dr Schön – and not just because so many of us associate him with the role – informed this villain’s sadism; if only a plot twist might have been added, in which Jack the Ripper appeared during the third act. Volle’s command of words and musical line was second to none, lifting the melodrama in many cases beyond itself. Many of the smaller roles were very well taken too. Jette Parker Young Artist, Michel de Souza, an attractive, compelling Angelotti, made one eager to hear more of him in the future; doubtless we shall. Hubert Francis’s contribution as Spoletta did likewise. Company stalwart, Jeremy White, presented as rounded a Sacristan as production and work permitted. And let us not forget Filippo Turkheimer, who certainly made one sit up and listen to the Shepherd Boy’s solo, more dramatically telling than I can previously recall.


Mark Berry