Vienna State Opera’s Production of Tosca Shows its Age

AustriaAustria Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Martin Schebesta), Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Dan Ettinger (conductor). Vienna State Opera, 2.12.2015. (MB)

Vienna State Opera’s Tosca
(c) Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Pöhn

Puccini, Tosca


Floria Tosca – Martina Serafin
Mario Cavaradossi – Roberto Alagna
Baron Scarpia – Michael Volle
Cesare Angelotti – Ryan Speedo Green
Sacristan – Alfred Šramek
Spoletta – Benedikt Kobel
Sciarrone – Hans Peter Kammerer
Gaoler – Il Hong
Shepherd Boy – Bernhard Sengstschmid


Margarethe Wallmann (director)
Nicola Benois (revival director)

Tosca is pretty much indestructible, although that does not necessarily prevent opera houses from trying to prove me wrong. Where are the Bieitos, the Konwitschnys, the Herheims, the Katy Mitchells, indeed anyone who might think Puccini and indeed his audiences merit something other than condescension? The Berlin State Opera recently signalled the prospect of something a little more interesting with a new production, conducted by Daniel Barenboim (his first Puccini!), directed by Alvis Hermanis, a director with a mixed record, at best, but at least not renowned for pandering to ‘subscription’ tastes. Whether the staging succeeded, I do not know; given Hermanis’s recent pronouncements, I am unlikely ever to find out. Alas, Dominique Meyer decided, rather than to present a new production at the Vienna State Opera, to reproduce the disintegrating sets and costumes of its existing – I am tempted to say, ‘prehistoric’ – production.

That, alas, is precisely what it looks like. Indeed, before I was informed by a friend of Meyer’s strange decision, my thought had been that the sets and costumes reminded me of the horrible if understandable restoration of Dresden’s Frauenkirche. (How much more powerful it was when a pile of rubble: an encounter, from my first visit to that city, I will never forget!) Indeed, what the action, if one can call it that, looked and felt like was really rather curious: some people attempting, without much support, less to ape the manners of the 1950s than to have rediscovered an abandoned set from that period, trying to do something, anything, but not too much, within its confines. Margarethe Wallmann’s production, to our eyes, seems strange, not in an intriguing way, but because the years have hollowed it out of what one presumes once to have been its content. Doubtless a revival director does what she can, and can hardly be held responsible, but a piece of theatre this is not.

The answer one often hears to such complaints is that great artists can breathe new life into anything. Perhaps, although I think even Herbert von Karajan and Renata Tebaldi, who featured in its 1957 premiere, might have had difficulty here in 2015. This, at any rate, was not a vintage night in performing terms. Dan Ettinger’s conducting was at best plodding, although there were occasional hints form the orchestra – some gorgeous cello playing in particular – that these were players who might, under a conductor such as Daniele Gatti, produce something world-beating. For the most part, Ettinger seemed content to ‘accompany’: a very odd idea for one of the most symphonic of opera composers. When he did try something, it seemed to be merely to repeat a phrase slower and louder than the last time. This score usually flies by; here, one might have thought it a misfire on the composer’s part.

There was better news from the singers – at least until the end (on which more shortly). Martina Serafin is not possessed of the most refulgent of voices, but she did a good deal with what she had, and for the most part proved attentive towards words as well as music. ‘Vissi d’arte’ was, alas, plagued by poor intonation. Roberto Alagna suffered similarly when he first came on stage, but his performance improved dramatically – in more than one sense – thereafter. Indeed, as always, he threw his all into what he was doing, vocally and otherwise. His big aria was beautifully sung, without a hint of playing to the gallery. (Alas, the gallery still responded, holding up what action the production permitted.) Michael Volle seemed strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, out of sorts. He is a great artist, but this is perhaps not his role, or at least this is not his production. His Italian was such that even I found it too Teutonic, and, although he offered greater malice and menace in the second act, the first-act Scarpia seemed oddly avuncular. Ryan Speedo Green was an energetic, dark-voiced Angelotti; I should like to hear more from him.

Despite my reservations, I was a little surprised when no one came to receive applause. Eventually, a member of staff came forward to make an announcement. Serafin had fallen awkwardly when making her leap from the ramparts and was unable to return onstage. After that, although the rest of the cast then took their curtain calls, the evening fizzled out, a state of affairs which, alas, did not seem at odds with the staging. I do not doubt that, in 1957, when Wallmann’s production, if we can still call it that, was first seen, with Karajan and Tebaldi, there might have been much to enjoy scenically, as well as musically. Now, however, it would surely be kinder to Wallmann, to Puccini, to the singers, to the audience, to grant it an honourable retirement. As another, supremely theatrical composer, alongside Schoenberg (later) surely the most beneficial influence upon Puccini, once put it: ‘Kinder, macht neues!’

Mark Berry

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