Switzerland Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Chorus and Children’s Chorus of Opernhaus Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Fabio Luisi (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, 28.6.2016. (RP)
Director: Robert Carsen
Assistant Stage Director: John La Bouchardière
Stage and Costume Design: Anthony Ward
Assistant Stage Designer: Alexander Lowde
Lighting: Davy Cunningham
Chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger & Zsolt Czetner
Floria Tosca: Catherine Naglestad
Mario Cavaradossi: Marcelo Álvarez
Baron Scarpia: Marco Vratogna
Cesare Angelotti: Valeriy Murga
Sacristan: Dimitri Pkhaladze
Spoletta: Martin Zysset
Sciarrone: Erik Anstine
Shepherd: Claire Schurter
Jailer: Reinhard Mayr
Robert Carsen’s staging of Tosca premiered in Zurich in 2009. Although there have been some starry names associated with the prior runs, this cast is arguably the strongest and most cohesive of the three that I’ve seen. This was full-blooded Puccini, with singers who never stinted vocally or dramatically as the fatal love triangle evolved, giving conductor Fabio Luisi free rein to mine Puccini’s score for its maximum emotional impact. The Philharmonia Zürich played splendidly, whether in the score’s thundering climaxes or its most tender passages. Cellist Claudius Herrmann’s Act III solo was exquisite. The sounds coming out of the pit were just as exciting as the singing on stage.
Carsen updates the action to modern times, with a theater stage substituting for the various locations in Rome. In the first act, rows of chairs are set before a deep red and gold curtain, with a large painting in progress of Mary Magdalene dominating the scene. Programs bearing Tosca’s image are placed on chairs, and autograph seekers wait for her. The second act is behind the safety curtain, once again with the portrait prominently on display, but with Tosca’s dark eyes rather than the blue ones of the Marchesa Attavanti that Cavaradossi had painted much to Tosca’s annoyance. The final act is set on a bare stage opening out into an empty theater. Stage lights silhouette Tosca as she leaps into the darkness singing her final words, “Scarpia, we meet before God!” She then takes a solo with curtains parted and two large bouquets of red roses. The play within a play is over.
This was the most engaged that I have ever seen tenor Marcelo Álvarez on stage. He punched his way through Cavaradossi’s first aria, “Recondita armonia,” but that appeared to be by design, as the same accents could be heard in the orchestral accompaniment and in the music that followed it. His ringing high notes were contrasted by the melting legato and lovely lyric tone that he displayed in Cavaradossi’s more tender or reflective passages. “E lucevan le stelle” was almost understated, except for its climax which amplified his desperation.
Scarpia’s obsession with Floria Tosca and cold-blooded disregard for life were perfectly captured by Marco Vratogna. Despite his elegant clothes, he was still a ruthless thug. The climaxes were full-voiced and thrilling, but the small touches were also deftly executed, particularly Scarpia’s droll aside that perhaps firing the cannon to announce Angelotti’s escape was a mistake. Martin Zysset’s Spoletta was just as sinister, taking malicious pleasure in torturing Cavaradossi.
Catherine Naglestad’s Tosca was at times modestly devout, at others passionate and impetuous, but she was always a diva. When irked by Cavaradossi’s blue-eyed Mary Magdalene, or driven to anger and despair by Scarpia, she sang through gritted teeth with emotion seething inside her. She was taken aback by the dark-eyed portrait that loomed large in Scarpia’s room, sensing that his obsession was something to be feared. Naglestad has a rich voice, capable of singing blazing climaxes as well as more lyrical passages. Her great aria, “Vissi d’arte,” was sung with restraint, which, as with Cavaradossi’s final aria, emphasized the poignancy of her plight all the more.
A visit to Zurich in late June and early July is always rewarded with terrific opera and this year is no exception. I had the opportunity to catch the new production of Bellini’s I Puritani, again with Luisi leading an exciting cast, as well as this revival of Tosca. Experiencing such viscerally thrilling performances in Zurich’s jewel-box of an opera house is a rare privilege. Get there, if you can.