Finland Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Chorus, Children’s chorus and Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera / Patrick Fournillier (conductor), Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 7.9.2018. (GF)
Tosca – Aušrinė Stundytė
Cavaradossi – Andrea Caré
Scarpia – Tuomas Pursio
Sacristan – Heikki Aalto
Angelotti – Tapani Plathan
Spoletta – Matias Haakana
Sciarrone – Nicholas Söderlund
Jailer – Henri Uusitalo
Girl – Kris-Andrea Haav
Gennarino – Alvari Stenbäck
Direction – Christof Loy
Sets and costumes – Christian Schmidt
Lighting design – Olaf Winter
It was George Bernard Shaw who once called Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca, on which Puccini’s opera is based, an ‘empty-headed turnip ghost of a cheap shocker’. Musicologist Joseph Kerman, in his book Opera as Drama (1956), coined the infamous soubriquet ‘Shabby Little Shocker” – a phrase that has been quoted innumerable times ever since. Clearly, Christof Loy does not share this view. He writes in a note in the programme booklet: ‘Tosca has always fascinated me, ever since I was young. Full of detail in terms of both text and music, it is a perfectly built, well-made piece, yet still full of rough edges. These qualities make it a very rewarding project for the director. It is up to me to find ways to bring the work to life. How should I deal with such grand themes – love, passion, and all the brutality that Tosca involves?
It is of course the brutality that Kerman refers to in his remark, and Loy in no way underplays that element. Quite the contrary, in fact. In the first act, everyone shivers with fear of the formidable Scarpia (Tuomas Pursio): the Sacristan, his own agents and the everyday people in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. His carnal desires are graphically uncovered in the second act when he tears off most of his clothes in a wild effort to seduce Tosca, and the animal power in his behaviour is palpably illustrated when Tosca is forced to sing ‘Vissi d’arte’ locked in an embrace by the drooling chief of police himself.
But Tosca is also a political drama in the aftermath of the French Revolution, where Scarpia stands for the conservative aristocracy while Cavaradossi is the revolutionary. Tosca herself gets stuck in the middle; she has dedicated her life to art, as she says in her famous aria. But this opera is not bound to the early 19th century, rather it could just as well mirror today’s conflicts, or even other eras. Hence the costumes in this production range from upper-class 18th century garments with powdered wigs to present-day black suits.
Timeless or not, Christof Loy is careful with details. When Tosca has killed Scarpia, she does exactly what the original instructions say: she places two lit candles on either side of Scarpia’s body. She also removes the crucifix from its place on the wall, but she is in such hurry to get away that she has no time to put it on the chest of the dead body. She must tell her beloved Mario that he – they – will be free. Although one knows the story from countless performances, the intensity of this production is such that follow the development of the story is exciting to the bitter end. Loy has at his disposal three excellent and deeply involved actor-singers who really are their characters. It may sound like a cliché, but rarely have I been so taken by an opera performance. The minor roles are also splendidly cast. There is only a minor issue that puzzles me: Christof Loy has introduced an additional character in the first act: a mute character named Gennarino who is an assistant to Cavaradossi. If there is some symbolism in this, it eludes me. Vocally, this is also a first-class performance. Latvian soprano Aušrinė Stundytė has the big voice needed to make the most of Tosca’s dramatic outbreaks in the second act but also the lyrical capacity to sing a beautiful ‘Vissi d’arte’. Andrea Caré sings Cavaradossi with some Italian glow but without the melodramatic sobs and sighs one encounters in some performances. I wonder, though, whether his voice isn’t a size too small for the role. At least in ‘Recondita armonia’ he was partly drowned out by the orchestra. Tuomas Pursio, Finnish by birth but singing primarily on the continent, has a powerful voice to match his stately appearance and is truly frightening to watch and hear. Among the smaller roles, Kris-Andrea Haav as the shepherd boy in the beginning of the last act – here simply named ‘Tyttö’ (girl) – sings prettily and Heikki Aalto is a well-behaved Sacristan, avoiding too much comic ‘business’.
In every respect this is the Tosca of my dreams and should be seen by everyone even remotely interested in opera.