United Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Alexander Joel (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 27.5.2019. (JPr)
Director – Jonathan Kent
Revival director – Andrew Sinclair
Designs – Paul Brown
Lighting – Mark Henderson
Floria Tosca – Kristine Opolais
Mario Cavaradossi – Vittorio Grigòlo
Baron Scarpia – Bryn Terfel
Spoletta – Hubert Francis
Cesare Angelotti – Michael Mofidian
Sacristan – Jonathan Lemalu
Sciarrone – Jihoon Kim
Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production of Tosca is receiving its umpteenth revival and on encountering another Covent Garden old-stager at this performance he remarked how this ‘was possibly our millionth Tosca’, although this might be something of an exaggerated figure! Nevertheless, I saw Kent’s staging when it was new and several times since. It replaced the legendary Franco Zeffirelli Tosca which for four decades returned time and again and achieved 242 performances. It was finally retired in 2004 and a new version sought from Kent who commented at the time that ‘Each generation has to reinvent these classics or they become museum pieces’. His Tosca has always seemed Zeffirelli-lite and whether we ever got the reinvention he was hoping for, or it has just become another ‘museum piece’, was a matter of debate as long ago as 2006 and perhaps it is best left to those who haven’t seen a ‘million’ Toscas to make their own mind up.
Seen and Heard readers – and we know there are many of you out there – are very knowledgeable and should not need an introduction to the story of this opera or its background. However, I wish I could say the same for several in the Covent Garden audience, many of whom were seen reading the synopsis attentively with one loud voice exclaiming ‘Apparently it is a melodrama in three acts’. That reminded me of a comment I overheard in 2006: ‘The first act is rather complicated isn’t it?’.
I will not repeat the comparisons – I made my recent review (click here) – between Andrea Chénier and Tosca from two ‘rival’ composers of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century. It is a surprise to see how the actual length of the operas are almost identical at just over two hours, yet Tosca – despite its two intervals compared to one for Chénier – seems the much shorter evening. I believe Professor Gregory Dart in his programme essay explains this when he writes: ‘Puccini’s Tosca is a masterpiece of concision, of cruel brevity. It is one of the most ruthlessly taut dramas in operatic history.’ The Royal Opera deserve much credit for having these two works overlapping allowing them to be compared.
From the start of Act I it was clear that we were in for an evening of ‘blood and thunder’ performances. The singers are thrust to the front of the stage with their voices thrown forward by Paul Brown’s semi-circular Sant’Andrea della Valle set. There was a remarkable Sacristan from Jonathan Lemalu who was more youthful and vigorous than sometimes the grumbly character is shown to be, and with his resonant singing sounded as if he was auditioning for Scarpia. Kent gives the principal singers a lot of clambering up and down a ladder; some hasty entrances from the rear of the split-level stage to get to the top of some stairs in time (which lessens the impact of Tosca and Scarpia’s first entrances); and there is too much subsequent walking up and down the staircases. The costumes always have seemed to me to be straight out of Les Misérables and those stairs from another musical, Sunset Boulevard, where it was used by Norma Desmond, another notable ‘diva’. There never has been much opportunity for intimate performance and as soon as the characters stop moving they often just resort to stock operatic gestures. The only attempt at any real nuance was the amusing byplay between Cavaradossi and a believably jealous Tosca over the colour of the eyes of his Mary Magdalene painting. However elsewhere there were signs of a lack of genuine chemistry between this Tosca (Kristine Opolais) and her Cavaradossi (Vittorio Grigòlo).
In Act II we get a monumental library with a large central statue of a mythical figure with a sword. Lots of candlesticks, of course, including the only two which stay alight and are handily placed side-by-side on what looks strangely, amongst a certain faded opulence, to be a trestle table for Scarpia to eat his meal off. It is always a pleasure to welcome Bryn Terfel back to Covent Garden and whilst the best Scarpias downplay the evil and retain an air of suave civility (even though we know it is only pretence) Terfel is all pent-up lustful rage and the most black-hearted of black-hearted villains. His voice is very menacing, yet he can scale it down for an almost whispered ‘Ebbene?’ (‘Well?’) that was full of sexual threat towards Tosca, particularly considering current #MeToo sensibilities.
Singing Cavaradossi for the first time at Covent Garden Vittorio Grigòlo bounded around hyperactively during Act I. Having to sing ‘Recondita armonia’ with infamously little chance to warm up – or sitting atop some rickety scaffolding – held no fears for him. The slicking back of his hair using holy water needs to be seen to be believed! Any sense that conductor Alexander Joel might have any other consideration for this opera than as a ‘Can Belto’ Grand Italian Night were dismissed as soon as he allowed Grigòlo to hang on to his Act II ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ exclamation for as long as his tenor wanted to. Kristine Opolais swept in as Tosca wearing a silver gown with a sweeping train that constantly needed flicking out of the way. She has clearly put a lot of thought into her traditional drama queen portrayal; her character was volatile yet clearly used to getting her own way. Vocally she wasn’t so much channelling the legendary Maria Callas as Angela Gheorghiu who returns for two performance during this current run. Tosca’s despairing ‘Visse d’arte’ was deeply felt and sung with refined musicality. The stabbing was well staged though it was rather a small knife to fell the huge Terfel/Scarpia. Not surprisingly Tosca found a use for those lighted candles and they were placed as usual either side of Scarpia’s corpse.
Act III brings us a long curved wall with an outpost stage right and four execution posts across the front of the stage amongst which the Gaoler (John Morrissey) was at his ablutions. Cavaradossi sang his aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in murky light: the lighting by Mark Henderson has never been one of this production’s strengths. Grigòlo seemed to be in more suitably reflective mood and his restrained singing at this point was all the better for it. Opolais’s Tosca comes on stage with only a tenuous grasp on reality and resolutely facing forward the two lovers sang their duet at the top of their voices. Cavaradossi usually acts as if he knows all is lost and he will not survive the supposed mock-execution; here Grigòlo seemed to face the firing squad as if he had believed Tosca.
Everything from Alexander Joel and his orchestra was a little too restrained from those doom-laden opening Scarpia chords through to the end and the terror and passion never fully resonate in any meaningful way despite everyone taking deep breaths and singing forte all the time. Each of Joel’s three leading singers also seemed to have their own ideas for the tempo they wanted. Lemalu’s Sacristan notwithstanding, the other minor characters were pushed even further into the background than they usually are since this opera is basically Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia … and the others just make up the numbers. Best of the rest was Michael Mofidian’s sturdy Cesare Angelotti. Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School provided the Act I choristers and they should be very proud of their spirited contribution. With the roaring Terfel centre stage it made the Te Deum a highlight of this Tosca.
For more about what is on at Covent Garden click here.