Monastyrska’s sumptuous Tosca fits Rome Opera’s reconstruction of original 1900 production

ItalyItaly Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Orchestra and Chorus / Pier Giorgio Morandi (conductor), Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Teatro Costanzi, Rome, 20.12.2019. (RP)

Liudmyla Monastyrska (Tosca) & Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) © Yasuko Kageyama

Director – Alessandro Talevi
Sets – Adolf Hohenstein (reconstructed by Carlo Savi)
Costumes – Adolf Hohenstein (reconstructed by Anna Biagiotti)
Lighting – Vinicio Cheli
Chorus Master – Roberto Gabbiani

Tosca – Liudmyla Monastyrska
Cavaradossi – Giorgio Berrugi
Scarpia – Claudio Sgura
Angelotti – Luciano Leoni
Spoletta – Andrea Giovannini
Sacristan – Domenico Colaianni
Shepherd – Cristian Masciavè

Tosca premiered at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on 14 January 1900 with sets and costumes by Adolf Hohenstein, the father of Italian poster art and a proponent of the Stile Liberty, the Italian version of Art Nouveau. Upon moving to Milan in 1879, Hohenstein, who was born in St. Petersburg to German parents, became a set and costume designer for La Scala Milan and subsequently the artistic director for Ricordi Graphical Workshops. There he created the classic, and still popular, posters for Puccini’s La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, as well as the set and costume designs for the premiere of Verdi’s Falstaff.

In 2015, Rome Opera recreated Hohenstein’s original designs for its new production of Tosca. (This was the last of a five-performance run.) The production is a reminder of how paint, canvas and lighting in the right hands can evoke time, place and atmosphere in three dimensions as effectively as the most architecturally and elaborately detailed sets, which might add a tad more realism but nowadays are budget busters for most opera companies.

The Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where Cavaradossi paints and Scarpia utters his infamous oath, ‘Tosca, you make me forget God!’; and the Castel Sant’Angelo, where Tosca leaps to her death defiantly shouting, ‘Scarpia, we meet before God!’, might have been renderings of these sites on one-hundred-year-old postcards. Scarpia’s grand apartment in the Palazzo Farnese, where Cavaradossi is tortured and Tosca voids the quid pro quo of sex for her lover’s life by stabbing the brutish, licentious chief of police, is sumptuous and elegant in muted shades of blue. Tosca places silver candles on either side of his body as well a crucifix atop it, before declaiming grandly, ‘And before him all Rome trembled!’. All was as it should be.

Rome Opera assembled a cast for this run that likewise harks back to an earlier era of grand voices, especially the Tosca of Liudmyla Monastyrska, whose combination of sumptuous voice and mercurial temperament made for a memorable Tosca. At turns kittenish, provocative, outlandish, simple, devout and brave, the Ukrainian soprano has an ample, supple voice with gleaming, secure high notes that pierce through Puccini’s rich orchestrations with ease. However, it wasn’t her high notes alone that made ‘Vissi d’arte’ so special, but also the exceptional beauty of her middle range.

Tenor Giorgio Berrugi has a leaner, sleeker voice, but it has the warm Italianate timbre and heroic heft required for Cavaradossi. Obviously enchanted by Tosca, the passion of Beruggi’s cavalier was only revealed in the third act as he awaited execution. His ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was rueful and tender, almost prayerful, with an effortless ascent to the climatic High A as he sang that life was never so sweet as when he faced his mortality.

Tall, slender and dignified, Claudio Sgura’s Scarpia was a sexual predator for whom conquest was everything. He mauled Tosca and would have taken her on the floor if she wasn’t such an elusive prey. The voice suits the man: Sgura’s powerful baritone cut through chorus and orchestra with ease in a bristling ‘Te Deum’ that captured both Scarpia’s black soul and his utter ruthlessness.

The smaller roles were cast with care and to type. Bass Luciano Leoni made for a particularly dashing Angelotti with his attractive baritone. Tenor Andrea Giovannini was a sinister Spoletta, notable not only for his voice but for the eagerness and fleet-footedness with which he did Scarpia’s bidding. A fussbudget who scolded children playing games in the church and kept both altar boys and choristers in line, Domenico Colaianni’s Sacristan had a nastier edge when it came to the likes of Cavaradossi and Spoletta.

The orchestra under Pier Giorgio Morandi’s baton was an equal partner in generating the dramatic intensity of the performance. He was at his most expansive in the ‘Te Deum’, where Sgura and the chorus at full throttle needed all the support the orchestra could muster; and when Monastyrska was singing, especially in the second act where she gave full voice to Tosca’s mounting desperation. A barrage of bells and chimes pealed forth in the opening measures of Act III that were only stilled when Cristian Masciavè as the clear-voice shepherd boy began to sing.

Undoubtedly, the time will come where historical accuracy in terms of the visual elements is as important as it is for the musical ones. In the interim, however, traditionalists can breathe a sigh of relief, and even the most adventurous operagoers can appreciate that they are seeing Tosca much as Puccini imagined it when he was in Rome.

Rick Perdian

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