Sondra Radvanovsky triumphs as Tosca in a controversial Barcelona production

SpainSpain Puccini, Tosca: Chorus and Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu / Henrik Nánási and Giacomo Sagripanti (conductors). Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 18, 19 and 20.1.2023. (JMI)

Sondra Radvanovsky (Tosca) © T. Bofill

DirectorRafael R. Villalobos
Sets – Emmanuele Sinisi
Costumes – Rafael R. Villalobos
Lighting – Felipe Ramos
Pictures – Santiago Ydáñez

Tosca – Emily Magee / Maria Agresta / Sondra Radvanovsky
Cavaradossi – Antonio Corianò / Michael Fabiano / Vittorio Grigolo
Scarpia – George Gagnidze / Željko Lučić
Angelotti – Felipe Bou
Sacristan – Jonathan Lemalu
Spoletta – Moisés Marín
Sciarrone – Manel Esteve
Jailer – Milan Perišic
Shepherd – Hugo Bolívar

Tosca is back on the Liceu stage where it was last seen in 2019. On this occasion, the performances have been accompanied by a certain scandal, focused on the staging in particular but also on the cancellations and corresponding substitutions, all of which has caused rivers of ink to flow. The cancellations began with the defection of Roberto Alagna and his wife, Aleksandra Kurzak, who were not receptive to the Rafael R. Villalobos production.

Liceu’s Tosca is a co-production with Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Teatro de la Maestranza, Salas del Arenal and Opéra Orchester National de Montpellier. The premiere took place in June 2021 in Brussels, and it was subsequently seen at the Montpellier Festival last year. Curiously, on neither occasion did the controversial production raise the slightest scandal, regardless of whether it might have been more or less liked.

The action has been brought up to modern times and is characterized by the parallel that the production establishes between Cavaradossi and Pier Paolo Pasolini, the famous Italian filmmaker who was assassinated in Rome. As the theater program mentions, this Tosca production contains references to the film Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma by Pasolini.

Rafael Villalobos rightly says in an interview that any new production has to offer some new idea to justify it. But it is a different thing when the director wants Pasolini to become the hero with additions or cuts to the original opera. I am saying this because it doesn’t seem acceptable to me that a spoken dialogue between the actors who play Pasolini and his murderer is given at the beginning of Act II. If one thinks this adds something to the opera, I have nothing against it being done outside of the actual performance.

Act II: George Gagnidze (l, Scarpia), Emily Magee (r, Tosca) and Antonio Corianò (seated r, Cavaradossi) © T. Bofill

For the rest, the production is not really scandalous, although there are some unnecessary excesses, such as the nude images and extras appearing during much of Act II. There is a single, rotating stage to which some elements are added for each act such as the figure of the Madonna in Act I or Scarpia’s table in the second.

A few things caught my attention. For the Te Deum, only the figure of the Bishop appears on stage and, removing the mitre, it turns out to be Floria Tosca. Scarpia washes Tosca’s feet, the meaning of which eludes me. Cavaradossi’s death is not by firing squad but with a pistol shot by his executioner. Tosca does not disappear into a void but goes to an illuminated background.

The musical direction was programmed with conductor Henrik Nánási in mind, but he seems to have had some problems and occasionally was replaced by conductor Giacomo Sagripanti. He led two of the three performances I attended, and his reading was quite routine, with excessive sound on more than one occasion. There was efficiency but it lacked emotion. Nor was the Liceu Orchestra brilliant – clearly below what it offered a few months ago in Puccini’s Il trittico. The Chorus sang out well.

When Nánási was in the pit his more-nuanced reading worked better for me than Sagripanti’s the day before.

Among the numerous performances of the opera programmed by the Liceu, there were only two with Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca. She excelled in the part, and the audience was delighted. Sagripanti offered a more convincing reading with her than he had done on my first day when Emily Magee was Tosca. Her voice is not up to the level required to sing this character, and it left a lot to be desired. There are signs of maturity in her middle voice, but she is strident and even out of tune in the high register, where there is also a wide and annoying vibrato. Her Tosca is not one to remember.

The second Tosca was soprano Maria Agresta, who left me with the same doubts I had had on previous hearings. Ten years have passed since I saw her for the first time in Munich as Violetta, a performance that was followed by others in different theaters including the Liceu. However, my impression has changed in recent years, since she has decided to sing a repertoire for which her voice, a lyric soprano, does not seem sufficient. She did not convince me as Elisabetta in Don Carlo nor as Norma, and the same thing happened with her Tosca. Her voice has unquestionable quality, but I don’t think she has the right instrument for this character – she lacks weight and volume. I am afraid that her chosen path is not the most appropriate one.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca indeed triumphed. For me, she is one of the most important sopranos of recent years, and especially in the verismo repertoire. I will always remember when I first heard her: it was in May 2000 at the Metropolitan Opera as Freia in Das Rheingold. Since then, I have enjoyed her singing some thirty times, and I hope to continue. Her Tosca was that of a great star in every way, and her exceptional ‘Vissi d’arte’ drew a two-minute ovation that forced her to encore the aria. Radvanovsky warmed the atmosphere of the theater in such a way that she also triumphed with her Cavaradossi.

On my first evening, Cavaradossi was sang by tenor Antonio Corianò, whom I had not had the chance to see until now. His voice is that of a lyrical tenor, with an attractive and homogeneous timbre throughout the range, but his singing is not very refined, and the high notes are invariably pushed which results in some monotony.

Tenor Michael Fabiano was Cavaradossi on the next day. I have seen him on a number of occasions and have never been enthusiastic about him: his voice is very attractive, but it is not the same at the top. Things worked well here, and I would say that he gave one of the best performances I can remember from him, creating a Cavaradossi worthy of being highlighted.

Joseph Calleja was to have sung Cavaradossi on my third day, but he canceled and was replaced by tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who once again offered his beautiful voice, projected in a very natural way. He also had to encore an aria, ‘E lucevan le stelle’, although I think that was due to the prior bis by Sondra Radvanovsky. Grigolo was brilliant though a bit excessive, as is usual for him, in an aria that is very introverted.

Scarpia was played by baritone George Gagnidze, who was fine but without any special brilliance. His voice is broad and he has projection problems so is not a Scarpia who remains in one’s memory. Scarpia on my second and third days was Željko Lučić, who did well. For my taste, he was better than Gagnidze the day before, although he cannot be considered a great Scarpia either.

In the secondary characters, Felipe Bou was a somewhat modest Angelotti, and something similar could be said of Jonathan Lemalu’s Sacristan. A good impression was made by Moisés Marín as Spoletta, and Manel Esteve’s Sciarrone was correct.

José M. Irurzun

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