Leipzig’s superbly cast Tosca has an original and visually stunning production

GermanyGermany Puccini: Tosca: Soloists, Chorus of Leipzig Opera and Gewandhaus Orchestra / Moritz Gnann (conductor). Leipzig Opera, 10.1.2024. (GT)

Leipzig Opera’s Tosca end of Act I (2017) © Tom Schulze

Director and Set design- Michiel Dijkema
Costumes – Claudia Damm
Lighting – Michael Münster
Dramaturgy – Christian Geltinger
Chorus director – Thomas Eitler-de Lint
Childrens’ Chorus director – Sophie Bauer

Tosca – Karine Babajanyan
Cavaradossi – Andrea Shin
Scarpia – Tuomas Pursio
Angelotti – Randall Jakobsh
Sacristan – Peter Dolinšek
Spoletta – Sven Hjörleifsson
Sciarrone – Ondřej Potůček
Jailer – Klaus Bernewitz
Voice of the Shepherd Girl – Carmen Boatella

On previous visits to Leipzig, the Thomanerchor and the Gewandhaus Orchestra have drawn my attention – yet it is the splendid building of the Leipzig Opera that dominates the Augustusplatz opposite the new Gewandhaus. Both buildings were destroyed by allied bombing in World War II, and only in 1960 was the theatre rebuilt according to the original architecture – yet with modern innovations. The entire structure is impressive, allowing generous room for the audience to gather before and during intervals. The auditorium has fine acoustics and comfortable seating, allowing everyone a perfect sight of the action on stage.

This 2011 Leipzig production is enjoying a revival this season and drawing healthy audiences in the first chilly weeks of 2024, and this was its 54th performance overall. The Danish director Michiel Dijkema made his debut at Leipzig with a well-received staging of Il turco in Italia in 2009. Of course, to the benefit of Leipzig Opera is the magnificent Gewandhaus Orchestra enhanced by superb solo passages by the solo clarinet of Peter Schurrock and the cello of Vincent Lo, masterfully directed by Moritz Gnann. Claudia Damm’s costumes were in the period of the Napoleonic era without any concessions to Konzept theatre. No expenses are spared in the costumes for Tosca, Cavaradossi and the other singers in this staging while Scarpia’s policemen are attired as sinister demon-like Hoffmannesque figures in their black costumes and hats presenting a grim presence throughout.

While the production employs few props on stage, Dijkema makes ample use of the revolving stage to present quite different visual presentations; quickly changing the wall of a thousand prayer candles to the grim wall behind Scarpia’s torture chamber. The stage transformations at the close of the first and third act finales are breathtaking in their wonderful originality. The production is enhanced by the movement onstage designed by Christian Geltinger and the lighting of Michael Münster bringing out all the swiftly changing action on the stage and making the narrative more pronounced.

In Act I, the entry of the fugitive Angelotti was dramatic as he seeks sanctuary by hiding away from the Sacristan in a box which has multiple uses during the three acts, one of which portrays the bushy-bearded Jailor emerging and walking around the two lovers Cavaradossi and Tosca. The painter Cavaradossi’s portrait of Mary Magdalene confounds his lover Tosca leading her to suspect that he has been with another woman. Nonetheless, persuaded by Cavaradossi, she entices him to invite her to his home, ‘Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta’. The painter sings of his fidelity to her, ‘Qual’occhio al mondo’. Assured of his devotion, Tosca departs as an offstage cannon announces victory over Napoleon.

The Scarpia of Tuomas Pursio was magnificent in his darkly coloured baritone as he demanded the Sacristan prepare for a mass celebrating victory over the French armies. The police chief is sublime in his expression and facial grimaces barely disguising his lust to conquer Tosca. An innovation by Dijkema in the church scene is a larger-than-life Madonna statue above which is a suspended Christ on the Cross. The dramatic climax to the act is the spectacular Te Deum with bishops, choristers and priests rising slowly on a huge organ above the stage. This magnificent scenic device of the church procession was adorned by splendidly glorious choral singing in a sensational climax to Act I.

Leipzig Opera’s Tosca opening of Act II (2017) © Tom Schulze

The scene transforms at the beginning of Act II into Scarpia’s rooms at the Palazzo Farnesi where the lust and greed of Scarpia attempts to deceive Tosca and helps him eliminate Angelotti; yet Cavaradossi is captured in his place and tortured. This is among the most gruesome depictions of it with a burning iron scorching the painter. The suffering continues as Tosca is stripped of her scarlet red dress in an attempt at rape, and the ensuing scene of her killing Scarpia is brutally effected.

Act III opens at the Castel Sant’Angelo with the heavenly singing of the shepherd girl, ‘lo de’ sospiri’ offstage accompanied by a vision of Christ on the Cross. A vocal highlight is Cavaradossi’s aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’, as Tosca enters and tells of her letter guaranteeing his freedom, and in an intimate scene on the ottoman sofa he sings ‘O dolci mani’ and both dreaming about their happy future. A startling device by Dijkema was the vision of ascending angels emerging from the depths and their transmuting into a firing squad as they theatrically execute the painter. Believing her lover is only acting, Tosca sings admiringly, ‘Ecco un artista!’ As the angels disappear, she rushes towards Cavaradossi, urging him, ‘Mario, su presto!’ Discovering he is dead; the stage swiftly transforms as the torture chamber opens up with rising smoke and Tosca climbs onto the battlements from which she falls to her death in an astonishingly dramatic ending to the opera.

The characterisations of Tosca, her lover Cavaradossi, and Scarpia were magnificent in portraying all the dramatic nuances, adorned by splendid singing. From her first entry, the Tosca of Karine Babajanyan was outstanding, and her ‘Vissa d’arte’ was superbly characterised by the Armenian soprano bringing out all the splendour and colour of Puccini’s writing. She, like the Korean Andrea Shin’s Cavaradossi, got better all night: Shin displayed all the contrasting emotions of his plight, and he has a tremendous lyric tenor and superb acting talent with every emotion portrayed on his face and by his body movements. The Scarpia of the Finnish Tuomas Pursio was the perfect personification of evil and lust, and the only singer on this evening who appeared in the first performance in 2011.

Most of all – it was the original stage direction that most impressed me with its novel staging offering fresh ideas for this ever-popular opera, expressly in the stunningly dramatic transformations in the Te Deum and the final tragic climax of Puccini’s masterpiece. This is a Tosca production which is worth travelling far to see and enjoy for its startling innovations and visionary invention. A tremendous triumph for the Leipzig Opera company.

Gregor Tassie

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