The art of making art

In this new Decca DVD of Tosca we find a highly intellectual, even fascinating staging at odds with the visceral nature of the original melodrama but one that inspires its cast to great heights.  Robert Carsen is a clever producer with an elegant visual palette.  He employs the same directorial strategy as his famous Mefistofele staging, a Pirandello-like theatrical alienation that distances his audience from easy engagement with the material, all the while utilizing familiar production elements to challenge and stimulate our perception.

Carsen makes disorienting use of perspective in this 2009 production for the Zurich Opera.  As the performance begins, the so-called “fourth wall” is here the upstage area of a stage in a traditionally grand opera house.  An ornate velvet curtain upstage separates the players from their unseen audience.

Carsen reverses and alternates this perspective at the end of Act One to blur the line further between reality and illusion.  The Te Deum celebrants are clearly a paying audience who stand and face downstage to sing their hymn with Scarpia (Thomas Hampson), then take their seats facing upstage as the velvet curtain flies out revealing Tosca herself (Emily Magee) enthroned with lilies as the Holy Mother.  It is a spectacular coup de théâtre and the visual highpoint of the production.

In this corner of the twilight zone, religion of the diva is practiced.  The opera house itself is a place of worship and Tosca as prima donna serves as the divine intermediary between creator and audience.  The Sacristan (Giuseppe Scorsin) is clearly a stage manager, tidying programs with Tosca’s face on the cover strewn about the playing area and kneeling to pray to her image.  Mario Cavaradossi (Jonas Kaufmann) is a scenic designer, while Scarpia is obviously the theater’s powerful impresario, bending all to his will except the willful soprano.

Tosca  is a 1950’s Hollywood goddess à la Ava Gardner, wearing a full-circle skirt and fur coat for her initial entrance.  When she returns to find Cavaradossi later in the act, she is perusing a score and has changed into a black gown with matching handbag and sunglasses to rehearse the cantata.  Her visage changes instantly from outraged betrayal to beaming gratitude when an autograph seeker approaches with pen and program.  For Act Two, she wears a strapless blue-violet gown with matching shawl, gloves and bustle train, carrying a bouquet of red roses.

In addition to Hollywood, the other association (intended or not) is to All About Eve, with Tosca as a kind of mature Margo Channing character threatened by the younger Marchesa Attavanti.  Indeed, the plethora of iconic imagery swirling about can be overwhelming at times.   But the production’s biggest handicap remains Angelotti and the political drama that forms the backdrop for Tosca.  It is rendered irrelevant by the concept.  The Napoleonic conflict has no place in Carsen’s formulation and the production inevitably loses focus and interest when this element of the opera moves to the foreground.  What queen does Tosca seek to plead her case before?  Just what is Cavaradossi dying for?  Union rights for scenic artists?

The opening of Act Three, with its detailed evocation of the Roman dawn, is especially weak:  there is a long pantomime involving Cavaradossi rolling around on the stage floor, then drawing a primitive picture of Tosca in chalk on his cell wall.  On the other hand, the idea of Scarpia as despoiler of art and the cruel exploiter of its servants is given special poignancy when he slashes the Attavanti portrait into shreds at the height of the torture scene.  It is the perfect visual metaphor for the emotional implosion of Tosca occurring before our eyes.

Cavaradossi collapses in horror before his desecrated work, while Tosca kills Scarpia with the same instrument of its destruction.  Carsen substitutes traditional candles and crucifix for the business following the murder with one of the programs and a single red rose placed on Scarpia’s chest.  In his Mafioso attire, Thomas Hampson resembles a thinner Giulio Gatti-Casazza, that legendary creator and destroyer of many a Met career.

The staging regains its momentum as the opera moves toward its conclusion.  Is Cavaradossi the opera lover in all of us who will be sung out of this life by his adored siren?  When Tosca leaps through the upstage curtain to her death, what zone has she passed into?  Reality?  Illusion?  Transcendence? (Magee bows to both her virtual and real audience).  It’s all strangely moving and I suspect that the production will conjure up its own personal associations for each viewer.

Magee is a vastly underrated soprano whom I have long admired.  An early alumnus of the Center for American Artists at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Magee first came to my attention as a last-minute substitute for Carol Vaness in a 1993 production of Cosi fan tutte.  In addition to a rich, creamy sound, her poise and grace under fire belied her relative inexperience—especially in a role as fiendishly difficult as Fiordiligi.  I predicted then a major career lay ahead and she has more than fulfilled the promise of that early performance.

Magee inhabits Carsen’s sophisticated visual concept of Tosca with beauty and easy hauteur.  A full-bodied, voluptuous woman, she wears her own elegantly styled red hair and carries herself like one who is comfortable in the public eye.  She is not afraid to embrace an essentially unsympathetic take on the character as pathologically histrionic and her portrayal includes many deliciously tongue-in-cheek moments of self-adoration.  More importantly, Magee sings the role with great success:  what a pleasure to hear such a healthy, round and glowing instrument after a wearying succession in recent years of “wannabes” and over-the-hill sopranos.  She rides all the musical climaxes thrillingly (particularly in “Vissi d’arte”) and her technically secure, refulgent approach to the vocal demands is refreshing.

With his curly mane and gorgeous features, Kaufmann oozes sex appeal as Mario Cavaradossi.  His dark, burnished tenor is equally beautiful if not truly idiomatic.  His phrasing recalls Ferruccio Tagliavini as opposed to vocally beefier stars of the past:  Kaufmann is fond of diminuendo effects and his dynamic shading gives considerable pleasure throughout.  He and Magee are unbelievably glamorous in the Act One duet and the way he devours her with his eyes is smoldering.

Kaufmann delivers a full-throated “Vittoria,” followed by an “O dolci mani” notable for its finesse.  He doesn’t always ideally support his softer singing and veers into a croon once or twice.  But the way he shapes “E lucevan le stelle,” building from hushed utterance to ringing climax, is masterful.  His demeanor is haunted throughout the last act and the character’s thoughts become profound reflections on a life lost rather than a platform for hammy slobbering.

Hampson is a surprisingly satisfying Scarpia.  I was afraid this might be a train wreck on par with Fischer-Dieskau’s unhappy recording of the role.  However, I love his unequivocally baritone sound in a role that has been hijacked by frequently overparted basses and bass-baritones.  An admitted “word freak,” Hampson’s Italian diction and use of the text are superb.  He predictably blusters and bawls his way through the powerhouse moments of Act Two but this is offset by a menacing yet seductive portrayal.  He clearly is enjoying himself in this production and we appreciate him in turn.

The splendid forces of the Zurich Opera are conducted by Paolo Carignani.  The coordination between stage and pit gets away from him sometimes but he elicits superb playing from the orchestra.  The French horns which play the “Trionfal” motif at the top of Act Three are just one example of its excellence.

All in all, this DVD release captures a thought-provoking if non-definitive production featuring a near-definitive cast.  Highly recommended.

Alas, Kaufmann’s new CD Verismo Arias for Decca yields more mixed results.  The vocal writing of these Italian masters is notorious for its concentration in the passaggio.  Kaufmann covers his voice so low that careful negotiation is required and the result is often unpleasant.  The Andrea Chenier numbers suffer the worst in this respect, including a cooed ending to the first section of the ‘Improvviso’ that substitutes for the declamatory power required.  Much better are the Mefistofele arias which benefit immensely from his poetic, visionary reading and provide a welcome respite from the salami-scented bellowing provided by most other tenors.

The disc also includes Refice’s “Ombra di nube” (Claudia Muzio made a classic recording which Kaufmann does nothing to efface) and the final duet from Chenier with his current Met co-star Eva-Maria Westbroeck as Maddalena.  Like Kaufmann, the soprano makes a healthy, handsome sound but lacks idiomatic warmth.