Cher Public

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.

  • DurfortDM

    Excellent review, Enzo. I was lucky enough to see this in the theater and completely agree with your description of the production. I would only add that while the inconsistency of the production with the libretto is conceptually problematic this was by far the most dramatically satisfying Tosca I’ve seen.

    I also agree almost entirely with your general appreciation of Magee and you review of her performance in this production in particular. I’ve mentioned my great enthusiasm for her in previous comments but I’m not sure that she had ever impressed me more. The power, flexibility, richness and glow of her voice are remarkable and her vocal characterization deserving of the highest praise. Without making historical comparisons it is absolutely the case that there vocally inferior singers appear on every great stage in the world on a weekly and probably a daily basis. While I had always found her an attractive woman she is quite stupefyingly stunning here. Absurdly enough some reviews of the performances opined that she did not have the glamour requisite for the production.

    I do disagree slightly with your characterization of her as “vastly underrated” not because this is not also my subjective impression as a huge Magee fan but because her calendar includes several new production in Zurich, a Salzburg/BPO/Rattle Salome on stage tomorrow, a new Katja in Vienna, a new Frau at La Scala and an Ariadne (with Kaufmann) at Salzburg next summer. It seems, then, that at least some people with say in such matters rate her at somewhere close to her value. Her failure to make (multiple) appearances at the Met is of course a sever indictment of the previous and incumbent managements.

  • armerjacquino

    Ordered from Amazon. Man, this site costs me money.

    • A. Poggia Turra

      Same here -- I was going to wait and order this later, but Enzo’s review was so compelling, I bit and placed the order.

      I should have it in time for my trip to Kansas City on Wednesday -- that way, I can have Jonas in my hotel room, all to myself :D :D

      • A. Poggia Turra

        I paid the extra four bucks for overnight delivery, and it was worth it (I skipped through the high points, and will watch it in full tomorrow). Enzo’s comments are completely spot-on. Jonas is stunning in all ways, Hampson is extremely effective both vocally and histrionically, but it is Magee who, if anything, is even better than Enzo relates. Much pleasure in the selections I viewed, including one marvelous bit at the end -- as Mario is brought to face the firing squad, Magee’s acting is superb -- Tosca is practically stage-managing the scene, such is her smug-ness, and as the shots ring out, she suddenly remembers she has to act aggrieved, and instantly changes her demeanor.

        Thanks again to Enzo, and I urge any fence-straddlers to go ahead and order (via the Parterre Store, if possible).

  • danpatter

    Thanks, Enzo, for the extremely fine reviews. I’d like to see and hear both these items now, thanks to you. I had to chuckle when you described Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recorded Scarpia as a “train-wreck.” I just think he was the wrong Scarpia for that recording. Someone like the huge-voiced Giangiacomo Guelfi would have been a better match for Nilsson and Corelli. But DFK was not uninteresting in the part, just somewhat overparted.

    • danpatter

      I meant DFD, not DFK. Oops!

  • scifisci

    Thanks for these thoughtful and detailed reviews! The carsen Tosca seems to be easily written off by some and I am glad this is not the case with your review. It sounds like a fascinating concept for an opera so entwined with tradition, and even if it doesn’t always work, at least it gives the viewer something to think about besides “how is she going to stab scarpia/place the candles down/do the jump”.

  • actfive

    Nice work, Enzo!

  • Porgy Amor

    I like Carsen, and I haven’t seen the TOSCA yet, but he’s repeating himself a bit, isn’t he? You noted the visual similarities to the MEFISTOFELE, but reading the review, I thought it sounded even more like the Antonia and Giulietta acts of his HOFFMANN, especially Antonia: Crespel as the theater manager, Franz sweeping the stage, Dr. Miracle as the autocratic maestro who bullies a young singer into a role she shouldn’t sing, the big payoff of the curtains opening to reveal the mother’s ghost singing on a DON GIOVANNI set. And then there was his “opera in an opera house” CAPRICCIO with Fleming (which I much preferred to the Met’s seen in HD yesterday, although both have fabulous Clairons).

    • spiderman

      Rusalka in Paris is ABSOLUTELY the same as Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Can’t wait for a theater to produce full production of Mefistofele with Schrott Netrebko (as Margie / Helen) and Kaufmann.

  • CwbyLA

    Re: this weekend’s Capriccio. I hope I am not the only one who thought Joseph Kaiser was really yummy!

    • gerbear

      Rest assured, cwby, you were NOT the only one. I’ve actually seen Joseph Kaiser from the nosebleed section in Chicago (Dialogues of the Carmelites) and I believe he also performs in the ROH Salome dvd I own (and must have been too distracted by the naked jailer), but this was the first time I had this kind of lustful response. I also learned, after all these years, that he, just like his counterpart Russell Braun, is Canadian, which only adds to the appeal!

      • CwbyLA

        totally agree that Canadian part adds a lot of appeal. I am glad you had the lustful response that I had, too. I couldn’t take my eyes off him :-)

    • [img]http://parterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/josephkaiser.jpg[/img]

      • manou

        [img]http://parterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Canada Goose.jpg[/img]

        • CruzSF

          Lovely. Canadians with big beaks send me over.

        • brooklynpunk

          awwww…..that is real…cute!!!!

          • A. Poggia Turra

            Is that a Canadian Loonie?

            [img]http://parterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Canadian-Loonie-Passes-Parity.jpg[/img]

          • manou

            No -- that was a Canadian goose.

            This

            [img]http://parterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/b00lpkd7_640_360.jpg[/img]

            is a loon.

            The loonies are also often to be found elsewhere on this blog.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Frank Sinatra and the Shepherd Boy

    • Quanto Painy Fakor