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The woman in white

This new DVD release from EMI of the Royal Opera’s latest production of Puccini’s Tosca will no doubt be snatched up by hordes of grateful fans around the globe as it stars three of the most celebrated singers currently before the public and is led by ROH Music Director Antonio Pappano.

It’s a slick, professional performance that has many merits. If this is your first Tosca I can say with near Delphic certainty that you’ll love it. If, like many of us, this isn’t your first trip to Rome you may be left with a few nagging questions. Too many details stand out in sharp contrast to the composer’s indications in spite of the fact that we’re being served up a seemingly traditional production.  

Many of these have to do, I’m guessing, with a director who either isn’t completely versed in the the operatic milieu or else hasn’t done sufficient background work on the period. Or, on the other hand, the problem may simply be singers gone wild in a revival of a revival. The original staging from 2006 is credited to Jonathan Kent and this run to Duncan Macfarland so it’s hard to know where to point fingers.

The sets by Paul Brown are just generic enough to please nearly everyone, though they get more impressionistic with each scene change.  Act I may be a church but it is most certainly not Sant’Andrea della Valle—especially with the erotic art on the walls leading down to the crypt that houses the Attavanti chapel.  Scarpia’s Act II apartment in the Palazzo Farnese is an absolute pigsty, with books and papers scattered about everywhere. Someone ring for the maid, or at least for Franco Zeffirelli.

By the time we’ve reached the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Act III we’re in full-blown 1960’s Karajan/Schneider-Siemssen mode with a grand curving wall smoothly sweeping upstage right like a freeway on-ramp and the tip of the wing of the cake topper archangel’s statue dipping down into view. Brown is also responsible for the mostly excellent, albeit generic, costumes which are only problematic for Angela Gheorghiu.

But more about her in a moment. My unreserved praise and admiration goes first to Jonas Kaufmann who betters his own excellent performance from the Decca DVD release of last year. The Carsen production from Zurich was good, but overly intellectual and busy with superfluous ideas.

Here with much less direction Kaufmann is magnificent both vocally and dramatically in spite of a soprano who gets distracted too easily by her audience. He pitches out a burnished “Recondita armonia” in Act I and knocks it out of the park with a stunning hairpin diminuendo close.

Then the villain of our piece appears, i.e., La Gheorghiu as Floria Tosca, and all bets are off. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this singer since I first saw her as Violetta in the Traviata DVD from Covent Garden with Solti conducting from ‘94.  She was then a revelation, so tender and fragile but with a spine of tempered steel. She drew the audience into her interpretation as great performers do and broke nearly every heart, mine especially in Act II.

Nearly 20 years into her career she is now taking the opposite tack, thrusting herself blatantly over the footlights and demanding the attention, nay the adoration, of the audience while all but ignoring the contributions of her colleagues onstage.

I sat through a Boheme here in LA in 2004 that qualified more as a personal appearance than an actual performance.  She’s on her best behavior here, but still, bad habits die hard. The voice, I’m happy to say, is in excellent condition. As always, it’s weak on the bottom but she’s a stone cold technician.

In Act I with Kaufmann during the love duet she insists on playing “sexy kitten” which, for a woman of her age, is unseemly. (All she’d have to do is dial it down to “alluring” and everything would be fine.) It’s as if she’s momentarily forgotten that she’s a full-grown woman and not a blushing virgin. Speaking of blushing, I don’t know how she was able to sneak into the (1800, Catholic) church with that decolletage and not covering her head. Details, Mr. Brown, details.

With the arrival of Bryn Terfel as Scarpia we finally have someone that Mme. Gheorghiu can’t ignore without extraordinary effort—mostly because he towers over her like something that just stumbled out of the Forbidden Forest next to Hogwarts.

As he continues a distinguished career singing the greatest roles in the bass-baritone repertoire out of the left side of his mouth, Terfel presents the venal baron as a wolf in wolf’s clothing which, frankly, takes some of the fun out of it for me.  He’s got long greasy hair (no white-powdered wig for him) and a Fred Flintstone five o’clock shadow.

Some of his lines (which are intended as asides) are played full out which makes little sense.  He does contribute fully to a rousing Act I finale with the bi-level set providing him extra room for his stentorian fervor.

Act II hots up considerably, as well it should, and Mme.Gheorghiu who was a tad cautious prior, starts singing out with conviction. Kaufmann lays on the intensity here with some superb offstage cries and unleashes a ‘Vittoria’ so loud and long that he’s rewarded with a head-butt from Terfel before he’s taken off to meet his fate. Scarpia as a soccer hooligan: you’ve seen it here, folks.

Gheorghiu renders up a fairly elegiac,’Vissi d’arte’ interspersing the final phrases with small sobs and breathy catches which I found truly unique and affecting. I fear, however, they are masking some technical issues that caused her to clip short her climactic B-flat. She’s canny, no doubt.

The aria is sung to everyone in particular and she finishes with arms outstretched, albeit briefly, to the theatre and by extension, with the video cameras filming the performance, the entire world.

The role of Floria Tosca is filled with so many famous phrases and exclamations that, aside from those pesky markings left by the composer, have been forcibly opened to interpretation by a progression of headstrong sopranos. I could write a book just on the various line readings of, “È avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!”  I’m sorry to say that Gheorghiu’s take is not one to for the annals: way too big, played to the balcony.

I am very pleased to report that our girl has a way with a knife.  She and Terfel give us perhaps the most visceral rendering of the murder I’ve ever seen. The setup looks lame at first but they both keep their lines precisely on the music (no small feat, that) and Tosca even has a handful of Scarpia’s hair as she gives him the last coup de grâce to the gut. Bravi!

The safe conduct letter ends up soaked in blood; I don’t know how they think they’re gonna get that past the Harbor Master at Civitavecchia.

The opening of Act III finds a super hot, ripped, shirtless, guy washing his hair in a bucket on the Castel roof just before daybreak. So it’s nice to know there hasn’t been a lot of employee change over since the Zeffirelli production was retired.

Kaufmann has his finest moment here and, believe it or not, it’s in the long prelude leading to “E lucevan le stelle.” You can see him contemplating what’s about to happen and he makes the strongest dramatic impression of anyone, all evening.  He gives a beautiful, and very personal, reading of the aria, then Pappano goes straight through to the duet with no break for applause.

Now, Mme. Gheorghiu appears in the same white costume from Act II and she’s still dragging around a six foot train (also courtesy of Mr. Brown) that’s so big when it gets close to the microphone it sounds like high tide coming in. I don’t know how she thinks she’s getting out of town with that thing on either.

Obviously she’s gotten her second wind and she and Kaufmann power through the duet with no tentativeness or pitch problems in the a capella section. Bravi.

There is a moment when our vainglorious soprano is recounting the finale of the previous act to Kaufmann and he actually has to back up all the way to the very lip of the stage so it looks like Gheorghiu is actually acting and not singing in concert directly to the audience. Luckily he’s adaptable that way.

I hate to spoil the ending but I’m not thrilled with the jump. She’s one of those Toscas who pauses to make certain the mattress is there.

Special mention should go to the uncommonly tall and strong voiced Angelotti of Lukas Jakobski who has a lovely basso and does a good job of looking worn out from the start.  The superior Spoletta of Hubert Francis has razor sharp diction and always looks like he’s just smelled something foul. The Sacristan of Jeremy White manages to leave behind most of his dignity on the stage which is, I suppose, the point of those little character parts.

Pappano’s conducting is absolutely superb in every facet. He’s Goldilocks all over the joint:  never too fast, too slow, too loud or too soft.  He follows the singers like he’s clairvoyant and breathes with them and gives them room to do what they’re able. The playing of the Covent Garden forces and the chorus could hardly be bettered.

This disc offers subtitles in six languages. (Seriously, who needs ‘em? I think I had learned Tosca phonetically in Italian by the time I was 19 I listened to it so often.) Regular stereo and DTS 5.1 sound options are crisp with good definition and excellent picture with great contrast for a production that tends to the dark side.

No, this is not a perfect Tosca, but frankly, I think this is as good as it gets for now.

13 comments

  • armerjacquino says:

    Smashingly written, as ever.

    Interestingly, given the recent debate about the different ways Tosca can be characterised, my one gripe would be the way you discuss Act One. When I saw this on TV, I didn’t think ‘oh dear, look at Gheorghiu being inappropriately kittenish’ because I assumed, and still think, that it was a character choice. It feels like your comments on act 1 are a case of playing the man not the ball.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Agreed. The other thing I can’t understand is this idea of Gheorghiu as a cold technician -- I have never had the sense that she thinks about how to sing at all.

    • RosinaLeckermaul says:

      A great review. I’ve only seen this production with lesser casts (e.g.. Urmana). I must say I hate the first act set that places everyone but Scarpia crowded onto a balcony for the Te Deum.

      • MontyNostry says:

        It’s a shoddy production, apart from the last act. And the Te Deum is a complete cop-out. In Act II they are lined up across the front of the stage like the Last Supper, with a speakeasy grille for Spoletta. Very undramatic.

  • DonCarloFanatic says:

    “She’s one of those Toscas who pauses to make certain the mattress is there.”

    Divas who act too diva-ish backstage--and one gets the impression she might be one of these--are well advised to check for the mattress. It has been known to wander a bit.

  • oedipe says:

    Oh my gawd, just imagine how awesome this DVD could have been had they cast Jonas as both Cavaradossi and Tosca! As everybody knows, Jonas can sing ANYTHING and do it better than ANYBODY. He would have been perfect in both roles, both vocally and dramatically, never calculating, never self-regarding, all authenticity. We would have been spared the drudgery of putting up with Gheorghiu all this time while all we wanted was Jonas…
    I am glad someone FINALLY tells it like it is, by putting Gheorghiu in her place in this review. Who does she think she is? Jonas?

    • scifisci says:

      *Like*

    • Lady Abbado says:

      I also had the feeling that the original review showed too much infatuation with Kaufmann…Whoever reads all the many comments posted on youtube about this production notices that Kaufmann is the most criticized and the most controversial of the three main singers.

      Also, since Gheorghiu also played Tosca in the 2001 movie, It would have been helpful to know the reviewer’s opinion about how she changed -- for the better or for the worse?

      I am also intrigued that the reviewer alleged weakness in Angela’s lower register…In my opinion, her voice is excellent throughout the range (funny, just the other day I was reading in another review: “Her voice is rich and creamy from top to bottom”).

      But anyhow, wherever there are too many Callas fans, no matter how good Gheorghiu’s performance, weaknesses will be “found” to provide the emotional reassurance that La Divina’s status is not threatened…sigh.

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        They have nothing to do with each other. Callas was a great Tosca and so is Gheorghiu, one is long dead and one is here and now.

        I find the constant criticism of Gheorghiu’s lower register frustrating too. I think it has a far softer colour than the higher reaches of her voice, so I wouldn’t personally say that it was rich and creamy from top to bottom, at least not in the same way. But I do think that in spite of its less substantial feel, her lower middle is just as loud as the rest of her voice.

        • SF Guy says:

          When I saw Gheorghiu’s Tosca last Wednesday at SFO, I was sitting in the balcony and she sounded fine throughout her range; a friend who heard her from the rear of the orchestra, however, felt she wasn’t projecting as well as the men, except at the top. Opera Tattler’s review of the same performance described her voice as “a bit thin for the role,” but another friend who heard her from the balcony at a different performance shared my opinion.

          I had the opposite experience with our 2009 Scarpia; at the dress rehearsal his Te Deum easily carried over the orchestra (I was sitting at the rear of the dress circle, where the balcony overhang protected him), but was totally drowned out when heard from the balcony the following week. I assume that different voices carry in different ways, and the acoustic properties of different theaters (and sections within theaters) magnify this. And we haven’t even touched on the unique ways each of our auditory centers processes sound…

  • dcrazmo says:

    I completely agree about Gheorghiu and her “kittenish” behavior. Yes, it may have been a character choice, but for Tosca it’s the WRONG character choice. For Mimi and Manon, perhaps, but not Tosca. I felt exactly the same about her Adriana, which was downright simpering; hardly a grand, classical tragedienne.

  • Ruxxy says:

    Good review. The fact is there are more versions of Tosca on DVD than almost any other opera and the benchmark is so high there isn’t a dud amongst them. The Kabiavanska one is excellent and the two versions from the Met (Uncle Zef)in the same production, with Hildegard Behrens and la Shirl Verrett sharing the same Scarpia of Cornell MacNeil are both individually little short of magic.

    Any new filmed production has to score well or come up with something extra special to come anywhere near close to these. Full credit has to be given to Bryn Terfel -- he surely has to be one of the great Scarpia’s -- and Jonas oh Jonas- always makes me think things I shouldn’t be thinking when opera watching.

    • Porgy Amor says:

      The Met performance from the 1970s has a production directed by Tito Gobbi and designed by Rudolf Heinrich. The Zeffirelli extravaganza debuted with the Behrens/Domingo cast.

      No duds? I don’t know. I haven’t seen them all, but the most recent Met one (Mattila/Bondy) is musically and dramatically ordinary, and seems worse than that considering the occasion; certainly the weakest of the three Mets. The one with Nadja Michael at Lake Constance, co-starring a giant eyeball, need not detain us. I guess the Scala one with Guleghina is of minor interest because we don’t often hear Muti conducting a Puccini warhorse, but it does not add much to his or anyone else’s reputation. It is a crowded field, as you say.

      I love the earlier release with Kaufmann’s Cavaradossi, mainly for Carsen and for Emily Magee, but the guys certainly are well directed.