Crosses to Bear in Puccini Opera

September 21, 2016By Nick HammondMusic
Pierre Audi’s production of Tosca. Photo: Charles Duprat/Opéra National de Paris

I must admit to a longstanding prejudice against the music of Giacomo Puccini. For me, the music and action of an opera should form a cohesive whole, but in Puccini’s case, the melodies are too frothily beautiful for their own good, at frequent intervals forcing the spectator to stop and admire the composer’s melodic gifts. This effect is exacerbated by the tradition of audiences applauding long and loud after the lead soprano or tenor’s showpiece arias, a ritual that was feverishly observed at the Bastille Opera House for this revival of Pierre Audi’s 2014 production of Tosca, leaving the character suspended in mid-action.

Yet, almost every time I watch a Puccini opera, my preconceptions are temporarily thwarted by unexpected delights. I found myself weeping against my better judgement during Suor Angelica a few years ago at the Opéra Bastille and was surprised and delighted by the sheer perversity of Tosca on this occasion.

The story, about the love between the singer Tosca and the painter Cavaradossi, which is threatened by Rome’s malevolent chief of police Scarpia, is conventional enough. But the way the opera relishes Scarpia’s lust for and evil intentions toward Tosca is extraordinary. Nothing even remotely frothy or fluffy there. One of the greatest modern interpreters of the role of Scarpia, Bryn Terfel, is on particularly sinister and sadistic form in this production, using the full range of his considerable vocal abilities.

I loved the baritonal quality of Argentinian tenor Marcelo Álvarez’s voice, which gave weight to the ardently sung aria “Recondita Armonia” in Act I (duly interrupted by ecstatic applause). His Caravadossi might be unspectacular, but he is believable as someone to be jealous of (as Tosca certainly is when she looks at the portrait he is painting of another woman during Act I).

Soprano Anja Harteros in the role of Tosca has the necessary stage presence and vocal variety to be convincing as the alternately flighty, coquettish, passionate, vengeful and despairing Tosca. Her rendition of the Act II showstopper “Vissi d’Arte” (I Lived for Art) is genuinely moving, and her cry “This is Tosca’s kiss” as she stabs Scarpia is as thrilling as it is terrifying.

Audi’s production is solid and largely uncontroversial, no doubt designed not to shock the all-too-easily-shockable Parisian Puccini-lovers. That said, it was good to see a production that did not overwhelm the excellent musical performances, as was the case in 2015 when Terfel last sang in Paris with Jonas Kaufmann in the loudly booed production of Hector Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust.

Christof Hetzer’s set is dominated – appropriately enough given the religious themes running throughout the opera – by a huge wooden cross. He has made a basic mistake, however, in not making this iconography visible to all members of the audience, as I discovered when talking at the end of the opera to a friend who was sitting several tiers above me at the opening performance. While I had completely missed the cross in the first act, which she saw from above, she had been unable to see the cross hovering above the singers in the next two acts.

As a result, I found the Act I setting in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle rather dull, unable to understand why such an uninteresting block of wood was separating the interior of the church from Caravadossi’s portrait. Act II was more colorful, with a bright red wall (matched by Tosca’s red dress in the final act), but again, while I could not see the setting of Scarpia’s dinner table, my perceptive friend in the gods discerned a tablecloth placed like an altar cloth.

The final-act setting on the rooftop of the Castel Sant’Angelo has been replaced here by a military encampment, a laudable attempt to place the opera in its 1800 setting during Napoleonic times, but lacking in visual impact. Tosca has no parapet to jump from at the end and instead walks into a backlit distance, which understandably confused my friend, who had never seen the opera before.

Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger conducts the ever-reliable Orchestra of the Paris National Opera with passion and precision, supporting the excellent singers throughout. All in all, this is a production that does not crucify the music but perhaps has rather too many crosses to bear.


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