15 Dec 2010
Karlsruhe Tosca: Guns ‘n’ Jesus
Badisches Staastheater’s production of Tosca starts off with a bang.
The Importance of Being Earnest , Gerald Barry’s fifth opera, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican, and was first performed in concert, Thomas Adès conducting the London premiere.
‘Beauty is the one form of spirituality that we experience through the senses.’ In Thomas Mann’s, Death in Venice, Plato’s axiom stirs the hopes of the aging, intellectually stale poet, Gustav von Aschenbach, that he may rekindle his creativity.
There is a sense in which it all began in London, Puccini having been seized in 1900 with the idea of an opera on this subject after watching David Belasco’s play here.
The tenor that the audience most wanted to hear, Plácido Domingo, opened the vocal program with “Junto al puente de la peña” (Next to the rock bridge) from La Canción del Olvido (The song of Oblivion) by José Serrano. He sounded rested and his voice soared majestically over the orchestra.
Tucked away somewhere in the San Francisco Opera warehouse was an old John Cox production of Così fan tutte from Monte Carlo. Well, not that old by current standards at San Francisco Opera.
Rossini's Maometto Secondo is a major coup for Garsington Opera at Wormsley, confirming its status as the leading specialist Rossini house in Britain. Maometto Secondo is a masterpiece, yet rarely performed because it's formidably difficult to sing. It's a saga with some of the most intense music Rossini ever wrote, expressing a drama so powerful that one can understand why early audiences needed "happy endings" to water down its impact
I suppose it was inevitable that, in this Britten Centenary year, the 66th Aldeburgh Festival would open with Peter Grimes.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Garsington Opera at Wormsley isn’t Mozart as you’d expect but it’s true to the spirit of Mozart who loved witty, madcap japes.
What a pity! On a glorious — well, by recent English standards — summer’s day, there can be few more beautiful English countryside settings than Glyndebourne, with the added bonus, as alas much of the audience appears to understand it, of an opera house attached.
Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.
“I wrote it almost without noticing.” So Verdi declared when reminded of his eighth — and perhaps least frequently performed, opera, Alzira. One might say that, since he composed the work, no-one else has much noticed either.
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
When is verismo verily veristic? Or what is a virginal girl dressed in communion white doing in the two murderous acts of the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca? And why does she sing the shepherd's song?
Wagner’s Lohengrin is not an unfamiliar visitor to the UK thanks, in the main, to Elijah Moshinsky’s perennial production at Covent Garden.
Philip Glass's The Perfect American at the ENO in London is a visual treat, but the libretto is mind-numbingly anodyne.
Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park, with libretto by his regular collaborator Alasdair Middleton, has the remarkable distinction of being the first completed operatic adaptation of any Jane Austen novel to be staged.
London’s two principal opera companies have offered a baffling near-silence as their response to Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary.
If a recent trio of musically superlative performances at Canadian Opera Company is indicative of their norm, the casting director should get a hefty bonus.
Just when you imagine you’ve got the operatic time-line fixed in your mind in a clean sweep of what goes where and when and how, you hear another work from another forgotten corner of the repertory that upends one’s conclusions.
Nothing inspires fable quite like defeat. The great riddle of Spanish history is how the Christian Visigoths managed to lose the Iberian peninsula to the Moors in one small battle in 711 and took eight hundred years to get it back.
Badisches Staastheater’s production of Tosca starts off with a bang.
A cardinal’s face appears upstage in the skylight hole of a tromp l’oeil baroque church cupola and several men are lined up on a slightly elevated platform (just a step up), facing him upstage. Then gunshots ring out and the men fall dead to the ground. And the famous opening chords ring out as a drop cuts off the sight of their corpses.
Bear with me here, and trust me as I say if this is perhaps not the Tosca of your dreams, nor does it turn out to be the Tosca of your worst nightmares. There is much to recommend in the pared down scenic approach. If you reveled in the excesses of Zeffirelli’s Met-ravaganza, stay far away from this one, because Heinz Balthes’s church scene is largely played “in one” in front of the above mentioned drop. Panels eventually part to reveal multiple Mylar-mirrored images of the Virgin (that Cavaradossi never touches with a paint brush), but somehow the imagery is apt, handsome even honest.
There is no visible gate to the side chapel where Angelotti hides, only a statue of Mary down left that remains there throughout. Down right is a well we’ll get to that later. John Dew’s direction is full of quirks, most of them fresh, some of them downright frech, all of them (save one) uncommonly intriguing. Our diva and the tenor are playfully frisky and ardent to the point that they actually spend some time lounging about on the floor of the chapel! (Honey, don’t you worry about kissing him in front of the Madonna when you were pressing against him on the tiles!)
Arguably the most sensational innovation was having Scarpia portrayed (are you seated?) as a cardinal of the church. Yes, you read it here. And well, think about it, why not? Highly placed civilians like a police chief could buy their way into position in the church, and within the context of today’s sexual misbehavior within the clergy, it added a whole extra Creep Factor to his lustful pursuit of the leading lady. Ewwwwwwwwww. Instead of merely attending the service of the Eucharist, Scarpia led it even as he plotted his sordid seduction. Double Eeeeeeeeeeeeew. In moments like these Mr. Dew provided a complex spontaneity to this Puccini War Horse that I no longer thought possible.
And Balthes’ simple sets focused the whole shebang right where it should be, on the characters. The Farnese Palace featured only a long banquet table and some doors, and that was all that was needed. What an effective cat and mouse pursuit was facilitated around that ample table. Jose Manuel Vasquez contrived vividly appropriate costumes, from the vibrant red of the cardinal’s cassock, to Tosca’s steely blue Act II satin gown, to her Norma Desmond white entrance dress with red turban and over-jacket. Gorgeously detailed, character-specific attire. Gerd Meier’s lighting was not called upon to do much more than area isolation and general washes but they were even, well colored, and for once, we saw the perfomers’ faces. And what performers they were! If you wanted you could pay ten times the ticket prices in New York or Vienna and still not see a cast this good.
Keith Ikaia-Purdy as Cavaradossi and Barbara Dobrzanska as Tosca [Photo by Jochen Klenk courtesy of Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe]
Barbara Dobrzanska is a local treasure who seems content to remain so, for she could conquer many an international house with her secure spinto soprano. I am not sure that I have heard anyone nail the role’s high notes with greater skill. They definitely rated a ten on the Thrill-O-Meter. Her middle and lower voice are uniform and seamless, and she never faltered in musical excellence or dramatic concentration. I did have the feeling that Ms. Dobrzanska is still somewhat feeling her way through this iconic role. There aren’t many parts that have more baggage than this one are there? I mean, to include the ghost of La Callas hovering over it. Barbara has all the skill sets in place, but as of yet there seemed to be too much control in a character than is explosive passion incarnate. Oddly, her least effective moment was probably Vissi d’arte. Oh it was exceedingly well sung, but it seemed almost an out of body experience for her. For sheer sound, stamina, and power, though, hers was a notable role assumption. And she looked as glamorous as I have ever seen her (although her gait could glide a bit more). Barbara Dobrzanska is already a very fine Tosca and as she internalizes it more, she can likely develop into one of the greats.
Keith Ikaia-Purdy was born to sing Cavaradossi, the vocal line fitting him like a glove and highlighting all his strengths. Although announced as indisposed, he called upon his solid technique to fill the house with idiomatic, heartfelt Puccinian vocalism of a very high standard indeed. His steely top notes can assuredly thrill with a ringing Vittoria and the like, but what sets him apart is his sensitivity to text and his ability to scale back his voice for nuanced phrasings. When he and his soprano got revved up in their duets, they were smokin’ and you knew you had come to the right address!
Barbara Dobrzanska as Tosca [Photo by Jochen Klenk courtesy of Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe]
Stefan Stoll was a fine foil as Scarpia, his solid, stentorian baritone fulfilling all of the demands of the part with none of the cliches. His Te Deum was memorable and a high point of the performance. His varied banter with Tosca was laden with sub-text, his character three-dimensional. Ulrich Schneider was a more sober Sacristan than is usual and while his virile baritone was pleasing to hear, the role lost some of the comic definition that usually enriches these scenes. Luiz Molz sang nicely as Angelotti but lacked that final bit of honest urgency. Hans-Jörg Weinschenk’s Spoletta and (especially) Alexander Huck’s Sciarrone were not the usual comprimario turns, but very well sung indeed with ringing tone -- welcome portrayals by two skilled performers. I somewhat missed the purity of a boy soprano as the Shepherd, but Őzgecan Gençer won me over with her sweet account of the Act III opening.
Conductor Jochem Hochstenbach had the band in good order, and the ensemble between stage and pit was commendable. There might have been a little more indulgence in give and take with the principles but the whole performance was tidy and stylistically sound. Hans-Jörg Kalmbach’s childrens’ chorus was notably well prepared.
The one mega-major-mucho miscalculation was alas, saved for last. First off (and this is not it), instead of jumping to her death, Tosca instead gets shot dead like the line-up of extras in the opening. You are thinking: “That’s not it????” Admit it. You are.
No, after her “different” demise, a statue of scourged Jesus that had been placed down right suddenly comes to life. Clad in what seems to be Depends, a diaphanous red cloak, and a crown of thorns out of Martha Stewart Living,our Lord sprints over to the corpse. This was undoubtedly meant to somehow be an avanti a Dio moment but really, the way the super flitted, it came off more: “Gurl, waddamaddawidyougetupoffadatfloorandrun!” Where was another bullet when you needed it ?