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Reviews

<em>Tosca</em>, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
16 Jan 2018

Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House

Now on its ninth revival, Jonathan Kent’s classic Tosca for Covent Garden is a study in art, beauty and passion but also darkness, power and empire. Part of the production’s lasting greatness, and contemporary value, is that it looks inwards towards the malignancy of a great empire (in this case a Napoleonic one), whilst looking outward towards a city-nation in terminal decline (Rome).

Tosca, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Marc Bridle

Above:Gerald Finley (Baron Scarpia)

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

 

Century old power struggles between artists and lovers and authoritarian rulers may be set in Jonathan Kent’s 1800, but the austerity of food riots, street-brawls that end in bloody knifings, mass imprisonments, deportations and executions resonate century’s later in different times and different places.

The very static nature of the production seems to reiterate this inaction, just as Paul Brown’s designs distance almost everyone except the main actors from everyone else. In Act One, for example, the celebrants of the Te Deum are not just nearer God, in the sense they are above everyone else, they are also behind gilded bars. This is religion as an exclusive and very pious celebration. When we come to Act Two, and Scarpia’s opulent quarters, deliberately angled to magnify their size, and a statue that recalls the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, a bookcase masks a door that leads downwards towards torture chambers. The idea we are moving from heaven towards hell couldn’t be more transparent.

It’s arguable this Tosca is just too darkly lit at times. It feels oppressive. The tenebrous shroud that sits like decades of peat and dust is undeniably impressive at times, especially when it highlights shadows. Scarpia descending the staircase before the Te Deum in Act one is one such example - giving a fleeting glimpse of a 1930s black and white swashbuckler movie. There are hints of sepia and chrome. But in Act Two, especially at the very opening of it, it can make both Floria and Scarpia almost invisible as if they have become absorbed into the scenery like part of a Roman frieze. One doesn’t really notice the candlelight gradually becoming extinguished as Act Two reaches its glorious conclusion - and by the time Floria places two candles besides Scarpia’s lifeless body there isn’t enough light to really emphasise the curdling red of his murder. It’s all rather pallid.

ADRIANNE PIECZONKA AS FLORIA TOSCA (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CATHERINE ASHMORE.jpg Adrianne Pieczonka (Floria Tosca). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

If the staging and production itself of this Tosca are memorable, the casting of it has some acute problems. Adrianne Pieczonka is absolutely mesmerising in the title role. Here we have a soprano who has the lyrical qualities of someone like Mirella Freni at her very best, but with the dramatic heft to make the voice ride effortlessly over the orchestra, which Freni couldn’t always do live. The power and ease with which Ms Pieczonka was able to sustain her high register without the trace of a wobble was always notable, though I found her Act Two strangely underwhelming. A tendency to clip her higher notes at the point rather than ride them generally made some of her singing in Act Two seem rushed, which was unfortunate, notably in her extended duets with Scarpia. This became all the more obvious when she gave such a glorious performance of “Vissi d’arte’. The tenor, Joseph Calleja, as Cavaradossi, also struggled at times. His voice sounded small and often opaque. Having said that, he is unquestionably a masterful interpreter of what he actually sings and no singer on the evening came closer to getting as musically close to what Puccini demanded of his singer. One particular line just leaps out from the entire evening - “le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!”… the final pianissimo was one of the most breath-taking I have heard any tenor sing live in an opera house. Most disappointing of all was Gerald Finley’s Baron Scarpia. Here we have a singer who looks the part, but that is as far as it goes. With his barely concealed malevolence, he cuts a dashing figure, but the voice is hugely underpowered for the role. Aled Hall, as Spoletta, and Simon Shibambu as Angelotti, were both fine.

The Israeli conductor, Dan Ettinger, was rarely inspired in a score that is dripping with inspiration. Although the playing by the orchestra was perfectly fine, nor was it lush enough to capture the opulence that breathes from every pore of this opera. There was some very notable horn playing, though largely this rather felt like the ninth revival for much of the orchestra as well. This is a Tosca that looks impressive, but feels like it needs a reboot.

From 18th January until 3rd March 2018. Performance 7th February relayed in cinemas live around the world.

Marc Bridle

Puccini: Tosca

Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca), Joseph Caleja (Cavaradossi), Gerald Fiinley (Baron Scarpia), Aled Hall (Spoletto), Simon Shibambu (Angelotti), Jeremy White (Sacristan) Jihoon Kim (Sciarrone). Dan Ettinger (conductor), Jonathan Kent (director), Paul Brown (designer), Mark Henderson (lighting), Orchestra and Chorus of Royal Opera House Covent Garden

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; 15th January 2018.

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