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Reviews

29 May 2019

Puccini’s Tosca at The Royal Opera House

Sitting through Tosca - and how we see and hear it these days - does sometimes make one feel one hasn’t been to the opera but to a boxing match. Joseph Kerman’s lurid, inspired or plain wrong-headed description of this opera as ‘a shabby little shocker’ was at least half right in this tenth revival of Jonathan Kent’s production.

Tosca: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Bryn Terfel (Scarpia)

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

 

One should at least be relieved that it’s set sometime during the 1800’s - and not in a carpark where a resurrected Scarpia returns in Act III to shoot Tosca as happens in Sturminger’s re-imagined production at Salzburg (shabby, and a shocker). When I reviewed this Covent Garden production back in January 2018, I seemed to view it more as one malevolent and cruel empire set against the backdrop of a city infected by poverty and moral decline. Andrew Sinclair’s revival seems a bit less focussed on this - or perhaps I simply couldn’t see it because what hasn’t changed is the simply unremitting darkness in which much of this production is set. I still think Paul Brown’s designs are largely impressive but what I noticed more this time was the imbalance of them. There is perhaps something askew when the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I lacked scale and Scarpia’s apartment at the Palazzo Farnese doesn’t. This is a church that often resembles a crypt, but it fits well with the oppressive feel of Act I where some are just nearer God and some are just unfortunate enough never to be.

Act II did seem a little less pallid this time which was just as well because it centred attention so much more neatly on the power struggle which is the centrepiece between Scarpia and Tosca. Act I in this production, despite all that is going on, still felt static; yet Act II never seemed constrained - though I think this largely had to do with the powerhouse performances of Terfel and Opolais who used every bit of the stage like warring tigers. One was perhaps a little more conscious of diversions, such as the opening and closing of window shutters (I really lost count of how many times that happened), but they prowled magnificently. Act III still seems problematic. I was more conscious than ever that it seemed back to front. Depending on where you sit in the stalls, the shooting posts have a tendency to block your view and the lighter this short act becomes the less it becomes visually convincing. As impressive as this particular immolation from Tosca might have been, one was still left with the impression she had simply flung herself off the end of a rather inconspicuous pier.

Vittorio Grigolo as CavaradoSSI.jpg Vittorio Grigolo (Cavaradossi). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

The shock value in this revival comes from the casting. The opening night audience clearly fell in love with Vittorio Grigòlo’s Cavaradossi. The role is a relatively recent one he has taken on, having made his debut with it at the Metropolitan Opera last year; I can’t help but feel somewhat equivocal about him. Joseph Calleja, who sang Cavaradossi in 2018 here, sounded rather small - Grigòlo is the exact opposite. His is not a voice to shy away from using its wide range, though what many might confuse as heft I’d rather describe as ungainliness. What is so frustrating about him is that there is such an undeniable originality he brings to his phrasing which, in part, is an extension of his quite remarkable acting. Okay, some might call it a little hammy, and certainly it stretches the boundaries of good taste relatively speaking, but just as his acting pushes limits so does his vocal characterisation of this part. If a tenor like Jonas Kaufmann is always pristine and rich in this role, Grigòlo cuts it with an unpolished legato and a roughness which seems much closer to Cavaradossi himself. He is really a little uncouth. But no one really falls in love with perfection, or even a remotely ideal personification of it. I’ve rarely heard a more visceral ‘Recondita Armonia’ but it did Grigòlo few favours because the voice was often at such full tilt it sometimes felt off-balance. Thrilling it might have been, but you also felt he was going to fall flat on his face (or, rather, off his scaffold). His acting during ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was enormously draining to watch - but at the same time compelling. Did one really care that the voice (again stretched at an unbelievably loud volume) fractured in places? Not one bit. He certainly has the ability to sing with restraint - this was notable in some of his duets - and he can scale the voice down when he wants to. But ultimately, this felt like a performance from a tenor who liked to live both in the fast lane and somewhat dangerously. A Cavaradossi who perhaps had parked his sportscar is Sturminger’s Salzburg carpark.

Kristine Opolais as Tosca.jpgKristine Opolais (Tosca). Photo credit:Catherine Ashmore.

Kristine Opolais’s Tosca, on the other hand, seemed everything her Cavaradossi wasn’t. If he wobbled and seemed rough-hewn, she was like an empress with an ermine softness to her bottom register and a steely brilliance to her upper that never betrayed a hint of unsteadiness. I’ve never really noticed in many Tosca’s previously the underlying jealously that betrays her character in Act I but here Opolais was a real storyteller, unravelling her insecurity with touching sincerity and a little humour to pad it out. Some Tosca’s can - indeed do - seem very distant from their Cavaradossi but Opolais worked a beautiful chemistry with Grigòlo. But Tosca is a very complete role, one that requires a singer to be a great actress too and that is no more so that in the great Act II.

I suppose any Tosca today would be fortunate to have Bryn Terfel as her Scarpia and Opolais did not waste this opportunity. Perhaps because Terfel brings such sheer brutishness and malevolence to Scarpia, Opolais was formidable. The voice is just heavenly - those high notes were like jangling chains whipping against exposed flesh. But how rare to hear a ‘Vissi d’arte’ that was sung with so much reverence and depth to its inner meaning. So many sopranos sing this aria towards the audience; Opolais was bowed, penitent, the voice like an invocation. It made her killing of Scarpia all the more gruesome as she stabbed him not once, but twice, exposing his waistcoat so we could see his blood-soaked shirt.

Terfel’s Scarpia has lost nothing over the years. There are any number of things about his performance which still have the capacity to shock an audience. His stage presence is completely absolute, and you oddly feel he’s there when he really isn’t doing anything. His magnetism is beyond compelling. Terfel’s Scarpia is becoming very like Tito Gobbi’s - the snarling notes, the eyes that widen and glower with terrifying power, the stalking like a presumptive predator. When he unbuttons his waistcoat because he believes he has vanquished Tosca the shock he might actually rape her is quite real. The voice itself is a massive instrument, a hammer of Thor. What was so exquisite about this Act II - so completely compelling - was Terfel’s projection of the notes. Every nuance was there; it was simply astonishing.

What was also unquestionably better this time was the conducting of the score; Alexander Joel clearly knows his way through the treacherous terrain of Puccini’s music. There were moments when he felt the need to linger, or broaden his tempo - Act II was generally somewhat longer because of his tendency to just make it one long crescendo that suddenly collapses into final murderous resolution. He sometimes made Grigòlo’s more heroically-minded attempts at stage dominance more difficult by reigning him in, notably during ‘E lucevan le stelle’ which caused the tenor problems - but the opposite was the case during Grigòlo’s two cries of ‘Vittoria’ which pushed him into brinkmanship. The orchestral playing was glorious with beautiful string tone, and Joel evidently lavished attention to the brass playing; the horns at the opening of Act III were simply fabulous in both tone and precision.

This is a Tosca that still looks beautiful at times, though that beauty often means it looks somewhat gritty, perhaps even grungy in places. No amount of gold can make a crypt look ecclesiastical, and not even a star-lit sky can rescue a final act that looks like a couple of scrappy wooden posts beside a grey wall that, well, looks like a grey wall. This was an evening rescued by its singers - and in the case of Grigòlo’s Cavaradossi rather overshadowed by it. If Opolais and Terfel gave us a masterclass in great singing and acting, Grigòlo gave us something else. I came out of this undoubtedly interesting performance thinking I hadn’t really seen Puccini’s Tosca but a new opera called Puccini’s Cavaradossi.

From 30th May until 20th June 2019

Marc Bridle

Puccini: Tosca

Kristine Opolais (Tosca), Vittorio Grigòlo (Cavaradossi), Bryn Terfel (Scarpia), Hubert Francis (Spoletto), Jihoon Kim (Sciarrone), Michael Mofidian (Angelotti), Jonathan Lemalu (Sacristan); Jonathan Kent (director), Alexander Joel (conductor), Andrew Sinclair (revival director), Paul Brown (designer), Mark Henderson (lighting), Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 27th May 2019.

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