Some 50 years ago, a performance of Puccini’s Tosca as seen this evening in the Deutsche Oper would probably not be in italienische Sprache gesungen. With one notable exception, there was no Italian singer on stage. More than that, the leading soprano and tenor were born this side of the Alps. Not even when Deutsche Grammophon decided to record highlights in German (curiously in Rome), something like that could not be achieved, since James King had to be “imported” to sing the part of Kavalier Cavaradossi.
Nothing like that this evening, for the brightest star tenor in the world of opera these days is Jonas Kaufmann – and the Berliners were so eager to show their appreciation that he could barely finish Recondita armonia: before the aria’s last note, applause burst in the hall. Deserved applause, I rush to say. The German tenor sang with unfaltering elegance throughout, exploring softer dynamics more readily than most singers in this repertoire. The role poses him no difficulties, but his dark tonal quality sometimes prevents him from piercing through thick orchestral textures – a problem that never afflicts his ringing top notes, which acquire the necessary squillo to run to the last seat in the auditorium. If I had to produce some criticism, it would be that there is something calculated about his approach to Italian roles that stand between him and true excitement. In comparison, even the aristocratic Bergonzi sounds aflame in sacro fuoco. Maybe if he relaxed and just let himself go a bit more, he would find the emotionalism that lies in the core of Italianate tenor singing, especially in verismo works.
The dark-hued tonal quality is a feature shared by the evening’s prima donna, Nadja Michael. I have to confess that, after last week’s Tannhäuser, I was not really excited about her venture into Italian opera. To my surprise, the role of Tosca highlights her qualities more advantageously than jugendlich dramatisch ones. First of all, considering her indistinct pronunciation, cantabile serves her better than declamatory passages (not to mention that her intonation was greatly improved tonight). She still has problems with long lines and needs to butcher phrases to make space for breathing, sometimes between syllables of one word. In any case, I found more variety in her phrasing tonight – she even tried mezza voce and some well judged Italianate portamento. But do not mistake me – her voice is really foreign to Italian style. What is beyond doubt is her ability to produce powerful acuti, an asset for act II. If it were not for an all-over-the-place Vissi d’arte, I would even say that this was truly commendable. Her use of chest voice was rather natural too and helped her in many key moments. It is curious that her stage performance was rather muted, what confirms my first impression on her. Although she is a committed actress, she is no bête de scène. Without the help of her stylized stage postures, she seemed devoid of natural charisma and lost in the proceedings. I suspect that the performance was underrehearsed – an evidence of that was her constant fight with the trail of Tosca’s hallmark “Empire” dress.
The one Italian in the cast, veteran Ruggero Raimondi is, as always, the most patrician of Scarpias. His voice is still solid and powerful, the occasional rusty moment rounded off with the expertise of someone who has been around on the greatest stages in the world for decades.
Considering the personalities on stage, the Deutsche Oper has probably decided that a conductor “with a personality” would be too much. Maestro Pier Giorgio Morandi offered a kapellmeisterlich performance – a score rich in possibilities somewhat reduced to a narrower expressive spectrum – with rich but less than perfect playing by the house orchestra.
Boleslaw Barlog’s old staging (with Filippo Sanjust’s sets and costumes) alternates moments of endearing souvenir of the stand-and-deliver days and others that look just sloppy – have these people ever visited the Palazzo Farnese? I am sure that Scarpia’s apartments there should have looked far more glamorous than the dungeon-like room showed there. Similarly, the Castel Sant’Angelo’s top-floor is so small here that Tosca had to be blind not to see the bullets piercing Cavaradossi’s chest…