The fact that Antonello Madau Diaz’s production of Puccini’s Tosca for the New National Theatew was premiered in 2000 is of little consequence – it might as well have been 1950. Cardboard versions of the actual Roman settings, stock gestures, puerile insights, it’s all there. It would be unfair if I did not say that it is all neatly done, but if you are going to do it the Zeffirelli way, well, you’ll have to out-Zeffirelli Zeffirelli, because he has already staged it in full Zeffirellian glory, as you can see in the video from the Met, if you are into those things.
The fact that this is a “traditional” staging has little to do with the fact that it has nothing to say. A more intellectually challenging director could have made something even in those circumstances. For instance, this evening’s prima donna, Norma Fantini, never went beyond the formulas and clichés, but she acted and sang with enthusiasm and a big heart. Under the Tebaldi-isms there was genuine commitment there. As many lyric sopranos in this role, her middle register is often shadowed by the orchestra, and if her acuti are powerful, she doesn’t offer true variety in her higher reaches. All that said, hers is a warm, fruity voice, her no-nonsense approach to Verismo is legitimate, her feeling for the text is palpable and she is not afraid of letting it rip (her big aria more spiritually exhaust than merely touching , for example).
Simon O’Neill is a powerful Cavaradossi with some stentorian high notes. I was tempted to write that his nasal, metallic tenor is somewhat offset in Italian repertoire by his healthy dramatic top notes, but his Italian is artificial, cantabile is not his cup of tea – and he hams as if his life depended on it. There were truly embarrassing moments. Korean baritone Seng-Hyoun Ko was, thank God, far more self-composed in the role of Scarpia. He has a dark, big bad-guy voice and did not need to make evil vocal effects to get to the point. His delivery of the Italian text could be a bit more specific, though.
Ryusuke Numajiri should be praised by his symphonic conducting, the orchestra very much in the center of this performance. Apart from some brassiness, the balance was often very good, with clear perspectives aplenty. Sometimes he made things difficult for his singers, but that would have worked if he and his orchestra could have gone beyond the efficient into something truly dramatic. Act I was often uneventful, the Te Deum could not develop into a powerful, inevitable climax, as much as the second act, once having achieved a certain level of tension, more or less settled on it rather than expanding from it.