The second item in the Teatro Regio di Torino’s Japanese tour was Puccini’s Tosca, here shown in a low-budget but refreshingly unpretentious staging by Jean-Louis Grinda. While the sets to act I could have been a little less lazily designed, the remaining acts were quite efficient in their straightforwardness, except for Tosca’s costumes, which were all of them excessively plain and unbecoming. The Personenregie was discrete to the point of seeming non-existent, but that proved to be a blessing in disguise: the three leading singers are very experienced in their roles and felt at ease to add their personal contributions. Some details were particularly successful: Scarpia’s look when Tosca unintentionally touches his hand to grab a fan; Tosca’s regained sense of being in control when she tries to bribe Scarpia; Cavaradossi’s utter disbelief in Tosca’s plan in act III. The relative cleanliness of the staging made every little gesture count – and these singers seemed to be aware of that. One particularly welcome idea from the director: I don’t know about you, but I never liked that whole business with the cross and the candle-holders. I know it is there in the libretto, but maybe in the play this makes more sense. In the opera, it has always bothered me as nonsensical*. Here Tosca nervously prays, looks for the safe-conduct, finds it in Scarpia’s hand, takes it with disgust and, when preparing to leave, realizes that he lies dead over her cloak, struggles to get it back but is finally unable to do it. The curtain falls while she is about to exit without it.
Gianandrea Noseda’s affinity with Puccini apparently is greater than with Verdi. He is more at ease with the flexibility of beat required by this music and his primarily symphonic point-of-view, achieved by a very risky but ultimately successful balance with his soloists, paid off in its eschewal from empty effect and his intent of clarity and richness of sound. Although his singers had to work hard for their money this afternoon, he was not indifferent to their needs, as one could hear in Recondita armonia, when the tenor’s indication that he needed a slower pace was promptly understood.
I had previously seen Patricia Racette only once in 2005 as Alice Ford at the Met and had found her a fine musician with a monochrome voice. Although her voice is still indistinctive in tone and a little bit workmanlike, the brain behind it is truly admirable. First of all, she knows her voice, has solid technique and responds most adeptly to the big challenges in the part: as a lyric soprano, she could produce beautiful legato and achieve a blond-toned lightness in her act I scene with Cavaradossi; in act II, she never failed in offering powerful acuti over a big orchestra and could manage an ersatz for chest voice when this was necessary. She could even fake sacro fuoco when this was necessary. Most of all, she has REALLY read the score and cared for the meaning of the notes and the words there, even in seemingly unimportant moments. She has even resisted the forgivable temptation of making Vissi d’arte a moment of beauty (a sensible way of disguising some bumpy turns of phrasing anyway). In any case, although her performance was not dramatically gripping as with many famous exponents of this role, it was in some ways revelatory in the way it gravitated around Tosca’s vulnerability, around the frailty behind the prima donna’s bossy attitude, around her need to be in control deeply damaged by Scarpia’s ruthless attack on her and her world.**.
Racette had an ideal partner in Marcelo Álvarez, who sang with consistent beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing, making this music sound spontaneous and expressive as it always should. Except for an unnecessarily overemphatic ending, his E lucevan le stelle was extremely elegant and heartfelt. I am happy to hear that the frequentation of heavy repertoire has not touched his voice. There are more powerful and dark-voiced Scarpias than Lado Ataneli, but few are so sharply focused and dangerously self-contained as he is. He never forgets that, although he is something of a brutal police chief, he is also a nobleman at home in fine society. His poised self-assurance made an interesting contrast with Tosca’s increasing despair in act II.
* When I first listened to Tosca, I understood that she said “È morto! Dio mi perdoni”. I would be later very disappointed on reading that she actually says “Or gli perdono!”.
** If you think about the words in Vissi d’arte, she is basically saying “God, you’re not doing your part in our agreement”, the bottom-line being “she believed that everything would always be right by doing things rightly”. The other moments when she addresses God in the opera is when she curses inside the church and, being reminded that this is a sin, she says that He will turn a blind eye on this, because “He knows that she is suffering”.