Posts Tagged ‘Puccini’s Tosca’

German singers in Italian repertoire are a recurrent issue in these pages. I have often praised the cleanliness of line and keenness on interpretation usual with singers this side of the Alps, but have also found their Lieder-singing  word-by-word tonal coloring intellectualized and unconvincing and there is also the problem with unsupported low register and/or hard high notes. On the other hand, when a German-school singer understands the differences in approach and has flexible enough a technique, the results can be uniquely compelling – and you just have to hear any of Brigitte Fassbaender’s Verdi recordings to hear what I am talking about.

This is why I was so curious to hear the Berlin Staatsoper’s new production of Tosca, featuring both Anja Kampe in the title role and Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia. Kampe is a singer for whom I have a soft spot, in spite of a sometimes unruly high register. Her Fidelio in Vienna last December made me fear for her vocal health, but her Sieglindes are always attractively sung, even in a not-so-good day. Reading that she would appear in this Tosca came as a surprise for me, but, even if you don’t hear that in her singing, she had indeed studied in Italy. Furthermore, she has performed Italian roles there, most notably at La Scala. The first thing that should be noted about her Tosca is the crystal-clear diction and the excellent Italian pronunciation. The second thing is that the sound is intrinsically un-Italianate: the whole range is homogeneous, even the very strong low notes are well connected, the middle register is lusciously warm and dark in an almost pellucid way and the acuti are not bright and vibrant, but felt-like and projecting rather on sheer volume than on radiance. Although the high notes are not her selling feature, she was shrewd enough to get away with tricky passages by lightening the tone and shortening note values with portamento. Her mezza voce can sound a bit on the colorless side, and yet it still benefits from the naturally beautiful tonal quality and I do believe that she would gain from using something similar in her German roles too. Many members of the audience have found her performance ill-informed in terms of style, too direct and sober in approach, too short in vocal glamor and too proper in terms of characterization. They might not be essentially wrong. However, I beg to differ in my appreciation. The almost classical shapeliness of her phrasing is musicianly and free of any vulgarity or cheap emotionalism. Besides, the warmth and fruitiness of her middle register made many usually neglected passages sound like music rather than the eligibility period for the next high note. Truth be said, when things got high and stayed high, the impression was of caution rather than abandon. But that really seemed a reasonable trade-off for me. I would say that a different conductor would have put all that in perspective. But let’s speak of the singers first.

When it comes to Michael Volle, I am not so sure that the Italian excursion has truly paid off. First, his Italian is not natural as this evening’s prima donna. Second, his bad-guy expressive tool involve lots of snarling and the kind of hectoring that brings about either a overly forward or alternately woolly and gray-toned quality to more outspoken passages. At some point, he sounded plainly tired. Moreover, his interpretation was a series of variations of villainy. While singers like Ruggiero Raimondi could find a patrician quality that gave his Scarpia more three-dimensionality, or that even an exotic name such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau brought about an eerily psychopathic side to the character, Volle pressed the same bad-and-loving-it key the whole evening and finally suggested telenovela rather than verismo.

There was one true Italian singer in the cast, Barenboim’s official “tenore”, Fabio Sartori. As always, it is a very rich and powerful voice, and he has more nuance that many other tenors in this repertoire. However, his singing has developed some sort of whimpering quality that becomes bothersome after a while. Also, he is not really engaged dramatically speaking, and his attempts of rising the emotional temperature invariably sounded calculated. Among the minor roles, Jan Martinik deserves praises for his unexaggerated Sacristan, his nobility of tone being no obstacle for a character role.

This is the first time Daniel Barenboim has conducted an opera by Puccini. And one can see that in the evident care he has taken with the score: all effects are cleanly understood and played out, the orchestra has a Wagnerian, Musikdrama-ish narrative quality and there is an evident intent of avoiding kitsch. Good as these intentions are, they ended on overcooking the procedures: everything was so intense and bright and forceful that you would take five minutes to adapt to it and notice that there was no progression in atmosphere, no increase in tension: it all sounded uniformly loud and driven. Except in what regarded pace – since the orchestral fireworks followed a logic of its own, it did not necessarily matched the tempo of the stage action. Worse: it seemed to be operating in an universe completely apart of the singers. The result was ultimately schizophrenic rather than heightened in expression by the combined work of all its elements.

My first impression of Alvis Hermanis’s production was that the projection of a cartoon with the story of Tosca over the poorman’s version of traditional sceneries would be distracting. And they were, but in a positive way. When one looked at the singers, one would see nonsensical blocking, silly Personenregie and lack of imagination, while the cartoons looked like Zeffirelli’s film with Raina Kabaivanska and Plácido Domingo. So, after a while, you would rather look at the screen than at the absurdity performed below. Examples: Tosca is generally kept 10 m apart from Cavaradossi while saying “you’re ruining my hairstyle” or “we shouldn’t do this in front of the Madonna”.  When Tosca says how much it would cost to bribe Scarpia, she reclines on a divan, her legs dangerously apart for the circumstances. Then he talks about sex – and she makes a what-made-you-think-of-something-like-that expression. Actually, this is not accidental, Mr. Hermanis is convinced that Tosca has a crush on Scarpia: although she barely touches the man she loves, she volunteers to kiss, grab, fondle etc the man she professes to hate. Even if one could assume something like that, the bluntness and the exaggeration are entirely self-defeating in a character who is shown as a Catholic woman who attends mass regularly, who tells her confessor everything and who is basically incapable of handling the situation in the cold-blooded way the director unsuccessfully tries to imply.

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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”.

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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 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 te 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… 

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