Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Puccini - Tosca (Staatsoper Berlin, 2014 - Berlin)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

Staatsoper Berlin, 2014

Daniel Barenboim, Alvis Hermanis, Anja Kampe, Fabio Sartori, Michael Volle, Tobias Schabel, Jan Martiník, Florian Hoffmann, Maximilian Krummen, Grigory Shkarupa, Jakob Buschermöhle

Staatsoper am Schiller Theater, Berlin - 16 October 2014

The most notable point about the Staatsoper Berlin's new production of Tosca is that it marks the first time that Daniel Barenboim has conducted a Puccini opera. As interesting as that might be - and it did prove to be a fascinating reading of a very familiar work - it was just as intriguing to see how Barenboim's Tosca worked with the vision of Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. I don't think anyone would have known quite what to expect from this pairing, much less predict just how complementary the end result might be.

Relatively new to the opera world, the Hermanis productions that I have seen (Jenůfa for La Monnaie and Il Trovatore for Salzburg) have tended to be rather elegant, painterly and even 'flowery' in a way that would seem ill-suited to a verismo opera. In both those previous productions however there was a recognition of the harsher reality of stories that on the surface are given a somewhat romantic edge through a narrative structure that is enhanced by some beautiful melodies. There was also a very clear division in the Berlin Staatsoper's production between the familiar romanticised version of Puccini's Tosca as it is more often depicted and the rather brutal reality of its verismo subject.

There's is another 'painterly' approach used in this production. In fact, the entire opera is told in painted storybook form played out on a large screen that is built into the set. It's a cleverly all-purpose design that functions with some minor changes to represent the pillars and a wall for Cavaradossi's to paint in the Sant' Andrea della Valle church in Act I; it's imposing as a wall with a balcony in Scarpia's office at the Palazzo Farnese in Act II; and it acts as a backdrop to a wall of a prison cell on the Castel Sant' Angelo for Act III. Except it doesn't attempt to actually recreate the real-life locations in the way that so many other productions do in their attempt to inject realism into this opera.

And it doesn't need to. The Berlin production emphasises the realism by contrasting the action on the stage with the Napoleonic period storybook paintings projected on the screen. If you want to see Tosca as it is traditionally done, with wigs, candles and photo-realistic backgrounds of the real-life Rome locations, it's all up there on the screen. On the stage, the costumes are closer to the actual period of the work's early twentieth-century composition. (In their smart suits and moustaches, Scarpia's henchmen Spoletta and Sciarroni even look like Puccini as he is seen in those familiar photographs). There doesn't appear to be any attempt to tie the work to anything specific in Puccini's time, but it's sufficiently different to make it distinct from the period glamour without imposing another reading on the work.

No matter what the set designs show and no matter what period it's set in, what is of primary importance is the way a director handles the opera's key scenes. Despite the beauty of the melodies and the fact that they are two of the most memorable arias ever written in Italian opera, 'Vissi d'arte' and 'È lucevan le stelle' are not to be sung as bel canto, but must be depicted as verismo. Here, Anja Kampe doesn't step forward and sing Tosca's aria to the audience, she sings it as a means of seducing Scarpia with the false promise that she might have more to offer him in return for releasing Cavaradossi. There's no diva performance here, it's solid and dramatic with flashes of fire and brilliance. The curtain falls at the end of Act II with Tosca sinking into a chair in a state of shock at what she has done. That's verismo.

The same sense of aligning those those arias and key scenes to a purposeful dramatic context is also evident in the casting of Fabio Sartori for Cavaradossi. As a counterbalance to the cool but dark undercurrents that characterise Tosca and Scarpia, as Italian tenor is probably essential to stir up the passion and fire that Cavaradossi represents. Sartori brings this out superbly. I've found the tenor to be a bit hit and miss in the past in his Verdi singing, but his Puccini is impeccable, particularly when he's well directed. The singing is heartfelt and passionate, his 'È lucevan le stelle' finishing not with an eye towards applause, but caught up in his dark reflection on life and it coming to an end.

Michael Volle brought an unexpected lyricism to this production's Scarpia. Like Anja Kampe's Tosca, it was interesting to see the role played with a more Wagnerian tone, or in Volle's case, Wagnerian with a softer timbre and a Strauss-like beauty. It didn't exactly make Scarpia any more sympathetic, but it did make him much more human than this villainous character or the caricature of it is more often played, and indeed scored. I don't think this kind of casting and contrasting of voices comes about by chance either. It's clearly been carefully thought through for the impact that is required for the purposes of this production, and in particular for the manner in which it is conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

It was Barenboim's conducting of the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra through his first Puccini opera that really hammered home the verismo aspects of the work. Anyone still subscribing to Kerman's outdated view that Tosca is a 'shabby little shocker' or a tawdry Italian melodrama would have been surprised by the human and the dramatic qualities that Barenboim found in the work. The conductor never let Puccini's lyricism and sense of melody get in the way of the aching and painful sentiments that underlie their superficial beauty. There was no bombast either in those moments of high melodrama, the horns blasting out a jarring dissonance in the crashes of those soaring crescendos, shaking the audience to the core.

With Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle this way, there was no need for Tosca's leap at that famous conclusion, even though it was depicted in all its glamorous glory in the painted version of the story. The jarring reality and mounting horror of what has transpired over the three acts is all there in the music as the opera reaches its climax. The only option that is left open to Tosca needs no further spelling out, leaving Kampe to merely hold her arms out wide and walk towards the front of the stage as the curtain falls. The impact on the audience was palpable.