Monday, 12 June 2017

Puccini - Tosca (Baden-Baden, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

OsterFestspiele, Baden-Baden - 2017

Simon Rattle, Philipp Himmelmann, Kristine Opolais, Marcelo Álvarez, Marco Vratogna, Peter Rose, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Peter Tantsits, Douglas Williams, Walter Fink

ARTE Concert - 17th April 2017

It's too easy to write Tosca off as either a tawdry thriller or as a pure romantic melodrama. Those aspects are central to Puccini's verismo adaptation of Sardou's drama, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the characters have to be one-dimensional. There can be a little more nuance to how each of the three principal protagonists meet their fate in three of the most dramatic deaths in all opera, and a lot more to Puccini's dramatic music than heavy-handed underscoring. The Baden-Baden 2017 Easter Festival production of Tosca attempts to draw this out in Philipp Himmelmann's updating, while Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic make a strong case for the musical qualities of the work.

The conventional view of Tosca is a fairly black and white one of good guys and bad guys. On one side we have Scarpia as evil personified, twisted by the power that gives him freedom to indulge his lusts and baser instincts. On the other side we have the painter Cavaradossi as a brave rebel who stands up to arrest and torture by refusing to betray Angelotti, a colleague who has escaped from prison and hidden in the chapel where the painter is finishing a portrait of the Madonna (a very saintly enterprise). It's Tosca who takes Scarpia on directly, turning his lusts against him to buy time and escape.

All the main characters are however eventually doomed in their enterprises and it's not just cruel twists of fate; they can be seen in no small part to be the agents of their own destruction. For Tosca, it is jealousy that leads Scarpia's men to Cavaradossi's house. For Cavaradossi, it's a foolhardy embarking on revolutionary activism from what seems to be a matter of honour than for any real political conviction. Scarpia; well, his flaws are clear enough but his actions are twisted into some kind of delusional invulnerability conferred upon him by his religious devotion. In some ways, all of then can be seen to regard their fame and celebrity rendering them immune from any real harm.

As an opera, Tosca certainly merits more however than just playing to the stereotypes of sneering villainy and noble self-sacrifice. Those elements are an enjoyable element that are a necessary part of the character of the work, but there are other considerations that can provide a rather more thoughtful drama. The Baden-Baden production chooses to dispense with the Napoleonic flavour of the work for a more modern perspective, but it doesn't want to boil the baby in the reheated bathwater, to somewhat mangle a metaphor and likewise risk missing its intent.

Act I of the Baden-Baden Tosca takes place in a bright and airy cathedral, not at all like the dark ornate enclosures we are accustomed to seeing. There's space here for Cavaradossi to set up his computer and project the image he is working on onto a larger canvas. Tosca is dressed in a much more stylish bright red trouser suit and Scarpia, wearing a suit with his blond hair tied back in a ponytail, arrives with the finger-snapping efficiency of a business executive or politician with his underlings. Act II also presents a refreshingly modern outlook that gets rid of all the heavy drapes and candlesticks of a Napoleonic chamber.

There's no point in modernising Tosca however unless you can find a way to capture the same sense of menace and oppression that is in the original setting and Philipp Himmelmann finds a modern equivalence in the surveillance society of an authoritarian power. Scarpia's office is a wall of screens that are used to monitor and control the behaviour of its citizens. There is even a camera used to record his interrogations and, in an extra-creepy way, his seductions of women like Tosca that he can use to exert further influence and control over them. It's an effective enough modern context for how power is used and abused that doesn't in any way lessen the impact of the original.

Whether the singing meets similar expectations that an audience demand is another question, but again comparisons have little relevance. Everyone has their own favourite performances of past Toscas, and the cast here are unlikely to challenge any historic greats, but then opera is not a singing competition. That said, the performances are all good, and certainly effective in bringing a degree of characterisation and personality to the roles, as well as making sure that it serves to bring about the necessary impact.

Marcelo Álvarez gives the most assured performance as Cavaradossi. There's never been much doubt about his ability to sing this role before, even if he is inclined towards standing and delivering old-fashioned operatic arm-spreading gestures out to the audience. Here he is better directed and proves to be a much more competent actor: and it makes all the difference. It's a performance of intense feeling that has all the drama heroics you might like, while also singing the role exceptionally well.

Kristine Opolais may not have the commanding presence of some of the more notable Toscas in the history of opera, but by the same token she doesn't rely on the mannerisms of old. If she initially shows a few areas of weakness, they are scarcely worth drawing attention to and she gives a fine performance that grows in confidence as the drama progresses and her own character grows in response to the situations. There is no question that she hits every one of those key moments effectively and nails her 'Vissi d'arte'. Opolais also establishes an intense struggle of wills against Marco Vratogna's Scarpia in the second Act, where again the direction helps bring out Scarpia's calculating menace.

As is often the case now, Act III plays out with Cavaradossi being under no illusions about his fate, taking a more realistic view in spite of Tosca's protestations that she has their rescue all figured out. The use of lethal injections to the head instead of a firing squad deprives the audience of the traditional dramatic conclusion and from Tosca's famous leap from Castel Sant' Angelo, which is always a risky thing to do. Tosca's final cries however never fail to hit their mark, and with Simon Rattle harnessing the full power of the Berlin Philharmonic, the vital impact isn't lessened in the slightest. It all goes to show that you may get tired very easily of all the familiar imagery and costume drama, but Puccini's Tosca is bigger than that and the efficacy of its drama endures.

Links: Baden-Baden, ARTE Concert