Those beautiful Puccini arias that are the mainstay of opera compilation CDs are, of course, even better in the theatre. But it is the high stakes, life and death struggles, usually in the second act, usually between a bass and a soprano, where his operas earn their place in the repertory. He had an unerring gift for dramatic pacing; his music ramps up the tension over long stretches of time until it reach its breaking point. The second act of Tosca, with its epic battle of wills between Scarpia and the eponymous heroine, is perhaps the best example and, when all the elements come together, it can grip audiences in a vice of fear. This evening, though, despite some thrilling music making, didn’t quite reach these epic proportions.
Why not? Well it wasn’t due to a dearth of vocal talent or acting ability. Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia was deliciously loathsome, parading a disdainful arrogance that sneered at all the lower forms of life and relishing the suffering he inflicted on them. Despite exuding an unassailable air of entitlement, however, you never felt he was glamourizing his disgusting role. The rich soprano voice of Catherine Naglestad was more than a match for Terfel’s commanding baritone: her fits of jealousy, her sulking and her displays of hatred all more convincing than the softer, more vulnerable side of her character. In comparison, Massimo Giordano’s Cavaradossi was a bit of a delicate flower. His pure, almost sweet, voice was perfect for the first romanza, ‘Recondita armonia’. But in the duet with Tosca later in the act, where they imagine a night of passion together, Naglestad always seemed to be holding back in order to achieve that all-important blend of voices.
It was nothing to do with the pit either. Puccini’s orchestra isn’t just there to prop up the vocal line, it plays an integral part in narrating and driving the drama forward. Conductor Marco Armiliato wasn’t afraid to let rip with the full power of the brass section in the tutti sections that punctuate the on-stage dialogue. Some of the solo playing was magnificent too: in Cavaradossi’s third act letter-writing aria, ‘E lucevan le stelle’, where he gets carried away by his thoughts of Tosca, I got rather carried away by the haunting beauty of the clarinet playing and almost forgot to listen to Giordano’s singing.
A collaboration with the New York Met and La Scala and new in 2009, Luc Bondy’s staging is disappointing, although by no means the outright disaster the American critics initially thought it. I think I can see what they were trying to do in Acts I and III: in Richard Peduzzi’s sets, the church and castle were rendered in plain red brick and otherwise plain and muted. Colour was then introduced only by members of the church (bishops, choirboys, etc.) and state (in the guise of the army), the twin poles of power in the story. Milena Canonero’s costumes are pimped up versions of what would have been worn in 1800 – shinier, blacker, and including more leather. But I didn’t understand what happened in Act II, when, instead of moving the action to the Palazzo Farnese, we were transported to what looked like the lobby of an Eastern Bloc hotel circa 1971. This may have been making some oblique allusion to the communist era secret police. More likely, though, it was just that they’d already blown a tight budget on Acts I & III. Drafting in three gaudily (half-)dressed prostitutes for a foursome seems like overkill when, over at Netherlands Opera, Nikolaus Lehnhoff managed to flag up Scarpia’s lechery simply by having him stroke a ginger cat.
But while the staging and direction didn’t help matters, it still wasn’t the reason we didn’t get our edge-of-the seat rollercoaster ride. The main problem was the lack of any emotional connection between the characters. I just did not believe that this Tosca and this Cavardossi were in love. Similarly in the act-two conflagration, despite Naglestad and Terfel’s self-contained poise, anger, and desire, there was little sense that it was ever the other who was provoking the reaction. The result was that, although one was swept along by the music, the impression of a psychological tug of war, essential to the drama, didn’t emerge.
So, despite having all the musical components in place and fine individual performances in the lead roles, an uninspiring set and a lack of emotional engagement between the performers meant the tense dramatic heart of this opera was missing.
By Marc Brooks