Puccini: Tosca

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 11th March 2013 3.5 stars

ToscaIn his magnum opus, la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust wrote that sadism is at the root of all melodrama. Although he was likely contemplating operatic tradition generally, was there a particular melodrama living in his memory as exemplar? Perhaps not, but his maxim aptly applies to one of the greatest melodramas of all, Puccini's Tosca, one of the only operas to exploit--and mention--sadism so overtly for theatrical effect. But Puccini's thriller reveals more than a casual, dramatic connection between the two ideas, especially in our technologically saturated, modern world.

Melodrama thrives today because its extremity combats the dullness and dissatisfaction intrinsic to the technological world of immediate gratification. There is no melodrama in updating a Facebook status and the pleasure in doing so is ephemeral. With its spectacularly expressive characters, moral absolutes, and persecution of the virtuous melodrama prolongs catharsis in superlative suspense; like sadism, it holds pleasure at a reasonable distance.

Catharsis in Tosca is latent, suspense continuous, and climax is actually quite common. What of pleasure? The climaxes in Tosca all employ sadistic elements: from the Te Deum in Act I to the murder of Scarpia in Act II or Cavarodossi's in Act III, all rely on sadistic narrative turns. But is it sadism that allows enjoyment of the melodramatic, of these climaxes? Does it work with melodrama to bring pleasure closer to the individual's experience of Tosca? Cavarodossi is tortured unmercifully in the name of twisted justice, his pride redeemed only fleetingly as he sings his "Vittoria!" at the news of Bonaparte's victory. The music is explosive, triumphant, but only momentarily. Scarpia reasserts his dominance. He invokes the language of sadism as he names his prezzo and even more so when he demands it be given willingly, but surely it is Tosca and her audience who are most indulgent in sadism, this liminal idea. Do we not enjoy seeing Cavarodossi's resistance, re-submission, and, above all, his lover's revenge? Is Scarpia merely a proxy, used by the audience as master, whilst Cavarodossi remains the slave? There is unease in facing these questions. But climax in Tosca wears Death's robes and comes with its own price as she murders the villain: we secretly rejoice in her triumph, take pleasure in Scarpia's suffering, and, of course, in her resistance.

In other words, the sadistic melodrama of Tosca exposes a narcissistic culture anxious to see its own suppressed, dark reflection. Her murderous act subverts Scarpia's (male)power whilst liberating her audience through an enjoyment of the liminal; the enjoyment of sadism--of her revenge--is (sexually?) gratifying melodrama for the 21st century, for a world with too much immediacy and too little introspection. Perhaps Joseph Kerman was so shabbily shocked not by what he heard or saw in Tosca, but because of what he felt: he feared the truth revealed by Tosca's revenge--sadistic truth--resting at the limits of social acceptability and contemplation, of human experience.

The striking imagery in Jonathan Kent's traditional production reinforces the harsh realities of this modern truth by overtly exposing the amount of distance between past and present: Tosca's Rome is one of dead monuments, places more alive online than in reality.Amongst these Roman monuments moved Amanda Echalaz, a gratefully three-dimensional Tosca. Although she held back a bit too much during the love duet in Act I (which could have been to manage the demands of the role or to match her colleague's somewhat understated volume), her "Vissi d'arte" was a truly sublime reflection of a woman in crisis. Echalaz is a striking actress as well: most Toscas (after angrily yelling "Muori!, Muori!") are more concerned with getting caught and fleeing to save Cavarodossi instead of mulling over their murder. Echalaz was angry for the first two repetitions, but broke down in fearful tears by the third. Take this natural theatrical instinct coupled with a smoky, sensually ruby-red colored voice and you have Echalaz. Her performance begged answers to very tough questions, indeed.

Massimo Giordano sang an adequate Cavarodossi; the role is not really suited to his voice, but he improved as the opera progressed. Although his "Recondita armonia" did not quite reach the heavenly heights it should have, his "E lucevan le stelle" did descend into despair very well, his pingy but somewhat manufactured tone affecting great warmth and managing the aria's demands well.

Michael Volle was an excellent Scarpia; he makes the vocally demanding role seem easy, whilst his stage presence has few peers. He inhabits his character through intelligent vocal coloring, and it was the importance he gave to some of his "unimportant" phrases that revealed his character's darkness most effectively ("Tosca buon falco"). Hubert Francis sang a well-developed and refreshing Spoletta; so often the role is given to tenors who just don't have a clue, but Francis knows exactly how to play it: with verve.

Michael Clayton-Jolly deserves mention for the best rendition of the Shepherd Boy's song I've ever heard. Of course, Maurizio Benini conducted a well-paced and passionate performance of expansive Puccini, though the brass section and the woodwinds has trouble once or twice.

The Royal Opera's Tosca is worth seeing for Volle and Echalaz. Of course, it is also a gratifying release from our technologically saturated worlds, thought provoking, and, indeed, revealingly pleasurable.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Royal Opera