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A Tale of Two TOSCAs

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From its stern and then scurrying opening measures and its several, famous, semi-spoken lines (Tosca: "Non posso piu"; "Quanto?...Il prezzo"; "Questo e il bacio di Tosca"; "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma"), to its tense second act and tragic third, Puccini's Tosca (1900) is to opera-goers so familiar as to be almost a cliché. This writer can hear the whole work, from start to finish, in her mind's ear; "definitive" renditions like the 1953 complete recording conducted by Victor de Sabata (with Maria Callas as Tosca, Giuseppe di Stefano as Mario, and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia) and the 1985 telecast of the Metropolitan Opera's now-classic Franco Zeffirelli production (Hildegard Behrens, Placido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil in the leads) have said all there is to say aboutTosca. Or have they? In fact, it is impossible for anyone to have the last word on a great work of art; Maestro David Parry successfully "said more" about Tosca in his 1995, English-language recording of the opera for the Chandos label. Likewise, at London's Royal Opera House in 2011, Maestro Antonio Pappano's long experience with Tosca "told" in a performance--shown in cinemas and released on DVD--that might well define the work for opera fans in Generation Y. While there will never be another de Sabata or Zeffirelli, Callas or MacNeil, we today should count ourselves lucky that we have, at least, the Toscas of Jane Eaglen (with Parry) and Angela Gheorghiu (with Pappano) preserved on disc, and in productions worthy of them.

The screening of Jonathan Kent's production for the Royal Opera was actually Gheorghiu's second time on film as Tosca; her first was in a 2002 Tosca movie directed by Benoit Jacquot and sung to a "soundtrack" (i.e., complete recording, co-starring Roberto Alagna and Ruggero Raimondi) conducted by Pappano. Tosca is an opera singer; Gheorghiu's Tosca is a diva "offstage" as well, playing her predicaments (e.g., her suspicions of Mario's infidelity, her fear for his safety) for drama until hit, finally, with the hard truth that some things (namely, Mario's death) are unavoidably real. In this context the listener "hears" that Puccini likely composed Tosca's Act I "O mio bel nido insozzato di fango/Vi piombero inattesa!" in conscious imitation of a Baroque-opera recitative. Gheorghiu's lyric soprano is on the small and light side for the role; yet, during Act II's "Vissi d'arte," the viewer comes to associate her voice with the white gown and glittering tiara she wears, and to appreciate its timbre like pearls or crystal. That voice’s rapid vibrato is pleasantly old fashioned, as are Gheorgiu’s gestures and facial expressions, aimed more at the audience in the opera house than the one in the cinema or at home.

Gheorghiu is supported by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Mario Cavaradossi and Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as Scarpia. A distinctive and delightful thing about Terfel is the fact that he invariably looks British, but in a way that fits whichever role he happens to be singing. His Don Giovanni for the Met (1999) resembled a rake in a Jane Austen novel; his brutal and brutish, long-haired Scarpia for the Royal Opera resembles either Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist--or Oliver!) or Sweeney Todd. Aged 45 in this performance, Terfel retains his characteristic sound--warm, hugely resonant, and with a wide dynamic range--though his vibrato has loosened to the extent that it takes him much of Act I to bring it under control. With his tousled curls and serious manner, Kaufmann as Mario is no generic Italian-tenor ingénu but instead resembles a German Romantic like Schiller or Beethoven. Mario's defiant "Vittoria!" (Act II) sounds especially Beethovenian with this tenor, whose voice is rich, dark, subtle, and incredibly powerful. That Tosca's lover is a brave, political dissident is never forgotten with Kaufmann; in the Act II interrogation and in "E lucevan le stelle," anxiety and doubt register repeatedly on his would-be stoic face. Typical of British opera productions by British theatre directors, Kent's Tosca is staged with the finest dramatic values. The all-important chemistry between Tosca and Mario is present, and Terfel's acting is superb; with just a bit of reining in, Scarpia would convince in a non-musical film or play.

Chandos’ Opera in English series affords fans the chance to hear favorite singers in some of their best parts, roles that might otherwise have gone unrecorded in an era when few complete recordings of standard-repertory operas are made. It is thanks to Chandos and the Peter Moores foundation that we have, on CD, Elizabeth Futral’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Susan Bullock’s Salome, Simon Keenlyside’s Macbeth, and Jane Eaglen’s Tosca, albeit sung in English. Eaglen’s co-stars in the 1995 Tosca are Welsh tenor Dennis O’Neill and Australian baritone Gregory Yurisich. I am just old enough to remember the operatic scene in the later ‘90’s; the main complaint then was that there were “no big voices left” to serve operas like Tosca. Eaglen, an “exception,” was a famous Wagnerian soprano; why weren’t O’Neill and Yurisich better known? The Chandos Tosca suggests that their voices would have been more than adequate for their roles at Covent Garden, if not at the Met.

Chandos’ is, in fact, among the most vocally satisfying Toscas on record (even the Sacristan is well sung, by Andrew Shore); and it is “staged,” stereophonically, so that the music’s drama, its theatricality, is enhanced (e.g., in Act I, the unlocking of the chapel door is audible). Following de Sabata’s precedent, Maestro Parry takes the drama dead seriously; nothing in the orchestra sounds melodramatic. One of the recording’s best moments is Scarpia’s Act I entrance, where the sudden change of mood is total, and Yurisich takes charge with toxic efficiency. That Puccini’s Act II alternates panic with tense repose is well appreciated by Parry, while the “handsome” voice of Yurisich gives him an advantage over Terfel insofar as it implies a physical attraction that “charges” the drama in a more interesting way. Terfel, by contrast, looks so repulsive (like Harvey Weinstein in Empire clothing) that the viewer’s main reaction is sympathy with Tosca’s readiness to jump to her death rather than sleep with him.

The only real fault of the Chandos recording is the undeniable fact that Tosca sounds better in Italian. Open vowels are not just “passionate,” they are also easy to sing (in other words, it is hard for a soprano to make a phrase that reads, “Oh, you starry vaults of night, let passion rain down” intelligible). Edmund Tracey’s English translation, if it mostly sits well on the music, entails some (unavoidable?) awkwardness (for example, the three-syllable “show respect” is used for the four-syllable “bel rispetto”) as well as some mis-accentuation (for “scioliete” Yurisich has to say, “release him”). And why couldn’t Tosca’s Act II “Now I forgive him” have been rendered, “I grant him pardon,” a translation less laughable in the context? An example (among others) of good translation occurs in “O dolci mani” (“Oh, hands of mercy”): “But those hands, fashioned by the God of loving/Were chosen by the sacred goddess of justice/His death was your deed, oh hands of retribution” evokes Enlightenment verse such as Mario Cavaradossi might write or quote.

“Art is a strange enigma/With the power to blend all kinds of beauty,” sings Cavarodossi in the English version of “Recondita armonia.” Tosca, presumably, will be sung forever, and by great singers of differing gifts. Much praise has been lavished on “the classic recordings” of opera’s “golden age” (however defined). Yet to this writer the ‘90’s were a golden age and Parry’s Tosca a classic. Pappano’s Royal Opera performance is becoming a classic; both it and the Parry are worthy of being seen and heard, even by those opera fans with the longest memories.
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Updated Apr-12-2018 at 20:14 by Bellinilover

Classical Music , Opera , Conductors , Recorded Music