Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Better than Callas? (ROH/Tosca)

Puccini, Tosca (Emmanuel Villaume cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House)
After the distinctly underwhelming Eugene Onegin last week, there was an element of anxiety last night:  would Tosca be another turkey? A nice lady in the queue to get in (a new invention with all this bag-searching) assured me that yes Onegin had been a disgrace, even if better than its original outing -the mind boggles - and that Tosca was lovely. And a fine cast with no sicklist at least, promised good things.  
Some have suggested Gheorghiu might just be a finer Tosca than Callas. That's no modest claim. Last night, for all the perfection on offer, there wasn't quite enough power in Act II - with the essential 'Vissi d'arte', surely one of the most beautiful arias Puccini wrote. Yet as it is not bel canto it doesn't call for a demonstration of endless fire-power Gheorghiu sings it here, but a smidge more volume would not have gone amiss. Was there, dare I say it, a touch of the old park-and-bark?; certainly her movement seemed a little uncertain in Scarpia's library, and there was a certain uneasiness kinetically throughout. But then it would be, I suppose. By Act III, her voice had really hit a sweet spot, and the Callas claims made more sense, and Gheorghiu's voice glittered more than her dress (pictured below). As she plunged over the battlements, however, it wasn't as moving as it ought to be. Likely because of a rather drab final set, with some grey thing hanging down (a death star or something? a radical proposal for staging it there), this didn't have the full emotional impact it can.
A sparkling Tosca
Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca in Tosca © ROH 2016. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Back for a long-ish run, this was the most prestigious of the two casts, and there were no weak points. Samuel Youn as Scarpia, one the meanest baddies in the repertoire, was a warm bass which still sent shivers down the spine. Deeply impressive, Youn is one to look out for undoubtedly. Tosca's lover Mario had a commanding presence on stage, but at times  Riccardo Massi seemed to be at the upper-end of his limit, giving a slightly strained sound at the top of his register, which I didn't find especially appealing. Importantly, however, there was real chemistry between Tosca and Mario. Angelotti was sung by Yuriy Yurchuk very finely. Despite some chemistry between the two, something did not quite gel. It was a series of bilateral agreements, rather than the sweeping trade agreement which was needed, and as such fell short of an ensemble piece.

Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi in Tosca in Tosca © ROH 2016. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

What a difference a conductor makes: from the pit, the orchestra was on very fine form under Emmanuel Villaume. Tosca is so well-known it is in the category of hard-to-really-hear, yet this was a lively and fresh if fairly clean, ungimmicky interpretation. Puccini does make it easy to get a response from an audience. 
Tosca is on the list of critical operas. Big houses cannot take much of a gamble of productions as they bring in a devoted audience  -probably older, conservative in tastes, deep in pocket, but only come to this handful of favourites. Jonathan Kent's is not the most lovely of productions, but it works. The sacristy and ecclesiastical setup at the start are spot on, and the lair in which Scarpia has installed himself works well in II. Perhaps only in the third is the staging rather anaemic. However it doesn't distract, and after last week, that's enough. Better than Callas? hard call to make.

Overall: a decent production and some beautiful singing let down by a lack of cohesion and uneasy movement.

Credits

Giacomo Puccini
Director - Jonathan Kent
Designer - Paul Brown
Lighting designer - Mark Henderson
Conductor - Emmanuel Villaume
Floria Tosca - Angela Gheorghiu
Mario Cavaradossi - Riccardo Massi
Baron Scarpia - Samuel Youn
Angelotti - Yuriy Yurchuk
Spoletta - Hubert Francis
Sacristan - Donald Maxwell
Sciarrone - David Shipley
Gaoler - John Morrissey
Royal Opera Chorus
Concert Master - Vasko Vassilev
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

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