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Mostly strong production of one of my all-time favourites

Author: TheLittleSongbird from United Kingdom
2 January 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Puccini's music has always held a special place in my heart, La Boheme and Madama Butterfly are wonderful operas too, but Tosca not only has the magnificent music, with Recondita Armonia, the act 1 love duet, Te Deum, the whole torture/interrogation scene, Vissi D'Arte and E Lucevan E Le Stelle just a few of the highlights, but also a dark, tragic compelling story and one of opera's most memorable and complex villains, Scarpia.

As far as productions of Tosca goes, I do prefer the ones from 1976, 1992, 1984 and 1985 and the Tebaldi and London performance is also worth seeing. The only one actually that I don't recommend at all is the 2009 Met production, which has some of the worst staging of any opera production I've seen. However this Tosca is a mostly strong production, with two or three truly outstanding things, a lot of very good things and one or two disappointments.

I do love how this Tosca looks. The sets are big and very dark, setting the tone of the opera well. The church set, for me the best of the settings, is simply enormous, and a very foreboding and quite cavernous place. Just as much as I did the big staircases dominating the second act which are removed after Scarpia's murder so that the audience and Tosca feel a sense of entrapment. Watching the third act you had the sense you were seeing the end of the world, which seemed quite symbolic of the characters' predicaments.

The costumes are also good, if nothing particularly striking, unless you count Spoletta who looks suitably sinister here. The lighting is atmospheric and never too dark you can't see what's going on, the picture quality is clear and the sound vivid.

When talking about this Tosca I think I'll talk about the assets I thought outstanding. First and foremost, the orchestral playing, I can't begin to praise how good it was. The power of the whole of act 2 is there, and the understated beauty of the act 1 duet is also there. But I thought the revelations were in act 3, the difficult horn entry starting the act is perfectly in unison, and not since the orchestra under Bartoletti in the 1976 film has the truly exquisite cello ensemble before E Lucevan E Le Stelle moved me as much as it did here.

Although the playing throughout is just brilliant, I don't think it would have been possible without Riccardo Chailly, whose conducting is graceful and very stylish. Of the production, Chailly's best decision tempo-wise was for Te Deum. As I will say later, I didn't think much of the staging, but the slow tempo Chailly and Terfel adopt allows the evil of Scarpia to literally drip off him, and it is so effective.

Bryn Terfel was for me the best of the three principals, he is really wonderful in the role. Was it a flawless performance? Maybe not, as he at times like in his act 2 aria has an over-tensed sound on his high notes. However, while he is not quite as three-dimensional as Gobbi or Raimondi or handsome and virile vocally as Milnes, and at first I was worried that Lehnhoff made Scarpia look too much like a thug, you would never guess that Terfel was only making his role debut here, he actually generally sounds like he's been singing it for years. And I actually think now that his appearance added to the character. He is incredibly commanding on stage as well, you can really tell that the character is evil incarnate but while Terfel lets us know that and never forget it he never overdoes it.

Catherine Malfitano is very good as Tosca, if not as good as she was opposite Domingo and Raimondi in the 1992 performance. Her vibrato has loosened making some of her high notes rather shrill under pressure. This said, her middle and lower registers are much more appealing to the ears, her chemistry with both Margison and especially Terfel are credible and she as always is a very committed actress, with Act 3 in a quite interesting touch played like a mad scene and Vissi D'Arte very moving.

Lehnhoff's staging is mostly good in my opinion if not to other people's tastes. The standouts were one of the most chilling accounts of Scarpia's murder I've seen in recent memory and Tosca's jump, or more a flying leap, which even surpasses Hildegard Behrens' for how thrilling it was, and I loved how beautifully captured it was. Despite the slow tempo and Terfel's wonderful singing, the Te Deum's staging was a little too extreme for my tastes, it should give you chills but not like a temporary descent into hell. As striking and cute the cat was in act 2, I don't think it was needed really, it didn't add anything.

Which brings me to the main disappointment, Richard Margison as Caveradossi. It is such a poignant and I think thrilling tenor role, but apart from a strong voice I didn't like his performance I'm afraid. Maybe I am being unfair, as I grew up on Placido Domingo in the role, and was expecting a tenor with a burnished sound, good(truly great even in Domingo's case)musicianship and the ability to become the character, but having seen Margison's competent but stolid approach to Enzo Grimaldi I knew it was too good to be true. The voice is wonderful but unmusical, and I never engaged with him, therefore Caveradossi's poignancy, arrogance and such never comes to life. His big arias are competent but nothing more, Recondita Armonia does have some inelegant phrasing and E Lucevan E Le Stelle is wooden and sounds more furious than anguished and retrospective.

Overall, apart from one or two bits of questionable staging and a disappointing Caveradossi, thanks to the superb orchestral playing and the performance of Scarpia, it is worth seeing. 8/10 Bethany Cox

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