Review: Tosca4:29, 9th January 2020
Tosca – Puccini
Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Italy staggers on as its economic and political crises persist, but the nation’s premiere cultural event is alive and kicking. Celebrities slipped out of blacked-out cars and fearlessly strode into a paparazzi scrum. Security men with earpieces shiftily surveyed the surrounding streets, while huddled riot police eyeballed distant protestors with loudspeakers and flares. Guests forked out up to €3,000 for tickets (those present included both halves of Dolce and Gabbana, and rock star Patti Smith). Inside the ‘Temple to Italian Opera’, they bathed members of the new government and Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, in minutes of self-congratulatory applause.
Puccini’s ever-popular Tosca was on the playbill this year, and during the feverish build-up opera recordings were pumped through Metro stops, a Tosca-inspired graphic novel was circulated and forest-loads of newspaper coverage investigated every aspect of the production and work. Opera is, after all, a religion in Italy, and the ‘Prima’, or Opening Night, is its principal offering to the lyrical gods.
This year the stakes were especially high: this was general director Alexander Pereira’s final show before leaving for Florence’s Maggio Musicale. La Scala has been re-forged into a powerhouse of Italian opera during his tenure, and Riccardo Chailly’s full cycle of Puccini operas in unusual versions has been a focus. Accordingly, Tosca was presented in a new critical edition, featuring the cuts the composer made before the work’s 1900 La Scala premiere.
The eight alternative passages we heard are relatively insubstantial; Chailly’s selection of the original version says more about his commitment to musical archaeology. Stripping away the accumulated crust of performance routine, the conductor provided transparent surfaces, plastic tempi and clinical delivery of layers of honed detail to make the full complexity of Puccini’s music sparkle. By rinsing maximum colour and expression from the players, Chailly ensured the drama never flagged.
Tosca is a high watermark for verismo precision, its music pre-empting the expressive clarity of a film soundtrack. Crouched over his score, his arms pumping tirelessly, Chailly mined that radical vein, so that in the heady Te Deum one could almost smell the wafting incense evoked in the pit. In the extended, murkily aqueous section that follows Scarpia’s murder, it was clear Bergian expressionism was just around the corner.
Hideously manipulative and deliciously compelling, Luca Salsi as Scarpia invested his lines with Shakespearean intensity, savouring every syllable. Anna Netrebko’s purring soprano delivered the goods, the singer drawing us in with greater containment and vulnerability than expected. A fleeting kiss hinted at genuine attraction between the two, before Tosca, pushed to the brink, almost yielded entirely. Opting to murder her pursuer instead, before wildly staggering about as if in the mad scene Puccini’s librettist had been tempted to write for her, the red streak in her blue dress became, in retrospect, a premonition (costumes: Gianluca Falaschi).
Sets (by the architechtural design firm Giò Forma), including a sumptuous church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, a starkly-lit Palazzo Farnese and a shadowy Castel Sant’Angelo, were appropriately huge for a theatre that tends to enjoy lavish spectacle, especially on its Big Night. Director Davide Livermore provides sharp characterisations and bright solutions to the challenges posed by the extended score. Rather than her final leap over the parapet, Tosca is suspended as if seen falling from above. In a flashback, a double with a knife re-enacts the murder.
Yet in taking the score’s proto-cinematic qualities as his stimulus, Livermore overstretches the point. Or perhaps he misses it entirely. Monolithic scenery in constant motion was never likely to resemble convincingly camera zooms and panning shots. And, in a production clearly intended primarily for the cinema rather than the theatre, showing detail already vividly depicted in the score (for example, Cavaradossi’s torture) risks dulling the overall impact through tautology.
Thanks to the fine musical performances, that did not happen. Tenor Francesco Meli, often full throttle in Verdi, sounded softer-grained in Puccini as he artfully negotiated shapely, pianissimo lines. The redoubtable Carlo Bosi was a sparkling Spoletta, Carlo Cigni an urgent Angelotti. Alfonso Antoniozzi bumbled just as he should as the Sacrestan. The children’s chorus made a spirited contribution. While not famed for its interest in the opera itself, the flashy ‘Prima’ audience seemed palpably absorbed.
Anna Netrebko will be singing Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera from 26 March to 18 April in David McVicar’s production: metopera.org/season/2019-20-season/tosca