Concertonet, 24 April 2011
Christian Dalzon
Puccin: Tosca, Zürich 2009

Yet another DVD of Tosca; the twenty-second, and counting. At least, this Zurich Opera production, as arguable as one may find it, offers a non-traditional approach.

Canadian director Robert Carsen conceived a “play-within-the-play” - not a novel idea in opera/theater, by all means - not even for Carsen himself who had already tried it in Paris with The Tales of Hoffmann. To make a long story short, the action is set in the 1950’s inside a theater, with shifting points of view for the three acts. Gone are the church of Sant’Andrea, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo. In Act 1, we look at the stage from the back of the stalls, with a proscenium arch, rows of empty chairs, and a crimson stage curtain that will rise for the Te Deum, unveiling Tosca (the singer) in full stage regalia. Act 2 is set backstage, behind the fire curtain. In Act 3, we look from upstage, with Mario facing the imaginary audience and the firing squadron facing the real audience. The opera ends – well, almost - with Tosca throwing herself over the footlights into a pitch-dark orchestra pit, to return immediately on the stage for imaginary curtain calls (but then, why is she turning her back to “her” audience to receive the flowers?). Aesthetically, the approach does offer striking moments, but Carsen spins out the mise en abyme to the wire. The distracting overdose of the “theater-within-the-theater” concept, punctuated with inconsistencies here and there, fails to convey the emotional dimension of the work (and what is a Tosca without the emotion?).

Emily Magee, as a glamorous Ava Gardner-like star, signs a commendable, staunch Tosca. Casting Thomas Hampson as Scarpia may look surprising on the paper, but the absence of darkness in his voice is soon forgotten. The American baritone gives an eloquent portrayal of this complex character, creating a stylish, suave, elegant Scarpia. As a result, Hampson looks even more terrifying than the habitual sardonic fiend. Jonas Kaufmann is “the undisputed Cavaradossi of our time”. With his looks and acting, the German tenor is the perfect romantic hero. The breath line and the phrasing are above reproach, the baritonal glow to his voice and the use of mezza voce gradually followed by stentorian, ringing high notes are simply stunning.

The real weak point of this production comes from the pit with an uncommitted, humdrum reading of the score by Paolo Carignani. A serious flaw, when the Tosca orchestra should steal the show.


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