San Francisco Classical Voice
By Jason Victor Serinus
It's Kaufmann's Tosca

As much as Emily Magee (Tosca) and Thomas Hampson (Scarpia) receive equal billing, it’s the presence of Jonas Kaufmann (Cavaradossi) in Robert Carsen’s fascinating modern update of Puccini’s potboiler, Tosca that will draw opera lovers to this live-from-Zürich Decca DVD. Not only is Kaufmann the most vocally fascinating and intelligent tenor of the decade (save for Rolando Villázon, who has been mostly sidelined of late), but he’s also the most attractive and physically free.

He's certainly among the most versatile. In addition to singing traditional lyric-spinto lead on recent DVDs of Tosca, Carmen, Werther, and Lohengrin, he's excelled on CDs of songs by Schubert and Strauss. And, as a Wagnerian heldentenor, he'll soon appear in a live-from-the-Met Die Walküre on May 14.

Kaufmann’s sound is hardly idiomatic Italian. Rising from a dark and husky low range that nonetheless has far more weight than Pavarotti’s, his burnished tenor becomes sharper and more focused as it ascends. There is a fair amount of Italianate “ring” (squillo), but nothing like the cutting instruments of Franco Corelli or, going back a century, Enrico Caruso. The warmth and heart-pull of the voice owe even more to intention than sheer sound.

Yet Kaufmann’s sense of Italianate style is unquestionable, and the intelligence with which he deploys his instrument unassailable. Most compelling is his final act aria, “E lucevan le stelle” (And the stars shone). Awaiting execution by firing squad, he begins his final love letter to Tosca in a virtual whisper of a voice. To unusually slow, sensitive, and focused support from conductor Paolo Carignani and Zurich Opera Orchestra, Kaufmann perfectly sustains his thread of sound for almost half the aria. I know of no other performance quite like this.

If only the DVD format were capable of faithfully transmitting the wide dynamics of his voice. By all means, if you’re Blu-ray equipped, get that version should it appear.

Magee, decked out in gowns fit for Anita Ekberg, downplays the diva-bitch approach. From her first entrance, her jealousy seems more a sexual tease than an annoyance. You can actually like this woman. Later on, she feeds dangerously into Scarpia’s sexual fantasies. Shortly before she stabs him to death, she removes first her long gloves, then her dress. Murder in a black slip. She also sings extremely well, with full awareness of idiomatic style. She’s not about to displace the memory of Callas. But who could or can?

The gruffer sound of Hampson’s once velvet baritone works well for Scarpia, but it’s hardly ideal for conveying the murderer’s mix of sadism and sexual obsession. Nor can his expressions quite encompass all of Scarpia’s evil. None of the voices or characterizations of the supporting singers are worth discussing.

Far more interesting are Davy Cunningham’s lighting design, which capitalizes on contrasts between almost glaring spotlights and darkness, and Carsen’s less than sacrosanct staging. The interior of the Church of San Andrea della Valle becomes a theater, with movable seats replacing pews. The briefly viewed tableau at the end of Act I, as the curtain rises to reveal Tosca ascending in a garish throne, screams "pause" and "repeat." So does the kicker treatment of Tosca’s suicide, which is nothing like you would expect. Not everything makes logical or dramatic sense. Then again, neither do those two sides of the same coin, opera and politics.

Jason Victor Serinus writes about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, San Francisco Magazine, Muso, Carnegie Hall Playbill, East Bay Express, East Bay Monthly, San Francisco Examiner, Bay Area Reporter,, and other publications.


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