The Star Ledger
Ronni Reich
Puccini: Tosca

With tenor-of-the-moment Jonas Kaufmann starring as Mario Cavaradossi, the courageous painter who loves the title character in Puccini’s “Tosca,” opera lovers are bound to focus on him out of curiosity alone. In a new DVD from the Openhaus Zürich, Kaufmann lives up to his reputation. He also shares the spotlight with excellent castmates, even though all are stuck in lackluster trappings.

Directed by Robert Carsen, the production uses the familiar play-within-a-play trope to anchor the bloody story of an impulsive diva, with all movements theatricalized to represent a life lived through art.

The director’s motivations are made clear in a booklet accompanying the DVD and they are perfectly reasonable. In practice, the concept is unobtrusive, but it adds little. Instead of the typical candlestick ritual around Scarpia’s body, Tosca anoints him with a playbill and a rose; instead of church pews, there are velvet chairs. A drab brick wall and red and gold curtains serve as backdrops.

In the title role, Magee dispatches her round, ripe soprano with great finesse and control, especially in the much-loved aria “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”). If she weren’t forced into “opera singer” gestures all the time, her performance would be even more compelling. Still, with not an edgy note out of her even at her character’s most outrageous, she might be even better suited to full-voiced Mozart and Strauss roles.

Thomas Hampson imbues the villainous role of Scarpia with full, gleaming tone. He is not the snarling powerhouse that some might associate with the character, but one chilling in his easy sadistic smile and believable in his unyielding desire for Tosca.

He is also quite vicious in Carsen’s staging, tearing through the life-size portrait of the Madonna and looming eerily behind Tosca with a conspicuous stage light creating a silhouette behind him, before her aria.

Under Paolo Carignani, the orchestra plays cleanly and precisely, bringing out the character in Puccini’s score, from the delicacy and vivid color palette of Cavaradossi’s opening aria to the ominous heft of Scarpia’s Act I closer — although there could be a little more heat in the central clash. Baritone Valeriy Murga appears as a strong-voiced Angelotti and bass Giuseppe Scorsin sings ably as the sacristan.

As for Kaufmann, his appeal is not just a question of rugged good lucks and his virile, grainy voice. His tenor barrels forward with impressive volume and intensity as he endures torture at Scarpia’s hands, but the poetic phrasing and breathtaking piano singing in his final aria “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were shining”) are even more memorable. He can be heard more on a new CD of Verismo arias (also on Decca) that’s worth checking out.


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