The Australian, June 18, 2011
Deborah Jones
THERE was a time, not so very long ago, when German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was decreed by some to be too Italian for Wagner and too German for Puccini. It's complete bollocks, of course. Kaufmann may not have the classic Italianate ring of a Pavarotti, but he is an absolutely remarkable artist who has the lot, as this DVD of Tosca amply illustrates. The opera is less than 10 minutes old before Cavaradossi's first aria, Recondita armonia, lets you get his measure. Kaufmann positively glows: his phrasing is flowing and luscious; there is not a hint of strain at the top and he is thoughtful in expression, letting you know this is just the beginning of his journey. At the other end of the evening, E lucevan le stelle is given with restrained, aching tenderness. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Kaufmann is super-handsome and slender. Phew! Now for the less good news. The conceit of Robert Carsen's production is that the action takes place on a stage within a stage (Tosca being an opera singer and all that). It doesn't have anything more to say and has the effect of putting a bit of cool air around the drama. And Tosca's last grand gesture is a washout in this conception. But there are benefits, too. The production pretty much keeps out of the performers' way -- apart from a bit of making them stand artily under big stage lamps -- and lets their personalities take centre stage. Thomas Hampson is a tremendous foil as Scarpia and is shown to great advantage here. He's one of those elegantly cruel gentlemen whose intentions are telegraphed with the minimum of fuss and gesture. He would possibly sound a little underweight in a big house but works wonderfully on screen. American soprano Emily Magee sings the title role admirably, but the production is problematic for her. She looks marvellous in the 1950s film star-style clothes but acts a little too much like a young Norma Desmond ready for her close-up. The upshot is an undermining of some of Tosca's most defining moments: her insistence on changes to her lover's painting of the Madonna; the hisses to Scarpia that he should die; the exhortation that Cavaradossi should act magnificently in the face of the firing squad . . . The shortfall would be less noticeable if the Magee-Kaufmann chemistry were better, and in a different production it may well be. Paolo Carignani conducts the Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zurich in a solid rather than thrilling performance that tends towards superficial brightness at the expense of emotional depth, but opera fans will rightly want this for Kaufmann in his full powers.

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