Musical Toronto, July 3, 2016
By Joseph So
Puccini: Tosca, Bayerische Staatsoper, 1. Juli 2016
Letters from Munich: Tosca
Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca: Jonas Kaufmann as Mario Cavaradossi, Anja Harteros as Floria Tosca and Bryn Terfel as Baron Scarpia. Bayerische Staatsoper, National-theater, July 1st 2016.
Greetings from the Bavarian State Opera — this is the first of several reports on my annual visit to beautiful Munich for the Opera Festival. I’ve been coming to the National-theater and the Cuvilliés-theater since the 1980’s, with fond memories of the many wonderful performances I’ve seen here. What was an occasional visit, in the beginning, turned into an annual ‘pilgrimage’ of sorts. Year in, year out, when it comes to star singers and/or conductors, the musical quality of the BSO is on par with — and sometimes superior to — the best houses in the world, the likes of Wiener Staatsoper and Royal Opera Covent Garden.

My visit this year started off with a bang last evening, with Tosca starring the Traumpaar, Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi and Harteros as the Roman diva. Adding to the mix Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Scarpia, and you have the ingredients for the hottest ticket in town. It’s common to see every evening before a performance, on the steps in front of the National-theater, people holding up “suche karte” signs, hoping to buy any unused tickets for the evening. One sees this in Bayreuth or Vienna, and sometimes even London and the Met. Toronto? Never! I am sorry to say, no matter how good the product, Canada just doesn’t have the opera culture to generate as much interest. Last evening, I counted at least 25 people with hangdog faces holding up the signs, and when the lucky few who scored a ticket, it was like Christmas in July…

There was a good reason for the frenzy. In the past forty-nine years of opera-going, I can’t tell you how many performances of Tosca I’ve seen, good, bad, or indifferent. It’s one of those unavoidable warhorses. Having seen so many, I usually avoid routine performances if I can help it. Last evening was anything but routine. It ranked as among the very best I’ve seen. From the downbeat of Kirill Petrenko, the BSO Music Director, I was pinned to my seat by the sound coming out of the pit. Loud yes, but never crude. The Bayresiches Staatsorchester isn’t you run of the mill band, and I’ve never known it to play badly. The sound was balanced, nuanced, exciting, and visceral under the baton of Petrenko. The public loves him, and he got a huge ovation at the end. Not surprising he’s taking over Berliner Philharmoniker in 2019.

A great orchestra and conductor do not a Tosca make — it’s still up to the three principals, and you can’t get better than Kaufmann and Harteros. Munich is the best place to hear them since they are home and relaxed and least likely to cancel. Given they have sung together so much, they have perfect stage instinct and rapport, reacting to each other freely and confidently. I was surprised how much they get into the drama. Harteros’ Tosca is every inch the diva in Act One, alternately imperious, playful, arch, and yet capable of womanly warmth. In her interaction with the powerhouse villain of Terfel, she is fierce one moment and despondent the next, her Vissi d’arte exquisitely sung. Her physical struggles with Scarpia (almost) real. The Luc Bondy stage direction means the murder is very deliberate, not the spur of the moment thing. Terfel took awhile to warm up, his voice in the Te Deum was marginally leaner than before — after all, he’s been singing at a very high level since 1989, a long time in a singer’s career. But by Act Two, he was at his snarly best.

But top vocal honours went to the Cavaradossi of Jonas Kaufmann, whose dramatic tenor never sounded better. There were all sorts of rumours this past spring, speculations that he was having vocal (or health) problems and the cancellations of the rest of this season was imminent. All such rumours turned out to be false, to the great relief of his fans. I certainly did not detect any vocal issue. He sang with security, beauty, and his usual spectrum of dynamics and tone colours. His E lucevan le stelle in Act Three was a tour de force. Really today, in either the Germanic Heldentenor fach or the Italian and French reps that calls for a dramatic tenor, he’s unbeatable.

I save for last the 2009 Luc Bondy production that the Met audience loved to hate so much. People complain that it is sordid and ugly. Let’s face it, Tosca as a story isn’t exactly pretty is it! It was famously called a “shabby little shocker” by Joseph Kerman many decades ago. The now retired Zeffirelli production for the Met was opulent to the extreme, and frankly, that style is pretty much out of fashion in the opera world today. While I do agree that it was a feast for the eyes, the set was so grand that it somehow dwarfed the characters and their emotions.

In an ideal world, the opera houses should keep more than one production of the same opera and rotate them to keep everything fresh. For example, I quite liked the late Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s Met Ring from the 80’s. I hated to see it go. The new Robert Lepage Ring was received rather negatively, although somewhat unfairly I feel. It is good to have a change once in awhile. But wouldn’t it be great if we could have both versions? But that’s not going to happen, given today’s economics. In any case, the Bondy Tosca has been sufficiently tweaked that it’s working better. They got rid of the hideous dummy when Tosca jumps at the end. In fact, the staging of Act 3 has been quite radically revamped. They also got rid of the embarrassing passage of one of the three prostitutes in Act 2 giving Scarpia simulated oral sex. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this Tosca is Petrenko’s knack for verismo. In fact, I’m totally surprised by how veristic the whole cast is. Here we have a Greek, a German, a Welshman, with a Russian at the helm, and not an Italian in sight! Yet they’ve outdone any Italian Toscas I’ve seen — Bravi tutti!ger as I’ve experienced in some years but the production was a frustrating missed opportunity that threw away a promising first act in a welter of cliché and unwanted sensationalism.

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