Opera News, July 2011
Magee; Kaufmann, Hampson; Chorus and Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich, Carignani. Production: Carsen.
Tosca is an opera of such theatrical wizardry and dramatic specificity that glomming a concept onto it can create more problems than it solves — even for a director as serious and gifted as Robert Carsen. His thought in this 2009 staging is that Tosca and Scarpia are theatrical beings, playing out a dramatic ritual, while Cavaradossi is the innocent pawn who loses his life during their game. Once he is dead, and Scarpia likewise done away with, Tosca has no purpose but to toss herself off the stage.

The setting for the opera is a theater. There is no church (we get it, the theater is their church); the choir becomes little ballerinas and usherettes; the congregants and clergy are instead an audience that's come for a show entitled Tosca. Certain lines of text referring to crucial locations or plot points become frustrating for the initiated and confusing for the neophyte. There are a couple of unintentional laughs, as when an eager fan asks the diva for her autograph during a particularly unfortunate dramatic moment. Intended to highlight the private-versus-public conflict of celebrity, it nonetheless provokes a chuckle. (My drag troupe, La Gran Scena, actually included the same moment in our spoof/tribute to Tosca.) The well-staged murder of Scarpia also becomes a bit silly when, once the diva dispatches the villain, Carsen replaces Puccini's stage directions with something mildly risible. The director's experience, skill and intelligence are on display, but the heavy hand of a pervasive approach turns a viscerally thrilling piece of theater into a somewhat leaden piece about theater.

Nonetheless, fans of Jonas Kaufmann will no doubt want to have this first video document of one of his most exciting roles. Kaufmann stepped into the Met's controversial new Tosca two seasons ago, galvanizing the cast and breathing life into a rather lifeless affair. Here too, he transcends his surroundings, offering spectacular singing and an interpretation that works within and despite the direction. Occasionally, his ravishing mezza voce singing might seem precious — the opening of "E lucevan le stelle" and "O dolci mani" — were it not so clearly underlined by a powerful emotional connection, as is everything he does.

Emily Magee, in her first run of Toscas, offers a rich, sturdy instrument, impressively controlled in the difficult climax of "Vissi d'arte." Here, Carsen's idea — that we're watching the diva in performance mode — works, as this is already a subconscious element of the aria. Elsewhere, his insistence that she is playacting all the time can get in Magee's way and make the characterization too superficial. Magee is less comfortable in the lighter moments of Act I, which require nuanced delivery of dialogue with constantly changing colors that reflect Tosca's personality. But she possesses the big vocal guns for the role in the two succeeding acts, and it will be interesting to see her in a production with a less one-dimensional approach.

Thomas Hampson, also new to his role, is too intelligent a singer not to turn in a viable Scarpia, even if the part is not custom-made for his vocal endowment. The supporting cast is fine, particularly the creepily subservient Spoletta of Peter Straka. Paolo Carignani leads the Zurich forces in a well-paced reading that doesn't generate much orchestral excitement. The generally good video direction is hampered by the shadowy lighting, which, for instance, finds Kaufmann in the dark for "Vittoria! Vittoria!"

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