Classics Today
Review by: Robert Levine
Chilling Scarpia; Chilly Tosca; Fresh Mario
One need only watch Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, scratching her chin in puzzlement as she tries to figure out who Cavaradossi’s painting of Mary Magdalene looks like, to realize that Sarah Bernhardt may rest easy. “Golly, who could that be?” she’s thinking deeply, and then, grabbing the dramatic moment by the throat, she hurls out “E l’Attavanti!” much to everyone’s surprise. Later, in Act 2, when Scarpia asks her if she knows the whereabouts of the escaped prisoner Angelotti, Gheorghiu-as-Tosca, dramatic brain-wheels a-spinning, thinks to herself “time for chest voice” and sings the words “Non so nulla,” thusly. And so it goes: albeit without a hint of spontaneity on the soprano’s part, there is a good chance that this Tosca is, note-for-note, one of the finest ever sung.

In the opera house, I would not be surprised if the voice were a bit too small for the part, but on DVD it sounds gorgeous: rich and creamy from top to bottom, all of the high Cs easily produced and perfectly placed, legato pure, dynamics attended to. Looking ravishing and every inch the diva in her gowns and jewels, Gheorghiu moves well and knows when to glare, when to giggle, when to fill her voice with coyness or hatred. But she is always Angela Gheorghiu first and her performance is proof that you can’t have everything: this is an amazingly unmoving portrayal. I won’t compare her to other Toscas; I’ll allow opera-lovers who watch this to choose their own favorites.

And watch it they should. Taking in Bryn Terfel’s performance of Scarpia, you sense what is missing from his leading lady. Looking as corrupt and lecherous as possible (his portrayal brings to mind Orson Welles in the 1958 film Touch of Evil), unkempt and with dirty hair, he actually terrifies as no other Scarpia has (even Gobbi’s) because it is impossible to know what he will do next. The voice booms out spectacularly in the showy moments, of course, but it is in the insinuating, manipulative spots that the character’s evil can be so horrifying. Shots of him enjoying Tosca’s misery reveal an alert sadist, and his interpretation seems to come from within; he despises himself. After Tosca stabs him, he lands on top of her and they struggle—a fine piece of stage business that will make you gasp. This is hot stuff, and when Scarpia dies, much of the power leaves the performance.

Somewhere in between the brilliant artifice of one and the seeming artlessness of the other comes Jonas Kaufmann’s stunning Cavaradossi. The voice just gets better and better. From the (somewhat self-conscious) soft notes and diminuendos, to the Corelli-like cry of “Vittoria!”, Kaufmann is always in control of his beautiful, expressive sound, and he looks the hero to a fare-thee-well. Seemingly incapable of vulgarity, he sings an immensely moving “E lucevan le stelle” without a sob, and the restraint only makes his reading more valid.

In the smaller roles, Lukas Jacobski makes us believe Angelotti’s plight; Jeremy White’s Sacristan is less buffo than usual; Hubert Francis’ Spoletta is as nasty as his boss; and William Payne’s treble makes the most of the Shepherd Boy’s solo. Antonio Pappano convinces again that there’s little he does not conduct well; he’s considerate of the singers but keeps an inner pace and throb to the score that makes it seem inevitable. In the second act, when Scarpia is questioning Tosca, the repeated thrum of the strings becomes torturous in itself, and the Covent Garden forces play passionately throughout.

Aside from Scarpia’s molestation of Tosca, even near death, the direction by Jonathan Kent (helped in this revival by Duncan Macfarland) holds no surprises. Paul Brown’s design for the two-level first act set is the most effective: the wrought-iron grille a cage that keeps the evil in check, with Scarpia down below and the Te Deum above. As I mentioned above, for sheer singing, this is among the finest performances of this opera I’ve ever heard, and Gheorghiu’s legions of fans may not notice (or mind) the chill I sense coming from her.

The only performance on DVD that generates a vaguely comparable amount of heat is from the Nederlands Opera with Terfel and Catherina Malfitano; the 1976 film that takes place on location is lip-synched and therefore rules itself out; the early Met/Zeffirelli show with Domingo, Hildegard Behrens, and Cornell MacNeil is excellent. And of course, Callas’ second act (EMI) with Gobbi shows us all how it should be done. This new one is excellent, and if you “buy” Gheorghiu’s act, you’ll have no complaints at all.

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