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
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
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.