Royal Opera House 2017-18 Review – Tosca: Pieczonka, Calleja, Finley Don’t Quite Mesh in Revival of Jonathan Kent’s Classic Produciton

There are instances in which it’s difficult for opera-lovers to remember “Tosca” is no comedy. From that perspective it is easy to recall the legend of a certain prima donna who once bounced back from the trampoline that was supposed to break her fall as Tosca killed herself. Floria Tosca is not one of opera’s most pitiable characters. She is fastidious, caricaturish, possessive enough to become jealous of a painted Mary Magdalene’s blue eyes and gullible enough to both reveal prisoner Angelotti’s hiding place and then believe Scarpia’s promise of a “mock execution” for Cavaradossi.

Exaggerative acting and forced notes make most productions appear dull and idiosyncratically monotonous; the same in “Tosca” transforms a dark story about power and corruption into a dull farce. In its present embodiment at the Royal Opera House, Jonathan Kent’s traditional take on the opera approaches too closely the brink of that line between moribund tragedy and puppet-show comedy.

It’s Not the Production

It should be noted: none of this is Kent’s fault. The simplistic 2006 production presents the interior of the Sant’Andrea della Valle church as a fulgurant golden railing with a long set of stairs and a colossal Botticelli-esque painting of Mary Magdalene. When Cavaradossi sings “E lucevan le stelle,”he does so standing just before a huge and all-consuming black star-studded sky that sparkles all throughout the aria. Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese has three tall bookcases where only one-third of a single one is filled. The rest are empty. No one doubts that Scarpia isn’t the greatest literary man but surely someone of such power would at least fill-up his bookshelves with some fake leather-bound tomes. That being said, there’s nothing questionable or distasteful in this popular production that has held its sway over the theater for 11 years and is already in its ninth revival.

Not The Trio One Would Hope

What is more surprising is how rapidly some of its singers seem to want to age it.  In the title role of Tosca, Adrianne Pieczonka sometimes makes favorable use of her shaky, somewhat silvery, slender instrument. Tosca’s anxiety is after all implacable and there is nothing that reflects that nervousness as much as a soprano’s quaking voice. But there’s a limit to how many times a singer can let rip and launch a tremulous, shrieking fortissimo from the small slingshot of a hushed piano and avoid exposing a harsh, perilous, unhinged vibrato. As well as having many top notes that spin out of control, Pieczonka rarely varies the degree of Floria Tosca’s sentimental intensity. There are elementary mistakes, such as sliding onto the first note of “Vissi d’arte” so that it’s no longer “Vi” but “Vi-ii”. Her cries of “Mario, Mario, Mario” form a set of identical triplets, figuratively (although not musically) speaking. When Tosca gently scolds Cavaradossi for disheveling her hair after their tender embrace, Pieczonka targets us, the audience, with this admonishment. She likewise addresses us when asking Scarpia for “le prove” – proof of Cavaradossi’s alleged infidelity with the Marchesa Attavanti.

Unfortunately her onstage lover doesn’t lend his own performance that much more credulity. While Joseph Calleja has a very adamant control over his vocal technique, in his interpretation Cavaradossi is much more of a fighter for justice than any kind of adorer of Tosca. The artist in Mario Cavaradossi is barely palpable as he paints his Mary Magdalene portrait and Mr. Calleja sings, “Recondita armonia… di bellezze diverse….” For while Cavaradossi is enamored of the contrast between the object of his art and dark-eyed Tosca, his aria comes forth as much more of a recitation than sweet contemplation. Calleja’s middle register is bold and potent. For the most part the legato of his vocal lines remains intact. Certain ends of phrases are hushed or rushed because of shortening breath, however – notably when he confirms that Tosca on the other hand has “black eyes (“occhio nero”).” His most ardent moment is Cavaradossi’s proclamation of “Vittoria! Vittoria!” when he hears about Scarpia’s defeat. In an attempt to lend nostalgia to his character’s final moments, he attenuates “dai veli,” the end of the line about him loosening Tosca’s clothes and revealing her beauty. The note finishes in a crack.

Scarpia certainly doesn’t lack bombasticity. Through Gerald Finley’s eerie vocal contouring, the instrument effuses a menacing, villainous characteristic. Yet at the same time certain notes fall out of their proportions and enfeeble their effect: the ‘va’s of “Va, Tosca” in the “Te Deum” are so lengthy that the directive begins to ring hollow. Some of his scariest lines, such as the moment when he tells Spoletta that Angelotti’s hiding in the garden well, are performed without the indispensable sadism that makes Scarpia, Scarpia.

Ditto for the Accompaniment

Simon Shibambu sustains his vocal part well enough to manifest his character’s resolve in the role of political prisoner Angelotti – although at times one feels he lacks the fear of being caught. It could nonetheless be an artistic decision on Shibambu’s behalf. As Sciarrone Jihoon Kim lends his voice that customary thin, metallic-sounding ominousness we associate with Scarpia’s little helper.

While much of the singing and acting in this production gives one the impression it can get away with 19th-century tactics – falsetto notes, too many raised eyebrows, addressing the audience instead of one’s scene partner – the orchestra appears to follow in its footsteps.

Conductor Dan Ettinger proportions most of the rubato in the opera well: the motif of Scarpia’s entrances is grave and thunderous, the last chords of the second act after our heroine murders the enemy have well-timed intervals between them. Yet sadly, altogether there are numerous, easily catchable mistakes. A lot of the time the brass graze the rest of the orchestra rather than playing together with them. While their playing is frequently muffled, on some occasions flutes don’t do much better. During the “Te Deum” at the end of the first act, their ends of phrases coincide as much as runners in a race who halt at different times across the finish line. At certain times the accentuation of fortissimo is maybe even a little too loud, as when the orchestra repeats Tosca’s insistence of ignorance to Scarpia, “Non so nulla.”

It’s humorous to think that many operagoers sigh when learning that another old production will be once again revived next season. For in some cases the performance really feels much rustier than worn-out staging. And nothing in the brochure for next season warns subscribers about that.

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About the Author

Sophia Lambton
Sophia Lambton became a professional classical music critic at the age of seventeen when she began to be published in "Musical Opinion", Britain’s oldest magazine centred on classical music. One-and-a-half years later she embarked on a long pathway of research for an opera-related non-fiction book. In 2015 she graduated from Oxford with a 2:1 in Classics and Modern Languages. Sophia is currently working on both her non-fiction work and the second volume of her third novel, "The Crooked Little Pieces".

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