Bergen International Festival 2023 Review: Tosca

The Queen of Norway Gives Lise Davidsen Well-Deserved Flowers

By Zenaida des Aubris

The Grieghallen in Bergen, Norway may not be a particularly architecturally stunning building, and the 1500-seat hall inside is rather functional. But all of these factors are forgotten once the music starts, and you are immersed in the wonderful acoustics of the hall. This was also the case at the premiere of the 71st Festival with a concert performance of Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca.” It was an extra special premiere because it was the role debut of Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in the title role. Freddie de Tomaso as Cavarodossi and Sir Bryn Terfel as Scarpia rounded out the cast under the musical direction of Edward Gardner conducting the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus.

Star of the Night

Ever since Davidsen hit upon the world of opera in 2015, when she won not one but three major competitions – Operalia, Hans Gabor Belvedere and in her home country, the Queen Sonja Competition – she has been a singer to watch. With her youthful and dramatic full-bodied soprano, she has since enchanted audiences on the world’s greatest stages in roles such as  Sieglinde in “Walküre,” Elisabeth in “Tannhäuser,” Eva in “Meistersinger,” but also as “Ariadne” or Lisa in “Pique Dame.” Most recently, she was celebrated as the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera.

Now she is tackling important Puccini repertoire.  At 36, she still looks mid-twenties and has beautifully radiant, high notes and a butter-soft middle range. In this, her first Tosca, she was a young woman, a little bit naive, very loving and a bit jealous, a child-woman. A far cry from the dramatic, worldly sophisticated interpretation we know from many famous “Toscas” of the past, which have become the hallmarks of this character. Maybe she will develop in that direction, maybe not. After all, every great singer shapes this role in her own way, and so will Davidsen.

The fact that her Italian pronunciation can still be improved upon and that she will no longer need a score as soon as she takes part in a staged production, were not deterrents in this performance. Right now, she could not have chosen a better place for her role debut. At this year’s Bergen Festival she is Artist-in-Residence, giving a master class, a Lied recital, and singing the soprano part in Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem.”

Solid Support

De Tommaso was her Cavaradossi. He, too, a young voice to keep an eye on as a guileless artist who gets drawn into a political intrigue. Especially his aria in the third act “e lucevan le stelle” beguiled with a soulful and honest intimacy. With a touch of old-fashioned grandezza, he loved to hold and draw out his high notes.

Terfel was the epitome of a power-hungry Baron Scarpia. Every look or flick of his fingers betrayed his experience in this role and how he has made it his own. His dramatic presence was sheer and overwhelming, a stark contrast to Tosca’s innocently rendered “vissi d’arte” with him lurking in the background, ready to pounce upon his prey.

Bass-baritone Ashley Riches sang Angelotti with appropriate intensity and desperation.  Christian Valle used his expressive bass in the role of the Sacristan, giving this character a touch of humour even. Scarpia’s two henchmen, tenor Kjetil Støa as Spoletta and bass Ludvig Lindström as Sciarrone, brought vocal commitment to these supporting roles. Olav Frøyen Sandvik as the young shepherd, touched every heart in the audience with his clear and endearing boy soprano voice, singing the simple folk tune at the beginning of the third act.

Under the direction of chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede, the mixed and childrens’ chorus filled the hall, despite being placed behind the orchestra, in the finale of the first act. Here again, the good acoustics of the hall were noticeable.

Edward Gardner, music director of the Philharmonic Orchestra since 2015, lead the musicians confidently. He never let the orchestra overpower the singers, gave them support, let strings have plenty of space in the symphonic passages and insisted on a dramatic finale of the first act, when he encouraged the entire percussion section to let loose.

The hall was sold out to the last seat. This premiere was a society gala event, with visitors not only from Bergen but many who came from all over Norway, the Nordic countries and beyond. In Europe, the Bergen Festival, even though it has been going since 1953, and even though Bergen is the home of the celebrated composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), is still a bit of a well-kept secret. With well over a hundred performances in many different locations and genres of music, dance, jazz and drama, many of them free of charge, the Festival had over 70,000 visitors in 2022, within a two week period in May-June. For music lovers who are also nature lovers, the Bergen Festival would be a perfect starting point to continue up the coast with its spectacularly beautiful fjords.

For the premiere of “Tosca,” King Harald and Queen Sonja were in attendance. For them, there were two especially sumptuous red armchairs in the front row. The audience was prompted to stand upon Their Majesties’ entrance and exit. A spontaneous standing ovation for all the performers was a natural reaction from the audience. A particularly touching gesture during the final applause was the presentation of a bouquet of flowers by Queen Sonja to Davidsen. The two ladies have known each other ever since Davidsen won first prize at the Queen Sonja competition. The next day,  Davidsen gave an interview open to the public, moderated by a Norwegian journalist. Perfectly relaxed and at ease, she asked laughingly “did that really happen?”


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