“Oh my!” is how one would headline, exasperatingly, the sordid, crude, and entirely inappropriate production of “Tosca” at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.
Severed limbs, some sort of nuclear winter, and an orgy of on-stage violence and sex – the premises to Martin Kušej’s vision of the Puccini melodrama could not be more grotesque and, in essence, detrimental to the otherwise noteworthy performances of Kristine Opolais, Jonathan Tetelman, and Gábor Bretz in the main roles.
Yet it does not end there: Kušej takes artistic license to a dangerously iconoclastic extreme, mutilating the libretto like the cut-off torso which in such undignified a way dominates the scenery from beginning to end.
All Doom and Gloom
Why Unitel Editions chose to release this “Tosca” from January 2022 on DVD, I do not know.
It is provocative for sure but in its blatant overconfidence does little to endear itself to the public. In fact, the problem boils down to an inverted hierarchy: this is the “Tosca” of Martin Kušej and not of Giacomo Puccini.
Yet not all of Kušej’s ideas are bad; violence and a somewhat morbid fascination with sex are ingrained in this so-called verismo shocker’s DNA as much as they were part of Puccini’s marital life. In Kušej’s version, however, the emphasis on the gritty feels gratuitous, even voyeuristic as it does not tie up loose ends.
For instance, why is Tosca being shot by the ghostly figure of the Marchesa Attavanti? How about her sado-masochistic demeanor, with a half-naked Opolais strip-teasing in a neurotic turn of events? Freud would have mused at such psychiatric ambiguity…
Finally, the spatial relationships are very much unclear; why does everyone congregate around Scarpia’s caravan? The average opera-goer has few choices other than to remain frustrated by the patchiness of Kušej’s ideas and their execution.
“Tosca” by Martin Kušej
Most objectionable, however, is the director’s staggering propensity to subjugate the libretto in order to suit his scenic and dramatic needs.
At the start of “Recondita armonia,” for instance, Cavaradossi forfeits his customary request for colors; instead, he abstrusely wants the demon-turned-sacristan to “Guarda, la dietro” (“Look, there behind!”), that is behind Scarpia’s caravan where the Marchesa Attavanti makes an appearance which, in short, is totally uncalled for.
The sacristan then laconically mutters that he does not believe the Marchess to be a saint. Gone is his delightful “Scherza coi fanti e lascia stare i santi,” let alone any hint at the character’s buffo elements which would later so prominently define his interaction with Scarpia.
The immediate damage is threefold: first, there is no scenic, dramatic, or other motivation for Cavaradossi to appear as a painter anymore; secondly, the role of the sacristan is stripped of its very raison d’être; and finally, the above strains the logic behind subsequent scenes, from Tosca’s jealous entrance onto the stage to Scarpia discovering, ominously, the Marchess’ clothes.
The Alluring Kristine Opolais
Not all is for the worse, however, as this “Tosca” stars the Latvian Kristine Opolais in one of her recent signature roles. It is a solid, charismatic, and entirely dedicated portrayal of the Puccinian diva.
The voice is as beautiful as ever, with a warm timbre, but sometimes lacks the bite of the role’s most incisive moments. One will not hear the idiosyncrasies of Oliveiro or Vishnevsakya, nor will one indulge the long-drawn lines of Tebaldi and Nilsson.
Yet Opolais draws her very own character which is more subtle, fragile, and layered than the bawdiness of the stage direction would suggest.
Her “Vissi d’arte” is alluring, imaginative, and well shaded; the chest tones may be slightly underdeveloped but she does not fail to produce dramatic effect whenever the lines veer towards the parlato as when she ferociously stabs her tormentor.
Finally, the dreaded C in the third act bears a shine and ease that are rare for live performances, making the Latvian’s Tosca one to be remembered, vocally and for her commitment to a staging which brushes off all notions of good taste in what seems one big sweep of iconoclasm.
“Vittoria!” for Tetelman
At her side Jonathan Tetelman delivers a superb Cavaradossi; the Chilean-American displays a muscular tone with ringing tops and impeccable phrasing.
For instance, the transition, in a single breath, from “s’affisa intero” to “occhio all’amor soave” ranks among the best I have heard in a live setting; his “Vittoria!” is a tour de force and both arias feature an impressive display of vocal prowess.
The latter, however, comes with a dangerous flipside as one would not want Tetelman to overexpose his very rare instrument. Longevity is key and one hopes the tenor will be able to define the current decade as much as Kaufmann did over the course of the 2010s, particularly in the role of Mario Cavaradossi.
“Such a Hubbub in Church!”
In Gábor Bretz the two protagonists find a staunch and robust villain. His timbre is agreeable and conducive to the menacing undertones which Bretz impressively strikes since his first appearance in Act one.
There is indeed something unnerving about his portrayal as much as about his scenic presence. Unlike Gobbi or even Taddei this Scarpia has effaced all sense of self-irony or playfulness; Bretz renders a thoroughly cruel and merciless Chief of Police, which seems in line with the overt pessimism of Martin Kušej.
Unfortunately, the illusion does not hold up as the latter’s equally merciless alterations to the libretto make for some derisory effects, to the detriment of our baritone.
For example, Bretz enters with a stentorian “Un tal baccano in chiesa!” (“such a hubbub in church!”); in the absence of a physical church, however, the sacristan retrieves Cavaradossi’s lunch “sotto la neve” (“under the snow”) and, in tautological gibberish, adds that “he had no appetite, nor did he want to eat…” So much for the key to the chapel which Puccini and his librettists had originally devised or, for that matter, Scarpia’s investigation!
Preferably on CD?
The “Tosca” from the Theater an der Wien is memorable for the wrong reasons.
It is radical for the very depravation it so gloomily depicts; yet it is also strangely reductive and has little more to tell than instinctive cruelty, hopelessness, and cynicism which it embeds in a dystopian and post-apocalyptic setting.
At times, it even feels like a profanation, as when human remains are thrown to the dogs or the blood-covered Attavanti is retching in the background. Aside from its near-nihilistic vision of mankind, however, it remains quite bland and flavorless, partly due to its intrusive treatment of the libretto.
It is a shame really; on the other hand, the music operates on a consistently high level and conductor Marc Albrecht draws a very nuanced palette of colors from the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien. It may be enough to justify the purchase of the DVD; to who currently writes, however, a CD release would have been more appropriate by far.