Opernhaus Zürich 2022-23 Review: Tosca

Sondra Radvanovsky, Jonas Kaufmann & Bryn Terfel are Spectacular

By Mike Hardy

Opernhaus Zürich’s presentation of “Tosca,” on December 17, 2022, featured an almost holy trinity of artists with Jonas Kaufmann, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Sir Bryn Terfel, turning out brilliant performances.

Undoubtedly one of Puccini’s finest masterpieces musically, it can be a bit hard to swallow in terms of plot, even though that accusation flies in the face of a lot of verismo opera. Moreover, the opera is unquestionably challenging to perform without infusing it with an unhealthy dose of bordering-on ridiculous melodrama, given that NONE of the principal characters makes it to the end alive.

However, I have to say that these stellar performances, under the direction/production of Robert Carsen, conspire to present a sublime experience that borders on the realms of credibility. “Tosca” is effectively historical fiction; it is the 18th century as seen through 19th Century eyes. The opera works in the  21st century purely because of its story of love over politics, played out by Floria Tosca, an opera singer; her lover, the heroic painter Cavaradossi; and Rome’s thoroughly unpleasant Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia. All combine to produce a timeless, almost feasible tale.

Stage and costume designer Anthony Ward and assistant set designer Alexander Lowde opted for the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach. Act one, set in the church of S. Andrea della Valle in Rome, was depicted with rows of plush, velveteen balloon back chairs rather than pews, and an elevated scaffold-like staircase structure served as the workstation for Cavaradossi’s portrait painting. That said, the designers provided one brief, spectacular wow factor design at the end of Act one, where Scarpia’s “vision” was brilliantly and illuminatingly portrayed.

Act two, set in Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese, is represented by nothing more than a desk with its ancillary chattels. The final Act has Cavaradossi on a bare stage with no visual representation whatsoever of the cell or prison in which he was meant to be confined.

Lighting designer Davy Cunningham, likewise, opted for more simplicity. Mere spotlights and occasional floodlights isolated characters and created shadows to emphasize drama.

And yet, for all this minimalism, it worked and lent itself to greater effect on occasions. A chalk drawing rather than a letter depicted Cavaradossi’s ‘final love note’ favor, purchased from the guard with his last possession, a gold ring. Tosca’s simple placement of a single rose—taken from the bouquet received from her performance—on the corpse of her tormentor, Scarpia, was strikingly powerful. Touches of poignant humor abounded, not least when Tosca gave Cavaradossi instructions on how best to pretend to die in his upcoming “fake” execution or when the latter gave a wonderful sigh and demonstration of exasperated relief when finally hastening the pressing, ever-jealous Tosca out of the church so he could continue his work.

But ultimately, the simplicity of the setting and staging just illuminated the absolute powerhouse performances of the principal artists.

A Stellar Cast

I always wondered why Puccini made his leading lady such an overjealous and unduly suspicious character. Such a woman must have played a pivotal role somewhere along the line in the composer’s colorful, real-life relationships. Foregrounding Tosca’s often acerbic, almost vitriolic traits has made other productions almost unbearable, but American/Canadian Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky somehow makes her green-eyed condition almost endearing. Her repeated cajoling and insistence that Cavaradossi paints his portrait subject’s eyes black instead of blue was both enchanting and comedic.

Radvanovsky hailed as one of the leading Verdi sopranos of her generation, is a voice of almost immeasurable quality. It is a lustrous, dark-toned instrument, forceful in the upper register yet magnificently evocative and moving when employing softer tones. Her love duet in Act one was exquisite and completely captivating, and her love for the hapless painter was more than credible.

Vissi d’arte,” one of the opera’s signature tunes, was palpably evocative, and the soprano employed a unique method of delivering the almost closing line “perché signor? (Why Oh Lord?)” by applying two difficult diminuendos, the latter transforming into a crescendo. The aria received the most rousing applause of the evening. She sang her interactions with her doomed lover in the final Act with such resplendence and emotional conviction that one could almost believe the couple had a future after all. Her dynamism and exuberance illuminated every scene, and she was a driving tour de force throughout the evening.

Opernhaus Zürich is probably the spiritual home of Jonas Kaufmann, given many of his career milestones have played out here, including the commencement of his international career. His Cavaradossi unquestionably proved to be another jewel in his ever-dominant tenor crown. His voice is remarkable in that he has such dark, rich qualities that make it even more impactful when he produces that bright, ringing upper register that positively shakes the theatre—from an assured “Recondita Armonia,” his big opening aria early in the first Act, through his love duet. Notable was “Quale occhio al mondo può star di paro all’ardente occhio tuo nero? (What eyes in the world can compare with your black and glowing eyes?)” and a sublime “E lucevan le stelle” where he uses more of his famous, honeyed sotto voce and diminuendos, which brought another rapturous response from the audience.

His astonishing B flat “Vittoria! Vittoria!” from Act two seemed to resonate for eternity. He possesses a remarkable voice and charisma by the bucket load and acts with authority. He was the star tenor that all came to see and hear, and he delivered.

Sir Bryn Terfel gave a great interpretation of one of opera’s most unpleasant characters. He positively oozed despicability as the nasty, bullying, lascivious Scarpia. When he appeared from an elevated position between two giant, ornate columns three-quarters through Act one, he dripped pure menace; such is his stage presence. He sang with a resonant, impressive dynamic range and a lustrous, sonorous quality that filled the auditorium. Yet his wonderful bass-baritone is capable of expressive, sweet sotto voce moments that, despite his obvious odiousness, almost evoked pity and empathy when he sang “Darei la vita per asciugar quel pianto (I would give my life to wipe away those tears).” Despite his ghastly intentions, they underpin his remonstrations with Tosca with an obvious, genuine desire and infatuation for her.

Terfel sang this role some years ago at the Royal Opera House, opposite Angela Gheorghiu, and despite a superb outing then, I consider him infinitely more dynamic and impressive now. Speaking with Terfel about this in a brief interview after the performance, he responded he had “grown into the role” over the years and that the music takes over, such is the “power of Puccini.”

It would not be easy to compare and separate these three principal singers in this production. Suffice to say that such was their impact and effect that they were forced, by rapturous applause at the cessation of Act one, to come out and take a bow, first singly and then together, as though they’d forgotten they had another two acts to sing.

Stage & Pit

Considering these astronomical performances, the comprimario artists had to bring their best. In the role of Cesare Angelotti, Brent Michael Smith produced a splendid rendition of a desperate man, with his strong, rich baritone setting the stage perfectly in Act one. Martin Zysset as Spoletta possessed a quality tenor voice, and his performance was a splendid mix of comedy and toadying in his interactions with Scarpia. Valeriy Murga sang with conviction; his warm baritone and subtle riposting exchanges with Cavaradossi made for a genial character.

Gianandrea Noseda, current General Music Director of Opernhaus Zürich, elicited some quite exquisite music from the Philharmonia Zürich orchestra, which seemed to caress Puccini’s score to great effect rather than the seemingly brash approach employed by some orchestras and their conductors these days. Likewise, the wonderful chorus, Chor der Oper Zürich, presented some almost angelic vocals, particularly when interacting off-stage.

Opernhaus Zürich offers something of a rather unique experience. Seating around 1,100 people, less than half the capacity of Covent Garden, lends a beautiful intimacy to performances and is acoustically superior.


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