Teatro Real de Madrid 2020-21 Review: Tosca

Sondra Radvanovsky & Jonas Kaufmann Ignite the Teatro Real’s New ‘Tosca’

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Javier del Real)

The Teatro Real de Madrid closed its season with 16 performances of “Tosca” and an incredible cast of three sopranos: Sondra Radvanovsky, Maria Agresta and Anna Netrebko; and four tenors: Joshep Calleja, Michael Fabiano, Jonas Kaufmann and Yusif Eyvazov. Kaufmann joined the cast alongside Radvanovsky and Carlos Álvarez for two performances.

The expectations for the German superstar were  high, as high as he has not participated in any opera productions with Teatro Real in the last few seasons. Moreover, Radvanovsky has sung four encores of her aria Vissi d’arte for the opera house so far, and there was buzz in the air about whether the tenor would follow suit. Ultimately, the answer was yes and Radvanovsky and Kaufmann gave triumphant encores of their arias, making history at Teatro Real.

Embodying Tosca

Sondra Radvanovsky did not play Tosca. Radvaanovsky is Tosca. From the moment the soprano entered the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and until she jumped from the battlements of castle Sant’Angelo, the audience could only see a powerful woman consumed by jealousy and love, a victim of blackmail and sexual harassment, killing in cold blood, dreaming about a new life with her lover, and ultimately assuming with dignity and poise her suicide as her only way out. Radvanovsky hypnotized us from the outset. This powerful, truthful, and moving characterization goes along with probably one of the best voices currently out there. Her dark, dry, powerful timbre, her cavernous chest voice register, her secure big top notes and the ability to sing impossible pianissimi make this soprano, who has sang more than 200 performances of this role, ideal for Puccini’s heroine.

She was the only one in this cast who could be heard consistently and clearly over the needlessly loud orchestra. You felt as if the soprano was singing right beside your ear. In the first act, where she suffers two attacks of jealousy and flirts with her lover, Radvanovsky sounded easy and youthful. In her cantata, sung off-stage, where she sings her first high C and B natural, her sound was again heard over the entire choir. It is when Tosca enters in the second act that the soprano has to face tremendous challenges. She has to sing three high Cs and several fortissimo B flats over the orchestra at its loudest, while she is being shaken and throw to the floor. Not only were these perilous moments perfectly executed but Radvanovsky’s dramatism, chest voice and parlato, screamed moments were terrifying. The hardest moment for every soprano is managing to get to “Vissi d’arte!” with the voice still fresh-enough to sing its central tessitura and the A flat and G in pianissimi. This aria could not have been sung better, and not only once, but twice! She controls her breathing to extract all the colors and dynamics of every line, filling the music with begging and desperation. She managed a fortissimo high B flat, followed by a crescendo-diminuendo on the A flat and G, singing the same dynamics on her last note in “cosi,” a central B flat, which is a dangerous note on which to do a diminuedi-crescendo, especially after singing in a high tessitura for the whole act.

Radvanovsky was moved to tears during the ovation following her aria. In spite of all the productions she has done, she still followed all the requirements of Azorin’s physically demanding staging, which expects, for example, that Radvanovsky sing the first four lines of her aria lying on her back. The way she stabbed Scarpia multiple time in a state of hysteria was terrific. Her determination to make the character believable enabled her to sing the a capella high C of “Io quella lama” while stabbing the air frenetically, recreating how she murdered Scarpia, without any uneveness in the sound. At the end she faces the audience at the edge of the inclined platform that recreates castle Sant’Angelo, and she lets herself fall backwards, creating a truthful and shocking impression.

Sondra Radvanovsky is on of the best Toscas today. As I always say, and as time will show, she will become a part of opera history.

Two Men of High Quality

Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi was smiling and secure in his entrance at the beginning of the first act and sang “Recondita Armonia” effortlessly, with long legato lines, a secure high B flat, and a floating pianissimo on the F that closed his aria. His dark voice has a velvet warm quality even if the sound is too guttural and blurs his diction at some points. He sang with exquisite delicacy during his duet with Tosca, singing long legato lines, even linking the lines “s’afisa intero, Occhio all’amor soave” in a single breath.

The voice sounds beautiful and the use of his breath for dynamics is astounding, but something is lacking. He is singing lirico spinto and dramatic repertoire and has the color for it, but lacks the volume and projection. For example, the forte B flat on “Ah! M’avvinci ne´ tuoi lacci mia sirena” was unable to cut through the orchestra. His voice completely disappeared during the high notes he had to sing alongside Radvanovsky. He also made the dubious musical choice of holding the high B flats of “Vittoria” incredibly long, holding the three vowels in the style of Franco Corelli. The score calls for a hold on only the “o” and “a.” The effect is spectacular, but it seems a cheap way to reach the audience, and breaks the dramatism of the moment by showing off how long he can hold a note.

That said, his version of “E lucevan le stelle” was impeccably sung, with amazing breath support and incredible diminuendo up to high A. His vision of this aria was emotional and full of pity, avoiding the cliched desperation that most tenors imprint on their interpretations of this aria. When he finished there was no applause at all, the audience was in total silence, and one might have wondered whether the people somehow failed to appreciate the tenor’s art. But the audience was so entranced by his artistry that they couldn’t help but let the final soft bars come to their conclusion before bursting into wild, long applause that made the tenor repeat his aria. It was the true high point of his performance.

Scarpia was performed by the Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez. The Madrid audience loves this baritone and they have good reason to. He has an incredible dark, round sound, with a big centre register, alongside a secure high zone, something that he could not show off this role, which does not go higher than F sharp. The main challenges of the role are in the acting and being able to carry the voice over the dense forte orchestra. Álvarez’s entrance with “Un tal baccano in chiesa,” after an extremely slow and loud Scarpia chord, was menacing and frightful. But then Álvarez, through his depurated vocal line, avoided any verismo affectations, showing how elegant Scarpia can be.

He portrayed a hurt, dolent human being who searches desperately the love of Tosca in lieu of the evil, sadistic rapist character that Scarpia is traditionally portrayewd as. In Act two, she portrayed Scarpia as a compulsive drinker, creating a marvelous character arc, where the booze transforms the infatuated Scarpia into a vengeful sadist who gets sexual gratification from Tosca’s aggressive repulsion.

The encores made for an unforgettable night. Throw in an amazing performance from the baritone Carlos Álvarez in this dynamic and meaningful Azorín production and it was one of the finest evenings of opera in quite some time. My only trepidation continues to be the misguiding interpretation of conductor Luisotti, who seems intent on playing the opera louder and slower every day (I have seen almost every performance). That aside, this “Tosca” is one for the ages.


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