Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sta in voi salvarlo

Monday night was my third experience of Tosca in Luc Bondy's much-discussed production.  It still strikes me as far from coherent, but last night it did offer some interesting ideas.  These ideas didn't so much present a complete or compelling picture as float among costumes of 1800, film noir lighting, and Ikea furniture, but there they were.  The lighting and staging both seemed even more Tosca-via-Raymond-Chandler than I remembered.  An elderly gentleman sitting behind me, who had seen Tebaldi and Milanov, among others, in the role, plaintively remarked: "Well, it does focus one's attention on the singing, which I suppose is the point.  But... I think a good production should say something."  Well said, sir.  One curious aspect was that all three of the principals seemed to have acquired something of Tosca's tendency for self-dramatization.  Cavaradossi seemed the least aware of this, so maybe the overtly histrionic delivery was the fault of blocking.  The theatrical Scarpia of Falk Struckmann, however, was deliciously, ironically self-aware; of this more later.  My chief problem with the production remains that its visual and dramatic language is neither coherent, nor clearly propelled, as far as I can see, by ideas (other than general cynicism.)  Hence the title of this post: what the production communicates is left largely up to the singers.

On the podium, Marco Armiliato exhibited his customary sensitivity both to his singers, and to the emotional currents of the score, avoiding temptation towards cheap thrills, musically speaking.  His tempi throughout struck me as unusually slow, which threatened, I thought, to do a disservice to the split-second timing of Puccini's verismic thriller.  The drama that Armiliato found was an introspective one, the music highlighting the emotional responses of the characters rather than the violent events which precipitate these responses.  Although I didn't find Spoletta and Sciarrone particularly impressive, they were well characterized (again with echoes of film noir! their leering and sneering would not have been out of place in the entourage of Sydney Greenstreet in Maltese Falcon.)  Harold Wilson was a sonorous gaoler, Yves Marvin-Leroy a real treat as the shepherd boy, with strong, clear sound.  Paul Plishka (long may he flourish) was something like an ideal type of the sacristan: he provided expressive, intelligible singing, and an air of fussy preoccupation with his own affairs, into which Voltairean painters, unruly choirboys, and terrifying police chiefs were unfortunate intrusions.

Marcelo Alvarez presented a more theatrically successful Cavaradossi than I had expected, if hardly a subtle one.  He seems to be cured of a previously-observed tendency to saw the air with one arm to indicate strong emotion.  (Also, I'm pretty sure he's lost weight: he's still stocky, but there's less of him, which may have aided a livelier stage presence.)  His was a youthful and impetuous Cavaradossi, tending perhaps towards hot-headedness.  He had fine chemistry with Radvanovsky.  Being attached to the pair as one of opera's surprisingly few examples of a mature, functional relationship, I had mixed feelings about the characterization of the lovers, their amorous play and quarreling that of a very young couple, sometimes treading the line between cute and cutesy.  That being said, a repeated gesture of the lovers in which one would tap/stroke the nose of the other with the index finger, which I had half-dismissed as cloying, was repeated to suddenly devastating effect in Act III.  "Non ridere!" "Cosi?" "Cosi."  And she taps his nose.  (I am sure my eyes widened; gah she tapped him on the nose and he's going to die that's terrible.)  Vocally, Alvarez' beautiful voice sounded a bit strained at the top of his range, with phrasing that occasionally tipped from italianate passion towards bluster.  I hope this was just a slightly off-peak night, rather than an indication of vocal wear, because I want to hear him in many more Verdi operas. Still, Alvarez seemed vocally committed to the entirety of the role, and acquitted himself respectably, although whether it was his or the production's tendency, I prefer Cavaradossi's big moments to be less "staged" than they appeared here.

As Scarpia, Falk Struckmann gave a fascinating performance.  In his smug, reptilian malice I found shades of the most famous roles of Conrad Veidt and Raymond Massey (I admit it, the lighting started me on old films and I couldn't get them out of my head.  When Scarpia has his men guard the church they even stand in the apertures halfway up the brick wall.  How am I expected not to think of the Felsenreitschule scene in Sound of Music?)  What made this interesting rather than cliched was that this Scarpia was enjoying the performance of his own villainy.  I speculated that perhaps he had been a manipulator for so long that he couldn't stop cynically anticipating, observing, and analyzing even his own reactions?  Struckmann's Scarpia was a sadist rather than sensualist, getting his gratification at one remove, as it were, ceaselessly calculating the dramatic value of his own tyranny, even of his own emotions.  Only his sexual obsession with Tosca threatens to shake this perfect control, and even this obsession is performed as well as felt.  This interpretation suited Struckmann's vocal qualities admirably: his bass-baritone is muscular and powerful, and he snarled and shouted for effect without barking.

Sondra Radvanovsky's Tosca was a performance I found interesting, and in many ways rewarding, but not irresistibly compelling.  She does get a brava from me for her thoughtful approach to characterization, though. Go here for a New York Times video about preparing the role, narrated by the diva herself.  Radvanovsky's vulnerable Tosca can be explained in dramatic terms by her take on the character's background: a young girl from the provinces whose gift for singing has uprooted her and put her in a place and role very foreign to her.  Viewed thus, her jealousy is easily explicable: she has no points of reference for how relationships work in a city rather than a village.  In Act I, Radvanovsky's flirtation and despair are on the chronologically telescoped, dramatically intensified scale of a girl truly in love for the first time.  But Tosca has a steep learning curve, and new self-possession and pragmatism are going to be painfully gained in Act II.  I felt that Bondy's Tosca and Radvanovsky's didn't quite mesh when it came to the bacio di Tosca: eight stabbings? This isn't Murder on the Orient Express.  But to Radvanovsky's credit, this didn't feel like a switch from one Tosca to another.  Before climbing to Scarpia's window, after the stabbing, she crosses herself, hinting at the momentary contemplation of suicide.  For a long time, she simply sits on the sofa in silence, before breaking down in sobs at the end of the act.  In Act III, some of the girlishness is recaptured, but of course her hopes are crushed, and she's learned the resolve that lets her make one more impossible decision; she crosses herself again on the parapet, and the last we see is her leaning out over the void as the henchmen rush up behind.  Vocally, I feel that Radvanovsky's voice may be suited to a slightly lower tessitura; her ever-thrilling chest tones always left me wanting more.  Also, her relatively wide vibrato and rich, plush tones may be, I think, displayed to better effect by Verdian music where she can stop and be noble and/or anguished for a few minutes, than the quickfire exchanges of this drama.  Still, it's a lush sound, which I quite like, and she sang with her customary emotional persuasiveness.  Although the night wasn't without flaws, I feel that time spent with Tosca is never wasted. 


  1. COC had an online chat recently with the singers of their 2010 Aida, and Sondra took part. I managed to sneak in a couple of questions myself, and when I asked her how she would describe her timbre, she said 'Chiaroscuro'. So, dark depths and light spikes, a multi-tasking timbre in a way.

    People complain about her acting a lot... I've only seen her in COC's Aida, where both her singing and acting were good.

  2. Oh yes, and among other interesting things she said was that Renata Scotto was an early fan. She noticed her early and was a mentor over the years. Scotto is directing her in an opera at the Chicago Lyric soon, or she has already, I forget.

  3. A really interesting take on Sondra's characterization that makes a lot of sense of what we saw last night. I also think you're absolutely right that her voice is (much) better suited to the nobility and flow of Verdi (some mild vocal discomfort might have been a cause of the less than invariably perfect diction). However, although I agree with you that her chest tones are a particular strength she handled the highs of the Don G Donna Anna with considerable aplomb several years ago.

    I too got a huge kick out of Struckmann's Scarpia and enjoyed his characterization almost as much as he himself seemed to do.

    Still, Luisi's work in the pit from last spring was missed and the whole event had more of a routine quality (and, as I'm sure you noticed, an absurd amount of empty seats - for a Tosca?!?).

  4. @DTO: Fascinating! Thanks for sharing the info; "chiaroscuro" makes a lot of sense to me. I think the Scotto-directed production you're thinking of is the Ballo in Maschera that was done in Nov/Dec of this past year. Re: S.R.'s acting, I don't think she's likely to disappear into her roles, but I don't really have a problem with that. I thought she was affecting and three-dimensional in Stiffelio, and outstanding as Leonora in Trovatore.

    @marcillac Thanks! I have my fingers crossed for more Verdi for her at the Met in upcoming seasons; I would love to hear her as Amelia, in particular. Glad that my sense of Struckmann's Scarpia wasn't just me filtering him through all the films of my childhood. :) Did not wish to draw unfair comparisons, but Luisi's precision and intense energy were missed. Sigh. I was too busy eavesdropping on the people sitting behind me to notice the empty seats, actually; very strange.


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