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Wednesday 27 March 2013

Tosca with Kristine Opolais at ROH


I do try hard with Puccini. It's been three years since I last saw Tosca live, and though I have avoided it since due to my lack of enjoyment of it then, in music I find it interesting how tastes evolve and what exposure to other music, the passage of time and personal reflection does for expanding personal horizons. Unfortunately I liked it even less this time than I did before, and have realised that I just can't go to see Puccini's operas any more. I'm pretty certain they'll survive without my patronage. That said, I have already booked to see the upcoming Gheorghiu Rondine and then next season will certainly see the Manon Lescaut (I actually quite like this one, and don't mind Boheme either), but I just can't spend my evenings like this - being bored by the music, situation and characters.

What do I find so distasteful? I've explained partially before, but in general, the appalling music (excepting the often exquisite arias, everything else is banal padding finished to a high degree of surface polish, but repetitive, simplistic, vulgar, kitsch, maudlin, dull), lifeless characters, every event manipulatively designed to wring some emotion from you whilst lacking a coherent dramatic arc or genuine insight into dramatic material, the unflinching and unapologetic shallowness in all aspects and the combination of cruelty and sentimentality which permeates everything. The ultimate reason though for my extreme distaste must be the first reason given: simply that I find the music to be very poorly made (excepting the aforementioned arias, and once again, admitting a certain well polished professionalism in the surface). These things are common to everything by Puccini post La Boheme, but there are special features/failings in Tosca which struck me whilst watching that bear mentioning.

The first thing that I find difficult to stomach is the unlikeable couple at the heart of the piece. Cavaradossi is one of the dullest heroes ever sketched, lacking any character traits rendered in the music except his nauseating supplication towards Tosca. Truly hard to watch. And what in the first act makes us care about what will happen to Tosca? Her narcissism, constant challenging behaviour, desire to control Cavardossi and petty jealousy positively scream her subconscious desire for Cavaradossi to be a man and stand up for himself, but it also makes her very unlikeable. I think we're meant to care about her because of what happens in the rest of the piece, but her one dimensionality makes it very difficult indeed. The political subplot is paper thin: a plot device to set the characters up for the second Act's extremities that is clearly of no interest to Puccini in and of its own. The ultra crude use of leitmotifs introduced here in Act I and continued throughout the opera is risible and disrupts the flow of the music because Puccini so roundly lacks the required skill in counterpoint to make proper use of the technique (c.f. his contemporary Strauss who goes to the other extreme, where the technical facility is so great that everything can easily descend into an endless mush of undifferentiated themes and thence game playing).

Act II is by far the strongest dramatically and probably contains the best music. Most interesting for me, just before "Vissi d'arte", Scarpia, by far Puccini's most interesting character and in some ways surely an artistic self portrait, utters words which might be Puccini's artistic credo: "Che importa?! Spasimi d'ira... spasimi d'amore!" (Literally: What does it matter! Spasms of rage ... spasms of love!). Puccini is turned on by both equally, and when taken together all the better. It's clear whose side Puccini is on, and the opera becomes entirely flaccid once Scarpia meets his demise.

Act III is one of the worst final acts ever: shockingly tedious, with so little happening musically or dramatically: the endless musical repetitions of the opening, minimally atmospheric, the pointless boy soprano solo, a dramatically pointless Cavarodossi aria, an extremely discursive meeting between Tosca and her lover in which very little is relayed or expressed. Then the last four minutes in which we have a bizarre fake execution which turns out to be a real execution (both predictable and anticlimactic because the highly unusual situation of a fake execution just turns out to be the normal situation of a real execution), then 30 seconds of ludicrous action where the heroine, still in ballgown, shuffles off to a ledge and leaps to her death. Where's the tension? Bizarrely bad pacing considering that everyone says he's such a man of the theatre.

I have little to say about Jonathan Kent's production. It attempts a sort of realism with detailed "period" sets, but the lighting gives it an unnatural Disneyish edge (perhaps mostly resembling Beauty and the Beast) and there's an awkward cramping of the stage space and visual overstuffing with extraneous paraphernalia. In this revival characterisation was in general very undetailed, Yonghoon Lee's admirably sung Cavaradossi hampered by stock acting, and Kristine Opolais's Tosca exaggerated and hammy. The exception was Michael Volle as a very good Scarpia, dramatically committed and superbly sung, though overall he strikes me as too sensitive a singer for this role. Can we get him at the ROH in something German? His Mandryka is close to ideal. Opolais was the cause of some excitement in London as Butterfly two seasons ago and probably the reason why these three Toscas sold out this time round (certainly the reason why I came to see it again). She has a large voice that has been touted as ideal for Puccini, and while the sound production is even and the voice attractive, the chest register is nowhere near developed enough for this role, and there's very little variation in timbre. I was a little bored by her Vissi d'arte which is probably not a good sign.

Maurizio Benini generates truly stentorian sounds in the pit and shapes and colours everything as ideally as I imagine Puccini fans could hope for.

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