Monday, July 14, 2008

Holy Tosca, Batman!


I just purchased the new Decca Tosca DVD from the Amsterdam production in
1998. I watched it last night and I'm still haunted by it. I like when that
happens.

First off, Lehnhoff's production is going to seriously piss some people off but it is singularly one of the
most exciting performances of Tosca I can recall seeing in years. Lehnhoff has taken Puccini's "shabby little shocker" and done what many of us have been eternally waiting for – putting it over the top, right where it belongs. He has stripped the tale of its ornate baroque trappings and set it in what appears to be hell. For those who want read only about the musical performance - jump about half a dozen paragraphs.

Act 1's church is an enormous cavernous, foreboding place. Cavarodossi's Magdalene painting absolutely gargantuan on a highly raised platform that dominates the rear of the stage. Instead of rococo pillar and posts, the stage floor is filled with countless metal and glass columns a mite taller than your average man. These columns provide incredible playing areas turning the enormous stage into a series of more intimate settings that work magnificently. During the Te Deum, Scarpia alone is on stage before a painting of the devil and at each cannon burst during this the tops of the columns erupt into flame – the cameras catching Scarpia's malevolent sneer, the flames leaping up towards him. It is one of the most exciting images I've ever seen. And there were more of these to come.

Scarpia's apartment is of the industrial-strength variety. A massively long two prong staircase dominates the rear stage wall the massive walls go seemingly all the way to the fly space of the opera house. Stage right's wall is dominated by an enormous turbine which, along with the stairs charges the atmosphere with an ominous subterranean feeling. This is not a fun place. At
curtain's rise Big Bad Scarpia is on an eight foot long divan, in tight silk lounge pants with a lizard/snakeskin motif and matching sleeveless vest (my Mom had something similar in the 70's . . . Hostess Pants). He is stroking a beautiful yellow tabby. Cool.

When Tosca first appears, all we see are her red high heels coming down the first staircase – shoes she will remove before reclining on the divan for Scarpia to collect his prize. Only after the murder do we realize the massive staircases have disappeared and we feel, along with Tosca completely trapped. There are no other doors – the room converted into an enormous death trap, the only air seemingly coming from the turbine. Tosca goes into a genuine panic during the dumb show – now stripped/relieved of the pseudo- religious crucifix/candelabra business. In her search for the safe passage conduct, Tosca discovers and takes a gun – almost hinting at suicide in her terror. When a panel opens moonlight seems to stream in revealing a hidden
exit. With pistol in hand and tea-length fur coat dragging behind . . . It is thrilling business.

The final act is on an enormous stage filling disc, the floor of which is covered by the shadow of light pouring down from the turbine – which is now in the ceiling. The rear of the stage gives the feeling of being at the edge of the world – with the moon and stars reflecting in the night. It's stunning and chilling all at once.

After the execution, the distraught, now fully deranged Tosca holds Scarpia's henchmen at bay waving the gun – and one almost senses she's going to blow her brains out . . . but instead she runs, flings it to the ground and takes a flying leap out the heavens that took my breath away – her hair wildly trailing behind her as Sciarrone and Spoletta hit the ground to safely watch her from above.

I have read some startling bad reviews of this production, and I simply cannot fathom how anyone would not be wowed by it. It is an absolutely chilling performance.

Now to the cast. Malfitano is Tosca to the teeth. Not your average Tosca, this one is neurotic and obsessive from her first appearance. In the final act she is barefoot and costumed like a Martha Graham dancer. Indeed, Malfitano never stops moving – her body, her hair all fluid movement – almost hallucinatory. It's a marvelous performance. The down side is that the voice was never built for Tosca. So much of the musical drama sits at either end of the range – really low lows, and pretty high highs. At both ends Malfitano's instrument simply lacks body and beauty. To her credit she insists on singing every note, but the low "chesty" business that so many singers make thrilling, are here unlovely and growled and at times barely audible. The less said about
the inaccurate pitching at the top of the range the better. Still MUCH of Tosca lies in the middle to middle high and here, Malfitano still possesses a voice of bright, unforced lyric beauty. If this is going to bother you, you should skip it, but if you want a performance that is 75% really good singing and 100% committed acting, Malfitano's your gal. I loved her.

In Act II, I kept thinking Theda Bara had been reincarnated – Malfitano HAS to know this and have played on the similarities. She looks terrific (some complain that even 10 years ago she looked too old for Tosca . . . nonsense). Her "Vissi d'arte " is exceptionally powerful – revealing more than a dozen other Tosca's combined. Her Act III performance is pure over-the-top, flitting and dancing and laughing – a mad scene, really and believe it or not, it works perfectly in this context. I always thought Behrens had the best flying leap of any Tosca – but Cathy M. goes her one better - it is and it's captured with breathtaking, horrifying beauty.

Richard Margison. I've never been a big fan of the man, but having read so many negatives about his Cavaradossi I must admit to being pleasantly surprised. He's involved and engaging, and I bought what he brought to the role. Recondita Armonia is beautifully sung if a little inelegantly phrased at times. The central act he rings out passionately. Oddly "E lucevan la stele" is sung accurately, but with an odd tone that sounds more furious than forlorn.
When Tosca arrives, Margison's Mario sounds much better, caressing the line and believable in the drama. Yes, he's got a big gut . . . so what? I was surprised at the depth of some of his acting here, and confused by those who accuse him of just walking through the role. Nope.

The night, of course belonged to Terfel in this, his first assumption of Scarpia. Some may not like him, but this is the Scarpia of my dreams in every way. Larger than life, Terfel's voice rings out with a liquidity one seldom hears in this role anymore. There is a "wetness" to his sound that reminds me of Elisabeth Soderstrom (if you know what I mean). Physically, Terfel exudes a creepy sensuality that feels almost x-rated. Everything seems to revolve around sex,
evil and cruelty. The ending of the first act with the Te Deum sung so rapturously, flames licking up as this devil holds the stage by himself is a theatrical tour de force. Poured into his lizard lounge pants he amps up the carnality and when he stalks Tosca up the stairs I truly sensed danger as the hair rose on the back of my neck. This Scarpia has everything planned and
intricately ordered – seemingly controlling the very universe from his bunker- like world. For a clue to his sense of order in this nightmare watch him polish a glass before he pours that "vin d'espagna."

The Welshman performs this role as though he were born to play it – and I think he was. How exciting it is to see this different approach to one of opera's greatest roles and Terfel rises to the challenges imposed by Puccini and Lehnhoff, looking not just comfortable but entirely natural and believable every sick step of the way.

Riccardo Chailly has no less than the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as the pit band and the score has rarely sounded this lush and symphonic. Chailly brings out details frequently lost in other performances, his pacing is fluid and at times much slower than I am used to hearing in modern performances, but never indulgent. The sound on the DVD is almost more "studio" than live performance and this is enhanced by the silence of the audience until the very
end when they go properly mad. So did I.

There is an interesting 17 minute behind the scenes documentary with some cast interviews and Lehnhoff and Chailly offering up their opinions.

I've heard the evil "E" word hurled at this production, and indeed some may find they simply cannot tolerate the changes of settings, but for anyone who can keep an open mind about these sorts of things – hang on tight 'cause you're in for a hair raising ride!

p.

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