PUCCINI: Tosca – complete opera (2007)

by | Feb 8, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

PUCCINI: Tosca – complete opera (2007)

Performers: Catherine Malfitano (sop.), Bryn Terfel (bar.) and Richard Margison (ten.)
Orchestra: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera/Riccardo Chailly
Stage Director (Règie): Nikolaus Lehnhoff
Performance date: 1998
Studio: Decca  074 3201 DH
Video: Anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9 widescreen, color
Audio: PCM stereo,  DTS 5.1 Surround
Regional Coding: all regions
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Chinese
Booklet: 22 pages, English, French and German
Rating: *****

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) composed this opera in 3 acts with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica based on the play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou; it was premiered at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on January 14, 1890. This performance of Tosca was taped in 1998 but only now released by Decca, and not a moment too soon I may add. Riccardo Chailly with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – he was their Chief Conductor from 1988 to 2004 – offers us an interpretation of Tosca as a true representative of Puccini’s idea that an opera has to be pre-eminently symphonic in character. In Chailly’s conception the essence of this great work is rather concrete, a real life type of action and drama, and symphonic action, in which the story represents just one, albeit an important cornerstone for the musical architecture and not the other way around.

Puccini did achieve here a symphonically structured opera and succeeded in coming across as completely natural and free of forced transitions. Basically the music never stops and the singing is done on top of the music, as such we experience the transitions from one scene to another as logical connecting phrases, with each segment flowing into the next without noticeable interruption and all anchored in self-harmonizing melodies. Chailly’s Tosca is a grand old opera for a new modern audience. This Tosca on the strength of its main characters and the musical development that Puccini gave to the story comes across as a socio-political drama, one digging into the cruelest and darkest aspects of human life. It feels at times like another version of the good, the bad and the ugly…with a twist – nobody wins here. All loose their heads (not literally, fortunately) to the good and the bad, the sweet and the bitter, honesty and mendacity.

Once upon a time I heard that in opera one does not have to follow the singers and instead the conductor to make a performance successful and enjoyable has to agree with the singer’s interpretation as they project themselves into their roles with their own feelings. Chailly obviously not only agrees with his singers but it’s obvious he respects them in every way especially in reference to Malfitano’s Tosca and Terfel’s Scarpia, they are true individual creations and he does not interfere with their actions, and this is commendable indeed. Malfitano opens a new existential role with her interpretation of an extremely sensual Tosca which in my opinion has no precedent with any other interpretations other than her own of time past. She scraps older all-too-common routines and seeks and obtains true innovative ways to transform her Tosca into an understandable presentation of a woman trapped by her own sexuality. I believe this is a must-see DVD just for her – sad, even painful at times, but an incredible musical and visual experience.

Chailly and the RCO in making the music a reality do make absolutely clear what are the most important elements at every step of the drama; nothing is superfluous in this production and everything seems to be very tight and controlled though with a feeling of real spontaneity. Nothing seems to be contrived and that would be a first in opera, though I don’t presume many would agree with me on this. Please go to Track 12 (the Te Deum) where Terfel to a very slow musical development by the orchestra and organ is given ample room to maneuver his great theatrical skills; this is a particular well-paced segment which acoustically projects not only the great sound of the RCO but Terfel’s and the chorus to great effect. He is a light lyric baritone whose dramatic skills make for a character overwhelmed by his own power, a hysterical, cruel, nervous, sadistic and lying kind of s.o.b.. Not only that, but he stays light in the voice throughout without pushing his known ample vocal cords into any dramatic spasms. His voice is dramatic and detached at the same time, and with a terrific legato. He makes of Scarpia a believable character and pushes us to sincerely hate him and his kind by extension; one who, by the end of Io tenni la promesa (Track 23) and at the end of the day (his day) will be no more, no less than a “legend in his own mind.”

The cinematography, staging and sound are all are the products of the incredible creative mind of Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who takes elements from the past and through unusual transformations makes them appear to us as brand new, as if this opera was just written yesterday. This opera (and the ones that followed) certainly show Lehnhoff as an avantgarde stage director that for once makes sense, which is rather unusual these days in this rarified field. The sound…ah, what sound! All the action in this opera is orchestrated by Lehnhoff to take advantage of the total space available in the stage and here the captured sound in DTS 5.1 surround is just glorious – try Track 24 (Io de’sospiri) and let me know how you feel. {Lehnhoff has made his giant ventilation fan as much a central character in the drama as the ductwork was in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil...Ed.]

Final words: I highly recommend this DVD, a new view into an old opera that has sadly become by now and in lesser hands nothing but a collection of cheap thrills. The bright stars of this opera production are above all the RCO, Malfitano, Terfel and Lehnhoff – the rest are just the thick icing on the bitter-sweet cake of the story. I should mention here that the booklet is short on information and does not contain the libretto. The English subtitles are less than stellar…please, some of us do understand Italian!

— John Nemaric

 

 

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