PUCCINI Tosca (Rattle)
‘Ecco un artista’ says Tosca as her boyfriend flops to the floor, in fact mortally wounded and not showing any more theatrical talent than he has hitherto suggested. It’s tempting to wonder if the twist-finale of Puccini’s opera is meant to mark not just the final curtain for Cavaradossi but also for any suggestion that the jobbing painter had much artistic temperament to begin with. The true stage animals of Tosca are the eponymous singer and her oleaginous tormentor, Baron Scarpia.
There are interesting ideas about art – what it is, who controls it – bubbling through Philipp Himmelmann’s 2017 production for the Baden-Baden Easter Festival and the Berlin Philharmonic, only Simon Rattle’s second foray into Puccini. They do not come to the boil, however, and the result, although decently captured on DVD/Blu ray, is oddly flavourless.
Rattle and his orchestra add both depth and gloss: to hear the shimmer of the Berlin strings in the eerie swells of the Te Deum is enough to absolve the conductor of his reverential tempos. There are plenty of other lovely touches: the playful but lingering preamble to ‘Recondita armonia’; the evocative ‘dawn’ prelude to Act 3.
So you can be stirred by this orchestra – but you do need to be shaken elsewhere. Himmelmann, with modern, metallic designs from Raimund Bauer, attempts a kind of deconstruction. We’re in a world where both religion and art seem to have been co opted by the state: Peter Rose’s unusually dominant Sacristan marshals choristers who don’t seem especially into God, and are equally nonplussed by Cavaradossi’s high-concept digital portrait of the Marchesa Attavanti. Marco Vratogna’s Scarpia leads a small army of German architects from the 1990s with ash-blond ponytails and steel-rimmed glasses. They appear to have banished Christianity from Rome and replaced it with a cult of surveillance.
With few of the usual Tosca trappings, the cast respond with varying success. Marcelo Álvarez is a veteran Cavaradossi, who, once over a slightly yelped opening aria, shapes the text imaginatively and sings with tenderness and generosity, although you’ll never believe he’s a revolutionary. The most effective moment, dramatically and musically, is when he and Kristīne Opolais’s Tosca are cut adrift in Act 3, their hymn to liberty and love clearly a hopeless sham, just a bleak foretaste of their perfunctory executions.
Yet let’s face it: this isn’t the stuff of Tosca. In a grander, gaudier show, Opolais would hit more buttons than she does here. She sings as attentively as she acts, bites into lines like ‘Questo è il bacio di Tosca!’ as the fruit knife does its messy business, and projects ‘Vissi d’arte’ with feeling, albeit on thinnish tone. Yet it isn’t enough: it feels as if this Tosca’s claws have been trimmed by the production’s studied neutrality, and Opolais’s showdown with Vratogna’s smooth-voiced but equally defanged Scarpia is simply dull. The Italian sings decently (albeit less imposingly than Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Angelotti) but the production lets him be neither truly alluring nor truly repulsive. ‘How you detest me’, he drawls. If only.