Classics Today
Robert Levine
Puccin: Tosca, Zürich 2009

In the third act of Tosca our heroine advises Mario how to behave when the "fake" execution takes place. "Com'e la Tosca in teatro," she says--"like Tosca in the theater." From this statement director Robert Carsen has formulated a "theater-within-theater" event: There is no church, no Palazzo Farnese, no Castel Sant'Angelo-at-dawn. There is only a theater--backstage, in front of the curtain, etc. Anthony Ward's sets and costumes look like a "show"; they distance us from the action rather than making us feel for the artists. The soprano is a soprano enacting the role of Tosca and, I think, Scarpia runs the opera house. There is a lot of posturing--even Tosca's blue gown, fur coat, and sunglasses overstate the case; and while it's not laughable or totally stupid, it seems an unnecessary metaphor. Who is Mario supposed to be? A set painter? And although opera-house impresarios come under great criticism for their cold-bloodedness, do we know of any who torture and murder? Never mind.

Musically there are fine moments. Emily Magee is a super Tosca, singing with clarity and grand tone, delivering outrage and tenderness in equal proportions. Her "Vissi d'arte" is gorgeous. I don't think she quite makes it as the diva playing the diva--she merely seems to be overacting. The same may be said of Thomas Hampson, who, looking dashing, chews the scenery and sings more loudly than anyone. He's too crafty an artist to be silly, and his aggressive behavior is believable, but eventually you get confused as to which level you're supposed to be "getting".

Somehow, tenor Jonas Kaufmann manages to escape the show-within-show and merely gives a fabulous performance as Cavaradossi. His big, dark tone easily reaches the big, high notes and he can spin a pianissimo line better than any tenor around. And he looks great as he creates a flesh-and-blood person rather than a "character". The rest of the cast is just fine and conductor Paolo Carignani leads a quick, big-volume, hard-edged performance that excites. It's too bad the whole opera is a masquerade of some sort. An interesting exercise that fails.


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