As much as Emily Magee (Tosca) and Thomas Hampson
(Scarpia) receive equal billing, it’s the presence of Jonas
Kaufmann (Cavaradossi) in Robert Carsen’s fascinating modern
update of Puccini’s potboiler, Tosca that will draw opera lovers
to this live-from-Zürich Decca DVD. Not only is Kaufmann the
most vocally fascinating and intelligent tenor of the decade
(save for Rolando Villázon, who has been mostly sidelined of
late), but he’s also the most attractive and physically free.
He's certainly among the most versatile. In addition to
singing traditional lyric-spinto lead on recent DVDs of Tosca,
Carmen, Werther, and Lohengrin, he's excelled on CDs of songs by
Schubert and Strauss. And, as a Wagnerian heldentenor, he'll
soon appear in a live-from-the-Met Die Walküre on May 14.
Kaufmann’s sound is hardly idiomatic Italian. Rising from a
dark and husky low range that nonetheless has far more weight
than Pavarotti’s, his burnished tenor becomes sharper and more
focused as it ascends. There is a fair amount of Italianate
“ring” (squillo), but nothing like the cutting instruments of
Franco Corelli or, going back a century, Enrico Caruso. The
warmth and heart-pull of the voice owe even more to intention
than sheer sound.
Yet Kaufmann’s sense of Italianate
style is unquestionable, and the intelligence with which he
deploys his instrument unassailable. Most compelling is his
final act aria, “E lucevan le stelle” (And the stars shone).
Awaiting execution by firing squad, he begins his final love
letter to Tosca in a virtual whisper of a voice. To unusually
slow, sensitive, and focused support from conductor Paolo
Carignani and Zurich Opera Orchestra, Kaufmann perfectly
sustains his thread of sound for almost half the aria. I know of
no other performance quite like this.
If only the DVD
format were capable of faithfully transmitting the wide dynamics
of his voice. By all means, if you’re Blu-ray equipped, get that
version should it appear.
Magee, decked out in
gowns fit for Anita Ekberg, downplays the diva-bitch approach.
From her first entrance, her jealousy seems more a sexual tease
than an annoyance. You can actually like this woman. Later on,
she feeds dangerously into Scarpia’s sexual fantasies. Shortly
before she stabs him to death, she removes first her long
gloves, then her dress. Murder in a black slip. She also sings
extremely well, with full awareness of idiomatic style. She’s
not about to displace the memory of Callas. But who could or
The gruffer sound of Hampson’s once velvet baritone
works well for Scarpia, but it’s hardly ideal for conveying the
murderer’s mix of sadism and sexual obsession. Nor can his
expressions quite encompass all of Scarpia’s evil. None of the
voices or characterizations of the supporting singers are worth
Far more interesting are Davy Cunningham’s
lighting design, which capitalizes on contrasts between almost
glaring spotlights and darkness, and Carsen’s less than
sacrosanct staging. The interior of the Church of San Andrea
della Valle becomes a theater, with movable seats replacing
pews. The briefly viewed tableau at the end of Act I, as the
curtain rises to reveal Tosca ascending in a garish throne,
screams "pause" and "repeat." So does the kicker treatment of
Tosca’s suicide, which is nothing like you would expect. Not
everything makes logical or dramatic sense. Then again, neither
do those two sides of the same coin, opera and politics.
Jason Victor Serinus writes about music for Opera News, Opera
Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, San Francisco Magazine,
Muso, Carnegie Hall Playbill, East Bay Express, East Bay
Monthly, San Francisco Examiner, Bay Area Reporter,
hometheaterhifi.com, and other publications.