Enrique Sacau
Puccini: Tosca, London, ROH, 12 May 2008
No time for nostalgia (at least not at Covent Garden)
Nostalgic opera goers often make the mistake of comparing the present (i.e. the last two or three years) with the entire history of recordings. Quite naturally, the result of such an unfair comparison is a rather bleak picture of the present. The handful of good tenors we have nowadays, for example, cannot possibly match the glory of the sum of every single opera star from Enrico Caruso to Plácido Domingo. Worse still, when singing live, our tenors cannot possibly match the wonders of studio recordings, carefully improved by legions of sound engineers.

For the nostalgic, therefore, attending an opera performance becomes an ordeal: every time the tenor does this or that, they will remember that recording from 1947 in which John Johnson sang the first aria better and, twenty minutes later, that other 1978 recording of Martin Martins in which he sang the second aria much better. Nostalgic opera goers are also very selective when it comes to live performances: those who are fond of Montserrat Caballé or Maria Callas, for example, remember only their most inspired evenings and not their failed performances, or indeed their cancellations, often obliterated in overblown articles to celebrate their anniversaries, obituaries, etc.

I thought about nostalgia during the performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca I attended at the Royal Opera House last week. Listening to carefully chosen singers, I wondered whether I wanted any star from the past to replace any of them or else stay there enjoying our vibrant present. Indeed, our operatic world is full of wonderful singers and conductors who should not make everyone long for a past that they lived, or did not even live. It is not only the singers they miss, but also the conductors.
....(Simon Boccanegra, left out)
Antonio Pappano’s Tosca, on the other hand, made me miss no one. My review of the premiere of this 2006 production was entitled “Pappano mi fai dimmenticare Iddio!” I cannot help but repeat what I said then: Pappano’s both strong and lyrical conducting brought the theatre down.
....(Simon Boccanegra, left out)
It was serendipitous that Martina Serafin should have replaced Micaela Carosi as Tosca. Her somewhat metallic timbre notwithstanding, Serafin is a singer who, yet again, makes you wish for no one else. Her all-too-cheesy gestures in act one need to go; all the rest was outright memorable: from her silly jealousy scene in act one to her melting “Vissi d’arte”; and from her desperate cries in act two to her determined suicide scene. Last year it was Violeta Urmana who sang this role at Covent Garden to good results (only hampered by her occasionally strained high notes), but Serafin’s strong Tosca was even more impressive.

Amongst the boys, it is not difficult to choose my favourite: Jonas Kaufmann’s Cavaradossi. It does not happen often that a tenor sings “Recondita armonia” and sounds as virile and in love as he did. Normally, tenors use this aria as a warming-up exercise. He did not need such a trick. From the very first minute he was there to assert his presence on stage and to convince us that he is the tenor of our time. I do certainly believe so. By contrast, the only part of his rendition of Cavaradossi that was not very exciting was his final aria. Indeed, he followed the fashion of whispering “E lucevan le stelle”. Modern tenors with less dramatic voices (such as Marcelo Álvarez or Roberto Alagna) have resorted to that. Kaufmann does not need to and should not do it: if he wants to move us, to give us goose pimples (as he usually does), he has to sing forte and let his timbre do the trick.

Not far from Kaufmann’s achievement was Lucio Gallo’s Simon, a role that suits his current strengths. He was particularly moving in his eye-watering death scene. Paolo Gavanelli’s Scarpia sounded less fresh, with too much shouting and few subtleties. Still, this has always been common among Scarpias and adequately fulfills the dramatic requirements of the role.
....(Simon Boccanegra, left out)

Both Ian Judge’s production of Simon and Jonathan Kent’s production of Tosca are very boring: they of course do their job, but hardly make you think beyond what is written in the libretto. It is not time for bolder choices, especially since the credit crunch will inevitably take its toll if opera houses start losing their sponsors. Still, not all modern productions are audience-averse. And, anyhow, dreaming is free. My dream is, yes, that the Royal Opera carries on avoiding the German fashion of upsetting the audience and continues commissioning risk-free productions; but (and this is a big but), they do more things like Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Il turco in Italia, Richard Jones’s Lady Macbeth, Laurent Pelly’s La fille du regiment, Robert Carsen’s Iphigenie or David McVicar’s Rigoletto and fewer like this Tosca, which makes you wonder whether anyone can tell the difference between the new and the (very) old Zeffirelli production. Production-wise, nostalgia has no room at Covent Garden since modern takes on the repertory such as the ones I mentioned above are still successful and much more enjoyable than Judge’s unimaginative Simon and Kent’s rather dull Tosca.

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