Financial Times, March 31 2009
Shirley Apthorp
Tosca, Zurich Opera
Robert Carsen’s Tosca is a diva’s diva, Maria Callas crossed with Marilyn Monroe and spiced with Jessica Rabbit. This new production of Puccini’s crowd-pleaser for the Zurich Opera is theatre about theatre, the stage showing a stage where Tosca’s dramas are acted out with exaggerated passion.

The most interesting part, apart from the cast, was to have been Christoph von Dohnányi on the podium, but he walked out on the production. Paolo Carignani stepped in at the 11th hour to save the day. As his predecessor might have, Carignani renders the orgies of kitsch on the stage less saccharine by studiously avoiding sentimentality. He keeps the pace brisk and the volume up, and maintains his own steely take on the score. It is refreshing, and this is an evening that needs all the refreshment it can get.

Carsen’s production is a one-gag show. The diva plays the diva playing the diva, the chorus waves the same programme books that the audience holds, Scarpia is a sadistic opera house director, and it’s all dressed prettily in 1950s evening-wear. It is achingly self-referential, and recycled to within an inch of its life.

The all-star cast does its best to save the day. Thomas Hampson clearly thinks the opera should really be called Scarpia and sticks doggedly to his own tempi, regardless of what Carignani is trying to do on the podium. His diction is exaggerated, his carriage regal. There are moments when he manages to make us believe so completely in his character that we forget all the annoying bits. Emily Magee gives her considerable all in the real title role, but she never musters quite the magnetic allure that Carsen has evidently envisaged for the part. Jonas Kaufmann is her pin-up-boy Cavaradossi, his raffish charm the evening’s saving grace. His is a straight-down-the-line, what-you-see-is-what-you-get tenor, and he makes you believe every note.

The garishly artificial look of this production (design: Anthony Ward) is clearly intentional, but the total effect is fatally unmoving. Carsen tries too hard to tell us what we already know.

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