TOSCA, FINALMENTE MIA!

Mille grazie, Arianna!

 
Mille grazie, Arianna!

This text is dedicated to my wonderful friend Arianna, who is a stunning example of Tosca’s passion, generosity, and talent. To Arianna I owe an apology: Tosca is, indeed, the best opera. Ever.

What is there to know about Tosca? Or if put in a simpler way: What is there not to know about Tosca? What is there not to be said about Tosca?

The task of defining such circles of knowledge has prevented me from rushing forward with another fresh review of another opera performance (this time at the Met). WP_20131113_002The task has haunted me for days when jogging, commuting, or even falling asleep.  The word Tosca would resonate strongly, deeply, and long. It would revive stories and histories. One would lead to another, resulting in a myriad of overlapping impressions, unexpressed insights, and fleeting understanding. Quite naturally, the idea of writing a post about Tosca translated into an attempt at exploring my evolving perception of the drama that has left many generations of spectators around the world captivated, spell-bound, and wanting more. And my perception of Tosca has definitely evolved.

Serdobe 2008 January 052Tosca must have been my first memorable opera experience. I remember knowing nothing about what was unfolding in front of my eyes and pouring into my ears. I remember a dark and dusty stage, a frenetic conductor, a lament of a woman in distress, frozen in time, and my mother, drawing my attention in a whisper to E lucevan le stelle, the aria of Mario Cavaradossi.

Chiesa St Mark???????????????????????????????Many years and operas later I took my mother to see an intimate yet stellar production of Tosca in Florence, inside La chiesa Anglicana di St. Mark.

???????????????????????????????This time it was I who whispered the encyclopaedic histories and stories, as we walked after the performance across warm and fragrant streets of Florence back to my parents’ hotel, enlightened and empowered.

getImageI remember a blind rush towards Nina Scharubina, a most dazzling Tosca, amid a deafening applause as the opera guardian grannies finally let me jump on stage. I remember shouting through the noise at her melting make-up and into the numb void of her eyes how much I adore her, clumsily pressing a bunch of thorny roses onto her forearm. IMG_0923I remember dialling my mother’s number during the live performance of E lucevan le stelle by Placido Domingo, singing a few meters away from me, so that she could hear her favourite aria and later share her impressions with me. I remember many other Tosca moments, comic, tragic, awkward, and stunning, myself somehow always one step away from getting an exhaustive grasp of Tosca’s drama in its bicentennial context. Hopefully, this blog entry will do just that, i.e. turn from being an attempt into an act of coming closer and getting a clear focus. Hopefully, this will be justified, and you, a very much welcome reader, would remain a kind judge. It is with your permission that I set out to review both Tosca the drama, its history, and its recent production and performance by the cast of Metropolitan Opera, New York.

The earliest reference to Tosca in Puccini’s correspondence files, the famous Carteggi pucciniani, can be traced to as early as ten years before Tosca’s first night in Rome (1900):WP_20131116_002

“After two or three days of rest in rural idleness I have recovered from all the stress and notice that my desire to work has not disappeared, yet became even more vigorous…  I’m thinking of Tosca! I beg you to do everything it takes to obtain Sardou’s permission before I renounce the idea. This is very important to me as in Tosca I see an opera that is meant for me, an opera without disproportionate excesses, without a show décor, an opera that has no space for any of that grotesque commonplace music”.

This idea of turning a French theatre drama into an opera by Puccini was suggested by several  librettists somewhere around 1889 (just two years after the theatre play La Tosca had its first night in Paris). Yet at the time of the suggestion Puccini was immersed with other operatic endeavours, including Manon Lescaut and La Boheme. In 1894 a French playwright Sardou, the author of La Tosca met several composers in Paris to discuss the project amid the rumours that even Verdi, who was in Paris to supervise the French premiere of his Otello, was also interested in writing La Tosca into an opera.

WP_20131116_005Yet the composers were concerned with having too much narrative in the story. Certain scenes that Sardou wanted to keep in the opera seemed unrealistic from the perspective of opera production. Composers would withdraw, having found La Tosca too difficult to “operise”. When in 1895 Puccini finally secured an agreement with Sardou and a librettist, the world was set for an unparalleled commitment and an uncompromised composing of a future masterpiece. Yet before highlighting Puccini’s resolve and passion, I would like to share several insights into La Tosca, into what it had been prior to its pre-Puccinian glory.

Victorien Sardou was already a famous French playwright when he wrote his five-act theatre play La Tosca in a custom-tailored fashion for Sarah Bernhardt, another French celebrity of the time. Sardou was very inspired by the French revolution and Napoleonic themes and hence was naturally very studious and motivated in researching these matters from fresh angles. Nevertheless, La Tosca brought discontent of other playwrights who claimed to have written similar narratives. Despite the accusations of plagiarism, the play received its first night on November 24, 1887 in Le Theatre de la Porte Saint Martin in Paris, a theatre that has still preserved its dark red plush velvet seats and a noble ambiance (it was here that I enjoyed a modern twist on Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme during my teacher exchange visit to Paris in March 2012). The audience was thrilled with Sarah Bernhardt, even if the play got mixed reviews.

Sarah Bernard as ToscaThere was a reason for the thrill. Sarah Bernhardt’s life was as theatrical as it can ever get. An illegitimate daughter of a Parisian courtesan (her mother, a young Jewish lady from Amsterdam, had probably few other choices) already by the age of twenty was notorious as an actress who got thrown out from La Comedie Francaise, who gave birth to a son (conceived with a certain Belgian prince – quel scandal!), who slept in a coffin to strengthen her acting skills and made a fortune by offering escort services. By her thirties Sarah Bernhardt was back as the theatre queen of La Comedie Francaise and in demand all over Europe and America. By her forties she was an icon, gave master classes and had theatres named in her honour. Her circles included Victor Hugo, Edward VII, Alexandre Dumas-son, and many other celebrities of the time. She tried herself as a sculptor, an artist, a producer. While Sardou wrote several plays with Sarah Bernhardt in mind, La Tosca was her most revered role. Ironically, when performing La Tosca at the age of 60, during the Tosca’s final jump, Sarah injured her right leg, which led to an eventual amputation. Yet she continued her triumphal career performing in a wheel-chair or with an artificial limb until she passed away, content and peaceful at the respected age of 78. With all her dishonesty, promiscuity, and pragmatism (not unlike another art deco diva Coco Chanel), Sarah Bernhardt must have been worthy of her cult status since she left a lingering impact on how directors would perceive Tosca on stage, even if Puccini’s vision of Tosca was radically different.

While Sarah Bernhardt’s life captures well the context of the theatre play La Tosca and its consequent reflections in Puccini’s opera, another female character can help us understand the context of the actual action – the city of Rome on the day of June 17, 1800, the context that was as real as the one we experience today, intense, and politically inflammable.

The woman in question is the queen of Naples Maria-Carolina, whose royal court was at the time travelling from Naples to Vienna with several long stops on the way, including, according to Sardou and Puccini, Rome, a city that was governed by a royal dignitary appointed by the Queen.

???????????????????????????????Maria-Carolina was a daughter of the Austrian Empress Marie-Therese, and was thus a sister of the unfortunate French queen Marie-Antoinette. Maria Carolina became the queen of Naples and Sicily at the age of 16. Being very close to her sister, Maria-Carolina abhorred everything French: France, the French, the French revolution, and even the French language.  She saw herself as a patron of the arts, music, craftsmanship, yet she turned her kingdom into a police state, especially after her husband died, when she became the queen in her own right. She would often change her apartments in fear of a revolutionary plot; she would engage herself with intrigues and espionage, with a help of a special friend, Lady Emma Hamilton, who supplied her with British diplomatic secrets. Maria-Carolina would throw herself with enthusiasm into all kinds of alliances, political and matrimonial, mainly against France, and especially so after the French revolution and the gruesome decapitation of her sister, and more importantly at the time of Napoleon’s dominance in Europe. ???????????????????????????????Napoleon’s troops, in fact, took Naples on several occasions, whereby Maria-Carolina had to flee into exile to Sicily. Yet she would be restored back, every time stronger than before. It is ironic that Napoleon later married Maria-Carolina’s grand-daughter after his divorce with the Empress Josephine to secure his peace with Austria. At the time of the play La Tosca, Maria-Carolina, reinstated as the Queen of Naples, is waiting for political news, while travelling, and, assumingly, maintains a royal court to accompany her, graced by Floria Tosca, her beloved opera singer.

Maria-Carolina, after the events of La Tosca, was exiled again and lived in Vienna, waiting to be reinstated another time. She did not live to see Napoleon dethroned and exiled. Her body was found prostrated on the floor in a heap of scattered letters, presumably having suffered the stroke… Such was this woman: a devotee of an absolute monarchy, a patron of the arts, and a paranoid chef of a police state, a woman who enjoyed Tosca’s singing and spoiled her with lavish royal attention.

Maria Carolina was also fond of Giovanni Paisiello, a widely popular composer of church and opera music, who had lived eight years in St- Petersburg at the court of Catherine the Great, yet returned to Italy to work gloriously for the Kingdom of Naples (composing among other things their national anthem). Paisiello would provide most of the music that Tosca would have performed at the court of Maria Carolina. Yet after Tosca’s events, Paisiello, treacherously (in the eyes of the Queen Maria-Carolina) became Napoleon’s favourite composer in Paris. Today his music is largely forgotten, yet remains the music that inspired Beethoven, Rossini, and many other composers of the 19th century.

WP_20131116_006Thus the context on which depend the lives of the main characters of both Sardou’s theatre play La Tosca and Puccini’s opera Tosca is highly charged with political turbulence and artistic passions. The reinstated royal power at the time is weak, whereby Napoleonic admirers and revolutionaries find themselves in a quasi-Stalinist atmosphere of suspicion and denouncements.

The four key characters of the drama are a Napolitan nobleman Cesare Angelotti, the Regent of Rome’ police Baron Vitellio Scarpia, a French Rome-based artist Mario Cavaradossi , and Floria Tosca, a greatly acclaimed opera singer with a promising career and irresistible looks. The characters brought to life by Sardou are semi-fictional. They are each based on several real-life figures, whose identities were interwoven by the playwright almost in a cryptic way.  Here are their stories seen in the context of the drama.

CESARE ANGELOTTI

IMG_0612Cesare Angelotti is a descendant of a rich family in Naples, who rebelled against the royal power (Maria-Carolina) and became a Roman Consul, i.e. a minister of a short-lived government of Napoleonic Republic in Rome. Cesare Angelotti also had the audacity to disclose publicly that Emma Hamilton used to be his lover in London before she became the wife of a British ambassador to Naples. The Queen Maria-Carolina, being an enemy of everything Napoleonic and a close friend of Emma Hamilton, wanted Angelotti brought to Naples and executed. At the time of the drama, Angelotti is imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo awaiting his transfer to Naples. His sister, a highly connected Marquise d’Attavanti, arranges his escape. Angelotti, exhausted, hungry and in distress, manages to rush across the Tiber and dense Roman streets towards the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where his sister’s family keeps a private chapel, and where he intends to hide for a while. When in the church, he meets the painter, Mario Cavaradossi, who, himself a revolutionary, assists Angelotti, and sends him off in a female disguise to his family’s villa, instructing him to hide in the garden well, in case of an emergency. Unfortunately, the police soon finds out about the escape. It takes only several hours to track the accomplices and to find Angelotti, who, unwilling to surrender, commits suicide. Both Sardou and Puccini saw Angelotti in a very similar way, except for few details. In Sardou’s La Tosca, Angelotti escapes Castel Sant’Angelo and runs across Rome up the hills towards a smallish church (a bit unrealistic in the view of Puccini). Additionally, for Sardou, Mario Cavaradossi and Cesare Angelotti had known each other before their encounter. In the theatre play the chapel in the church belongs to Angelotti’s family, not his sister’s new family, the Attavanti; and towards the end of Sardou’s play, Angelotti’s body is hanged publicly after his suicide to cover the police’s inability to prevent his escape.

There are several real historical figures behind Cesare Angelotti as well as behind other characters of Tosca, as brilliant decade-long studies by Deborah Burton, College of Fine Arts, Boston University, have revealed (it is to Deborah Burton’s work that I am much indebted in my attempts to bring the reality into the picture). When looking at the lives of two of them, Liborio Angelucci and Francesco Angelotti, one can see that Sardou, as a playwright, enjoyed deconstructing the lives of several historical figures and combining their various elements freely into a life of one semi-fictional character. Additionally, Sardou enjoyed composing the names of his characters as anagrams, as we will see in the case of Tosca. Yet let us come back to Angellotti’s protagonists: Liborio Angelucci was indeed a Roman consul and was once imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo. Yet it was Francesco Angelotti who was Napolitan, escaped one of his arrests, attempted a team-suicide with his comrade Cesare Rossaroli and was in the end executed when trying to flee yet another time. All of them, Liborio Angelucci, Francesco Angelotti, and Cesare Rossaroli, died much later than when the events of Tosca took place. While in Sardou’s play Cesare Angelotti is still one of the main characters, Puccini pushed the character further away into the operatic periphery of the first act, making him a trigger and a background for the drama that is about to unfold.

VITELLIO SCARPIA

The next male character, Vitellio Scarpia, is an incarnation of evil, an evil which was collected piece by piece by Sardou across many Italian testimonials of the cruelties of those times. Baron Vitellio Scarpia is partly a reflection of a certain judge Vincenzo Speciale, who was based in Palermo, Sicily, and who was known for his unparalleled sadistic cruelty, inhuman tortures, and other hair-raising exploits. Another protagonist behind Vitellio Scarpia is a certain Gherardo “Sciarpa”, a militant who was made baron by the king and the queen of Naples. Gherardo Sciarpa (an Italian nickname “scarf”) was notorious as a blood-thirsty, conniving type who tried to implement deranged procedures of French revolutionary tribunals, executing even children. The tortures that he would order for his detainees were so brutal that death was welcome as a salvation. Both Vincenzo Speciale and Gherardo “Sciarpa” lived long past Tosca’s events and none of them was murdered by a woman. Yet, as Sardou would know, many other devilish police officers of the time were killed by desperate men and women in their ultimate attempts to restore justice. Sardou would also know that women all over Italy would sell themselves to negotiate better prison conditions or paroles for their loved ones, which makes the story of Vitellio Scarpia quite realistic.

IMG_0634According to Sardou and Puccini, Vitellio Scarpia is a Sicilian baron who was promoted by the Queen Maria-Carolina to serve as the Chief of the Police. Vitellio Scarpia’s public image is that of a religious fanatic, an impassionate servant to the Queen, and a merciless advocate of justice at all costs, especially to eradicate all seeds of revolutionary or Napoleonic thoughts. In private, Vitellio Scarpia is a sadist and a maniac who hunts women as his prey, with no respect for any social rule. Vitellio Scarpia employs a large network of informants, agents, assassins, executioners and has installed torture chambers even inside royal residences across the state, including the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, where much of the Tosca’s action takes place.

When the guardians at Castel Sant’Angelo find out that Cesare Angelotti has escaped, they fire a canon and inform the police. Scarpia is enraged. A certain part of Scarpia’s anger belongs to the fact that Angelotti’s sister, a beautiful blond Marquise d’Attavanti, has never surrendered to his lascivious advances and preferred to quit her public life at the court just to escape his monstrous pursuits. Now Angelotti, the brother of the stubborn Marquise, has challenged Scarpia’s authority. Scarpia knows that the brother and sister have several places in Rome, where Angelotti could hide. Before too long, the hunt brings Scarpia to the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where he discovers nobody, since Cesare Angelotti and his sympathiser Mario Cavaradossi had enough time to arrange Angelotti’s further itinerary away from the danger. Yet Scarpia, using his detective skills and by interrogating the church’s sacristan deducts that the Attavanti’s chapel hosted the convict for at least a while and that the painter (another revolutionary suspect!) assisted the fugitive, by sharing the food and guiding him out. Scarpia also finds a folding fan with the initials of Marquise d’Attavanti, which was probably left by the woman earlier as she hastily left the church having made preparations for her soon arriving brother.

Scarpia makes the fan work to his advantage in several ways. First, he knows that Mario Cavaradossi will return to the church to work further on his mural painting of Maria Magdalena, which already has a strange resemblance to Marquise d’Attavanti, a fact that (when coupled with the fan) would enable Scarpia to intercept and interrogate the painter about Angelotti’s whereabouts. Second, Scarpia has been already thinking of making advances on the queen’s favourite opera singer, Floria Tosca. In Scarpia’s vision, Tosca is a much coveted trophy due to her dashing beauty, her celebrity status, and her reputation of being passionate and incorruptible. Additionally, Tosca has taken a revolutionary-minded Mario Cavaradossi as her lover (which raised some eyebrows at the court) and intends daringly to build her life together with the painter, pursuing her ascending opera career across Italian cities. Scarpia also knows that Tosca is an impulsive woman, as the stories of her scenes of jealousy have reached his ears several times. This time, the fan and the resemblance between Marquise d’Attavanti and the painting can certainly advance Scarpia’s lustful plans.

Scarpia surprises Tosca, as she returns to the church (she visited Mario to see him work earlier in the day) with a smooth and insistent conversation about Mario Cavaradossi. Skillfully guiding Tosca into a fit of jealousy, he seals her anger with the fan. Tosca, who is desperately reassessing her supposedly flawed relationship, swears to revenge Mario and to assist Scarpia in his police work. As Tosca leaves to rehearse a new cantata by Paisiello, which she will perform for the Queen later that night at the court in Palazzo Farnese, Scarpia is left in the church to polish his plans. Very soon, the congregation and the clergy arrive to set the church for the performance of Te Deum, an oratorio commissioned by the Queen to commemorate the recent events at Marengo (a battle where the royal army and the Napoleonic troops were fiercely slashing each other towards an unpredictable outcome both for the Queen and the entire Italy). Scarpia joins the singing procession in a fanatic ecstasy, seeing himself as a semi-God on his way to a new conquest, Tosca.

x_8e4e85bfAfter Te Deum, Scarpia returns to his office in Palazzo Farnese. He decides to skip Tosca’s performance in the Queen’s apartments. Instead, he orders his agents to bring Mario Cavaradossi for an interrogation. What follows next is an intense psychological thriller. Scarpia uses his talking methods to intimidate Cavaradossi with no success and thus sends the painter into the torture chamber. As the painter’s body is sadistically violated, Scarpia sets a late dinner table and invites Tosca to join him and to listen to the sounds of the torture behind the wall. As horrified as she is, Tosca manages to secure an exchange of several words with Mario and decides to save her lover from hell.

Scarpia yields to Tosca’s insistence to spare Mario’s life after she tells him (under tremendous pressure of seeing the inhuman torture procedures) the whereabouts of Angelotti. As Mario Cavaradossi, barely alive, is being transferred to Castel Sant’Angelo during the night, Scarpia starts his cat-and-mouse game with Tosca. Scarpia’s condition is Tosca’s much coveted body. Tosca’s conditions include a pardon for the painter and a secure passage for both of them out of the kingdom. During the tumultuous argument, that includes Scarpia’s attempts at rape and Tosca’s threats to involve the queen, Scarpia wins. His solution is to convince Tosca that Mario will be given a “mock” execution, i.e. an execution with dummy bullets, after which she and Mario could safely run towards the nearest port. Scarpia signs the passports for the couple, yet gives instructions to his agents to stage a real execution for the approaching morning. Tosca, in her ignorance of Scarpia’s real intentions, accepts the deal. As Scarpia is preparing himself for the upcoming sexual pleasures, Tosca, pushed into the corner, decides to turn the situation around. When Scarpia approaches her, she stabs him to death, much to his surprise. As Scarpia is dying helplessly on the floor, the last thing he hears is Tosca’s enraged shouting at him, cursing his name and his soul.

MARIO CAVARADOSSI

The third male character of the drama, Mario Cavaradossi, is, again, a semi-fictional character. There are at least two real-life artists that can be seen behind him:  an Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi and a French painter Joseph Chinard. Giuseppe Ceracchi was a Roman who lived and worked in Britain, France, and the United States. Ceracchi was a famous author of many grand neo-classical sculptures and busts, including those of his patrons, Napoleon, George Washington, and others. His life was full of travel, ambitious projects, and naïve expectations. His disappointment with the Napoleon’s regime led him to take part in an assassination plot, which was uncovered with gruesome consequences: Ceracchi was decapitated. Somewhat ironically, the carriage that drove him to the guillotine was of his own design. Before his execution Ceracchi was noted for his bravura and fearless attitude to torture and death. The other character behind Mario Cavaradossi, a French painter Joseph Chinard, lived (like Mario) in Rome and was imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo for revolutionary propaganda, yet, unlike Mario, he was saved by his mother’s heavy lobbying (which involved a lot of diplomatic scandal).

According to Sardou and Puccini, Mario Cavaradossi is a descendent of an old Roman family, whose mother was French, which allowed him spending most of his life in Paris, where he studied art under the supervision of Jacques Louis David, the official painter of the French Revolution. This explains Mario’s staunch belief in revolutionary ideals. As it was not unusual for many artists of the time to come to Rome to get classical training, Mario made use of his family connections and a family residence in Rome and moved to the Eternal City to advance his artistic career. Yet with all his interest in the classical arts, Mario had quite an anti-establishment life-style: instead of wigs and courtier’s clothes, he preferred to wear his long hair loose and to dress simply. To secure his permit to stay in Rome, Mario would have to agree to paint the murals of the Roman churches (naturally, for free), which would require him to work in places that would be far from his revolutionary ideals. Being a revolutionary painter was dangerous. Yet Mario found a passionate solution: his lover, Floria Tosca, was a famous opera singer and a favourite of the Queen, which, perhaps, helped him stay off the black list for a while.

IMG_0648At the time of the Tosca’s drama, Mario Cavaradossi starts his yet another day as an artist. He has to continue working on a mural painting in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. As he enters the church he notices a young beautiful woman, a blond with graceful blue eyes, who has been in the church several times before. Mario is quite attracted to the beauty of the woman, whom he recognises as a wife of a prominent Marquis d’Attavanti and a sister to a well-known rebel Cesare Angelotti. As Mario’s professional task is to depict Maria Magdalena, he channels his attraction into his artistic work, whereby his Maria Magdalena on the wall acquires the blue eyes of the Marchesa d’Attavanti. Mario Cavaradossi can certainly appreciate the beauty, yet a womaniser he is not.

Having arrived in Rome as an outsider, although a Roman by origins, he has been committedly in love with one of the most talented and celebrated women in Italy – a passionate and impulsive, devout and generous opera singer, Floria Tosca, whose patrons included famous composers, the Queen, and even the Pope himself. Floria Tosca became the reason that Mario Cavaradossi was happy to struggle with his life in Rome. And a challenging struggle his life in Rome was. While Floria Tosca was praised lavishly by the royal regime, Mario Cavaradossi, her lover, remained a political suspect and perhaps escaped many interrogations due to his lover’s clout.

On this particular day, Mario Cavaradossi knows that Tosca will find time between her court appointments to visit him at work and to share the latest news, or rather to check on him whether he is actually at work or hiding away with one of his models. While Tosca’s jealousy would often be a nuisance, Mario already knows by now how to disarm Tosca’s distrust and pacify her insecurities: just like a child, Tosca would surrender to peaceful patience and soulful declarations of love. The church guardian is also used to their somewhat noisy and unholy arguments and (oh no!) passionate reconciliations right in the temple. Besides keeping an order in the church, the guardian would also bring a lunch box for Mario (at least the church would provide free meals to the painter) in a secret and often successful hope that Mario would be too absorbed with the work and would end his shift without having lunch, which would enable the guardian (somewhat struggling with managing his own weight) to enjoy the contents of the lunch box, which would normally contain a wine bottle among other delicacies. On this day, the guardian will be disappointed: Mario and Tosca would have a big fight and a most passionate reconciliation; the lunch box would not be touched by Mario yet would strangely disappear.

As Mario continues working, he is frightened by a shadow lurking across the church. In an initially apprehensive encounter, Mario Cavaradossi and Cesare Angelotti very soon identify each other as political comrades and swear their mutual allegiance to the revolutionary ideals. Mario, moved by Cesare’s unfolding escape, arranged by Cesare’s beautiful sister, is terrified at the sound of a canon salute, fired from the Castel Sant’Angelo. Both Mario and Cesare realise that the hunt for the escaped prisoner has begun, and that the chief of the Roman police, the vile baron Scarpia, will stop at nothing. Cesare puts on his sister’s clothes, takes the lunch box and the keys from Mario’s villa, and rushes from the church through a sideway gate, while Mario hears Tosca’s impatient voice, looking for him across the church’s vast interior, behind the columns and everywhere else.

After calming all Tosca’s suspicions (for she did recognise the Marquise d’Attavanti’s face in the painting), Mario resumes his work. Tosca is chirping away making plans for the night. Mario encourages Tosca to follow her plans and to attend the Queen’s reception in Palazzo Farnese, where she is scheduled to perform a new cantata written by Paisiello. Meanwhile, Mario would hope to rush to his villa and to see whether Cesare Angelotti is safe. Tosca, unaware of Mario’s concerns, wants Mario to have dinner with her after her performance, to which he reluctantly agrees, raising her suspicious doubts again.

As Tosca leaves the church for her rehearsal, Mario proceeds to his villa and helps Angelotti hide in a garden well, just before Tosca arrives in one of her jealous fits. When understanding that her suspicions are groundless, she becomes concerned for Mario’s safety yet has to leave for her performance in Palazzo Farnese. Scarpia’s agents arrive and take Mario by force for an interrogation. When facing Scarpia, Mario denies any involvement with Angelotti’s escape. Mario dismisses bravely the threats of an execution and endures inhuman sufferings, repeatedly collapsing in primal screaming.

When Scarpia takes Tosca to see Mario’s torture, Tosca manages to exchange several words with the painter. To explain his arrest, he briefly tells her Angelotti’s hiding place and pleads her to keep his secret undisclosed from Scarpia. As the torture continues, Tosca, unable to contain herself, tells Scarpia about Angelotti and his probable hiding place.

Meanwhile, the much anticipated news arrives to Palazzo Farnese from the battlefield of Marengo. The royal court is in shock, as Napoleonic troops seem to have been victorious and now threaten to overthrow the royal regime in the Kingdom of Naples. The news does not escape Mario, who, emboldened by such developments, bursts into Scarpia’s office, and shouts at him the threats of imminent revenge. When realising that Tosca unveiled Angelotti’s whereabouts, Mario damns her as well.

IMG_0625Scarpia orders Mario to be transferred for an execution to the Castel Sant’Angelo, exactly from where Cesare Angelotti escaped just several hours earlier. With no hope left, Mario is awaiting his life’s last morning, listening to the early songs of shepherd boys. His only comfort is the bittersweet memory of Tosca, her fragrance, her hair, her voice. Mario bribes the prison guards with his last valuables for a permission to write a letter to Tosca (here begins the most sad, powerful, and beautiful song of all Puccini’s tenors – E lucevan le stelle). All of a sudden, Tosca rushes into his confinement (a chapel or courtyard of Castel Sant’Angelo), deranged, confused, excited, and scared (another bribe for prison guards, perhaps). In a state of affect, Tosca tells Mario about her fight with Scarpia, about the murder, and the new passports. She convinces Mario that the approaching execution will be a staged spectacle, after which they will be able to run towards the sea port, provided, of course, that Mario plays his part well when time comes to fall on the ground. IMG_0621Mario seems to recover hope and spends the last hours before the dawn dreaming about the future and thanking Tosca for saving him yet another time.  Mario faces the firing squad with abandonment and confidence. His death is immediate while the last thing he sees is a breath-taking panorama of Rome.

Thus Sardou and Puccini compiled and composed the lives of three male characters, a Roman nobleman Cesare Angelotti, a Sicilian baron Vitellio Scarpia, and a French painter Mario Cavaradossi, the three lives that get intertwined on June 17, 1800 and perish within several hours, be it in a desperate suicide at the bottom of a garden well, in a blunt murder while in the heat of a sexual desire, or in a naïve hope to start a new life. They all have something in common – a woman who, involuntarily, became the catalyst of their demise – Floria Tosca.

FLORIA TOSCA

WP_20131116_011Floria Tosca, the title character, is one of the most fascinating characters in the history of opera and, perhaps, of theatre as well. She is a household name, yet remains elusive, inconsistent, and polarising. Maria Callas, perhaps the only performer to come close to Sarah Bernhardt in making Tosca her own, would refer to Tosca as a hysterical figure and would not consider her a favourite heroine. Many other singers would try to establish a legacy with their interpretations to only fail. Sardou’s play La Tosca itself has not been performed in theatres for many decades. Yet the opera remains one of the most performed operas in the world, and the number of new aspiring Tosca sopranos only keeps growing.

???????????????????????????????Sardou’s Floria Tosca is a patchwork, just like Angelotti, Scarpia, and Cavaradossi are. There are at least three famous opera divas of the past that can be linked via their biographies to Tosca: Angelica Catalani, Francesca Costa, and Celeste Coltellini (here again I am very grateful to Deborah Burton for unveiling these life-stories behind Tosca). These singers differed by the types of their voices, and lived in different places at somewhat different times. If there was anything in common between them, that would be popularity, close ties with aristocracy, Italian origins, and non-violent existence.

IMG_2434Angelica Catalani, or La Catalani, besides being cast in opera productions in Rome at the time of the drama, had a life that at times reminds strikingly the fictional life of Tosca. Born in Venice, the young girl was brought up in a convent, yet brought to the secular light due to her astounding singing talent. Composers and the clergy alike would petition for her to become an opera diva. Very soon, La Catalani enjoyed her engagements in Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Teatro La Fenice, Venice, and Teatro Argentina, Rome, followed by singing contracts in London, Paris, Stockholm and elsewhere. La Catalani was famous, glamorous, and regally rich. Her reviewers and followers included Goethe, Paganini, Stendhal and others. Yet her voice, a technically impressive coloratura soprano, lacked depth and emotion. Critics would say that La Catalani had a bad taste, always sounded the same no matter what she sang, and was incredibly jealous and possessive. Having finished her career at the age of fifty, Angelica Catalani settled in Florence, and devoted herself to charity. She died in Paris, trying to escape an epidemic of cholera. It was Angelica Catalani who was featured in opera productions in Rome on the days preceding and following the events of Tosca.

Francesca Costa, a singer who lived in the mid-seventeenth century, brings another dimension to Tosca’s character. Francesca Costa was born in Verona and was known to be a prostitute before becoming a famous singer. Her beauty and her talent opened to her the doors of royal courts and enabled her to compete even with castrati for the most illustrious opera parts. Additionally, her sister became a famous writer and helped her achieve an even higher social status. Sardou was known for his love for anagrams, and Francesca Costa may quite well explain both the cryptography of Floria Tosca (Costa – Tosca) and Sardou’s choice of Verona as Tosca’s birthplace.

IMG_0817When it comes to the anagram, Sardou mentioned in his correspondence that finding the optimal name for his heroine was challenging right until the beginning of the rehearsals. Tosca (or Tusca) is a well-known first name, which means, literally, “Etruscan”, and has the same linguistic history as the word Toscana. Verona is particularly relevant as a place to look for Tosca. Chiesa delle Sante Teuteria e Tosca, the oldest church in Verona and in Veneto region, is a small 8th century structure that commemorates two sanctified catholic women, Teuteria and Tosca. According to the legend, Teuteria escaped her pagan Anglo-Saxon tribes to lead an enlightened life in Italy, which she managed to do in the company of a young virgin Tosca, who was a sister of Verona’s bishop. Teuteria and Tosca lived together in inseparable intimacy for many years until Tosca’s death. Thus the word Tosca itself yields religious zeal and primal womanhood.

Additionally, the word Tosca may call to mind the word “Tossica” (Italian for toxic). When thinking of Floria Tosca as a “toxic flower”, another famous singer of the past comes into the big picture, due to her namely, well, name. Celeste Coltellini could mean (in Italian) “celestial knives”, which is a great metaphoric allusion to the drama of Tosca. Celeste Coltellini was another famous singer of the time, a rich, successful, and talented mezzo-soprano, a rival to Angelica Catalani, and a friend of Emma Hamilton. Celeste Coltellini had more artistic integrity than La Catalani, was known for her interpretations of Mozart’s music, and thus was very much welcome in Vienna and all over Italy. She settled in Naples after marrying a Swiss banker and lived her life in peace and comfort.

Such are the life-characters behind Sardou’s Floria Tosca. And when it comes to the version of the play and the opera, Tosca’s narrative of the events would go somewhat as follows (if a compromise can be found between Sardou’s and Puccini’s versions).

IMG_0458An orphan by birth, little is known about Tosca’s origins, apart from the fact that she was picked up on the hills of Verona by nuns of a local convent who took a pity on a small child who, instead of enjoying her tender age, had to herd sheep (I actually would not mind herding a few sheep on those marvellous hills of Verona, since herding my students in the classrooms of Porvoo in Finnish darkness at times seems to be less of a pleasant alternative). Once in the convent, young Floria developed a voice of an angel. So powerful and so delightful was her talent, that composers Cimarosa and Paisiello, several cardinals, and the Pope encouraged (for the lack of a more insistent word) the nuns to release Floria Tosca into the secular world. Very soon Tosca made her magnificent debut in Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in Paisiello’s opera Nina, which is all but forgotten today, yet was all the rage at the time.

???????????????????????????????After several years of a glittering career, Tosca turned into a much-coveted diva, yet kept her allegiance to the nuns and the clergy: Tosca was devout and very self-assured in her righteousness, even if her court life would pose various challenges. The challenges included lustful admirers, political intrigues, and intense travel itineraries among other. Tosca coped with such challenges quite well: she had enough money so she would only take a lover who she would be passionately in love with; her talented singing provided her equally with the Papal protection, the Queen’s friendship, and the adoration of Napoleon supporters.  As for the travelling, for the moment Tosca was happy to stay in Rome, since her temporary contract with Teatro Argentina allowed her enough time to sing at the court and to enjoy the company of her latest lover, an artist Mario Cavaradossi, who was, in her opinion, too focused on looking out for another fresh beauty to paint.

On that morning of Tuesday, June 17, 1800, Tosca did not anticipate any turbulence. Surely, Paisiello had another cantata to be performed impressively in the evening in the presence of the Queen, yet Tosca was not under any pressure to deliver the music. Tosca would rather make romantic plans: she would visit Mario at his work, then dash to Palazzo Farnese for a rehearsal, perhaps see Mario again, then perform, and then escape the court to spend the night with Mario in their love nest.

Tosca ScharubinaWhen entering the church Sant’Andrea della Valle, Tosca immediately hears hushed voices and the sound of dress robes, exactly the sound of a woman fleeing the scene. With a growing concern, Tosca finds Mario looking troubled and refusing to explain what she just saw. Tosca becomes almost enraged when she notices that Mario’s Maria Magdalena is a stunning naked woman. Her pride does not tolerate easily such promiscuity. She makes a scene and forces Mario to promise that he will paint Maria Magdalena’s eyes black, just like her own, and will later, after her performance, join her for a dinner. She leaves the church feeling warm and refreshed: a passionate argument with Mario would only strengthen her attachment to this heroic-looking idealist. She also feels grateful that Mario is devoted to her enough to put his career on hold and to stay in a hostile Roman environment until her next engagement with another theatre takes them, who knows, perhaps to Milan, Venice, or even Paris (these very well might have been Tosca’s plans).

The rehearsal does not take much time, and Tosca returns to the church to find that the church is being set for a Te Deum, while Mario is nowhere in sight. Instead, Tosca stumbles upon a devilishly smiling baron Scarpia, another favourite of the Queen, who kept all the court in terrified suspense whenever passing by. Scarpia has always been polite and even gallant with Tosca. She would struggle with such emphasised courtesies: on the one hand, Scapria was a very powerful and staunchly religious man of affairs; on the other hand, Tosca knew women who would flee in horror at the mere mentioning of his name. Unaware of the unfolding drama, Tosca engages, even if with a reservation, in a conversation with Scarpia. Very soon Tosca realises that Scarpia is playing her for a fool: he definitely brags of having a proof of Mario’s infidelity to her. When, indignant, Tosca demands the evidence, Scarpia teases her with a folding fan, supposedly left by a woman who just came to see Mario and took him out of the church. Tosca, impatient, grabs the fan out of Scarpia’s hands and sees the engraving of Marquise d’Attavanti’s initials. Suddenly, Tosca is tormented by a bitter realisation that her romantic visions were bitter illusions: Mario used her just as he must have used other women, charmed by his heroic looks and revolutionary spirit. She swears to revenge and leaves the church, while Scarpia seems to be mesmerised by how beautiful Tosca is in anger.

Tosca mingles with the court crowd in the Queen’s apartments in Palazzo Farnese, upset at herself and distraught: she rushed to Mario’s country villa in a deranged hope to confront him and Marquise d’Attavanti. Instead, she found Mario in grave danger, assisting an escaped convict. She also knows that Scarpia will stop at nothing, and just recently, the Queen Maria-Carolina humiliated Scarpia in front of the court, ordering him to do everything it takes to capture and execute Angelotti and all the accomplices. Tosca performs Paisiello’s cantata, which was composed as a hymn to celebrate the upcoming victory at the Marengo. Yet the news arrives that the royalist troops suffered significant losses and had to retreat. The Queen faints and the courtiers leave in a semi-panicking mode. Tosca receives an invitation to join Scarpia in his office. She is apprehensive yet decides to keep her calm and to face the inevitable.

Scarpia receives Tosca with an unchanged devilish smile and the same emphasised courtesy. The dinner table is set yet the apartments look as if a fight or an orgy has recently taken place. As the conversation unfolds, Tosca learns that Mario is agonising in Scarpia’s torture chamber. Sadistically, Scarpia makes Tosca see and hear Mario’s sufferings. In horror and to no avail, Tosca pleads Scarpia to stop the inhuman procedures. She swears that she visited Mario’s villa and found him alone there, with no escaped convicts in sight. She manages to exchange couple of words with Mario through the wall, whereby she learns that Angelotti is hiding in the garden well and that Scarpia’s efforts are in vain for Mario would rather die than betray his comrade. The tortures go on and Tosca, seeing in dismay that her beloved is paralysed, unconscious, covered in blood and sweat, surrenders to Scarpia’s unbearable pressure: she reveals Angelotti’s whereabouts.

When the torture stops and Mario learns that Napoleonic troops defeated the royalists, he, revived and emboldened, rushes out of the torture chamber and assaults Scarpia, who, laughingly, tells Mario that his and Angelotti’s secret has been uncovered by Tosca. It is now Tosca’s turn to face the assault and the verbal abuse from Mario. After the guardians take Mario away towards Castel Sant’Angelo, the agents who departed earlier to capture Angelotti, arrive and announce that the fugitive committed suicide.

Meanwhile, Tosca, crushed and shaken to the core by everything she has experienced, finds herself again in the middle of a calm yet terrifying conversation. As Scarpia offers her a glass of wine and invites her to continue the meal, she hopes for an opportunity of a bargain. She would have been ready to sell all her possessions, yet with Scarpia’s lustful confessions, she finally realises that all of this time Scarpia has been after her and only after her. Her last threat, a plea for the royal protection, is bluntly dismissed by Scarpia on the grounds that Mario will be executed by the time Tosca could approach the Queen. As Scarpia starts taking his clothes off and throws her down the floor, she pleads for a moment to think. Here Puccini freezes the action with one of the most beautiful and poignant arias written for a soprano voice – Vissi d’arte – a sorrowful lament, where Tosca asks God why on Earth she has to go through such suffering. There are hundreds of recordings of Vissi d’arte available. Words are useless to convey the sheer raw beauty of its music and I will not dare do that here.

Having made her decision, Tosca nods to Scarpia’s insistent questions. She has a condition: two passports, access to the port, immunity until their departure from Roman states, and an immediate release of Mario. Scarpia argues that a mock execution must take place (rubber bullets and lots of harmless smoke). He orders his agents to execute Mario Cavaradossi just like they had once executed the Count of Palmieri. Unfortunately, Tosca is not aware that Palmieri was promised a mock execution and was not granted one, i.e. was executed, bel et bien. As Scarpia is issuing the passports and giving the orders, Tosca becomes restless and yet pensive. She sees the end of a tunnel.

Her following scene has been played so many times in so many ways that there is hardly one way to describe what actually happens. One widely popular interpretation suggests that Tosca approaches the dinner table to pour herself a glass of wine to revive her spirits or to get tipsy enough to live through the upcoming intercourse with Scarpia. As she is reaching for a bottle of wine, she notices a knife and becomes scared of it. After a bit of reflection, she hides the knife either in her dress or keeps it in her fist behind her back. When Scarpia jumps on her again, she stabs him with vengeance. Maria Callas would stab her stage partner so vehemently and repeatedly, that the plastic knife would often break to pieces.  Additionally, crude naturalistic productions of Tosca display lots of blood, screaming, and agonising moaning amid Puccini’s unforgettable poignant music. As Scarpia yields his last breath, Tosca drops the knife in unspeakable horror, trying to wipe the blood off her hands and to make sense of what just happened. She comes to her senses nevertheless very soon. She turns the body to take the passports out of Scarpia’s pocket and takes a scornful look at the corpse, saying her trademark phrase: “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!” (And to think that he would make all Rome tremble with fear!). Being a devout Catholic, Tosca places a candle on each side of Scarpia’s body and leaves Palazzo Farnese for the Castel Sant’Angelo, unnoticed in the middle of the night.

Other opera productions bring their own elements into the murder scene. At times, Scarpia tries to take Tosca forcefully on the table, whereby her hands land on a knife with the above-mentioned consequences. At times Tosca skilfully plans the murder. My favourite Tosca, Nina Scharubina, rushes into Scarpia’s office still in her regal performance attire. As the torture scene and violent negotiations unfold, her complex abundant hairdo remains somewhat intact. Yet when she starts contemplating the inevitable and decides to remove the long and sharp hairpins (similar to Japanese kanzashi) from her hair, one hairpin cuts her finger, as her big hair, released, falls on her shoulders, sparkling in the fleeting candle light.

Nina Scharubina

Nina Scharubina

With a Gorgon Medusa smile, she shamelessly pulls up her skirts, pushes up her bra, plumps up her lips, and calls Scarpia to join her on a sofa. Scarpia, surprised by such a lustful change in Tosca’s character, approaches what seems to be a semi-naked, sexed-up courtesan or femme fatale. She draws him closer, aligning her body seductively with his, and, looking straight into his eyes, stabs him with a hairpin, over and over again into his neck, his chest, and his stomach, as Scarpia falls off the sofa and gasps for air on the floor, with Tosca shouting and spitting at him “Questo e il bacio di Tosca!” (Here is your kiss from Tosca!).

???????????????????????????????I remember at that moment, sitting in the first row, that my father and I looked at each other in a thrilled shock and uttered simultaneously “Твою мать!” (a rude Russian equivalent of Oh my God!), as the impact of the scene coupled with the effect of music was almost unbearable. My mother, though, disapproved adamantly such femme fatale rendition of Tosca. It took her two years to accept Nina Scharubina’s version of the scene, and recently, on November 26, 2013, after seeing Nina Scharubina in Tosca again, she said that her acting was by all standards a masterpiece.

Yet back to the story: Tosca leaves Palazzo Farnese in the middle of the night, fleeing the murder scene, leaving some of her clothing items in Scarpia’s office. She rushes through the empty streets of Rome towards Castel Sant’Angelo (or as other versions of the story suggest, Scarpia’s tortures and murder took place in Castel Sant’Angelo, whereby Tosca simply rushed from one level of the prison to another). The night starts turning into dawn, and she is still under the effect of the recent murder and anxious to see and save Mario.

When Tosca arrives to Castel Sant’Angelo, she bribes the guards to get to Mario’s confinement. Their encounter and reconciliation are passionate. Tosca talks impatiently about the upcoming fake execution, the passports, and their escape route to the seaport. Astonished, Mario wonders whether all of this is too good to be true. Tosca has nothing to hide: she asks for forgiveness for what she has done, sharing the blood-chilling details of the murder scene and breaking down in tears. Mario comforts her tenderly, caressing her hands softly, and whispering words of affection. When revived by their reunion, Tosca instructs Mario on how to act during the execution, how to drop dead on the ground in a believable manner, for she is, after all, an actress and her advice should be trusted. The lovers practice the moves and wait for the squad to arrive. Tosca hides behind the corner and rejoices at the blast of gunshots and the sight of Mario’s body hitting the ground lifelessly. She waits until the soldiers leave and instructs Mario to stay quiet until she gives him a sign. When Mario’s body ignores her impatient signs, she rushes towards him, realising in horror that the execution was real. IMG_0620All tears and sobbing, Tosca sees that Scarpia’s agents are running towards her. She screams at them all the profanities she can imagine: her only regret is that she is not able to kill Scarpia all over again. Pushed by the angry men to the top level of the Castle, Tosca faces the Roman horizon in its early morning lights: Basilica di San Pietro, the Tiber river, and Trastevere. Before the agents can reach and grab her dress, she dives off the parapet. The agents watch in disbelief her body plunge towards the imminent death at the bottom of Castel Sant’Angelo.

Such is the story of Tosca, with its head-spinning twenty-something hour drive through the landmarks of Rome on June 17, 1800. The four main characters, Cesare Angelotti, Vitellio Scarpia, Mario Cavaradossi, and Floria Tosca, designed and composed by Victorien Sardou and Giacomo Puccini, have lived long after their fictional deaths and keep perishing every day around the globe on the most revered opera stages.

IMG_0833The evolution of these characters from Sardou’s design to Puccini’s composition was not smooth. In the year 1895 Puccini took a trip to Florence to see Sarah Bernhardt in Sardou’s La Tosca and actually did not like it at all. Puccini thought that there were too many poetic and lyric elements in the paly. He definitely wanted to tighten the story and to bring more dynamic thrill, taking many lines out. Puccini absolutely did not want the characters to explain themselves in the opera (quite contrastingly to the theatre play, where the characters would indulge into monotonous monologues too often). Puccini thus pressed the librettists to make the sacrilegious changes, even if the librettists would not know what and how to cut. The librettists thought that Puccini was insane to make the drama clear and rapid, to fill it with large raw emotions, and to remove its entire poetic interface.

Yet this was exactly what Puccini wanted. He even authorised special further cuts to make Tosca much less lyrical, so that the characters would affect each other not by words but by dramatic behaviour, be it eroticism, fearlessness, or despair. To add drama to Tosca’s end, Puccini placed the Tiber River between St. Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo (whereas the Tiber has always run alongside both landmarks). Additionally, Sardou’s version of Tosca’s suicide was based on Tosca’s going meekly mad and dying helplessly. Puccini’s version takes another dimension: Tosca’s suicide is dynamic and intentional.

IMG_0720While travelling hectically to promote his La Boheme and other operas around Europe, Puccini finds time to get secluded in his villa Torre del Lago, not far from Viareggio on Mediterranean shore, and enslaves himself with work on Tosca’s orchestration and vocal score. In 1897 Puccini takes a series of consultations with Roman clergy to study the sound of Roman bells, the style of the Te Deum, and the prayers that the devout Romans tend to murmur in the churches such as la chiesa Sant’Andrea della Valle. Puccini also consults friends in Rome to get the dialects and the accents of his characters right.

Due to all this hectic work, Acts I, II, and III of the opera were not completed chronologically. Yet Puccini never lost the overall vision of his opera. He submitted the final version of the opera to the publisher without any intention to revise it later (which was very rare for the composer).  The premier took place three months later, despite the fact that the publisher was not very pleased with Act III.

WP_20131116_007The premiere took place in Rome, on January 14, 1900, almost exactly 100 years after the events of La Tosca. The reviews were mixed, the critics (including Verdi) were moved by several passages, yet were disappointed by Puccini’s fixation on depiction (long and monotonous, in their opinion) of the dawn and the church bells. Yet today Tosca remains largely unrevised, except for certain discrepancies between the original autograph score and the first printed versions. The autograph score has been stored in Archivo Ricordi in Milan since its submission by the composer as three large bound volumes (one for each act).

Fast-forward to 2013, and we see an immense undying interest in Tosca, both in obscure provincial studios and in global mega-theatres. Such interest is nowhere as important and trend-setting as in the Met (Metropolitan Opera, New York). In 2009 Metropolitan Opera trusted Luc Bondy, a Swiss-born stage director who has an impressive resume, with helping the opera house break the tradition (after all, the Met is a rather conservation institution) and to produce a new Tosca that would be at the same time theatrical and cinematic, especially to align with increasingly popular film broadcasts by the Met (more than half of the Met’s revenues today seem to come from the broadcasts).

WP_20131208_002I have seen this particular production of Tosca by Luc Bondy three times over the years and can now say that with all the hype and the occasional booing from the audiences, the production is straightforwardly disappointing and boring. It does get at times too theatrical in its bizarre ill-fitted exaggerations and too cinematic in its reliance on somewhat puzzling filmic stunts. Yet the prevailing palette is overwhelmingly dark and bland, except perhaps for Tosca’s from hair to toes redder than red outfit, while the staging is quite simple and at times claustrophobic.  When seeing it in 2009 with a Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role, I dismissed my disappointment with the production thinking that it was Mattila’s retired wobble and aged looks that spoiled the night. When seeing the production again on a DVD with Mattila (no better this time) and Jonas Kaufmann (barely able to counterbalance the disaster on his own), I dismissed my negativity thinking that quality of filming must have been the reason. Yet this time, in 2013, taking another look at the production, with another cast, I tend to find fault with Luc Bondy.

WP_20131208_001Not everything in Met’s 2013 version of Tosca is regrettable. The cast, for once, seemed promising. A French tenor Roberto Alagna, as Mario Cavaradossi, surely is an interesting choice. Once booed as Radames in Aida on Met’s stage, and thus no longer too self-assured, Roberto Alagna made his comeback and could perhaps deliver Puccini’s music reliably well. A Georgian baritone George Ganidze has vile gluttonous looks and a vocal stamina that is blazing enough to make a believable Scarpia. And Patricia Racette, a long-time favourite of the U.S. audiences, could also deliver a nice surprise. While I saw Patricia Racette as Micaela in Carmen (a lyric soprano) and Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly (again somewhat too lyric, in my opinion), her voice, now almost in her 50s, could have matured to cope with the dramatic score of Tosca, or at least that was what I hoped for. Besides, Patricia Racette’s life story (an opera diva that has been adamantly open about her same-sex marriage) suggested a hard-core masculinity and unapologetic integrity, which could suit Tosca’s character remarkably well.

Well, to start, Roberto Alagna is much better as a Mario Cavaradossi than as a Radames. Alagna is definitely a Puccini tenor, albeit with signs of being a bit worn out. Alagna delivers a stable and even sound, strong top notes that never verged on a scream. His Cavaradossi gave a very interesting phrasing. For example, the line “Tosca, sei tu!” was sung from forte into long pianissimo instead of traditional long forte. Alagna’s E lucevan le stelle was impeccably beautiful, his cry for victory Vittorio! was powerful and poignant. At the same time his acting was static and uninventive.

WP_20131208_004George Ganidze as Scarpia deserves a standing bravissimo. Staunchly fat and evil, overwhelmingly powerful and sadistic, his Te Deum with blasphemous lyrics and lustful rubbing at Madonna’s statue brought horrifying goose-bumps. And thankfully this time, fellatio scenes of earlier versions were cut from his orgies in Act II. Ganidze’s Italian articulation is wonderful, yet it was disappointing to see how much the singer lacked charisma when interviewed during the intermission (Ganidze heavily relied on his interpreter and could barely take part in the conversation).

Patricia Racette (with all the expectations and all the due respect) was the main disappointment of the night, even when compared to Karita Mattila. Patricia Racette’s voice is unfortunately too shallow, flat, and narrow in its higher register. Her lower register has more volume, yet she evidently emerged as a lyric soprano attempting at a drama repertoire, which can be compared to a canary trying to yield a lion’s roar.  The much needed chemistry between Racette and Alagna in Act I did not work – the singers were too full of themselves and quite static. Act II with Scarpia produced a better impression: the murder scene was acted well and brought several fresh insights: having stabbed Scarpia, Tosca looked as if considering a suicidal jump out of the window of Scarpia’s office.  Yet Racette’s breathing was quite heavy, whereby Vissi d’arte sounded patchy and disastrous at the end. Act III highlighted the best of Patricia Racette’s drama: her signing and acting became more open and more convincing.  Yet she is clearly not the Tosca type. Perhaps Patricia Racette, as a spinto soprano, could deliver a delightful Traviata, provided she slims down to rediscover her waist, sheds the abundant flesh on her arms, and masters the Italian phonetics.

A pleasant surprise came from an American bass-baritone Richard Bernstein who is definitely the one to watch. His Cesare Angelotti, even if reduced by Puccini to a mere episode in Act I had a voice that was full, rich, and surprisingly memorable. One only wonders why Metropolitan Opera would not feature him in more coveted roles.

Last but not least, the host of the night, a diva in her own right, Renee Fleming had an amazing camera presence. It is always a joy to watch Renee Fleming as a host, as she manages to engage technicians, choir directors, conductors, carpenters, etc. to highlight the complexities of the Met behind the scenes. As Tosca’s production team and cast were revealing, layer after layer, their impressive machinery, I could not help thinking that Renee Fleming harboured a regret of never being able to sing Tosca on that stage. Yet, unlike Patricia Racette, Renee is wisely aware where her strengths are. She reminded me that Tosca has also been an inspiring compass for many singing careers that never featured a Tosca part.

It is time to finalise this overview of Tosca, perhaps too long and self-indulgent. Yet that is what opera music and our love for it are. As I roll back the pages of the text, I glide over histories, individual lives, theatre productions, myths, memories and experiences. I am not sure whether I came close to grasp the essence of Tosca. Yet I feel that my more than two decade fascination with the drama is coming to another re-launch, for, after all, Tosca remains elusive, open to interpretations, and unsurpassed in its magnetism, or, in Tosca’s own lines:

Oh, come la sai bene, l’arte di farti amare… Oh yes, you know the secret just how to make me love you…WP_20131116_009

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Eugene Onegin in the MET’s broadcast: a broader casting is needed

Onegin Tatiana duet 2There must be something universally attractive in a male character who defies establishment just because he can, especially when enabled with money, good looks, and ripe cynicism (women rarely get such an easy ride). If you are such a character, they will write and read a book, play and listen to an opera, make and watch a film – all about you. Wait a decade and you’ll be a media darling. Wait a century and you’ll enter text books. A century long list of such literature and media darlings includes Dumas’ Edmont Dantes aka the Count of Monte-Cristo, Byron’s Childe Harold, Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, Lermontov’s Pechorin, Werther, Don Juan, Tolstoy’s Bolkonsky, Heathcliff, Rochester, and many more.

Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin rightfully belongs to the list. Yet the character has somewhat failed to inspire the current media industry towards a 100 million-dollar film production or similar lucrative franchises. Perhaps, Pushkin’s narrative in Russian verse and the lacking quality of its translations have contributed to scaring the potential audiences away. Perhaps, the story itself lacks the drama or the drama could be too grotesque and blown out of proportions for today’s audiences, who may find the story quite bland or lacking in violence, sex, and fun. Compare Eugene Onegin to thrillers such as Carmen or Tosca and the blandness may become even appalling. Here is a brief outline of the story:

Onegin joins Lensky, both are in their early twenties, to visit the family of Lensky’s bride Olga at the village estate of her mother. The family has four female characters: Olga, the bride, is flirtatious and light-headed; Tatiana, her sister, is a book worm; Madame Larina, their mother, is a rural land- and serf-owner, who is busy with matrimonial plans of her daughters; the old Nanny is a selfless relic, who justifies her existence by carrying lamps and checking whether the demoiselles go to bed on time.

Onegin estateLife in Larina’s estate is boring, predictable, and safe. The visit by Lensky and Onegin causes an anxiety attack across all characters: Olga is extracting songs of love from her naïve fiancé, Tatiana falls sheepishly in love with Byronic and cynical Onegin, the matrons and the servants are huffing and puffing to keep the appearances.

After the visit, Tatiana makes a faux pas: she sends a love letter to Onegin, who takes her for a walk and condescendingly rejects her amorous aspirations, sealing his self-gratifying lecture with a brotherly kiss. Yet Mme Larina’s matrimonial plans somehow advance and Onegin, against his will, finds himself at Tatiana’s birthday party. Irritated, Onegin intentionally flirts with Olga, who is more than happy to flirt back. Lensky loses temper and causes a scene. The duel between the two is set for the early morning. Although there are many ways to cancel a duel, Lensky is killed and Onegin decides to leave abroad for a while.

Onegin Girls CanWhen coming back to St. Petersburg, still in his early twenties, Onegin discovers that Tatiana has become the wife of his famous “elderly” relative, a highly ranked and revered duke (after all, Mme Larina’s matrimonial plans were not for nothing). He pursues the duchess, who has admittedly changed her book-worm looks for more regal outfits, and gets a cold shower: Tatiana admits that she still loves Onegin, yet she vows to ignore him, since she decided to be faithful to her husband. Tatiana clicks off victoriously (a sweet situation for many once rejected women), while Onegin is left in despair, depressed by his humiliation and rejection.

The story seems somewhat juvenile: the main characters are barely past their teen age. Additionally, the drama seems banal enough to be acted out today in a cycle of stalking text messages and a couple of Facebook updates. Besides, Tatiana’s “old” husband is little more than 40 years old, a perfect age for confidence in love and marital affairs. To add to the story’s improbability, Eugene and Tatiana live in the same city, attend the same parties, and know that they are interested in each other. It will be a matter of months (today, perhaps, a matter of days) before the story turns towards a more lustful resolution, unless they meet other more interesting people.

Be that as it may, Tchaikovsky found enough inspiration to write an opera to the story, which admittedly has had a rough time climbing to the operatic stages of the world. The reasons for that are the opera’s music, libretto, and language. The music lacks focus, is unimaginative, and easily forgettable. At times, there are rewarding culminations yet even these passages require truly talented singers to deliver them impressively. The libretto is patchy; the opera unfolds as a sequence of detached scenes. Perhaps, the story was seen by the composer as too much familiar to the Russian audiences, hence no need for a continuous narrative. Russian language is not the easiest for singing. What you can get away with while singing in Italian is going to make your singing in Russian inaudible, strained, and pretentious. Add the challenge of phonetics for the non-Russian singers and you get the recipe for an operatic disaster.

Unless, of course, the world’s most resourceful and glamorous opera house is persuaded to open its next season with Eugene Onegin. Enter Metropolitan Opera, enabled by a talented Deborah Warner, a renowned Valery Gergiev, and the Slavic cast.

Onegin MET facadeA few words need to be written about a genius idea – live broadcasts of opera performances across cinemas around the world – initiated and implemented marvellously and profitably by the MET during already almost a decade. These broadcasts are the best thing that could happen to the world of opera admirers: spectators can get access to the best staging, the best singers, and the best repertoire for a fraction of the cost; local opera houses get more creative to endure such competition from the MET; and other venues, reassured, follow the MET in setting their own broadcasting programmes, including the Royal Opera House, the Bolshoi Theatre, London National Theatre, Arena di Verona, Wien Staatsoper, and many more.

I have been a faithful consumer of MET’s broadcasts for several years now, having dismissed uncompromisingly the haute critique of a few purists who lament the loss of authenticity, the intrusion of filmic narrative, and the compression of a live orchestra sound into a digital format. My answer to such grievances is a bit impatient: “Big deal, who cares?” If anything, MET’s broadcasts have only increased my visits to opera houses around the world, strengthened my interest in the genre, and enlightened my corporate hamster wheel. Additionally, I am sincerely grateful to the MET, since the young generations now have the same chances as I had in my socialist childhood to experience a wide operatic repertoire with high-quality performances at reasonable costs before they get imprisoned by their routine lives.

MET’s season of broadcasts for 2013-2014 is exciting: Italian, Russian, French, and German operas of various times and styles and my upcoming postings will highlight some of their choices. I was nevertheless intrigued to see Eugene Onegin as their opening performance. With all the above in mind (the novel by Pushkin, the music by Tchaikovsky, etc.), I walked towards the cinema with my strong doubts. Yet the intelligent even if effortful production by Deborah Warner paid off. The review that follows here is largely indebted to her for its optimistic side. When it comes to the less optimistic impressions, they subsided comfortably before my next opera night was on the calendar and thus should not be taken very gravely.

Onegin choirThe staging by Deborah Warner is genuinely simple and faithful to Pushkin/Tchaikovsky times, conveying the inherently Russian conceptions of ornamental peasants, the young and the elderly, the nostalgic snow, the opulent imperial palace, etc. The décor is not imposing, but rather intimate. Everyday scenes are put together realistically. The costumes are in lighter shades of red, grey, beige, and white, bringing to mind, perhaps, the aesthetics of Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and other filmed or staged Russian stories. The final scene (the duet of Tatiana and Onegin) is rather minimalist, the focus is on the columns, the snow, and the experiences of the characters. Onegin Tatiana duet 1An interesting twist in the narrative: Tatiana and Onegin share two kisses during the opera. Onegin’s kiss in the first act is a tender touch, as if a kiss reserved for a daughter. Tatiana’s kiss in the final scene is a full French kissing, long enough for both of them to imagine and experience much more. Whether that was Deborah Warner’s insightful intention or Anna Netrebko’s lucky initiative is hard to say.

Yet the music remains challenging and uninspiring. The opera starts quite lamely and quite boringly. Fortunately, Valery Gergiev moves into a more dramatic dimension and poignant lyricism towards the second act. The final scene is conducted by him as brilliantly as any other impressive scene of a staple opera. But this is definitely not the best opera by Tchaikovsky. And a great pity that is, when considering how stunning the Queen of Spades is musically.

The transmission had its comic problems. A Wagnerian-confident, even belligerent host Deborah Voight interviewed the MET’s director Peter Glebb, who is a great addition to these broadcasts due to his enthusiasm, intelligent stories, and contagious pride in his institution. Exactly at the point, when Deborah Voight asked Peter Glebb what he was most afraid of during the cinematic broadcasts, the cinema screen went blurry and the sound became erratic (this stopped once the opera started). When asked why the MET chose to open the season with Anna Netrebko in the leading role, Peter Glebb, somewhat dryly, said the reason is her being “sooooo” popular. After an awkward pause, Mr Glebb added hastily that Netrebko deserves her popularity.

When it comes to Anna Netrebko as Tatiana (please see my earlier posting about Netrebko’s singing ambitions), I stand by my opinion – her singing is hollow and uneven. The letter scene, especially its beginning, exposed the weak and bleating sides of her voice, even if Netrebko sounded very convincing in the final part of the scene. Her acting is bland, yet exactly this perhaps is demanding for Anna Netrebko, as the image of a village girl is quite a step away from her everyday routine of a fashion queen. During the intermission, Netrebko gave a short interview, where she appeared quite humble and sincere, even likeable despite or due to her heavy Russian accent. This was quite in contrast with her indecent bravura in the media about her being nothing like Tatiana, for she definitely “would fuck the guy”. Anna Netrebko pulled off the final duet, yet she did so mostly due to Gergiev’s conducting, Deborah Warner’s staging, and Chloe Obolensky’s (costume designer) styling of Anna Netrebko à l’Anna Karenina. Her vocal strengths are her open unrestrained singing in the higher register and her singing mezzo voce. Unfortunately, such moments are rare; instead Netrebko keeps forcing her voice beyond its limitations with unnervingly disappointing results.

Onegin Volkova and NetrebkoOlga was played by a Belarusian singer Oksana Volkova, who I have been familiar with for quite a while. Oksana Volkova would not be my first choice when it comes to borrowing singers from Minsk, Belarus, although, admittedly, she blends in quite well with Netrebko ‘s aura of beauty pageants and manicure parlours.  Her vocal performance (Olga appears in the first two acts) was uneven, her middle register hollow, and her top notes quite thin. Yet her low chesty notes were full enough. The acting, fortunately, was believable. Oksana was indeed convincing as a light-minded character, yet also quite forgettable in the end.

Mme Larina was sung by an elderly Russian soprano with an unforgivable wobble. The Nanny’s contralto was somewhat dull. Altogether, the female cast were all Russian speakers and delivered the lines reliably. I could get comfort in language, which still did not compensate all of the vocal imperfections.

Onegin LenskyThe winners of the night were the Poles. Lensky was sung by a stunning Polish lyric tenor Piotr Beczala,  who delivered his part simply beautifully, with a voice strong enough to save the role of Lensky from its pathetic traps (audiences usually see Lensky as a bleating lamb slaughtered in a duel). Beczala’s singing was focused, emotional, and dignified. The aria before the duel was well-sung and received long ovations. His linguistic performance however had an unfortunate somewhat comic (for the Russian speakers) slip of the tongue. When Lensky sings his sad aria, he asks where his golden days of youth have gone. During the aria, the Russian word UDALILIS’ (have gone away) was sung as UDALIS’(have become a success), whereby an omission of one syllable changed the meaning of the phrase to the opposite.

The title character Eugene Onegin was sung by a Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who was quite reserved in his singing in the opening act, but showed his reliable Russian even if with a notable accent. His singing in the second and the third acts was absolutely marvellous, supported by a very engaged acting. His performance in the final scene was simply superb. On the disappointing side, his interview during the intermission exposed him as person who is somewhat arrogant and perhaps too self-assured.

Altogether, the male characters, the friends who try to kill each other, emerge as very distinct. Lensky is impulsive, jealous, passionate, indulging in self-pity, and fatalist. Onegin is self-absorbed, manipulative, bored, cold-blooded, yet well-mannered, and intelligent. Such reading of characters is truly insightful and by itself could justify this production of Eugene Onegin.

One more male character, Tatiana’s husband Gremin, was sung by a strange (hard to find another word) yet another Belarusian singer Alexei Tanovitsky. His seemingly promising bass was quite shaky, forced, and thin on top. The singer was well audible when singing very low, yet his very static and stiff presence on stage ruined any artistic contribution he was about to make. The opera house in Minsk, Belarus could offer far more gratifying basses for the purpose, for instance another Minsk-based bass Andrei Valentiy.

Valery Gergiev, the grandfather of all post-Soviet operatic nepotism provided smooth conducting, despite the initial lack of lustre. During the intermission Maestro Gergiev emerged as a warm, intelligent, and a seemingly kind character. His comments about the cultural luxuries of Soviet education and its focus on the classics were very up to the point. His comments about Anna Netrebko were careful enough. Gergiev admitted that she has a very small voice by nature and had to struggle with her repertoire as she was building up her voice. I wonder whether Gergiev, being the primary vehicle behind Netrebko’s career, preserved a genuinely high opinion about Anna Netrebko. They must have been close at a certain time in the past. Yet there was little contact between the two when the cast received the applause from the audience.

WP_20130805_010 cropOne more interesting detail emerged in the media before the production. New York audiences were enraged to have found that both Gergiev and Netrebko are public opponents to the rights of same-sex couples for equal social status, including the rights to get married and adopt children (Russia has recently drowned in a tsunami of discussions on these issues, shifting back to Middle Ages in terms of social awareness and integrity). To the confusion of the Russian cast, the stage director Deborah Warner is an openly gay artist while Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality has been widely accepted even in Russia. Quite naturally, New Yorkers saw the new production of Eugene Onegin as a celebration of gay artistry and a reason to bring Russian establishment towards timely recognition of the LGBT community. The MET went forward with the production amid the protests, while Anna Netrebko considered an engagement to sing at the opening of the boycotted Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Yet that would be already a story for a different opera.

Serdobe 2008 January 074As a conclusion, I will not watch Eugene Onegin again anytime soon. The music lacks power and depth. The efforts invested by the MET paid off only partially. Even the high-profile cast and insightful production have not delivered up to the MET’s uncompromising standards. Perhaps, another Russian opera would make a stronger case to expand the MET’s growing Slavic repertoire. My hopes are for The Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakoff and Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. These would make stunning broadcasts.

Jonas Kaufmann: The Formula for Inspiration

IMG_0809Inspiration is wiki-defined as belonging to the realm of the subconscious and occurring as a burst of uncontrollable insights into creativity, enthusiasm, and even ecstasy, if you like, beyond equations and beyond calculations.

I can have my way around such definitions: be it by calculating a moment of defenestration onto the view of the horizon, by scheduling a bedtime reading of, say, an Italian magazine, or by strategically placing my running shoes by the door at night before hitting the road in the morning.

When ordering online, the space for subconscious inspiration gets even smaller due to blunt advertising, omnipresent product placement, and redundant referrals in social media. Like many other clicking consumers, I have deducted long time in advance that the year 2013 is the bicentenary of Verdi, that the tribute records are in the making, and that they will emerge to be pre-ordered, bought now, paid later, dispatched, tracked, delivered, enjoyed and reviewed. Thus my latest inspiration, Jonas Kaufmann’s The Verdi Album, was hardly a subconscious one.

Yet with all that quantitative planning and pre-knowing, I still succumb to an uncontrollable burst of enthusiasm: I am absolutely in awe with the voice. I have been a grateful owner and an avid listener of Kaufmann’s Romantic Arias (2007) and Verismo Arias (2010). I have also seen him in film productions of Werther, Carmen, Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Parsifal, and my admiration for his talent, for his intelligent and passionate singing has only grown with time. An ecstatic review of his latest performance would find a very compliant reader in me and, admittedly, my vacation plans once featured an online hunt of his performance dates in the cities I was about to visit.

Now that I confessed, I can dismiss my attempts at a balanced and detached review. The Verdi Album is a tremendous success, in my opinion, for several reasons. The record gives a much deserved tribute to Verdi’s opera music; it revives the credibility of tenors in being more than dull props or comic love heroes; and it showcases Jonas Kaufmann at a significant career turn: a clear step towards dramatic repertoire.

Kaufmann Verdi 1To understand the meaning of such a turn, one should look closer at the artistic development of Jonas Kaufmann, a German tenor, who may be the greatest tenor of our times. At the start of his career, in the 90s, Kaufmann established himself as a spinto tenor, a full yet smooth voice that fits perfectly well the music of Puccini, verismo, French and German repertoire. When it comes to Verdian repertoire, Kaufmann’s explorations have also shown his lyric or spinto side with roles such as Don Carlos or Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto. Yet, and here comes again my enthusiasm, Kaufmann’s voice escapes rankings and classifications: his tone is much darker than that of a usual spinto, and has a clear baritonal colouring. Voices like his should equally invite the parts of Radames, Otello, Samson and Canio, and The Verdi Album is a long due evidence that Kaufmann is finally considering such invitations.

The record features 13 tracks which include “eleven premieres”, or, as one could guess, the first time recordings of the selected Verdi arias. The booklet offers several texts that support the listener’s journey through the record. Firstly, every track is marked with a personal commentary by Jonas Kaufmann who explains his involvement with this or that aria or shares an anecdotal insight into the history of the chosen track. Secondly, an opera critic reflects on whether there is such a thing as the Verdi tenor and, if there is, how the legacy of the great tenors of the past (Tamagno, Gordoni, Fraschini, Tamberlik, del Monaco, Domingo) may both enable and challenge Kaufmann’s artistic ambitions. Thirdly, the booklet lists the texts of each aria in four languages: Italian, English, German, and French, which makes it easy to engage with the music and the singing more deeply.

Kaufmann Verdi 8When it comes to the artwork, Kaufmann’s impeccable 19th century looks do not need any further embellishments. The full face portrait on the cover is explored further in the booklet via alternative shots and angles that reveal a comfortable confidence and somewhat pensive yet essentially joyful introspection. Such dignified elegance has already become Kaufmann’s signature charm, helping him win thousands if not millions of admirers.

A closer listening to each of the thirteen tracks reveals an impressive palette of embodied characters. With this review the reader is invited to travel with these characters across the operatic dramas that they find themselves in. Here they come wrapped in Kaufmann’s singing.

Kaufmann Verdi 7The Duke of Mantua is a light-minded womaniser, who thrives on humiliating and mocking his subjects, and seduces a daughter of his enraged buffoon, who hires vengefully an assassin to murder his master, all of which ends in a disaster: the daughter, being deeply in love, sacrifices herself, so that the buffoon gets the delivery of his own daughter stabbed instead of the ever so cheerful duke. The part of il Duca di Mantova, and his aria La Donna é Mobile in particular, is usually performed by lyric tenors with a certain bright and fresh bravura. Jonas Kaufmann clearly enjoys singing this piece, his voice, behind its brightness, sounds quite rich and energised and gives the character perhaps more depth than many productions would allow. This is an easily memorable tune, taken out of the context of a grand masterpiece Rigoletto to perhaps highlight Kaufmann’s early achievements in lyric repertoire.

Kaufmann Verdi 2The next premiere is Radames, a heroic general in Ancient Egypt, who is to marry a Pharaoh’s daughter should he manage to fight the army of the Egypt’s enemy, an Ethiopian king. The secret of Radames is his love for Aida, a slave of his bride and the unfortunate daughter of the Ethiopian king. In his aria Celeste Aida Radames hopes for a chance to fight the Ethiopian armies so that he could plead the Pharaoh for Aida’s freedom. This soulful and poetic aria is often performed with force and passion. Jonas Kaufmann, somewhat surprisingly, adopts a slower pensive manner of singing with a steady increase in dramatic intensity. The notorious top note at the end of the aria is treated by Kaufmann with much tenderness and even melancholy. Kaufmann laments in his comments in the booklet that many tenors prefer to sing the note with a tough machismo approach, while Verdi’s instructions read pianissimo “as softly as possible” and morendo “dying away”. After listening to Kaufmann’s sublime and transparent note, I am won over. The world is yet to see Kaufmann adding the part of Radames to his repertoire, and Celeste Aida gives a fantastic insight into what that could sound like.

DSC00059The following character is no less than King Gustavus III of Sweden, dubbed by Verdi’s royalist censors as Riccardo, the governor or Boston. Today, the opera (Un Ballo in Maschera) is often brought back to the Swedish court, the stage of a famous royal assassination. The soon-to-be murdered king/governor Riccardo is a playful yet apprehensive public figure who secretly seeks the love of his best friend’s wife Amelia. While Amelia, in distress and confusion, is able to resist Riccardo’s advances, her husband is swayed by a wave of blind jealousy, and, choosing to spare Amelia, prepares to deliver his revenge during a masked ball. The part of Riccardo fits lyric tenors quite well, although certain passages demand quite a lot of Verdian drama. Here Kaufmann shows both his fluent flexible singing and his ability to portray anguish and sadness.

Advancing further through the record is a pure delight. What follows is probably the most beautiful music ever written for the tenor voice: the arias from Il Trovatore, Luisa Miller, and Simon Boccanegra. These three tracks highlight contrastingly the outstanding scope of Kaufmann’s vocal abilities.

Kaufmann Verdi 3Il Trovatore is an opera written in a rather canonical style, where punchy arias, duets, and choir ensembles are ordered in a clear predictable sequence, where emotions are bare, intense, and clear, and where singers need stamina perhaps more than subtlety. The title character, a troubadour Manrico, has been brought up in a Gypsy camp without knowing that he was abducted from his real parents, the count and countess, by a young Gypsy woman who wanted to revenge the execution of her mother. Years later, Manrico is a popular romantic hero who has won the love of Leonora, a local beauty, at the expense of the powerful and vengeful count, who, as only the old Gypsy woman would know, is his brother by birth. Manrico, at the moment of the aria Ah, sì, ben mio coll’essere io tuo, tu mia consorte, is pledging his undying love to Leonora, his resolve to withstand the battles, and his readiness to accept fate. Kaufmann sings this aria with poignancy and abandonment, his voice raw with sentiment, both lavish and solemn. Yet barely has Manrico declared his devotion to Leonora, when the news comes that the old Gypsy is captured by the vengeful count and is about to be burnt at the stake. The soulful aria gives way to a heroic cabaletta Di quella pira l’orrendo foco, another memorable tune by Verdi, whereby Manrico rushes to the rescue of his, supposedly, mother (Leonora is left obviously confused if not disappointed). Kaufmann hits his top notes fiercely and with a stunning stamina. One can almost foresee how that would sound live in an opera house. This track gives enough proof of Kaufmann’s ability to retain the full power and baritone colouring of his voice even at the highest tessitura.

Luisa Miller is a rather rarely performed opera and, in my opinion, undeservedly so. Luisa Miller can be no less astounding and fulfilling than any other Verdi’s work. The tenor’s character Rodolfo is a son of a Tyrolean count. Rodolfo and his sweetheart Luisa are taken apart by the conniving plot of Rodolfo’s father and Wurm, Luisa’s stalking admirer. The intrigue reaches tragic proportions when Rodolfo is forced into engagement with another woman, while Luisa is blackmailed (with her father’s life at stake) into writing a letter to Rodolfo where she denounces their relationship and vows to be Wurm’s lover. After a failed duel with Wurm and a desperate consent to proceed with his looming engagement, Rodolfo poisons himself and Luisa. Before they die, Rodolfo finds out the truth from Luisa, makes amends with Luisa’s father, kills Wurm, and condemns his own father. IMG_1184The aria Quando le sere al placido (Then, when the nights were peaceful…) captures Rodolfo when he reads Luisa’s ruinous letter and reverses the time to when Luisa would be by his side, holding his hand and whispering soft words of affection, the words that now, alas, meant bitter betrayal. Kaufmann departs from the forceful manner of, say, Placido Domingo, an iconic embodiment of Rodolfo. Kaufmann steps back and takes time: the melody unfolds in a dreamy flow, his voice vulnerable, transparent, and almost tearful. The phrasing is unparalleled; Kaufmann bridges his sublime pianissimos and profound fortes seamlessly and with hypnotic smoothness. Such mastery defies all descriptions. Quando le sere al placido is a wonderful example of soulful singing and is probably my favourite track on The Verdi Album.

IMG_2593Simon Boccanegra has a chokingly complex plot: the story spans across several generations, features family sagas, changes of names, abductions, betrayals, poisonings, revolts, executions, and even a happy ending (well, sort of). The tenor’s character, Adorno, is a Genovese young nobleman who is in love and is loved back by Amelia, a young woman, brought up by an ageing Genovese man. The Doge of Genoa, Simon Boccanegra, a semi-tyrant, has his hand in every affair of the republic, including murdering Adorno’s parents a while ago and deciding who Amelia may and may not be marrying. Adorno’s chances are not getting any higher since Simon Boccanegra’s powerful and treacherous attendant Paolo is courting Amelia as well. Yet Adorno secures the blessing of Amelia’s old father (her actual grandfather), when the old man confesses that Amelia was adopted and raised without her real parents. Meanwhile, Simon Boccanegra, the Doge, has a chat with Amelia, who reveals to him the hidden portrait of her unknown mother. In his astonishment, Boccanegra recognises the woman in the portrait as his first love, who died shortly after childbirth. Since the child was abducted at the time without a trace, Simon Boccanegra and Amelia only now are reunited as a father and a daughter. Listening to her grievances, Simon Boccanegra rejects the idea of anybody marrying her, not Paolo, not anybody else, and asks her to keep their discovery secret.

IMG_2651What happens next is a sequence of twists and turns worthy of perhaps only Verdi. Paolo hires a gang to kidnap Amelia, yet Adorno prevents the abduction and kills the kidnappers. Then, in search for justice, Adorno rushes to the Doge’s palace and is convinced there by Paolo that the Doge and Amelia are lovers. Amelia, being in the palace and refusing to explain her involvement with the Doge, only confirms his jealous suspicions. Meanwhile, Paolo, quite jealous himself, pours poison into the Doge’s water carafe and incites the people to revolt against the Doge. In the palace, Amelia prevents Adorno from killing the sleeping Simon Boccanegra, who has already started fading away from the poison. Awaken by their fight, Simon Boccanegra reveals to Adorno that Amelia is his daughter and asks for forgiveness for having murdered Adorno’s parents. The revolt is supressed and Paolo is to be executed. Having nothing to lose, Paolo confessed to have poisoned the Doge. Before dying, Simon Boccanegra blesses the young couple and proclaims Adorno the next Doge of Genoa.

As the title of the opera suggests, the part of Adorno was not perhaps Verdi’s number one priority. Yet the aria Sento avvampar nell’anima furente gelosia, if approached outside the opera’s context, makes you think quite the opposite: the tenor is all the rage. The aria comes at the point when Adorno is persuaded by Paolo that Amelia was seduced by the Doge. Not only had the Doge murdered Adorno’s parents, he also took away his bride. This invites for probably the most thunderous aria in Verdi’s tenor repertoire. Kaufmann rushes into the music with a blasting roar that resonates far beyond your average tenor’s territory. In fact, Kaufmann’s dramatic singing suggests that he could explore the roles written for baritones, no less that it is currently done by Placido Domingo. The second part of the aria Cielo pietoso, rendila takes the listener back to Verdi’s beautiful phrasing and luscious orchestrations.

Kaufmann Verdi 6Thus these three parts, Manrico from Il Trovatore, Rodolfo from Luisa Miller, and Adorno from Simon Boccanegra, showcase remarkably well Kaufmann’s versatile voice, his impressive singing skills, developed all-around, and his convincing acting talents: lyric, spinto, and dramatic tenor all in one, with an additional baritonal dimension.

IMG_0850At this stage, the journey through the record somewhat changes. Instead of another aria, the listener is offered a duet from Verdi’s Don Carlos Dio, che nell’alma infondere, a piece beloved by many opera admirers around the world, as it is a rare opportunity to enjoy a tenor and a baritone singing together almost a cappella, in unison and harmonising, for several uninterrupted minutes. The duet is a passionate call for freedom, revolution, and self-sacrifice. Kaufmann is singing Don Carlos, a Spanish heir to the throne, who is inspired by his comrade Rodrigo to revolt against his own father, the Spanish king, and to fight for the independence of Flanders. Both the tenor and the baritone wrap vocally around each other with respectful softness and produce a unique listening experience. The track introduces the duet as a part of a larger scene, so that the listener could appreciate the sound of Verdi’s famous grand opera as well.

WP_20131009_008[1]La Forza del Destino, an opera that gave the next track on Kaufmann’s The Verdi Album, stands out from other Verdi’s operas for several reasons. Firstly, the opera was commissioned by and premiered in Saint Petersburg, Russia – a rare Russian connection in Verdi’s life. Secondly, the opera has an ominous reputation as several singers throughout the decades of its history have been either indisposed or literally dropped dead on stage. Thirdly, the opera has at least two versions: the revised one adopted by most of the world opera houses, and the original one, that has been staged insistently by the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg up until today. Despite its curse and demanding score, La Forza del Destino is a rather popular work, with a number of recordings available and permanent addresses in the leading playbills of opera houses around the world. The tenor part of Alvaro requires, perhaps, nothing less than a dramatic voice, and Jonas Kaufmann could be just the right answer.

Alvaro is a migrant from South America, who settled in Seville, Spain and has to face all kinds of discrimination due to his ethnicity, income, and status. At the same time, Alvaro is attached to the town as he is deeply in love and loved back by Leonora, a daughter of marquis de Calatrava. The old marquis and his son, Leonora’s brother Don Carlo, resent the idea of Leonora marrying below her rank. When the old marquis stumbles upon the young lovers, a fight leads to an accidental killing: Alvaro leaves the site and Leonora. During the next years, Alvaro and Don Carlo, under different names, save each other in the battles and thus become friends. Incidentally, Don Carlo uncovers Alvaro’s identity and is eager to get back both at his new friend and his sister. In the course of the events that follow, Leonora escapes to a convent, and Alvaro defeats Don Carlo in the duel. Driven by compassion to her dying brother, Leonora rushes to say her final adieux yet the vengeful brother stabs her to death. In the original version commissioned by Saint Petersburg, Alvaro commits suicide for causing the death of all the Calatrava family. In Verdi’s revised version, Alvaro turns to prayer instead.

The passage recorded for The Verdi Album includes a large scene of orchestral music from La Forza del Destino, which provides an oasis of calm and peace and allows the listener to approach Verdi as a symphonic composer. The following aria is a mixture of lyricism and drama, with sublime high notes, soulful romantic melodies, and desperate chesty singing. Alvaro is meditating on his unfortunate journey through life, pleading for the vision of Leonora to deliver him from the agony of everyday life. Kaufmann delivers that plea convincingly, with the required stamina and softness. It is a pity, in my opinion, that Verdi did not develop several motifs from this passage into full arias, as the motifs are absolutely outstanding in their musicality. Instead, Verdi changes the contour of the melody at the moments where the listener, such as me, would be ready for a continuation. Nevertheless, listening to Kaufmann is a rewarding experience. Hopefully, the curse of La Forza del Destino will not discourage him from taking the role of Alvaro on real stage.

???????????????????????????????Next comes I Masnadieri, which is a rarely performed opera that belongs to Verdi’s early period. This opera is the only opera from The Verdi Album that I have not seen on stage. Getting a record of I Masnadieri is also quite challenging. My first glimpses into the opera were enabled by a collection of Verdi arias by a baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, an impressive interpretation of stunning arias, including one from I Masnadieri. After a closer acquaintance with the work, I wondered whether there is a conspiracy against Verdi. For a certain reason, it is fashionable among critics to dismiss many Verdi’s early operas: Attila, Alzira, i Lombardi, La battaglia di Legnano, Stiffelio among others. Luckily, there is enough space for breathing and listening outside established criticism. Several decade-long recording projects such as Tutto Verdi allow us today to form our own judgement about the value of this or that opera. While early Verdi was surely a composer motivated by the genre’s strict conventions (highly predictable patterns and ritualised singing with almost a comic theatrical pathos when seen from today’s perspective), his early music delivers the drama and the passion no less expressively than his later works, even if it may lack psychological complexity.

The above is true about I Masnadieri. The opera’s story has all the elements to deliver operatic drama. The tenor’s character, Carlo, is a former student of Dresden who joined a gang of robbers and seeks to strike in revenge against his brother, who treacherously attacked Carlo’s bride and threw their own father into the wilderness to die. Carlo’s revenge makes him trust his gang of robbers perhaps too much. When he realises that his fellow bandits are determined to rape his bride, he prefers to kill her himself in a deranged despair.

Carlo’s aria Vendetta, vendetta, la grido ai tuoi cieli is a heroic outburst of rage, a righteous cry for help, and a passionate call for unity. This aria is an essential material for a dramatic tenor and Kaufmann is at his best, both when singing solo or with a powerful male choir. The music is reminiscent of certain parts of Rigoletto and even Aida, especially in the glorious climaxes of the choral scenes. This certainly makes a great listening experience and contributes towards re-establishing I Masnadieri as a part of a major Verdi repertoire around the world.

The next two arias take us to the deepest, the most coveted, and rarely attainable core of the dramatic repertoire – Otello, one of Verdi’s last operas.

IMG_0876The story of Otello (in Italian) or Othello (in Shakespeare’s English) has become a permanent fixture on every bookshelf with an unfortunate effect whereby people tend to go through life without reading the play at all, since the story is so much available through other genres: films, operas, cartoons, stationary, confectionary and even lingerie (your Unique Othello Classic Thong is available for USD 12,50 online).

Behind this ignoble commercialisation, Othello is a mature character. The pre-Shakespearean narratives yield a career soldier from Northern Africa who was murdered by his wife’s relatives after they discovered that he and his comrade killed her in an even more cruel way than today’s horror films would come up with: the agony prolonged, the body mutilated, the skull crushed, etc. With Shakespeare, the story acquires a complex psychological drama, the ambiguity of characterisation, and an accelerating fateful denouement. Othello as a politician is a victim of his own success. Othello as a friend is the victim of his passion. Othello as a husband is the victim of his jealousy. Othello as a living being is the victim of his remorse.

IMG_2778With Verdi, the story gets even deeper into the soul of its characters: the music is supple and transitions between the scenes are seamless. Instead of punchy memorable arias, the score flows smoothly across a complex emotional palette, touching and reflecting a variety of the most candid and the most subtle states of mind in the manner of an impressionist painting. Instead of blunt striking, the culminations brew and emerge via waves of agitation and turbulence. Instead of predictable changes of harmonies, Verdi’s resolutions unveil dimensions that are out of the usual way, akin to a voyage through a vast potential of music, with the echoes of the surreal and the subconscious. Otello is a masterpiece where Verdi surpassed himself: this is music beyond time, beyond national borders, beyond stylistic categories.

Kaufmann Verdi 4Kaufmann chose two arias for The Verdi Album. The aria Dio! Mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali gives a terrific portrayal of an evolving madness (a scene where Otello convinces himself that Desdemona is unfaithful and must die). The dark and sombre music with almost hypnotic descending and ascending swirls of a haunting melody, with a sudden abyss of lamenting pianissimo, and a deranged orchestral anger is as demanding as it ever gets for a dramatic tenor. Kaufmann passes the test remarkably: his voice is monumental here and takes the lead solidly and uncompromisingly well. His singing combined with the music produces a chilling awe-inspiring effect that is picked up by the next aria, Niun mi tema… s’anco armato mi vede… ecco la fine del mio cammin… Here, Otello is crushed by the sight of lifeless Desdemona and realises the horrid nature of his crime before succumbing to the inevitable suicide. Kaufmann’s voice delivers truthfully the inferno of Otello’s agony and thus justifies the choice of the role of Otello as his next career ambition.

IMG_2520It remains to be seen whether Kaufmann is able to uptake the role. He certainly appears ripe enough for the two arias in question, yet the audience may not be ready to welcome such a turn. For many reasons Otello is considered the ultimate rite of passage and to sing the part Kaufmann may still need to showcase more of his legacy and test his voice with a wider dramatic repertoire (in my opinion, he is ready).

The Verdi Album closes with an aria from Verdi’s Macbeth, the composer’s bloodiest opera that has enjoyed a steady flow of revivals around the world. Macduff, the character sung by the tenor, is one of the most prominent figures in relations between Scotland and England of the time (just before the Norman invasion of the 11th century). Macduff, a Scottish nobleman at the court of King Duncan, follows the court to the castle of the king’s cousin, Macbeth. During the night, Macduff witnesses in horror how Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, murder their royal guest. The murderers, driven by the prophecy, usurp the power and proclaim themselves as the royal couple. Macduff leaves Scotland for England. Miraculously, the wife and the son of the murdered king have also escaped the slaughter. After several years, the murderer Macbeth grows restless with hallucinations of his victims coming alive, while Lady Macbeth desperately tries to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands. The kingdom is in distress and misery. Macduff raises the army and leads the Duncan’s son Malcolm to overthrow Macbeth. As the army approaches another battle, Macduff discovers that his own sons and spouse were killed at the order of Macbeth. The aria Ah, la paterna mano non vi fu scudo starts as a deeply sad lament over the death of the dear ones and turns into a passionate call to end the tyranny and stop the bloodbath. Macduff kills Macbeth in a one-on-one fight and reinstates Duncan’s son as the king of Scotland. Kaufmann brings this aria forward sincerely, sings it naturally, without any restrain, and returns the listener to the music of Verdi’s middle years, perhaps the main theme of The Verdi Album.

IMG_1531Thus the journey across the tenor characters of The Verdi Album ends. Jonas Kaufmann brings them all together: the duke of Mantua, an Egyptian general, the Swedish king, a Gypsy baron, a Tyrolean youngster, a Genovese nobleman, a Spanish prince, an immigrant in Seville, a German bandit, a dark skinned governor of Cypress, and a Scottish baron. They are all young, passionate, and confused. They need love and justice yet face anguish and death. Some of them survive Verdian drama, some of them succumb to it. On this record they all have a voice, Kaufmann’s rich, sensitive, and powerful voice.

By getting to know the record and writing this review I have developed and extended my inspiration for many weeks beyond any numeric measurement. Yet a formula for this particular inspiration could still be defined. A short while ago, I was returning from a business trip. Sitting next to me was a rather operative woman, focused on her Excel charts, calculating costs and prices. Inspired by her zeal and by a misty mellow sunset, I took an uninterrupted 75 minute dive into The Verdi Album. There was the formula: (Verdi + Tenor + Kaufmann) X Record = Priceless. For, indeed, it is.

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Carmen at the Finnish National Opera: Bittersweet Impressions

Carmen. I still hear the sound of this name coming from early childhood: a vague notion of a femme fatale, skirts enflamed in red and gold, sweaty raven black hair, and the flashes of a bullfight arena. Pronouncing this name would fill my innocent mouth with salty, sandy, stifling taste. I would imagine stories untold and darkness unlit behind mysterious conspiracy: operas, ballets, films, books, theatre plays, and even everyday merchandise – all was branded Carmen.

 
IMG_0767During the thirty years that followed, the layers behind the myth have peeled off one by one, exposing an elusive character, a story that has been recycled and reinvented, and the music that has empowered many opera lovers to study French. My journey to the origins of Carmen had its surprises: the femme fatal turned into a teenage girl, the Spanish landscape turned Russian, and the epic drama turned into a sadly mundane crime of the past that would often be neither prosecuted nor even recorded.

 
To start, the most famous incarnation of Carmen, delivered daily by a global army of full-voiced sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, a leading character in a George Bizet’s four-act opera, was a fiasco. Carmen failed to vow the audiences for a number of years after its first night. At the time, year 1875, the opera was seen as a vulgar attack on social morality and as an indecent entertainment cheered only by venues of suspicious reputation. Additionally, Bizet’s characters reveal surprisingly little similarity with the characters from Prosper Merimee’s short story Carmen, which Bizet came across during his stay in Rome in 1850s. Prosper Merimee in his turn admitted being inspired by Pushkin’s poetic ballade (1824) about a young guy Aleko who murdered a Gypsy girl Zemfira out of jealousy, translated into French by Merimee himself in 1840s. The pursuit of the Russian echo soon takes one to Rachmaninov’s opera Aleko (1892), based on Pushkin’s narrative, and then to a ballet Carmen Suite (1967) by Rodion Shchedrin, a symphonic work based, in a boomerang way, on Bizet’s themes.

 
Quand je vous aimeraisIf there were traces of a certain Zemfira-Carmen from about 200 years ago, they would show very little resemblance to mezzo-sopranos on today’s opera stages. What we would have, perhaps, would be a young Gypsy murdered by an outsider for being, well, a young Gypsy. The dramas by Pushkin, Merimee, and Rachmaninov can thus be seen as reflections on the otherness, the marginalised, and the stereotypes that cause intercultural tensions. The drama by Bizet, quite differently, gives stage to the woman.

 
Carmen must have emerged from the audience, as women and few men were becoming more aware about gender inequality, home violence, and the importance of love as a way to exist, to relate, and to measure. The initial prudish shock of the 19th century’s critics yielded to a global recognition, making Carmen one of the most recorded and performed operas in the world, a household name, and a complex yet bright symbol of sensual, intellectual, and artistic passion. By believing in the Carmen of today, one feels a generous, strong, and uncompromising rebellion against any kind of oppression.

 
WP_20130218_004Besides showing the story in a more wholesome way, the journey to Carmen’s roots has enabled me to appreciate the sheer luxury of Bizet’s opera to the point where I can forgetfully murmur the texts of the French libretto and punch its rhythmic patterns into a desk table or piano keys. Yet these days attending a production of Carmen is a rare event for me, partly because the opera has already been explored and experienced numerous times with exhaustive diligence; and partly because having formed an opinion about a qualifying Carmen leads often to a disappointment with many current productions and casts.

 
With the above in mind, I am neither the most objective nor the most enthusiastic reviewer of another Carmen production. At the same time, I am willing to attempt at reporting my recent impressions, for Carmen surely deserves to be written about an endless number of times.

 
WP_20130925_005A week ago my colleagues and I were wonderfully surprised by yet another corporate incentive in the form of opera tickets to a relatively new production of Carmen by the Finnish National Opera, scheduled for Wednesday, September 25, 2013. To be honest, I had seen this production before, both on its first night in 2007 and several years later with another cast. This time, an extra bonus was the opportunity to share the experience with my colleagues. So, off we were from Porvoo Campus.

 
The production is far less Finnish in its design and implementation than it may seem. In fact, the director Arnaud Bernard is French, while the staging, choreography and costumes are respectively by Alessandro Camera, Gianni Santucci, and Carla Ricotti, all quite Italian. The conductor, Alberto Hold-Garrido, is a Spaniard, based in Scandinavia. The cast, though, for the night of September 25 was very much Finnish and, at its best, Nordic: Carmen was personified by a quite voluptuous Niina Keitel, a Finn; Don José, her soon to be murderer, was enacted by a rather juvenile Joachim Bäckström, a Swedish tenor; the noticeably ageing toreador was Juha Kotilainen, predictably a Finn; the murderer’s sheepish fiancée Micaela was gracefully sung by Mari Palo, again a Finn; while the murderer’s overweight and self-assured boss, officer Zuniga, was congruently embodied by Koit Soasepp, an Estonian bass. The rest of the team, including Carmen’s girlfriends, catering staff, and the choir were played by presumably Finnish residents.

 
WP_20130925_002What happens then when a world celebrated Russian-French-Spanish narrative with a flavour of an erotic Gypsy thriller, set by French and Italian designers against luscious French libretto and vibrant French music conducted by a Spaniard, is hosted by a Nordic, mostly Finnish, cast? The answer is (a sigh) another performance of Carmen, waiting to be forgiven and forgotten by the time your tram takes you finally home.

 
Forgiving would be needed due to quite a few inventive solutions in staging and choreography, and due to the impeccable sound of the orchestra and the choir. Forgettable are the vocal and physical embodiments of the leading characters by the cast that were either just ok or simply disappointing.

 
As Bizet saw them, the stories of Carmen and Don José are those of social ascent and social descent. Carmen is a rather uncivilised trouble-maker with a questionable reputation at a tobacco factory in Seville, a mid-size Spanish town with little respectable prospects for a Gypsy girl with loose morals, a meagre income, and a fatalist streak. Being arrested for stabbing a co-worker was perhaps not the only challenging thing that Carmen was facing at the time. Yet looks and poses do matter in a society ordered and managed by men. Carmen’s social ascent starts in a prison. She feels attracted to her guardian, a soldier who had previously paid little attention to her playful bravados on the streets of Seville. She also notices that the soldier’s superior, officer Zuniga, is far from being immune to her charms. Seducing the low-ranked soldier with a validated promise of a freely roaming and sexed-up life in the mountains, Carmen easily escapes and joins her band of smugglers. While the soldier is serving his sentence for letting her escape, Carmen makes use of her charms repeatedly whereby officer Zuniga provides the protective cover for the smugglers’ illegal activities, headquartered in an obscure tavern.

WP_20130926_004Yet Carmen explores the good side of her character, too. She feels grateful to the sentenced Don José and hopes for his return in six months. She is courted both by officer Zuniga and by a local celebrity, a bullfighter Escamillo, a smashing playboy who is quite hard to resist. Nevertheless, Carmen waits for the soldier, convinces him to renounce his career, his bride, and his social life for good, pushes him to fight Zuniga and turns him into an outcast, a freely roaming lustful smuggler, just like her. Enabled thus by her tribe, her lover, and her more mature spirit, Carmen soon feels disappointed in the risky life of her friends and in her unreasonably jealous ex-soldier. When the regional celebrity toreador Escamillo crushes back into the scene, claiming to be looking for Carmen everywhere and proving this by having a knife fight with Carmen’s soldier, Carmen escapes her Gypsy life towards a much more assured world of a steady relationship, luxury life-style, carnivals, and at last a vision of a future that is free of stigmas and oppression.

 
Meanwhile her ex-lover and ex-soldier Don José is lurking around, mad and thirsty for revenge. A fatalist by nature, Carmen dismisses her friends’ warnings and faces Don José in a predictably fatal encounter. After a short quarrel, she is stabbed to death. Her ascent to fame, prosperity, and happiness ends thus rather gruesomely.

 
Don José, to the contrary, starts by having quite a lot of things to lose, which he does in a dramatic fashion. Being of a semi-noble stature, this young soldier has all the prospects of a successful military career, a humble and devoted bride, and a rather deep Freudian connection to his mother (several productions have in fact explored Don José’s inability to get excited about his bride, his preference of life in male barracks, his fixation on his mother, and obsession with a macho-behaving woman as signs of suppressed latent homosexuality, which might explain his speedy fall into insanity rather well). Being what he is, Don José is quite disturbed when he is trusted to guard a vulgar monster from the local tobacco factory, stained with mud and blood. A visit by his timid bride with a letter from his mother only strengthens the contrast between his life and the shamelessness of his oversexed detainee. In confusion, Don José is allured against his own principles into helping Carmen escape and feels a somewhat masochistic pleasure from becoming a prisoner himself.

 
WP_20130926_001Upon his release, Don José still can and desires to re-establish his career prospects yet he gets further deranged when facing Carmen’s sex appeal and her numerous suitors. Enraged, he rebels against his superiors and becomes a smuggler bound to roam the mountainous customs areas, with seemingly grateful Carmen and her Gypsy tribe by his side. Very soon, Don José develops a paranoid jealousy with heavy mood swings, which are not helped by the re-emergence of a glorious toreador Escamillo, who incites a genuine interest in Carmen. Additionally, Don José’s bride makes a brave visit to the Gypsy camp to break the crushing news of his mother’s death. Having lost his social life, his mother, the support of his Gypsy comrades and seeing Carmen moving away and up with Escamillo, Don José believes that Carmen is to blame for his demise and that Carmen is the only person who could restore his life. Waiting for the moment when Escamillo and Carmen’s friends are engaged at a bullfight, Don José faces Carmen in a deserted street. After a short quarrel, he stabs her to death, admittedly not without a crocodile tear, and seals his fall by submitting himself passively to stunned people who start gathering around the crime scene (although the people never emerged in Helsinki’s production).

 
The statement by the production team in Helsinki also highlights the fatalist, even suicidal nature of Carmen’s decisions and the unpredictable character of Don José, as if Carmen knows in advance that she is going to be murdered (while Don José does not seem to be anticipating such conclusion). Additionally, Carmen is not seen necessarily as a Gypsy woman, but rather as another smuggler with an impulsive and at times melancholic character.WP_20130926_003

 
The chosen location is the Spain of 1930s, with its poverty, social tensions, and a feeling of an impending war. The prevailing palette of the setting is quite bland, dry, and gloomy, occasionally brightened by unnatural lights. The choreography is quite restrained, and the costumes are very modest. The opera’s narrative unfolds at times as a sequence of small square frames that narrow the stage down to enclosed spaces, be it a room or a prison cell. One of such enclosed spaces, during the overture, gives a surreal view of a chapel filled with a misty red colour and human figures moving in a slow suspended motion, quite in contrast to the fiery music.

 

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When it comes to the singing, the winners are the female choir (simply impeccable) and Micaela, Don José’s bride, sung very movingly by Mari Palo, a soft and pleasant lyric soprano who does not take too many risks and has an even, well-rounded sound. Additionally, the Escamillo of Juha Kotilainen, despite his respectable age and demanding part, revived the atmosphere by his intense rhythmic movements, jumps, and gestures. Yet such came at the expense of vocal delivery: his top notes were rather weak and unstable. Koit Soasepp as officer Zuniga is a reliable bass fit for the role, if not more.

It is Niina Keitel as Carmen and Joachim Bäckström as Don José who brought the main share of the disappointment. Niina Keitel, a mezzo-soprano and probably not a bad one, sounded dull and at times was inaudible. She has several rich chesty notes in her lower register and can deliver occasionally a smooth and oily sound, yet her voice is quite inflexible and fails at nuanced singing. To top her misfortunes, she could not keep up with the orchestra and lacked rhythm in her singing. Joachim Bäckstöm has a rather fresh and bright voice that can project far enough into the audience, yet his singing is quite often on the verge of a shrill and lacks fullness when amplified. Besides, both Niina and Joachim are illiterate when it comes to French text: their heavy accents and unintelligible articulation can lead to comic effects, such as when singing “sage” (wise) instead of “sèche” (dry) about a flower. In acting, the couple looked quite stiff and unengaged. To the regret of the audience, voluptuous forms of Niina Keitel did not help her move and dance like the choreographer would probably want her to, while Joachim Bäckström kept looking, well, youthful.

 
WP_20130925_007Such misfortunes happened before and will happen again. Opera productions are not immune to casting, lack of rehearsals, vocal imbalances, indispositions, and reviews written by self-centred and zealous amateurs like myself.

 

To be fair, many spectators were leaving the opera house in a state of elation, for Bizet’s music is truly powerful. And so was I, elated, remembering those few times in my opera experience when Carmen would reclaim all her myths and all her flames and would leave me breathless. My applause at the curtain draw on Wednesday, September 25, was for the revival of such memories.WP_20130925_010

Anna Netrebko: The Voice of a Beauty Queen

Opera singers come and go, while opera music remains, always open to yet another round of interpretations. At times, a bright talent pushes the boundaries and raises the bar. At times, opera houses and recording companies lower the bar should their casting options be limited. Today, identifying what makes an opera singer often starts with the context, with the budget, with the listener, with the news breaking stories or contract breaking performances before the actual voice is considered. Yet records still prevail in the end, as they “strip” singers of the stage aura and “trap” them within the boundaries of their own voices, verifying thus the claims of the upcoming and the outgoing for longevity and relevance.

Anna Netrebko certainly makes for a bright and pushy opera singer. Watching her career lift off and fly has been an opera experience in itself: a prom queen’s journey into the fashion world of opera towards the happy ever after. I remember my first glance at her beautiful face of a style icon drowning in her flowing hair behind pale inscriptions of Sempre Libera, a collection of arias she recorded in 2004. I also remember listening to that record in a store, shrugging my shoulders and avoiding the name for several years, partly because of my lack of enthusiasm for discovering yet another lyrical soprano, partly because the manner of her singing and the choice of arias did not suggest an exciting listening experience.

Since then the industry has offered many opportunities to witness Anna Netrebko’s growing repertoire. With the right mix of hype, glamour, initiative, support, and charisma, Anna has entered opera playbills around the world and graced many a concert programme. Additionally, Anna’s internet-savvy admirers have been tirelessly enlarging YouTube and other online media spaces with more and more video demonstrations of the young diva’s glorious engagements. Reviews by usually more cautious critics in print have also been consistently kind if not ecstatic.

My first sincere attempts at trusting the brand Netrebko were supported by the Metropolitan Opera’s cinema broadcasts with Anna in the lead: Massenet’s Manon, Donizetti’s L’Elesir d’Amore, and, the most memorable so far, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Anna Bolena was finally something to consider: instead of her trademark bouncing displacements from one decoration to another and a maiden repertoire, the audiences could expect Anna to don dignified elegance and mature singing. She came quite close to both. Anna Bolena was an intense almost desperate vocal adventure that showed Netrebko’s unparalleled stamina, confidence, and resolve. Vocal imperfections, if there was time and desire to observe any, were crushed by the force of the drama and the magnitude of the production.

My friends and colleagues, who know my weakness for opera music, would occasionally surprise me with a random record by Anna Netrebko, which has allowed me to check from time to time whether Anna’s voice was developing towards matching her acting ambitions. The results of such listening sessions would hardly be rewarding due to my lack of enthusiasm for lyrical singing and Anna’s lack of the vocal prodigy her agents and managers seemed to claim.

Thus I was taken aback when in her recent interview Anna Netrebko, amid boosting her celebrity even further, unveiled somewhat very daring steps. Anna pledged that she was finally ready to sing Lady Macbeth and other “meaty” roles, the roles that would help her climb the ranks of singers such as Shirley Verett and Maria Callas or Violetta Urmana, Maria Guleghina, and Sylvie Valayre. When facing bold statements like that, an opera fan stops and reflects. After all, Anna is now in her forties, she has become a mother, and she must have access to the best vocal training, which would certainly be needed to enable a career turn like that.

Without hesitation I ordered her latest record Verdi, which promised to display her new level of singing and certify her future engagements in the hard-core opera repertoire.

Netrebko Verdi 1As open-minded and unbiased as one could hope to be, I was confronted by the record’s artwork. The cover features a heavily airbrushed visage that lands flat on shoulders without any sign of a neck. The unfortunate effect of such editing is an image of a bare headache that bleeds dense make-up colours. The booklet’s pages bring to mind ads for a manicure parlour rather than Verdian dramas. Netrebko Verdi 2Her puffed up postures in decadent décor suggest that looking cheap costs a lot, while the seemingly untouched snapshots of orchestral rehearsals expose a somewhat flabby meek physique. Such a clear step from the genuinely inspiring beauty of her earlier looks is toppled by the tackiness of the record’s second title Velvet and Fire, although, admittedly, Verdian glossary may have included these words in their literal meaning. Honey and Feathers? Diamonds and Cream? I dare not continue.

Appearances thus matter, as do names, yet records matter more. The five Verdian heroines that Anna Netrebko chose to interpret can redeem any missteps in the matters of taste if sung with integrity, complete dedication, and consistent mastery.

Netrebko Verdi 3Lady Macbeth is the queen of all bloodbaths, possessed by the thirst of an absolute power, yet is a fragile spirit on the journey from obsession to insanity. Giovanna D’Arco is a self-professed teenage warrior haunted by hallucinations and tortured by her longing to reconnect with her childhood memories and violent father. Elena is a Sicilian woman on a vendetta rampage with her compatriots since her brother was murdered by the French governor. Yet the oppressor she is about to assassinate turns out to be the father of her beloved, which leaves her between a promise of a happy reconciliation and her blood-thirsty countrymen pushing for a massacre. Elisabeth de Valois is a Catherine de Medici’s daughter, who gets a glimpse of a happy life as she falls in love with her Spanish fiancé, yet is cruelly humiliated into a marriage with her fiancé’s father, the ageing Spanish king, thus becoming the stepmother of the young man she hoped to marry. Once in Madrid, Elisabeth is stalked and abused by her increasingly deranged stepson, betrayed by her confidante-in-waiting, terrorised by her vengeful husband, terrified by the inquisition, and isolated from the rest of the world. And finally, Leonora is a tormented woman who is violently courted by a count yet is in love with his enemy number one, a Gypsy baron who is, a Verdian twist, his undiscovered brother. Seeking refuge in a monastery brings no salvation. When her lover is imprisoned, she pledges herself to the count against the promise of a pardon, yet commits suicide without being able to prevent the fratricide.

Netrebko Verdi 4The five heroines could certainly be a fast track to the much coveted longevity and relevance. Alas, here Anna Netrebko steps into a repertoire that is too tough even for her sharp teeth. Here is what happens when a lyrical soprano ventures into the realm of dramatic singing. Throughout the record Anna’s singing often becomes breathy and patchy. When trying to thicken her voice, she sounds as if singing back into her throat. The sound of her lower register, if sustained a bit longer than for an occasional chesty note, turns into a shaky vibrato with a sulky bleating effect. Instead of a smooth rich legato, the listener is at times treated to a sluggish moaning, as if the singer is dragging the sound, perhaps for that pseudo-thickening effect. The overall impression is that Anna’s lower-middle register is worn out, perhaps due to intense schedules and questionable repertoire choices. Additionally, her improvising with the tempo leads to hit-and-miss effect, whereby Anna speeds up or slows down the score without a reasonable need.

Netrebko Verdi 5It is the upper register, where her voice shows its remarkable control and beauty – a lyrical soprano with a tender soft sound. If the tessiture is right, and the singing is done without forcing, Anna has very few rivals on today’s opera stage. Such is best demonstrated when singing Giovanna D’Arco, and Elena from I Vespri Siciliani (yet even with Giovanna and Elena, the misfortunes do not disappear).

 

My verdict on Anna’s Verdi is simple: celebrity instead of the artistry. Starting with her fashion photography and arriving at her compact voice ill-fitted for the parts that are clearly too large, Anna Netrebko shows no desire to abandon her quest for the status of a Diva Assoluta. The world is bound to follow her uptake of those meaty roles as long as she delivers what she does best: the voice of a beauty queen to the soundtrack of Verdi’s genuine and powerful music.

Placido Domingo: A Baritone on a Verdian Journey

Every industry has its icons, whose achievements take place across a multi-generational span of time. Such personalities are revered and trusted. Their careers turn in meaningful ways and are seen as enriching a vast legacy. In the world of opera, few living opera singers can compete with Placido Domingo for the status of such an icon, a singer of a global dimension with a household name, a place in history, and a voice that gets only more rewarding with age.

To write about the latest career turn of Placido Domingo is both naïve and important. It is naïve to imagine that in the age of Wikipedia and Youtube a text on a blog could be an adequate way to inform, demonstrate, and engage. This may especially be naive, since the subject of the text yields more than four million hits in search engines. It nevertheless is very important to inform about Placido Domingo, to demonstrate his art, and to enlarge his audience, especially in the age when self-proclaimed starlets and narcissistic mediocrity generate popular appraisal and replace artistry with celebrity.

Be it naïve or important, writing about Placido Domingo is a heart-felt pleasure. My first conscious recollection of the voice dates back to the early 90s and a recording of Verdi’s Aida, with its staple arias, duets, and choral ensembles. There it was, a strong ample clear voice, delivering top notes with deep resonance, embracing the orchestra with smooth phrasing, and reviving the audience with rhythmic lyrics. During many years of audio and video experiences I uncovered for myself his talents of a singer, performer, and conductor. When life finally offered an opportunity to see and hear Placido Domingo on stage, the rite of passage from an enthusiast to a fan was seamless. There it was, untroubled by the decades of intense schedules, the same strong ample clear voice embodied in a sincere, dignified, and generous person. And today, I am happy to continue witnessing his unbound energy and vitality coupled with the highest integrity and ambition to develop and to share.

As tenor as we may know Placido Domingo, there has always been, in my opinion, a baritonal quality to his voice. Several insights into Domingo’s recent roles only confirmed such thoughts. Besides, his grey looks invite naturally the thoughts of Othello, Rigoletto, Macbeth, and other mature characters. Yet I thought with sadness in 2010 that Domingo’s uptake of a baritonal role in Met’s production of Simon Boccanegra was a sign of an impending exit into retirement. I have rarely been so glad to be proven wrong. The step towards the baritonal singing was the beginning of a new career, with new roles piling up from one season to another.

Forward to September 2013, and I am looking with a slight disbelief at a new recording by Placido Domingo VERDI, his first recording of baritone arias.

Placido Domingo's Verdi CD (cover)

The record has 18 tracks that include arias from Verdi’s eight operas. Here we have a Scottish baron with royal blood on his hands; a hunchback at a ducal court in Mantua fighting for his daughter; a betrayed Swedish aristocrat about to have his revenge; a heartless father in Paris who manages his children’s matrimonial plans; an ageing Doge in Genoa who faces a rebellion and collects pieces of his family; a Spanish king abusing his power to crush rivals in politics and in love; a Spanish count about to discover his Gypsy origins; a Spanish marquis obsessed with the idea of a revolution; and a Spanish nobleman whose fixation on revenge turns him against his sister and his best friend.

The above is an ambitious programme. Verdi’s baritone characters are psychologically complex and can equally require a beastly roar, sublime elegance, and tearful revelations. While Domingo’s stage experience as a tenor (more than hundred incarnations) suggests he can enact the roar, the serenity, and the tears, a demonstration of his vocal abilities via such a range of baritonal repertoire, stripped of visual clues, still makes a very brave career move. After all, the opera world has an army of excellent baritones, including Leo Nucci, Vladimir Chernov, Bryn Terfel, Dmitry Hvorostovsky, and Simon Keenlyside among others. Claiming a place in their rank by a tenor, albeit a very renowned one, could naturally raise few eyebrows and result in a sceptical dismissal.

With a most careful awareness of the above, I listened once to the recording on a standard CD-player at home and several times later on my iPod (equipped with the high-end headphones) during my commutes to Porvoo Campus (one-hour bus rides that are ideal for such a purpose). Here come my listening observations.

Domingo’s voice is ready for a baritone itinerary. He is definitely convincing as a lyrical baritone, with a strong high register and expressive at times soft delivery. Domingo is also a great example of what can be considered a Verdi baritone, a somewhat thicker voice that can easily resonate over the orchestra and deliver music rather intensely. When it comes to the dramatic side of the baritonal voice, Domingo’s voice occasionally lacks the depth and the heaviness that one would normally expect from such dark characters as, for instance, Macbeth and Rigoletto. Yet stretching the boundaries of his voice and singing with a strong reliance on linguistic meanings of the Italian lyrics can compensate such a lacking, at least for receptive audiences. My favourite tracks so far are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the very well-known arias that constitute some of the most beautiful opera music ever written: Rigoletto’s Cortigiani, vil razza dannata; Germon’s Di Provenza il mar, il suol; Conte di Luna’s Il balen del suo sorriso, and Rodrigo’s Io morro ma lieto in core. When listening to these arias, Domingo disappears, yielding place for the characters to come alive and for the mind to engage with the stories and with the power of Verdi’s music.

Placido Domingo’s baritone CD is a high-quality work, a great tribute both to Verdi’s heritage and to the singer’s own artistry. And as such, it is a success. A novice opera enthusiast will definitely take this recording as an invitation to explore Verdi’s operas further. A seasoned opera lover will probably treasure this yet another rendition of favourite pieces. A person unaccustomed to opera will perhaps grow kinder towards the genre.

To conclude the review, I would gladly recommend the CD as an insight into a new Verdian journey that Placido Domingo is undertaking at the moment as a baritone. I would also look forward to another recording by Placido Domingo and a chance to experience his baritonal singing live in an opera house or in a concert.