Sunday 20 November 2011


The Royal Opera House’s summer production of Tosca was showing this week at a cinema in Brive.  It was an artistic triumph.  In decades of going to operas I have never seen one in which the principal parts were so well cast and so superbly sung and played.

Bryn Terfel was totally convincing as the evil Baron Scarpia, who got more than he bargained for from Tosca.  His very physical interpretation used his powerful presence and sweaty lasciviousness to enormous effect.  It would be easy to imagine him terrifying the population of Rome.  I was so taken by his dramatic persona that I almost forgot to listen to his singing, but he was magnificent and there was absolutely nothing to criticise.  Unfortunately I can only imagine his powerful voice making the ROH resonate when he hit full volume.  I have inserted an extract from his manically intense "Te Deum" below.

Angela  Gheorghiu as Tosca, combined a beautiful liquid tone in her quieter moments with a nervy  intensity as she was overcome by jealousy.   Her acting was also very free and expressive, moving easily between love, jealousy, repulsion, murderous violence and back to love again with no sense of unease or discontinuity.  She is, and was in this production, a real diva!  You can easily imagine why Cavaradossi was in love with her, in spite of her jealous nature.  “Vissi d’arte” generated plenty of frissons, which is always a good sign that true artistry and professionalism have really worked their magic.  
Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi had me applauding, along with the ROH audience, within the first ten minutes!  Near the end of "Recondita armonia" he came off the top notes at full volume and produced a faultless decrescendo ending in a sustained pianissimo.  This is so difficult to do, and it was so well done, that he won me from that very moment.  In the more tender duets with Tosca there was a real chemistry between them.  The rest of his performance was just as accomplished including “E lucevan le stelle”.  
At the end, in the closing scene with Tosca just before his execution, his doubts about her promises of a new life together were subtly tempered by his desire not to show that he still feared Scarpia's betrayal.  He didn't really believe that he would be free, but he didn't want to spoil the moment for Tosca.  This was very subtly conveyed and gave great depth to his interpretation of the role.  For me, for the first time in a staging of Tosca, I felt that the role of Cavaradossi was more than a caricature. 
I formally renounce my earlier criticism of his French pronunciation, although I’d still hesitate to see him in Carmen as Don José.

The supporting roles were also well cast and well played.  Jeremy White as the sacristan used his experience and stagecraft to good effect, Lucas Jacobski as Angelotti  had a strong stage presence as well as a fine baritone voice and Hubert Francis as Spoletta, looking like a young Robespierre, kept all the menace underneath his pale exterior.
Jonathan Kent’s relatively traditional production did not distract.  After Scarpia’s aria in act III the audience roared in approval and, when that had died down, Bryn Terfel, with a sneer on his face, gave himself an ironic slow hand clap.  Moments like that, and also when from time to time minute details of the action on stage were perfectly timed to coincide with the orchestral score, demonstrated that a very refined and intelligent director was at work.   I’m sure that I would notice more such touches if I was able to view it again. 
Antonio Pappano’s conducting of the excellent ROH orchestra formed the bedrock supporting the whole structure, and it was also faultless.  His understanding of the singer’s parts and his keen sense of communication allowed them to relax, knowing that when they were ready to start the next phrase he would follow.
I fully endorse the opinion of a colleague in the choir who said, “C’était plus qu’excellent, c’était un régale”. “It was better than excellent, it was a real feast”.
Was it a real experience?
So bearing in mind that this was a digital recording on a large HD screen in a cinema, how did it compare with the real operatic experience? 
Everyone I have spoken too thought that there were too many close ups.  Personally that didn’t bother me since the acting was good enough, even in close up.  It was not a film, with lots of short takes and make-up girls, but a recording of a live event, so there was plenty of sweat and even a dribble.  Singing is, after all, very much a physical business and, although in London I used to like sitting in the cheap seats at the front and watching the spit flying, I can imagine circumstances when I would not want to see the faces of certain singers projected three metres high on the screen.  Usually in the theatre you are too far away to really see the expressions on the faces and everything is viewed in wide angle.  Perhaps the video directors need to think less in terms of the language of film and more from the point of view of opera.
I wanted to join in the applause and the bravos at the high points, and the standing ovation at the end, but the cinema audience didn’t, and I was inhibited!
Finally the direct contact with the sound and the ambience of the opera house was not there.   Only when you feel the power of a singer’s voice filling the room as he or she really opens up, or sense the audience holding its breath for the pianissimo passages, can you really say that you are having the true operatic experience.
I certainly would not have wanted to miss the cinematic presentation, but I wish that I’d been there!  Here’s another taster.  Look out for the DVD!


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