The Munich Opera Festival opens with a gem: Tosca, with a cast hard to match, these days. It was a wonderful musical evening.
I found out for my dismay that the production was Luc Bondy’s, the one who replace, at the MET in New York, the beloved Zeffirelli production which ran for about 30 years. At the MET Bondy was ripped apart, they booed him and threw metaphorical rotten tomatoes at him. I had seen him then, in New York, in 2009, with Karita Mattila in the title role, and I didn’t like it very much, even if, to be honest, the reaction of the inconsolable Zeffirelli’s widows seemed a bit excessive to me.
Today, on my second try, I found it even worse, even if less extreme (in the meantime, I have seen things…). The most hated, and most ridiculous feature was removed: in the original production Tosca says Scarpia, davanti a Dio!, then she climbs inside a tower (so she disappears from sight), and then a dummy with her dress is thrown from the tower. No comment. In this case, Tosca jumps off the ramparts, as prescribed.
Another most hated feature of the production was instead maintained: at the beginning of act 2, while Scarpia sings his monologue (Tosca è un buon falco), gives instructions to Sciarrone, and listens to Spoletta’s report (Della signora seguimmo la traccia), in his dining room three scantily dressed ladies lounge and “entertain” him, luckily avoiding extreme vulgarities, which we were not spared in New York. The ladies disappear when Cavaradossi enters stage, thank god.
The production does have one original idea, which is not too bad (only one): Tosca, after killing Scarpia, opens the window and climbs up, as if she wanted to jump, a premonition of the final suicide. Then she changes her mind, comes down, takes the safe-conduct and runs away. In general I would say that, as opposed to many other productions, this interpretation is that the murder has completely overwhelmed and upset poor Tosca: even later, when she tells the story to Cavaradossi, she’s devastated and desperate.
The orchestra, under the baton of Kirill Petrenko, did a fantastic job. Sometimes I’ve complained about the Munich Opera orchestra for being cold (even if I had a good impression in La forza del destino), but last Saturday they were really amazing. The feeling was that of a perfect machine, overwhelming and unstoppable. The conductor infused the music with great passion, and he perfectly embodied Puccini’s “total” vision, the vision of the opera as one single thing, a musical development with no interruptions, in an almost Wagnerian thematic crescendo. The result was impressive, and, in fact, the audience was impressed and muted, and we didn’t dare to interrupt the musical tsunami with inappropriate applause in mid-scene. And I can assure you that the lack of applause was not because of boredom, or lack of participation, because at the end of Act 1 it sounded like a football stadium (and, roaring applause and screams notwithstanding, nobody came out on stage to thank: fantastic! I hate when they come out between acts).
The only applause in mid-scene was after Vissi d’arte, of which Harteros gave a wonderful interpretation, which an amazing legato and a powerful and sweet voice, drawing tears from me. In that point, Petrenko paused and let us clap and scream to thank her. I should be noted that, in that point, there is one of the few pauses in the melody flow.
And now, let’s talk about the best living cast!
Anja Harteros, first and foremost! I adore this woman, she should be heard even when she sings commercial jingles. Her voice is perfect and wonderful, both in technique, and in timbre, and I melt every time. Having said this, I think she’s at her best in Verdi, and not in Puccini. In the first act she didn’t sound perfectly comfortable to me, maybe she was a little nervous? It was, after all, La Prima. I heard her breath more than usual, and in the moments when Puccini asks for “the great musical phrase” (Ei vede ch’io piango, for example) she sounded at her limit. She sounded much more at ease in the following. In the second act she gave us an amazing performance, with a Vissi d’arte worth of any old star, not to mention the new stars (Radvanovsky sucks). She’s also a great actress, acting the hothead but not too much, railing against Scarpia without screaming, crying without sobbing. What a wonderful singer/actress! Her “do della lama” (the high C on the word “lama”, in the third act) sent shivers down my spine, powerful and perfect. And sustained. And long.
Cavaradossi was Jonas Kaufmann! He’s perfect in the part, simply perfect. Puccini fits him like a glove, he’s in his element and revels in it. His Puccini is never heroic, Kaufmann is a sophisticated musical aesthete, and his passion is in the small things, the mezza-voce, the sudden diminuendo, the hidden sweetness. His voice is perfectly suited to Puccini’s sadistic tendency, and he plays all the cards he has, to inflict suffering to his audience. I don’t mean to say that his voice is small, or not projected: his Vittoria! was powerful and convincing (and sustained. and long), and so was Tosca, sei tu! at the end of Recondita armonia. I’m trying to say that he rejoices in his own daintiness. The ham actor is round the corner, but not in sight yet.
Bryn Terfel, as Scarpia, was the best surprise of the whole evening. One expects Harteros and Kaufmann to be wonderful, but I had my doubts on Terfel, after listening to some recent recordings, where I heard a lot of jumping on high notes, and some coarse sound. Boy was I wrong. It’s really true that you must listen to singers live. He was great! His voice is powerful, smooth and amazingly in tune. His technique may not be perfect (can’t really tell) but in any case the voice is well supported and his interpretation, his care to psychological detail is incredible. In the first act he upstaged everybody! His Scarpia, especially in the first act, is a victim of his own character. When Tosca cries (Ed io veniva a lui tutta dogliosa) he has a moment of compassion, of true empathy, when he would like to stroke and console her. His gallantry is more sincere than usual, and he gives the impression of really being in love with her. The final monologue (Va’, Tosca) was superb. Once more one can hear his suffering, because his wickedness eats him alive from inside. The love phrase (tra le mie braccia illanguidir d’amor) is truly loving, and the end (Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!) a desperate cry of a man unable to control his own passion. He is unable to complete the sign of the Cross he tries to perform before singing the Te Deum, tormented by his own hypocrisy and malice.
In the second act his interpretation is more traditional, on the other hand, that’s how Puccini wrote it His sadism takes over and overwhelms him, and he splashes in it like a pig in the mud. Moreover, he is a big man, which helps the drama, because Harteros is no shrimp, and he’s half a head taller, he lifts her up and throws her around while she hits him and kicks in the air. Everything while both sing wonderfully. Bravo Terfel!!
All in all, an unforgettable evening. I doubt I will ever see a better Tosca, in my lifetime, but one can only hope!