Bastille Opera (Paris): January 25, 2002–Victorien Sardou, the French playwright who wrote the original Tosca, would probably be amused that his work has achieved immortality in his own land in an Italian operatic version. Of course the story, which I assume is familiar to all in its general outlines, takes place in Rome. Still, it would have been interesting if the Opera National de Paris, which performed the piece this past Friday, had made some attempt to recapture some of the richness of the French original, particularly its largeness of scale (set against the background of the Napoleonic wars) and grandeur of setting (the churches and palaces of Rome), not to mention its cleverly plotted human drama played out against more momentous world events. Puccini’s music supports such an interpretation. Indeed, the famous Te Deum finale to Act 1 is certainly the largest “crowd scene” he would write before Turandot, and pure Grand Opera in the best French tradition.

As it stands, Alberte Barsacq’s sets were probably the ugliest in Tosca history. The setting for the first act, the theoretically gorgeous church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, consisted of a bare inclined floor, one black wall and one concrete, a scaffold leading to Cavaradossi’s (horrible) unfinished painting, and a mimetic Madonna statue that changed positions every so often. Tosca arrived through a door stage left, but for Scarpia the entire wall (where the door was) magically opened, garage-like. Act 2 (Scarpia’s office), with the floor tilted even more, consisted of a table and chairs, another black wall with a red geometrical pattern across the back, and an octet of illuminated faces staring through windows at the rear and stage right, suggestive, I suspect, of “totalitarianism” or some such. Every so often they made profoundly symbolic throat-cutting gestures. Against such settings, the period (sort of) costumes looked more than strange, a cognitive dissonance no doubt intentional but one which fought the clear sense of the drama at every point.

By Act 3, the floor (now presumably the roof of Castel sant’Angello), had tilted so alarmingly that the poor shepherd boy–never mind what he was doing on the roof–could hardly inch his way across it. A colleague of mine quipped that had there been a fourth act, the stage would have been completely vertical. Anyway, this led to interesting speculation as to where Tosca would take her fatal plunge, a problem solved by having her jump into a hole smack dab in the middle of the floor (the usual place, the rear of the stage, was ruled out by (a) the steepness of the climb to get there, (b) the shepherd boy in the way, and (c) a crowd of “pursuers” that suddenly appeared climbing up over the would-be parapet). The entire action of the act was ruined, in any case, by producer Werner Schroeter’s evident desire to explore the sorry lot of the common soldier by having a corpse front and center, distractingly subject to all sorts of poking and prodding and dumb-show lamentation by his buddies right through Cavaradossi’s big aria and the subsequent final duet and execution.

One thing’s for sure though: in soprano Nelly Miricioiu we had a singer who shamelessly pitted herself against the sets and production, ugly for ugly, and emerged victorious. Hers was the probably the most frighteningly bad Tosca in operatic history. Simply put, the woman hasn’t a shred of voice. A strangled gargle in its lower registers, a wobbly screech elsewhere, her “Vissi d’arte” sounded like a crude caricature of what Callas might have made of it had she been singing today, aged 78. Her acting consisted of three gestures: clenching her hands together in supplication, the traditional operatic arms flung out to the sides, and a lot of dress swishing (a necessity made all the more obvious when she got stuck on Cavaradossi’s scaffolding). She couldn’t even manage a steady parlando delivery at “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!” It was a sad, grotesque display of vocal disintegration.

As Cavarodossi, tenor Fabio Armiliato gave one of those “not quite” performances: the voice a bit too small, hamming it up with a few too many sobs in “E lucevan le stelle,” and no ability to sing softly (“O dolci mani” was especially painful). But next to Miricioiu he shone, even if the unaccompanied climax to their Act 3 duet sounded like something out of Czech composer Alois Haba’s quarter-tone opera The Mother. Lado Ataneli sang Scarpia with crude vigor, barking the part loudly, and conveying the seriousness of his intent during the Act 2 torture scene by twice pounding his fist on the dinner table and then posing menacingly in profile like the hood ornament on a 1950s Oldsmobile. Tosca couldn’t kill him quickly enough. The smaller parts attracted little notice, except at one point in Act 2 where the collective wobble coming from Miricioiu and Christian Jean (Spoletta) seemed to cause the very set to vibrate sympathetically in what for a moment threatened to become an operatic equivalent to the famous Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse. Fortunately (or maybe not), it was a brief ensemble and the sets remained standing.

So, given all of the above nonsense, what’s a conductor to do? Essentially there are two approaches: give up and get through it as quickly as possible, or ignore the silliness and simply play the living daylights out of Puccini’s gorgeous music. Happily, Maurizio Benini chose the latter option. He conducted a thrilling, vital, impulsive, wholly inspirational account of the score, and galvanized the orchestra to follow him every step of the way. The brass played powerfully, the percussion without inhibition at the climaxes, strings had the necessary warmth and lushness of tone, and the solo winds did some outstanding work (the clarinet introduction to “E lucevan le stelle” was exquisite). Benini did what he could to support Miricioiu in “Vissi d’arte,” fashioning a richly colored accompaniment that never forced her into a hopeless contest with the orchestra. And if the result was a performance that sounded sort of like listening to a symphonic poem over which a trio of quarrelsome neighbors could be heard yelling at each other through your living room wall now and again, it’s still safe to say that Benini and the excellent orchestra of the Opera National saved the day (and Puccini) against all odds, and well earned their applause.–David Hurwitz

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