Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Puccini: Tosca – Zurich 2009 (Part 2: Art is Life)

Thomas Hampson’s Scarpia is a man who keeps his cool and is used to being in charge. He is a perfect bad guy: refined, handsome, smooth, and suave.  He doesn’t look bad, evil, or scary. In fact, his evilness is scarier because he looks so smooth. (When the typical Scarpia makes his entrance, you think, “Ew, yuck, bad man!!” But this Scarpia makes you think, “Wow, he’s handsome!”) As the opera progresses, Scarpia’s nastiness emerges. He is not used to being questioned, defied, or inconvenienced. He taunts Tosca with the fan, he shouts at people, he eats dinner, he has Mario tortured, and he is annoyed that his dinner keeps getting interrupted.

When Scarpia finally does lose his cool, he's annoyed that he let it show.  He seriously has the hots for Tosca, likes to torture people, and doesn’t really worry about how many people “like” him on facebook. But he always wants to be in control. (This Scarpia is so evil, that I don't think he even realizes that he's evil!) Some might say this role is a bit heavy for Hampson. He does tend to shout a bit in the shoutier bits, but he puts a beautiful spin those few smooth lines that Puccini throws his way. He is strong and powerful in the Te deum.

Mario is the character that is least developed by Puccini; however, Jonas Kaufmann as Mario is ardent, young, handsome, impetuous, puppy-dog-in-love with Tosca, and passionate about his political cause. His words of love to Tosca are warm and smooth, his cries of Vittoria! are thrilling, his rebuke of Tosca when she caves in to Scarpia is frightening, and his E lucevan le stelle is heartbreaking. Kauffman sings with virile strength, hair-raising tones, and edge-of-your-seat pianissimos. </hyperbole> He is pretty handy with a piece of chalk, too.

Some Toscas seem pouty and fake, but I think Emily Magee’s Tosca genuinely can’t figure out why all this bad shit keeps happening to her. As Mario describes her in Act 3, this Tosca is kind to others, generous, gentle, and prayerful. She is naïve, pure, and innocent in a way.  She thinks the best of people, and takes them at face value. Her first reaction to the Marchesa’s fan in Act 1 is more or less casual, as if to say: “Oh? A fan? How nice. Where did you find it?"

Tosca’s default behavior is definitely full-tilt Diva. She self-consciously monitors herself, celebrating her diva-ness and trying to maintain her public persona. After her the fan incident with Scarpia, autograph-seekers approach her, and she pulls herself back together—hiding the private stress, and being brave for the public.  While still trying to maintain her cool during the torture scene, she casually flips through the (Tosca) playbill she finds on Scarpia’s desk. Later she finds her way to the spotlight focused on the wall. It’s a “safe place” for her, and she visibly relaxes in that glow. When she is coaching Mario on how to die, she's completely caught up in the drama. She cheers him on, then shift gears, remembering to play distraught, not happy.
But don’t piss her off. When Tosca realizes that Scarpia wants her body in exchange for Mario’s life, she switches from bewildered victim to goddess of vengeance, spitting out the question, “Quando?” Tosca is pushed to the limit and she strikes back in a convincing murder sequence. Magee doesn’t do the bit with the candles in this scene (and she doesn’t sing Visse d’arte from the floor, thank goodness!) Puccini purists may squawk, but her business here rings truer than the in some other versions: cleaning herself up, placing a copy of the playbill, then a single red rose on Scarpia’s body.

Magee is a solid, believable actress. She has a firm Wagnerian/Straussian soprano, yet she also sounds at home in Puccini. She sings with a plush, full tone: sweet when necessary, dramatic or hysterical as appropriate. (Magee is also marvelous in Ariadne auf Naxos.)
The Act 3 duet, when it still seems all will end well.
I highly recommend this disc. While you are settling in to accept the operatic convention of everyone singing at each other instead of talking, suspend your disbelief about the scenery, and enjoy this well-sung, well-acted, dramatic version of Tosca. Bravi tutti!

1 comment:

  1. I liked this one a lot too - I definitely agree about Hampson's Scarpia. No mustache-twirling here, but that makes him all the more frightening.

    And you've noticed a few things that I missed when I watched this one a while back, e.g. Tosca relaxing in the spotlight. I'll have to go back and see it again :)


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