Maria Callas as Tosca

ENDNOTES – Tosca by Numbers

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini, Royal Opera House, 13th May 2014, production by Jonathan Kent: the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Oleg Caetani, with Oksana Dyka as Floria Tosca, Roberto Alagna as Mario Cavaradossi and Marco Vratogna as Baron Scarpia

Leslie Jones reviews Giacomo Puccini’s timeless masterpiece

Richard Burton confides in his diaries that he loathed acting because he found it boring. “I have one disease that is incurable…” he remarks, “I am easily bored. I am excited by the idea of something but its execution bores me”. On one occasion, to relieve the tedium, he played Hamlet as a homosexual. On another, he began “To be or not to be” in German. And on yet another he inserted lines by Christopher Marlowe into Shakespeare’s text. The audience did not mind but the rest of the cast were reportedly incensed (see The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams).

Tenor Roberto Alagna’s performance of Mario Cavaradossi reminded me at times of Burton’s behaviour. He is obviously a prodigiously gifted singer and was greatly admired by Luciano Pavarotti, no less. But sometimes he only goes through the motions. Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, un peu embonpoint in a rather old fashioned costume, is likewise a technically very accomplished artist. But her portrayal of Floria Tosca was singularly devoid of feeling or pathos. She clearly is not Callas.

The half-hearted response of the audience to the famous arias, notably “Recondita armonia” and Vissi d’arte, spoke volumes in this context. The late Franco Corelli, in

Franco Corelli

contrast, once received an ovation that lasted for five whole minutes for his rendition of Recondita armonia! Of the principal roles, only baritone Marco Vratogna as the evil Baron Scarpia made any real impression. He captured something of the sadistic and manipulative character of the perverted Chief of Police. It will be interesting to see what Bryn Terfel makes of this complex and demanding role when he takes over from Vratogna.

Credit also should be given to the Revival Director Andrew Sinclair for highlighting the strikingly subversive and iconoclastic qualities of the libretto, based on the play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou, as when Tosca lays out (stages) the body of the hated Scarpia between candles in a pseudo-religious ceremony. The resulting tableau brings to mind the unique “signature” or modus operandi of certain serial murderers. Then, again, there is the memorable and sacrilegious scene set in the church of Sant Andrea della Valle, when Scarpia contemplates ravishing Tosca, just as a religious service commences in a riot of colour and candle light. Little wonder that many of this opera’s early critics, used to more anodyne fare, balked, lamenting what one of them called an “atmosphere tinged with blood that pervades and overwhelms everything” (see Alexandra Wilson’s enlightening programme note, entitled “Praise and Hostility”). Torture, blackmail, betrayal, execution, assassination and suicide follow in rapid succession.

On a somewhat lighter note, my companion on this occasion, an ardent opera buff, assured me that at Covent Garden, some of the best seats in the house are in the amphitheatre, where we found ourselves. Sound, she explained, rather like the price of opera seats, always rises. I was not entirely persuaded. Your critic has been banished to the gods. Expect to see him shortly in the even more vertiginous upper slips, humming An Alpine Symphony.

Tosca was the first opera that I ever attended, in a full-blooded performance in Holland Park auditorium many years ago. With its exquisite leitmotifs and it’s “ruthlessly taut drama” (Gregory Dart, programme note, “Cruel Bounty”), it made an indelible impression. Perhaps understandably, I retain an abiding and sentimental affection for this master-work, a symbol latterly of one’s lost youth. It surely deserved much better than this.

Giacomo Puccini

Leslie Jones May 2014


Leslie Jones is Deputy Editor of QR


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