Praying Mantis

Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, in Tosca

 Praying Mantis

Tosca, melodrama in three acts, music composed by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, conducted by Placido Domingo, tenth revival of director Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production, sets by the late Paul Brown, Royal Opera, 19th February 2018

The plot of Tosca turns on the fateful encounter of two powerful personalities, the singer Floria Tosca, played in this performance by soprano Martina Serafin, and the demonic Chief of the Roman Police, Baron Scarpia (Marco Vratogna), who lusts after her. Both of these characters are psychologically complex and fascinating. The former is pious, emotionally labile and prone to self-pity, witness her famous aria Vissi d’arte. Scarpia is a nihilist and sadist who plays upon his victim’s weaknesses, notably Tosca’s jealousy but also her love for the painter Mario Cavaradossi (Riccardo Massi). As Scarpia pithily remarks, “To bring down a man Iago used a hanker chief – I have a fan” (that of Marchessa Attavanti, the sister of the former Consul of the Roman republic, Cesare Angelotti (Simon Shibambu) who is on the run). Puccini gives both of these central characters their own musical leitmotif. The devil, as George Whitefield remarked, has all the best tunes and baritone Marco Vratogna gave the stand out performance, looking and sounding suitably sinister. “Tosca, you make me forget God!”, he proclaims.

The split-level stage in Act I depicts the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where Cavaradossi is working on a portrait of Mary Magdalen. Drab, ill lit and cluttered with the tools of Cavaradossi’s trade, the nave and altar become brilliantly illuminated and colourful during the celebratory Te Deum at the end of Act I. The set and lighting in Act II, which depicts Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese, are no less inspired, with monumental statuary and massive windows. It is here that the dreaded Chief of Police meets his match when on an impulse Tosca stabs him. In a patriarchal society, being killed by a woman is the ultimate degradation.

This production, if anything, accentuates the sacrilegious elements in the libretto. Thus Scarpia anticipates possessing Tosca sexually while the Te Deum is being celebrated. Tosca’s aversion for him, he confides, is a turn on. And Tosca subsequently lays out Scarpia’s body in a parody of a religious rite.

At this point, certain cavils. Riccardo Massi (Cavaradossi) and Martina Serafin (Tosca) are technically gifted artists but they do not exhibit the requisite sexual chemistry. Their acting, as so often is the case in opera, lagged behind their singing. Diva assoluta Maria Callas, as Tosca, set the benchmark here. Who can forget when she tells Scarpia to “Die in damnation. Die! Die! Die!” (“Muori dannato! Muori! Muori! Muori!”)

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

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