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Chris Mullins
Opera Today, April 2009

Staged at the 2007 Bregenz Festival on its famous lake-side stage, millions world-wide have now seen at least parts of this Tosca production, as it was featured (in a confusingly edited action sequence) in the recent James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. It turns out to be a fairly spectacular visual staging itself, even without Daniel Craig hopping around, capping people. As a line in the booklet essay forthrightly admits, “Philip Himmelmann’s production had to allow for the enormous dimensions of the” Bregenz stage. The gigantic eye that dominates the stage backdrop, essay writer Gerhard Perché suggests, represents an interpretation of Sardou’s melodrama that sees Scarpia as big brother. Maybe, but the eye, which overlooks the action but of course cannot intercede, might just as easily represent the deity that Scarpia claims to worship and to whom Tosca prays in vain (and Cavaradossi declares non-belief in).

At any rate, traditionalists won’t care for any aspect of the staging. Dress is contemporary, with Michael as Tosca so sexy in her red power suit in act one and more contemporary gown for act two. Gidon Saks sports formal wear, and then removes much of it for what is most likely the first strip tease staged during the Te deum. Only Zoran Todorovic spends the opera in fairly dull clothes, even bespattered with his own blood (a stunt double takes a stunning inert dive into the waters in the last moments). Although the physical production looks like no other Tosca throughout acts one and two, most of the stage action remains fairly true to the libretto; for example, Angelotti hides away in a nook/”chapel” where later Scarpia finds a fan and empty lunch basket.

Act three, however, finds Mario imprisoned in the pupil of the eye, a precarious position requiring a visible tether. When Tosca appears, she perches high above him, standing on some ledge behind the top of the “eye” backdrop. Surely director Himmelmann designed this for the audience at Bregenz, where it might have made an impact, reinforcing the delusion of the reunited couple’s hopes for freedom. But cameras and editing dilute any such intended effect. Similarly, the jolt of seeing dozens of other imprisoned victims of Scarpia rejoicing at the news of his death only partially compensates for the distraction from the opera’s proper climax, Tosca’s leap (a filmed sequence projected onto the pupil).

Nadja Michael and Gidon Saks make any quibbles irrelevant. Neither is vocally perfect: Michael can be shrieky in her top range, and Saks sounds hoarse for quite a while. The greater part of their singing does well by Puccini’s score, and their performances do even better by the libretto’s characters. Michael’s Tosca is passionate, flamboyant yet unneurotic, and very physical—one more reason why the third act staging could have been rethought. And though Saks doesn’t bring much that’s new to Scarpia, the modern dress helps to give a fresh spin to his portrayal of the voraciously sexual sadist. Todorovic, as with many another Cavaradossi, manages an affecting third act aria, but otherwise his coarse, rough tone will win few admirers.

Ulf Schirmer gets a powerhouse performance from the Wiener Symphoniker (as opposed to the more famous Philharmonic). Sound and picture are first class. Be advised, however, that the singers all wear unobtrusive but visible mikes, almost in earpiece form, as necessitated by the Bregenz acoustic.

Ira Siff
Opera News, March 2009

Himmelmann uses a giant (100’ x 165’) painting of an eye as the backdrop for the opera. (Scarpia’s Big Brother regime, get it?) The eye morphs during the course of the action, with giant video effects superimposed upon it to give us, for instance, Tosca’s offstage cantata or Cavaradossi’s torture as reported by Sciarrone. A floating scaffold for Cavaradossi’s painting dominates Act I, and Scarpia makes a spectacular entrance on it as it’s lowered. Himmelmann uses the huge space of the Bregenz stage very well, and his singers cover lots of ground for him while vocalizing.

Interesting touches abound, and some of them work very well. The Sacristan has the unruly church kids with him for his first entrance, thereby eschewing the operatic conceit of talking to oneself for the informational benefit of the audience. As Scarpia watches closely, Tosca sings a portion of "Vissi d’arte" before an imaginary theater curtain. (I’ve always felt that this aria is Tosca’s one chance to show us who the character is as an opera singer.) After the execution of Mario, he is dispatched into Lake Constance, a neat touch that uses the Bregenz setting most effectively.

More conventional lapses into current Tosca-isms include Scarpia’s masturbatory carryings-on: he doesn’t wait until the Te Deum in this production but rather begins while poor Tosca is pouring her heart out about Mario’s suspected betrayal, leading to the ripping off of his shirt for the Te Deum. Tosca reclines on a table in Act I, preparing for sex, until she remembers she’s in church (no help from the set here). On the DVD, there are occasional uses of split screen in a most distracting way, but otherwise the action is filmed very well.

Orchestrally, this is a first-rate Tosca. Perfect coordination between orchestra and soloists must be challenging in such circumstances, and there are occasional lapses. But the Vienna Symphony plays beautifully for Ulf Schirmer, who offers a reading with real sweep. It’s taut yet expansive where it needs to be…In the title role, Nadja Michael’s voice warms by Act II, coalescing on top…she turns in an impressive performance, admirable on many levels. Zoran Todorovich…[finds] a lovely mezza voce for "E lucevan le stelle" and "O dolci mani" in Act III. …Gidon Saks commits wholeheartedly to the director’s over-the-top, creepy, sexually abusive concept of Scarpia. He sings the role solidly and with relish. Supporting players are good, particularly Martin Winkler’s versatile doubling as the Sacristan and the Jailer and Sebastian Soules’s terrified Angelotti.

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