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Dress Rehearsal Review by Helen Flack

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 28, 2006 5:49 pm    Post subject: Dress Rehearsal Review by Helen Flack Reply with quote

First of all let me reassure everyone that this production is traditional with a capital T! It is set in 1800 and the sets and costumes are absolutely stunning. No dodgy updating or way out directors in sight. Breath a sigh of relief.
The curtain rises on a stunning set. The Chiesa del Sant’ Andrea della Valle is beautifully represented by two areas of railings which stretch across most of the stage. There are two levels, the entrance to the church at the top and then two symmetrical staircases sweeping down the centre of the stage to the lower level where there are more railed off chapels and tombs. On the left is a large scaffold with Cavaradossis painting being a large mural. The whole thing is subtly lit with most of the light being candlelight. A large altar with six candles on the upper level and a huge statue of the Madonna with votive candles in the centre on the lower level. It is soft focus and dim.

It’s very hard for any production to live up to such high expectations as I expect we all have and I found myself sitting through the first act conscious of the fact that I really wanted to like it, but somehow it did fall slightly short of expectation. Why? The opening sounded a bit ropey from the pit…it lacked the high quality finesse that I expect from Tony Pappano and the ROH orchestra. OK, so it is still a rehearsal and I am sure it will pull together better, but it sounded like the orchestra were not quite together and the music lacked pace.
Marcello Alvarez has a beautiful voice. His ‘Recondita armonia’ was very lovely. I have always found Cavaradossi the most difficult character to get excited about in Tosca. It needs real determination and acting skill to make this rather ‘flat’ character have life and come off the page. (I love Domingo in the role as he is the only one I have seen who makes him into the exciting, revolutionary Bohemian character that he can be). Not so Alvarez, who though acting better than usual, just does not project anything other than a two dimensional , one-size-fits-all lead romantic tenor! He looks and sounds good though and had more passion and commitment in acts two and three.
Now we come to Angela Gheorghiu. She said in that interview that she wanted to show a different side to Tosca. She certainly does and whether or not it works is probably very much a matter of individual taste. For me it didn’t. She does look stunning though. Her first entrance is in a bright yellow dress with a red jacket over the top. Carrying her flowers down the stairs, she is a tamed down Tosca. Her calls of ‘Mario, Mario, Mario, have none of the usual firmness and impatience. It is evident right from the start that this Tosca is not the strong, confident diva that we usually see but a much less secure character. Vocally she certainly lacks the heft to do anything other than play the character this way (unless she was just not singing out in rehearsal, we will have to wait and see). She does have a very beautiful voice, it is round and warm and her top register is beautifully even and rich. But it is in danger of being lost in the thick Puccini orchestration, despite Pappano doing a good job with the balance between singers and orchestra.
I love the music of the Act one duets but they came and went here with no real sense of passion between the two lovers. The blocking didn’t help. It felt disconnected and had no flow…sort of movement by number. Again, this may all improve through the run.
Act one really only came alive when Bryn made his grand entrance. As those wonderful chords ring out he appears on the upper level. He has a fantastic costume. A full length great coat, dark blue with very elaborate silver embroidery around the edges. The waistcoat underneath is big bold stripes a bit like a skeleton. Riding boots and crop and a sword as well. His hair is shoulder length and very ‘Meatloaf’ like and he is definitely stubbly, not clean shaven. Dark make up around the eyes, he looks very sinister. Rather like his Mephistopheles look in Faust. From the moment he sings ‘Un tal baccano in chiesa’ he dominates the stage. Suddenly the production has come alive!
Thoroughly menacing throughout, his Scarpia also has an extra dimension. There is a mix of tenderness and violence in this man. He is obsessed with power and wants to control Tosca, but he first has to control his own feelings for her which are running away from him. There is a great moment when he unties a ribbon from her hair and just holds it and looks at it then pockets it.
I think I liked the Te Deum. I need to see it again to be sure though. It was certainly clever with the church service taking place on the upper level while down below in the shadows Scarpia lurks wrestling with his lustful fantasies that seem to both terrify and fascinate him. However, I am so used to seeing this staged with the procession moving around the stage and the music so strongly projects that movement that I found the rather static tableau a bit odd. It will probably grow on me and the symbolism of heaven above and Scarpia down in his hell was good. I loved the end where he falls to his knees and sings ‘Tosca mi fai dimenticare Iddio’.
Vocally Bryn is in tremendous form. He is singing with a beautiful control and the whole thing sounds effortless, no hint of shouting or barking. His control in the high lying phrase ‘Gia mi struggea l’amor della diva’ in act 2 was superb.

Another fantastic set for act 2. A giant statue of St Michael ( I think) dominates his room in the Palazzo Farnese. There is a large bookcase running from top to bottom on the left hand side with a small chaise lounge in front and Scarpia’s table is set for dinner on the right. Again, the lighting is dim with candles everywhere. Bryn’s costume is another long coat with boots, breeches (dark) and a white shirt under a waistcoat. Now Bryns Scarpia really comes into his own. Cavaradossi is brought in and the questioning begins. Bryn is really scary. Tosca arrives wearing a stunning gown. It is pale blue and jewelled with a long train. She looks beautiful. Cavaradossi gets carried away to the torture chamber which is behind a false panel in the bookcase and he begins to bait Tosca. Now this is where I feel Angela’s Tosca just doesn’t work. Tosca is a singer, a woman on the stage, living with a Bohemian, rebel painter. As such, she is a woman outside of respectable society, she should be a passionate, very sexual woman, sure of her charms. The way she is being played here is as a delicate, vulnerable innocent. Surely, Scarpia is so fascinated by Tosca because of her character and ‘spunk’. She is a challenge to him. All this Tosca has is physical beauty. Not enough for a man like Scarpia, I don’t think. ‘ Ha piu forte sapore la conquista violenta che mellifluo consenso’ ( a violent conquest has more flavour than soft consent).
I really liked the bit where she finds her hair ribbon in his book. Is Scarpia the ultimate obsessive, stalker? Bryn is wonderful throughout the scene but this tepid Tosca is no foil for his Scarpia. He dominates her beautifully, using his physical size to dominate her, but it is too easy. Of course, ‘Vissi d’arte’ always gets a huge ovation from the audience and it was neat that Scarpia gives her a slow hand clap at the end as if to say ‘ very good Tosca, but I have no sympathy’.
When she picks up the knife at the end and stabs him it is a real surprise. Not just because you can’t actually see what she is doing, but because you just don’t think she has it in her. And, my God, she gives him a real stabbing! First he starts to solely undress, off comes the waist band and then he starts to loosen his shirt and then he leaps onto her 0n the table. She plunges the knife into his chest the first time, as he collapses onto her she stabs him again and finally administers a third, vicious stab in the heart. It was really violent. He died exceptionally well! Then she has to rummage around in his blood soaked shirt for the letter of pardon and finally leave him with two candles either side of his head and her large jewelled cross that she is wearing which she flings down on his corpse.
Act three is of course a let down for Bryn fans with no more Scarpia and so far Bryn has been head and shoulders above the rest so it has now lost a lot. The set is very effective. A stark representation of the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo with stars in the sky and posts to tie the prisoners to for execution. A sloping ramp at the back of the stage represents the ramparts. This set is not so ‘factual’ as the others. I’m not going to say much more about it. The shooting is well done and Tosca does seem to be driven to madness and despair at the end. She was really quite moving and she leapt into oblivion very well.
The lion’s share of the curtain call applause went to Bryn and I don’t think Ms Gheorghiu will be best pleased that she didn’t get the ovation she was clearly expecting from her rather extravagant waving to the audience. Bryn took his usual bow with a slight smile and nod of the head.

Make what you will of it. It is visually beautiful and Bryn is just wonderful so you can’t fail to enjoy it.

Thanks a lot Helen for writing this review for the web site.
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