Puccini - Tosca

ONP Bastille, Thursday October 16 2014

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets: Christof Hetzer. Costumes: Robby Duiveman. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Floria Tosca: Martina Serafin. Mario Cavaradossi: Marcelo Alvarez. Scarpia: Ludovic Tézier. Cesare Angelotti: Wojtek Smilek. Spoletta: Carlo Bosi. Sciarrone: André Heyboer. Il Sagrestano: Francis Dudziak. Un carceriere: Andrea Nelli. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Hauts-de-Seine and ONP children’s choruses.

The last time I saw Tosca was in New York, in the Met’s tired old Zeffirelli production. I hadn’t seen it in Paris for a long time, the reason being the awfulness of the previous staging: once was enough. But for the 2014-2015 season, the ONP at last announced a new one, by Pierre Audi, so we decided which of the three casts looked most promising, and booked.

In the event, it was a let-down. There was little passion in this production (“on s’ennuie” said a friend at the first interval) , though as the evening went on and, act by act, the sets got uglier, there was some dramatic improvement. It was essentially a perfectly conventional production in new (but ugly) sets, the “big idea” being a (very big) wooden cross.

In act one, it was lying flat on the stage, bunker-like, one arm towards the audience leaving a space on either side: to the left, the area in front of the Attavanti chapel, to the right Mario’s fresco - oddly, not a Madonna as such but a bevy of naked beauties borrowed from Bouguereau. People entered from the top down a narrow staircase in a slit. In acts two and three the cross was up in the air, hovering first over Scarpia’s round, cluttered, blood-red room - more like a provincial notary’s office than an apartment in the Palazzo Farnese - and finally, not over the Castel Sant’Angelo as you might expect, but over a sort of army camp in marshy land with charred trees and clumps of grass, reminiscent of a Paul Nash WWI battlefield. The little shepherd popped up to sing his song, then lay down again. No sign of a flock.

La Madonna
The costumes were standard Tosca issue, apart from there being more black leather than was likely in period Roman tailoring.

As sometimes happens, the production team seem to have focused their efforts on the overall concept and design and neglected the directing per se. Just as, in the past, singers used to bring their own costumes, here it looked like they’d each brought their own acting. As a result, Marcelo Alvarez and Martina Serafin formed an unlikely couple. In the first two acts Serafin played Tosca as a rather swanky, corseted bourgeoise with a selection of silent-film gestures: clutching her pearls, cupping her face, clawing the walls… Not a million miles from Lady Billows in her younger days, and as such, not someone you were touched by. Meanwhile, Alvarez’ Mario was an affable, ordinary, back-slapping bloke you might have a few drinks with down at the local in Buenos Aires. So you couldn’t see why they ever got together and there was little sign of passionate attachment between them.

In act two, Ludovic Tézier was more convincing as Scarpia – stolid and static, as usual, but with quite an effective set of wry and occasionally faintly lascivious facial expressions (though these must have been wasted on people up in the gods). And in act three, in a plain dress, Martina Serafin literally let her hair down and recovered her humanity. So dramatically, as I said, the opera would have ended better than it had begun, if only at the very end Tosca had had a castle to leap off. Instead, she just walked into a dazzling white light at the rear, leaving you to wonder what was supposed to have happened to her. Assumption?

Castel Sant'Angelo
Martina Serafin’s vocal resources are considerable, so there was nothing to complain about on that score; it was just a pity she wasn’t as human all the way through as she became at the end. Marcelo Alvarez’ resources are comparably impressive, but he put a great deal of effort into reining them in and nuancing his singing. In his case, it was a pity, IMHO, that, with the conductor’s apparent complicity (stopping the orchestra), he deliberately went for applause at the end of his big numbers. That looked hammy. Ludovic Tézier audibly hadn’t yet got over whatever it was he was suffering from at the start of the run: unusually for him, his voice even cracked. But he still sang with his usual elegance – not a typical Scarpia, but a musical one. And if there was, as I said, little passion in this production, Daniel Oren’s conducting, which seemed quite placid to me (and quite drawn-out to some others), was no doubt partly responsible.

Overall, despite the sound singing, not an exciting evening. Which is not at all the conclusion you hope to reach after Tosca.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Vissi d'Arte".