I have always disagreed with Joseph Kerman’s famous assessment of Tosca as being Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” (Opera as Drama 1956). When well done it can be the most exciting of operas – the drama of the Te Deum, Scarpia’s pursuit of the frightened Tosca ending in his stabbing death and that final leap from the battlements – this is the stuff of great theatre – when well done!
Last evening at the Baths of Caracalla Teatro dell’Opera di Roma seemed bent into proving Kerman right and presented us with the shabbiest of shockers. This will have to go down as one of the worst evenings I’ve spent at the opera and only the second time in 57 years that I have left before the end of a performance. And though most of the members of our party remained I was not alone on my
escape walk to the exit – there was a general exodus towards the Via Appia just after Tosca killed Scarpia with a well placed crucifix to the old Scarpian family jewels.
Yes you did read that right. Poor old Scarpia died not from multiple stab wounds but from a smack in the cullones! And this was just one of director Franco Ripa di Meana’s many “innovations”. Other fascinating concepts included turning Scarpia into a prelate of the church which meant that the stage was frequently filled with phalanxes of black soutaned priests bearing down relentlessly on the principals. Oh I get it the oppression of the church – very cutting edge but I still question turning the celebratory Te Deum into the auto-de-fe scene from Don Carlo. And the burst of flames and fiery cross that closed ACT I lasted all off 2 seconds and blinded most of the audience not astounded them. And why exactly was Tosca costumed like a 19th century hooch dancer – slit skirt, bustier and all – surely Queen Caroline had a stricter court protocol than that? And wasn’t it rather louche of her to walk on Scarpia’s dinner table. And since when was Cavaradossi a pavement artist spreading his canvases out on the floor and having them walked on by thoughtless sacristans? And what was with that murder? First she hit him in the stones with the crucifix then she brandished it at him like a vampire killer. And rather than the drama of the placing of candles around the body and retrieving the liaise-passe from the hands of the dead man she picked it up off the table/prie-deux/chair and as a platoon of priests bore down on the corpse, escaped through the audience – to a round of applause that destroyed the climax of Puccini’s music. “Sadly” I did not see what “improvements'” had been thought up for Act 3 but I’m sure it was just as original.
Now all of this would have been acceptable if it had been possible to close your eyes and listen to incredible singing – though given the “wrong-headedness” there may not be singers alive who could make it acceptable. I never take pleasure in criticizing singers – theirs is a difficult profession and in many ways an ephemeral one. So believe me I take little or no joy in what follows. Aside from having to fight some of the most hideous costumes ever created poor Michaela Carosi spent a good deal of the evening fighting to stay in tune. At several points I was reminded of a comment made during a performance of Fidelio by my friend John: if that woman screams at us one more time I’m going to stand up and scream back. I would have spent a good time standing and screaming at Madame Carosi which would have made for a duet of out of tune voices, Fabio Armiliato is a singer I admire but he must have been having an off night – the sounds he produced where throaty and at points he sounded strained. He was not helped by having to singing Recondita armonia in a prone position. His Vittoria! Vittoria! was thrilling but does not a Cavaradossi make. Giorigo Surian gave a generalized Scarpia – the voice is more bass than baritone and was swamped by the orchestra on more than one occasion. The remainder of the cast did nothing to make up for the deficiencies displayed by the principals. The normally exceptional Opera chorus was having a bad night – the underpowered Te Deum was a real disappointment. And even the children’s chorus were more members of some penitent youth organization than merry, prank playing choir boys. The miking was not particularly successful and on several occasions static and voice placement went awry. Paolo Olmi led a routine performance bringing no special insights into the piece and the orchestra gave yeoman service but again the miking seemed slightly awry.
I had heard some comments while waiting in line at Santa Cecelia the other day about how dreadful this Tosca was so word of mouth is spreading through the city. That and the general decline in tourists trade would account for many blocks of empty seats at the beginning of the performance. And a productin as bad as this would account for the growing numbers that left at each intermission.
Arts money is tight here in Italia – most budgets have been cut 30% – and it is sad to think so many people will go away thinking this is the best that Roma can do. This a company that has a beautiful (and dramatic) Zeffirelli Tosca in its repertory along with some very fine productions of both standard and little known works. This is a company that gives adventuresome seasons, like the one currently in progress – Le Grande Macabre, Pelleas, Iphigenia in Aulide. This is a company where Riccardo Muti has conducted Otello and Iphigenia in the past year and is scheduled to lead Nabucco and Idomeneo in the next. Despite what the Caracalla Tosca could lead you to believe it is not an inconsequential company – but sadly this is the impression many people will carry away with them.
PS: I felt particularly bad for several of our group who were coming to an opera for the first time. This was a sorry introduction and certainly didn’t give them much encouragement to give it another try.
PPS: This comment from my friend Flipstinger who has a very good source:
oh my! very unfortunate indeed…. i think it was a good idea to leave after the 2nd act because after i found out more info; the shepherd boy came in on the 3rd act with a llama or a goat which started to make noises and the audience, confused with what’s happening on the stage, just burst out in laughter….AND after the show, my informer told me the director, Olmi was frustrated that the audience behaved in such manner and was heard saying “the audience don’t get it….how could they have acted that way….they are just clueless.”
UHMMMM, i’d say…this director needs to be a part of the audience and watch carefully the product of his so called vision and then look at the libretto again! VERY FAR OFF!
I am so glad I didn’t stick around for the 3rd Act – laughter would have been the least of their worries.
17 luglio – Sant’Alessio