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Puccini: Tosca

Naxos // Unrated // January 27, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted March 3, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
A lot of people decry modern Hollywood stars when they voice their opinions on things political. Tell those folks to stay away from Tosca, Puccini's famous opera that one wag famously termed a "shabby little shocker," because its politically active hero, Mario Cavaradossi, doesn't just talk about political intrigue, he sings about it, and has the added audacity to be both an artist and the accomplice of an escaped political prisoner. Enter Mario's love, Tosca, a singer who finds herself sucked into the gaping maw of the Napoleonic wars, and, despite Puccini's assertion that he wanted Tosca to be something other than "grand opera," you have all the elements of a classic tragedy set to some of Puccini's most heart-rending music. This very interesting outdoor production is colorful and unusual, and provides soprano Fiorenza Cedolins with the chance to tear into one of the great roles of the genre with both ferocity and tenderness.

It's fascinating right off the bat in this BD to see the huge Arena of Verona, an outdoor amphitheater that resembles the Coliseum, literally packed to the nosebleed seats with eager audience members, many of whom are lighting candles which make the tiered bleachers look like a glittering nearby starfield. Could you imagine an American venue this large attracting an audience like this for something this highbrow? Tosca plays out on a large stage, but also has various singers making their entrances from mid-arena, literally drawing the audience into the drama.

Tosca had a long and somewhat circuitous development history. Puccini had wanted to musicalize the straight play version by Sardou as soon as he had read it, but rights had already been granted to others (and it looked like Verdi might end up composing that version). In the intervening years, Puccini experienced one of his greatest successes with La Boheme. Shortly after, he saw the Divine Sarah Bernhardt in Sardou's "Tosca" and once again went after the rights, finding that the previous creative team hadn't been able to develop the property effectively. Puccini saw in Tosca a chance to step away from spectacle and grandiosity and concentrate on character, and in that regard his compositional thinking progressed remarkably. For the first time in his career, Puccini really started using motives to delineate characters and even objects. If his approach is nothing near Wagner's from around the same time, it nonetheless shows the composer reaching out to a new musical language that underpins and subtly informs (sometimes subconsciously, to be sure) the audience's experience of the drama.

Tosca is little more than a "common" tragic love story wrapped inside some political intrigue and none too subtle religiosity (a lot of the opera takes place in a church, and a subplot has to do with Mario's painting of Mary Magdalene). We have Mario, who is helping to hide dissident Angelotti. Tosca misunderstands Mario's secretiveness to indicate he's having an affair. Soon the police chief Scarpia shows up to ferret out Angelotti, playing Tosca and Mario against each other toward a foregone tragic conclusion.

What Tosca ultimately provides beyond its patently melodramatic foundation is one of the grandest female roles in the operatic repertoire, and Cedolins rises to the occasion with appropriate flourish. The Italian soprano won the coveted Pavarotti Vocal Competition and actually sang Tosca with the legendary tenor as part of her "winnings." Her Tosca is heartbreaking yet ultimately resilient, never sinking to levels of bathos which this role regularly invites from lesser talents who make the character something akin to a cheap lounge singer. As Mario, Marcelo Alvarez virtually defines spinto in the well modulated use of power and lyricism. A commanding physical presence helps to make his Cavaradossi unforgettable.

What is really remarkable about this version, aside from the superb singing, is the quite inventive large scale production under the directorship of Hugo de Ana. It may be ironic, given Puccini's aversion to "spectacle" for this piece, but this Tosca is huge, with giant sets, equally giant paintings and larger than life performances filling an enormous performance space.

It's even more interesting to to see the performance play out as dusk gives way to evening, seeming to echo the dark turmoil into which Tosca and Mario find themselves falling. And though the final few moments, which are not entirely clear due to some poor camera angle choices by television director Loreena Kaufmann, seem to hint at a resurrection beyond Tosca's sacrifice, the depth of Tosca's realization at how she's been duped plays out in an encroaching blackness that perfectly mirrors the dark night of her soul. It's a cathartic moment unique in the annals of opera, and this Tosca plays it for all it's worth.

The Blu-ray

Tosca's 1.78:1 AVC transfer is generally quite excellent, though there are a couple of anomalies that keep it from getting my highest rating. Early in the presentation, it looks like a camera got knocked for a moment, resulting in a weird (extremely brief) flash, perhaps from the stage lighting. A lot of this performance is in the dark, and while black levels and contrast are extremely strong, the stage lighting is so minimal that it's a little hard to see what's going on at times. Television director Kaufmann (and I hope you're all noticing how egalatarian I'm being in criticizing someone with more or less my same surname) frames some of the scenes in odd ways which is confusing. The BD itself though exhibits excellent detail and good color and saturation.

The DTS HD-MA 5.1 mix is amazingly robust, especially considering this was an outdoor concert. Orchestral playing is precise and crisply reproduced. Surround channels are sparingly utilized, but effectively so, especially in such famous moments as the ringing of the church bell. The PCM 2.0 mix is also excellent, if obviously more spatially compressed. Subtitles are available in English, German, French and Italian.

Unlike some other opera BDs I've reviewed recently, this one is pretty light in the extras department. There's a picture gallery, a trailer for "Giselle," and a BD-Live download of a scrollable list (!) other operatic product available from Arthaus-Musik.

Final Thoughts:
This Tosca may fly in the face of Puccini's avowed "quieter, gentler" aim for the piece, but in this case "grand" to describe this opera takes on all of its meanings. Occasional fumblings in the television staging don't detract too much from what is an extremely fascinating outdoor performance of one of the great classics of operatic literature. Highly recommended.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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