Tosca, an opera by Giacomo Puccini based on the play La Tosca (1887) by Victorien Sardou. The story takes place in 1800 in Rome, in the Church Sant’Andrea della Valle (1st act), the Palazzo Farnese (2nd act) and the Castel Sant’Angelo (3rd act). First performance in Rome on 14 January 1900, in the Teatro Costanzi. Attended performance: Enschede. The Dutch Reisopera, 16 October 2018.
Mario Cavaradossi: Noah Stewart
Scarpia: Phillip Rhodes
Cesare Angelotti: Roman Ialcic
Sacristarius: Oleksandr Pushniak
Spoletta: Michael J. Scott
Muzikale leiding: David Parry
Orkest: Orkest van het Oosten
Koor: Consensus Vocalis
Regie: Harry Fehr
In his book De Overblijfvader (school help father), Henk Rijks describes a bus stop that is totally fake, outside a care home. No bus ever stops there, the bus stop is meant to fob off the senior citizens, who would like to visit their old neighbourhood once more. The care home staff sends them out to wait at the useless bus stop, saying that at any time ‘the bus to your old neighbourhood will come along’. The old folks stand for hours waiting for the bus that never comes. The opera lover is not infrequently led up the garden path in a similar way. They buy a ticket for their favourite opera, but once optimistically ensconced in the theatre, it turns out they are waiting for Godot: their opera isn’t coming. They can listen to the music, but visually they are dished up a lumpy pile of concepts and technological tomfoolery.
The Dutch Reisopera (Travelling Opera) is bang up to date. The website is full of bombastic phrases, probably stemming from the illusory need for a ‘mission’. “The power of the voice is central!”, “Opera with the ‘o’ for openness!” and “Our operas bring people together and move them!”
In an excruciating wave of populist marketing, the Reisopera posters promote Tosca as “a thriller by Puccini”. Director Harry Fehr also believes: “This is a thriller of the best kind.” But it’s not a thriller. The libretto, by Illica and Giacosa, is based on a historical theater play by Victorien Sardou, regarded as one of the greatest French theatre writers of his time, together with Emile Augier and Alexandre Dumas. Sardou was also one of the most innovative because he incorporated historical elements into his plays. For example, his play Tosca, revolved around the time of the French empire, political intrigue and, most certainly, romance. Not A Touch of Frost, not a whodunnit.
Both the play and the libretto are set in Rome, around 1800. So, is it important to respect that aspect of the libretto, the setting? After all, Puccini is all about the ladies, right? Respecting the libretto, and not adapting it to your own invention and technologically-manipulated interpretation is an essential part of respecting the composer. One example: Puccini specifically wanted to set Tosca in Rome, at certain locations and nowhere else, despite the threats from the political climate at that time – there was even a bomb threat. He consulted a Roman priest to help him achieve the correct and very specific Roman Gregorian melody for the ‘Te Deum’ in the first act, because these melodies varied from one region to another. He also consulted a specialist in church bells, to find out exactly which bells were used, and their pitch. The Shepherd boy in the third act was also given an authentic folkloric song.
So the setting for Tosca was emphatically Rome, and its première took place in that city. Now, Enschede is not Rome, something that cannot be helped by the people in the Eastern Netherlands, but at the Dutch Reisopera, the audience spends the entire evening stuck with a chief of police, Scarpia (Sergeant Angelotti with a radio play voice: “Righty ho, Commissioner!”) at a police headquarters. You know the kind, one of those average police stations where an artist can often be seen painting, where the occasional mass is said and where sopranos lay flowers at a fire extinguisher instead of at a statue of Mary.
Sciarpa and Scarpia
For Baron Scarpia, regent of the Pontifical Police, Sardou took his inspiration from the historical figure of Gherardo Gurci, a fanatical counter-revolutionary nicknamed Sciarpa (The Scarf) whom Ferdinand IV gave the title of Baron for his services in the fight against the rebels. So not really Inspector Frost or any other jobsworth. Fehr is the umpteenth director who doesn’t understand that an opera, an episodic art form, does not have to adapt to present-day, but that we have to adapt to the period of the opera. Fehr’s set, that police station, equipped with modern magic lanterns cobbled together for the production – a failed and very quickly irritating video experiment in which film images were supposed to run concurrently with those on stage, but failed miserably to do so; a Ben Turpin silent movie is a miracle of cinematographic progress compared to this. All this inevitably led to the necessary and absolutely risible discrepancies, such as a prop from 1800, the fan, being put in a plastic bag to be sent to be checked for fingerprints.
And did you ever hear Inspector Frost declaring “Divine Tosca, my hand awaits your delicate hand, not out of idle gallantry, but to offer Holy Water”? Ever heard anyone walk into a police station and declare “In my fear, I saw police everywhere”?
Unfortunately, this is yet another director’s flop from the Dutch Reisopera. The list of idiocies and flagrant violations of the basic principles of logic in Fehr’s direction is so long, that it could be reworked into a new Fra Diavola parody. It would appear that the Reisopera has ambitions of joining the big names in theatre direction. The direction of Der fliegende Holländer was the start of a slippery slope, and this production of Tosca slid substantially further down this unholy way, which is strange, since the Reisopera in particular could quite easily nestle into the libretto-faithful niche that has existed in the Netherlands for a long time (and not only in the Netherlands). A missed opportunity, a lack of vision that cannot be wiped out by cheap and meaningless marketing slogans.
We were deprived of the musical sensation of what Puccini intended to be the opening of this opera, the brilliant, overwhelming tones of Bb-Ab-E. Instead, we were given a weak, mumbling introduction that was supposed to provide the cement for the dilapidated direction. The end of the opera, too, was contrived and kitsch. It’s clearly written in the libretto that Tosca throws herself in God’s name from the sky-high Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome (“O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!”), but in Fehr’s version, jumping to your death from the ground floor of the police station is problematic. And yet, they managed to find a two-metre-high wall, so that Tosca in the most favourable dramaturgical scenario would sprain her ankle rather than becoming one with the Roman asphalt. In short, a hopeless, contrived, disrespectful direction, a compulsive lip service paid to the dreadful sect of the self-appointed Generation Y and a haughty slap in the face of opera and Puccini lovers.
Luckily (copy and paste!), there were musical moments to enjoy. The Norwegian soprano Kari Postma (Tosca) who performs mainly in Scandinavia, seems to have a naturally strong sound with a Kruppstahl timbre, allowing her to be heard effortlessly above the orchestra, but turned out to be wonderful in more lyrical passages too. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’ was sung this time, unfortunately not flawlessly, seated at the back of the police station. Postma’s stage presence is strong, but little of the raging attraction between Tosca and Cavaradossi could be noted; the direction of the characters also left something to be desired at times. Their amorously-intended floundering was more reminiscent of a first date in a Little Chef restaurant; he the head of warehousing at ‘The Wheel’ bike factory and she the owner of handicrafts wool shop ‘Wolhalla’ somewhere in the backwoods.
The Orchestra: star of the evening
Noah Stewart, also well-known for his Don José, was well-cast in the role of Cavaradossi. Despite the tacky outfit he was made to wear, physically speaking, he is an ideal Cavaradossi. Sadly, his voice is somewhat one-dimensional, with everything being sung at the same volume, meaning that a little tenderness was missing in, for example, ‘O dolci mani’. In general, Stewart’s high notes sounded a bit forced and his ‘Victoria’ did not go well. But his ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was excellent, despite the incomprehensible acting that accompanied it. And there was no final sob at the end of ‘la vita’, but Generation Y would have been horrified if there had been. Given the circumstances, Phillip Rhodes did a very good job of Baron Scarpia, every inch a villain. Rhodes has a beautiful, dark voice with which he painted a perfect picture of the evil swindler with the character of a rotten medlar. His ‘Va, Tosca’ was lugubriously ominous. The sidekick on duty, Spoletta, was played by Michael J. Scott, and he did a good job. It might be said of both Rhodes and Scott that they are bit young for these roles. However, their excellent vocal performances meant that we did not experience this as an insurmountable objection. Lastly, the presence must be mentioned of an enigmatic female figure, of the concentration camp guard type, who apparently was the head of Torture and Executions in Rome. She didn’t sing but she was excess to requirements. And in one of the most poetical scenes in Tosca, the Shepherd boy was transformed into a cleaning lady who, having determined that Scarpia was dead, first quickly emptied a waste-paper bin.
The Orkest van het Oosten, the stars of the evening, conducted by David Parry, developed a sound that was almost too perfect, and got the most out of all aspects of Puccini’s score. The solo passages were a treat and the accompaniment of the soloists could teach the big name orchestras a thing or two. No, the singers or the orchestra were not to blame…
The Reisopera’s Tosca is well cast (by Joseph Fuchs) but sadly directed in an amateurish, laughable way that can best be described in the confusing words of the director himself: “It feels like present-day society, but maybe it’s also taking place in the future.”
Right, yes, maybe it is, but whatever the case, it’s arrividerci, Roma!
Olivier Keegel (Published on 18 October 2018. Translation by Annelies Gallagher.)