Puccini’s Tosca is no stranger to the stages of Paris. With almost 300 performances of this opera to date at the Opéra National de Paris, Tosca has become, alongside Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro and Bizet’s Carmen, a staple of Paris’ opera houses.

Marco Berti and Martina Serafin © Julien Benhamou
Marco Berti and Martina Serafin
© Julien Benhamou

However, such popularity opens up challenges. With familiarity comes the problem of retaining freshness and novelty, how to hold the work back from crossing the line between popularity and predictability. With seasonal programmes increasingly focused on the popular operas of the past rather than more recent creations, the Opéra National de Paris has become very skilled in overcoming such challenges, and this season’s Tosca has a lot to offer beyond its well-known lyrical arias.

As described by Puccini’s biographer Mosco Carner, Tosca is a story of “sex, sadism, religion and art, a masterfully mixed dish served up on the platter of a major historical event”. Originally a French play by Victorien Sardou, Puccini was immediately inspired by the plot and sought to compose an operatic version, vastly reducing the lengthy original play as he did so. However, Puccini retained the essential ingredients: Mario Cavaradossi, a young aristocratic painter with a Republican loyalty, Tosca, a famous and religiously pious singer, as jealous as she is passionate, and Scarpia, a Roman chief of secret police hungry to satiate both his official duties and carnal desires.

Forming an intricate triangle of love, jealousy and deceit, Mario, Tosca and Scarpia provide a passionate tale, full of varying emotions and characters, each with their own motivations and impulses. These characters are without a doubt brought to life in this production, and it is here that this season’s Tosca will certainly make its mark. Brought into Werner Schroeter’s 1994 production, each of the singers convey their own unique interpretation of the role, ultimately bringing new life to a familiar opera.

Calin Bratescu as Mario Cavaradossi brought a powerful yet rounded voice to the stage. Such power compensated for a few lapses in control in the first act, though he appeared entirely unchained in the second, holding nothing back and displaying true defiance, fitting his role perfectly. The emotive aria “E lucevan le stelle” in Act III, as images of Tosca haunt his memory shortly before his execution, only helped bring the story’s climax even higher.

Furthermore, Sergey Murzaev did an excellent job of maintaining the dark and sinister atmosphere that his character Scarpia evokes, and from his first appearance after the opening comical passages with the Sacristan (a short but light-hearted appearance by Luciano di Pasquale), the opera is plunged by Scarpia into the more sordid themes of tyranny, lust, and fatal betrayal.

The opera revolves entirely around its namesake, Tosca, and the Viennese soprano Martina Serafin was a welcome discovery, making her Paris debut with this production. Having already performed Tosca in London, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Verona and Milan, it is after a long wait that Paris audiences were finally able to witness Serafin’s Tosca in person. Certainly not unfamiliar to the role, Serafin’s voice came second only to her stage presence, displaying both a well-rehearsed passion and the intensity necessary for such a dramatic role. The aria “Vissi d’arte” at end of Act II, in which Tosca questions her faith in God as she grapples with the choice of saving Mario by offering herself to Scarpia, truly evoked her torment at such a decision, and her intensity only furthered as the dramatic events unfold.

Each of the three leads effectively portrayed the necessary characteristics of their personae: the radiance and light of Tosca, the charm and emotion from Mario, and the brooding darkness and power from Scarpia.

Less convincing, however, was the environment surrounding the drama on stage. Though impressive in size and scale, the set design revealed little indication of 19th-century Rome, in which the story takes place, and the slightly confusing use of extras in the background of the entire second act (each stood at a window looking onto the stage) distracted from the foreground action, rather than contributing to it. However, the set for the final scene worked very well, designed in such a way as to maintain the action in the centre of the stage and therefore not spread the singers all across the stage. Tosca’s leap was dramatic to say the least, falling through the stage into the depths below as she proclaims her final curse to Scarpia.

Under the direction of Paolo Carignani, the Orchestre National de Paris provided excellent accompaniment, at no point overpowering the singers on stage. Though a few passages seemed to escape Carignani’s control during the first act, these were only scratches on an otherwise smooth performance. Ultimately favouring power over control, the performance seemed nonetheless to blow the audience away.

***11