Tosca is one of the quintessential operas – perhaps the quintessential opera – for people who like the stage to be littered with bodies at the end of the evening. Tumultuous, sexy, frightening and just awful enough to be awesome, it is an opera that has polarized critics and opera lovers alike since its première. The “shabby little shocker”, as Joseph Kerman derided it, epitomizes the spirit of opera: go big or go home.

© Bettina Stöß
© Bettina Stöß

Boleslaw Barlog’s classic Tosca for the Deutsche Oper Berlin certainly lives up to the opera’s reputation of grandiose emotion. Running since 1969 (indeed, 17 May marked the production’s 366th performance), the classic production has hosted an entire pantheon of stars in the lead roles: the program included photographs of performers ranging from Domingo, Pavarotti, Neil Schicoff and Grace Bumbry to more current stars such as Jonas Kaufmann, Massimo Giordano and Anja Harteros. Daunting though it must be to (literally) step into the shoes of the great stars of yesteryear, the current cast put on an emotionally devastating performance: exactly what you want from Tosca.

The hero of the evening was tenor Stefano La Colla, replacing an indisposed Carlo Ventre. La Colla flew in from Pisa that afternoon to sing after the Deutsche Oper had, we were informed, “called every Cavaradossi tenor in Europe” looking for a replacement. The audience was asked to go easy on Signore La Colla, but there was no need: from the moment he walked onstage until the moment he was shot by the supers, La Colla lived, breathed and embodied Mario Cavaradossi. Brusque and focused, La Colla’s Cavaradossi seemed to have little patience with Tosca's jealousy. He sang with passion and enthusiasm, and hugged and kissed his lover, but seemed to be rather weary of her constant suspicion. Tellingly, when Tosca presented him with a paintbrush and insisted he paint the Magdalene’s eyes black, he took the brush and threw it over his shoulder. By the time he awaited his death, however, La Colla’s Cavaradossi had come to realize that he had thrown his life away for nothing, and mourned his lost love with a deep, simple grief. He knew he was going to die, even when Tosca appeared with her letter of safe conduct. All was forgiven between them, but he could not bring himself to say goodbye.

Anna Pirozzi’s Tosca was loving and kind, despite her chronic suspicions. During the torture scene in Act II, she screamed and sobbed, begging for her lover’s life, with extreme passion. It didn’t hurt that La Colla shrieked in a highly realistic manner. A few minutes later, she delivered her “Vissi d’arte” with breathtaking clarity and pain, as though numb with shock at what was happening to her. She killed her Scarpia with glorious rage; it was sublime.

In any Tosca, it is necessary to have a villain who can stand alongside the two lovers in terms of power and believability. Scarpia drips evil. There is not a decent bone in his body, and he revels in the fact. A singer must be able to bring this across despite the man’s elegance. Thomas J. Mayer rose admirably to the occasion, singing with a wonderful baritone and bringing across just how much Scarpia was turned on by the torture of Cavaradossi and the coercion of Tosca. His “Tre sbirri... Una carrozza” was particularly beautiful and vicious.

The cast was rounded out by a handful of excellent singers, including Noel Bouley as the panicked Angelotti, Ben Wager’s curiously merciful Jailer, Andrew Harris’ stoic Sciarrone, Jörg Schörner’s smarmy Spoletta, and Seth Carico’s wonderfully googly Sacristan. Ivan Repusic led the Deutsche Oper orchestra in a powerful performance, coaxing beauty and tragedy from all of the performers.

Something must be said about Boleslaw Barlog’s classic production. Ultra-traditional yet timeless, we are treated to Church, Palace and Prison, with sets and costumes that accent the music and tell the story as Puccini meant it to be. There is no attempt at Regietheater, which allows the singers and audience to focus on the core of the story. Interestingly, we never see the painting that Cavaradossi is working on that so inspires Tosca’s jealousy and Scarpia’s condemnation, nor is the torture scene as bloody as some directors make it. Indeed, the only real break from the libretto is that in this Tosca, it is not Cavaradossi’s head that is abused, but his hands: he emerges from the torture chamber bloody to the elbows, his fingers clearly broken. This makes for a heartbreaking moment in Act III, when he cannot hold a pencil to write his final message to Tosca, having to clench it between his clasped palms. A tragedy in a few simple movements.

The grateful audience, realizing they had witnessed a truly great performance from a tenor who had less than a day to prepare, gave Stefano La Colla a standing ovation, roaring their approval. He certainly deserved it, as did the rest of the cast. Though it has run for 45 years, the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Tosca is both timeless and a relic. It is worth seeing again and again. 

****1