Margarethe Wallmann’s staging of Tosca is on its 584th performance, and it is precisely what you would expect from a 59-year-old production. Tosca is radiant in empire-waisted gowns and a dazzling variety of velvet, fur, silk cloaks and coats. All three sets (designed, like the costumes, by Nicola Benois) are imposingly grand, using forced perspective to make the church and Palazzo Farnese seem even deeper than the Vienna State Opera’s large stage. The Te Deum procession includes a colorful crowd bearing ornate props, even though it takes place in a back corner of the stage. An angel wielding a giant sword towers over the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo in the final act.

Angela Gheorghiu (Tosca) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Angela Gheorghiu (Tosca)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Parts of the staging have aged well; others have not. Much of the stage business, including entrances and exits but also the unfurling of banners, the placing of candles, and the signing of crosses, is well timed to match the music. The elaborate sets with steps, platforms, and windows give the singers space to play with. Unfortunately, they don’t take advantage of it. The program includes no credited revival director, and this lack of attention to dramatic detail shows. Scenes are static, with blocking awkwardly drawn out to fill the time created by the music. Some bits of direction are simply clumsy: Tosca whispers to Mario from halfway across the stage, and the guards clearly have ample time to stop her before her suicide jump. A sense of purpose and urgency is missing; instead, the action feels self-consciously theatrical.

As Floria Tosca, Angela Gheorghiu worsens the production’s problems. She is the diva par excellence as usual, but that’s not always a good thing. Her vocal tone has a shimmering spin to it and encompasses a wide dynamic range. Her acting, however, leaves much to be desired. She emotes, with plenty of heaving and sighing, trembling clasped hands, and overly musical screams. Her dramatic choices are both unoriginal and scant, so each thought and feeling is held for too long. The result is unintentionally amusing – a parody of operatic melodrama.

Jorge de León’s Mario Cavaradossi vocally matches Gheorghiu’s Tosca. León has a wonderfully smooth legato, but at first his tone was covered. By the third act, he opened up. His sound soared gloriously during “E lucevan le stelle” and was rich but restrained enough to blend well in his unaccompanied duet with Tosca. León’s onstage demeanor was more natural than Gheorghiu’s, though he, too, screamed in a laughably melodic way.

Michael Volle (Scarpia) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Michael Volle (Scarpia)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
The best actor of the central trio is Michael Volle as Scarpia. The role offers little room for character development, but even as the stock villain, Volle is delightful to watch. His Scarpia is always scheming, and it’s easy to see each of his thoughts on his face. His baritone voice was not always easy to hear over the orchestra, but when it was, it featured a weighty, authoritative sound with an expressive variety of colors.

In smaller roles, the Paolo Rumetz deserves applause for his comically exaggerated gestures as the Sacristan, although his singing was entirely inaudible. Bernhard Sengtschmid opened the final act gorgeously with a simultaneously strong and ethereal shepherd’s song. Clemens Unterreiner’s Cesare Angelotti seemed constantly overwrought, but he delivered his part in a solid bass. 

Patrick Lange proved an energetic conductor, keeping the music and action moving at a solid tempo. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra created a full, richly textured sound, with the reeds and strings especially bright during the echoes of the Act III prelude. The only glaring musical problem was the orchestra’s overpowering the lower-voiced singers, but that was probably partly because of my seat (in a side box immediately above the orchestra).

Overall, this Tosca fits the Vienna State Opera’s reputation for traditional productions, in both the best and worst senses of the term. The musical quality was high, and the sets and costumes were grand. But slow-moving blocking and bad acting deprived Tosca’s story of its emotional punch.

***11