Floria Tosca is an opera singer, a diva, but in Victorien Sardou’s play – and in Puccini’s opera – we mainly see her as a woman in love, tormented by jealousy, whose life is shattered by a powerful, unprincipled man who does not hesitate to sentence her lover to death and blackmail her into submitting to his desires in her desperate attempt to save him. Director Robert Carsen, in his 1990 production, focuses almost entirely on “the diva”. The setting is in a theatre: in the first act Cavaradossi is painting the scenery, and the Te Deum is sung by the audience in the orchestra stalls. The second act is backstage, while Tosca sings on a stage the other side of the backdrop, and the third act takes place on stage, as seen from the back.

Sonya Yoncheva (Tosca)
© Monika Rittershaus

Placing the action of this opera in another place and time (the 1950s, judging by the costumes) is always difficult, as the libretto is painfully specific on both counts. This leads to many inconsistencies, the biggest one being that Tosca at the end runs to the front of the “stage” (which is the back of our real stage) and jumps to her death into... the orchestra pit? One very successful idea was at the end of Act 1, when, after the Te Deum, the curtain opens to show ecclesiastics in full golden regalia, incense smoke, a huge golden Blessed Sacrament: the Church as theatre, as a performance.

Thomas Johannes Mayer (Scarpia) and Zurich Opera Chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

The main consequence of Carsen’s view is on the personality of the protagonist. Tosca is always fully aware of her stardom, always striking a pose. In Act 1 she arrives in a fur coat and sunglasses, and sounds piqued and irritated, more than jealous. When, at the end of the act, she is supposedly desperate, having found proof of Cavaradossi’s cheating on her (“Ei vede ch’io piango”, one of the most emotional musical moments), she leaves the “church” while signing autographs for fans. The second act is where this take shows its most striking limits: the music is pure emotion, Scarpia’s (and Puccini’s) sadism are disturbing and heart-wrenching, there is torture and sexual assault, and she remains somehow nonplussed, always in a pose, she even improvises a striptease for Scarpia after consenting to the ignominious trade. Sonya Yoncheva subscribes to this view of the character: she can really play the diva. Her musical interpretation was luckily more traditional. She cranked up the emotional level and gave us a sincere, convincing, desperate Tosca, which at times clashed with the action. Her bright soprano was strong, powerful, and very easy on the high notes, her “do della lama” was spectacular. In the third act Carsen (or Yoncheva?) dismissed the diva aloofness and melted down in complete abandon: it was the most successful part.

Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi)
© Monika Rittershaus

Cavaradossi, her lover, was Joseph Calleja, whose character had a much more traditional take, which sometimes didn’t “fit” with Tosca’s snobbishness. He showed a natural, Italianate sound, immediate and enthusiastic, if not overly sophisticated. The voice had a slight tendency to be placed in the nose for the high notes, which were in any case very successful. He produced some very good pianissimi. Both him and Yoncheva seemed to struggle, at times, with breath control.

Sonya Yoncheva (Tosca) and Thomas Johannes Mayer (Scarpia)
© Monika Rittershaus

Scarpia was Thomas Johannes Mayer, who had a somewhat timid start but proceeded to a much more successful second act. Indeed, his “Sì, mi dicon venal” was one of the highlights of the evening. He showed very good technique, limited his screaming to an appropriate amount (a modicum of screaming is unavoidable in Tosca’s second act, by all singers) and managed to convey the villain’s demonic nature. His timbre was a bit cloudy at times, but overall, his performance was elegant and very enjoyable.

Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi) and firing squad
© Monika Rittershaus

Paolo Carignani, in the pit, led the Philarmonia Zürich in a very traditional reading of the score, which should not be interpreted as a negative comment. Tosca is one of the operas that most benefits from “the tradition”. It is an unrefined, ghoulish story, where the libretto, and every note in Puccini's score, says everything there is to say. There are no subtle meanings, no “messages that reverberate as true in today’s world”. It’s pure theatre, trying to elicit strong, unrefined emotions. Carignani and the orchestra understood this, and played it as it is, as the composer wrote it. Wonderfully raw. It was great fun.