OK, opera fans: anyone out there tired of being confronted with provocative modern interpretations of beloved operas? If so, this Tosca production is just what the doctor ordered.

Marcelo Álvarez and Angela Gheorghiu © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Marcelo Álvarez and Angela Gheorghiu
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Set, costume and direction all work together in this classic 1958 production to create the impression of Puccini’s turn-of-the-century masterpiece as it was originally intended. Margarethe Wallmann’s use of incense and parading bishops, altar boys and worshipers in the “Te Deum” which closes the first act is striking. No less so Nicola Benois’ lush stage design, depicting the interior of the Sant’Andrea della Valle chapel, Scarpia’s chambers in the Palazzo Farnese and the rooftop of the St Angelo castle in rich blue, gold and rose hues.

What really make Tosca effective, however, are the three lead singers and actors who must not only master their roles vocally but also encapsulate them physically and dramatically. Angela Gheorghiu, a diva in her own right, was convincing as Floria Tosca, the beautiful, jealous, naïve, passionate prima donna who will kill when driven to it. Her “Vissi d’arte”, contained a simple, song-like desperation far from the dramatic cry from the depths of the soul which some would prefer, but was effective and moving. Vocally she battled the orchestra unsuccessfully in the first act, but what could be heard throughout was beautifully sung and intensely acted. Tenor Marcelo Álvarez had the strongest showing vocally and cut through Puccini’s rich instrumentation effortlessly. His “Recondita armonia” was uncommonly beautiful and “E lucevan le stelle” moving and technically superb. Baritone Zeljko Lučić looked the part of Scarpia, though his voice lacked the demonic edge (and the heft) I would have liked to hear in the lower register. His performance was absolutely solid if not always overwhelmingly convincing for this particular role, though the “Te Deum” scene still gave me delicious chills. All three were crowned with lengthy, enthusiastic applause and were by any standards one of the strongest and most effective Tosca trios to grace this stage in a good long time.

The Staatsoper Orchestra, under the baton of renowned conductor Marco Armiliato, exhibited their characteristic fullness and beauty of sound coupled with exceptional energy and flexibility. Despite minor ensemble issues and the odd wrong entrance, they were an absolute joy to hear. There were, however, inexplicable and numerous balance issues throughout the first act, to the point that the second act opened with a voice from the loges proclaiming “Sie sind zu laut!” (“You are too loud!”) before the conductor could raise his baton. Whether Gheorghiu lacked the dramatic timbre required to cut through the textures or whether Armiliato was simply having an off-night was unclear, but the balcony complainer was right: only Álvarez had been heard during Act I with complete ease. In the following acts our heroes and villains fared better with some of Puccini’s layered off-stage/on-stage music and drama effects providing unexpected jewels, including Tosca’s off-stage singing against Cavaradossi and Scarpia’s interchanges in Act II.

In short, this Tosca with this cast is a beautifully sung, splendidly garbed production well worth seeing.

***11