Mélo mélodique, Altamusica, 10 November 2001
Transposing the Power of 'Tosca' to the Big Screen, New York Times, 14 July 2002
A 'Tosca' That Wants You to Know It's a Movie, New York Times, 14 July 2002


Mélo mélodique
Michel Parouty, Altamusica, 10 November 2001

Le film-opéra, à la mode dans les années 1980, reviendrait-il en force,
sous le regard de celui qui en a fait son cheval de bataille, Daniel
Toscan du Plantier ? Dans la série des Puccini, après Bohème avec
Barbara Hendricks et Butterly de Frédéric Mitterand, voici Tosca qui
part affronter les "Blockbusters" dans les salle obscures. Pourquoi pas?

Ici, le réalisateur Benoît Jacquot a parié sur deux dimensions
temporelles, l'enregistrement de studio, dont on voit des séquences en
noir et blanc, et l'opéra proprement dit, en couleurs- les rouges sont
flamboyants ! Avec, pour évoquer quelques lieux privilégiés, des
flashes, comme autant d'images mentales et de souvenirs.

Mais cette Tosca, qui, on l'a dit, ne fera pas honte aux cinéphiles,
ravira-t-elle les mélomanes ? Les admirateurs de Roberto Alagna seront à
la fête. Lui qui prétend régulièrement que les chanteurs ne sont que des
semblants d'acteurs ne perd rien, à l'écran, de la spontanéité, du
charme qui, à la scène, établissent avec le spectateur un contact
immédiat. Et comme sa voix est plus rayonnante que jamais, on imagine
son Mario ! Franc comme l'or, ardent, audacieux, éperdu d'amour.

Angela Gheorghiu n'a aucun mal à incarner les divas. Pourtant,
contrairement à son ténor de mari, elle compose, bat des cils, joue de
la prunelle, souvent plus star que femme. Mais, décidément, Puccini lui
convient, et, après ses déchirantes Mimi, elle prouve que sa Tosca a du
panache. Elle le chante avec passion, féline enjôleuse et rageuse, qui
sait quand dompter son tempérament.

Ruggero Raimondi est, du trio, le seul à avoir déjà tâté du cinéma, y
compris, en tant que comédien, avec Alain Resnais. C'est pourtant lui le
moins crédible, son Scarpia qui roule des yeux, fait des mines, et, d'
une voix qui n'a plus guère de corps, transforme toute ligne mélodique
qui ne lui a rien fait en Sprechgesang (parlé-chanté). On savait que le
rôle ne lui convenait pas ; on ne le croyait pas capable d'une telle

Il ne manquera pas d'arguments publicitaires pour rapprocher la bande
sonore de l'enregistrement légendaire dirigé par Victor de Sabata, "
starring " Maria Callas et Tito Gobbi. Mais Antonio Pappano n'est pas de
Sabata, pas même son ombre. Sans la moindre distinction, il cherche tous
les effets, et n'en manque aucun. Puccini n'y gagne rien.

Le film plaira malgré tout, car il est facile de se laisser charmer par
les Toscajoleries vocales de ce mélo mélodique.

Transposing the Power of 'Tosca' to the Big Screen
A. O. Scott, New York Times, 14 July 2002

The great Italian operas of the 19th century were the Hollywood movies of
their time: grand popular spectacles brimming with sex, violence and outsize
emotion, and dedicated to the passionate marriage of sight and sound.
Perhaps because of their close genetic relationship, the two art forms have
rarely mixed well. The bold theatrical gestures and distended, improbable
plots of opera often look disproportionate - either shrunken or grotesque -
when captured on camera. With notable exceptions, like Ingmar Bergman's 1975 adaptation of "The Magic Flute" (which in any case is neither 19th century
nor, strictly speaking, Italian), filmmakers have trouble negotiating the
distance between the singers and the audience. At opera performances, we
view the action from a fixed distance (usually determined by how much we can
pay for a ticket) and are drawn into the action by means of a series of
aural and visual illusions: the perspectives of the set, the volume of the
orchestra, the modulation of the singers' voices.

But the movie camera, in displacing these illusions by changing angles and
distances, often compromises their power. What is perhaps most exciting
about Benoît Jacquot's new film version of Puccini's "Tosca," which opens in
New York today and in other cities over the next few months, is that, for
the most part, it works beautifully as a movie without sacrificing the
integrity of the opera. Mr. Jacquot occasionally interrupts the vivid,
full-colored sensuality of the production he is filming to take us behind
the scenes in a series of black-and-white documentary clips that show the
singers and musicians, in street clothes and headphones, in a drab recording
studio. While Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal
Opera House, Covent Garden, conducts with much theatrical flair, these
sequences seemed to me a failure of nerve on the director's part, an
unnecessary reminder of the artifice that surrounded them.

That artifice, I hasten to add, is pretty much flawless. In electing to film
Puccini's tale of love, betrayal and political intrigue like the intimate
melodrama it is, Mr. Jacquot has put an extra burden on his cast, the
principal members of which are Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Ruggero

Opera critics tend to rate performers both as singers and as actors. Musical
excellence is paramount, of course, but the ability to hold the stage and
inhabit the character is important as well. The movie screen, however, is
ruled by the face, and it cannot be easy to pull off a close-up while
singing at the top of your lungs a few inches from your co-star's face.
(Perhaps in response to this difficulty, much of the singing here has been
overdubbed, which is often noticeable but rarely bothersome.) In the title
role, Ms. Gheorghiu, a Romanian-born soprano whose voice has both the
necessary fire and a disarming softness, is also an electrifying screen
presence. Her dark eyes unflinchingly return the camera's gaze, and her
expressions seem as natural and as preternaturally elegant as her posture,
even in full voice.

Mr. Alagna, who is married to Ms. Gheorghiu and plays Tosca's lover, the
radical artist Mario Cavaradossi, cannot quite match her on-screen charisma,
though his singing is rich and forceful. But Mario, loyal and ardent, is a
less shaded, less intense character than either the mercurial Tosca or the
villain, Baron Scarpia (Mr. Raimondi). Scarpia, who lusts after Tosca,
conspires first to make her doubt Mario's fidelity and then, once the
artist's political activities have been discovered, to barter Tosca's virtue
for Mario's life. Mr. Raimondi, flashing his lower teeth and inclining his
domed head, regards Ms. Gheorghiu like Hannibal Lecter facing down Clarice
Starling. She is both his rival and his prey, and the combination excites in
him a terrifying lust that she more than matches, stabbing him to death with
a steak knife at what he thinks is her moment of surrender.

This being Italian opera, Scarpia's death is not the last; Tosca's is. She
hurls herself from a balcony after Mario's execution. The movie descends to
earth more gently, with a black-and-white close-up of Ms. Gheorghiu, who
utters a hiccuppy little sigh that echoes comically off her still resonant
final cries and reminds us that we are back in the real world. At the end of
"Tosca," I half wished I had a bouquet of roses to toss in Ms. Gheorghiu's
direction, but it would only have bounced off the screen and fallen onto the
carpeted floor of the movie house.

A 'Tosca' That Wants You to Know It's a Movie
Alan Riding, New York Times, 14 July 2002

PARIS - OPERA movies represent a valiant attempt to translate an elitist art
into popular entertainment. Or do they? The chosen operas are usually the
most popular ones anyway, like "Carmen," "La Bohème," "La Traviata," "Don
Giovanni," "Madama Butterfly." Yet even these crowd-pleasers struggle to
make the leap to the screen. Transported to the "real" world of bullrings,
attics and castles, all too often they become even more unreal.

Benoît Jacquot had one advantage when the French producer Daniel Toscan du
Plantier invited him to make a movie version of Puccini's "Tosca." Mr.
Jacquot was not an opera buff. Previous opera movies had not much impressed
him. He knew "Tosca" from its best tunes but had never seen it on stage.
Still, he accepted Mr. Toscan du Plantier's invitation, but with one
understanding: that he could turn "Tosca" into a movie, not a filmed opera.

Mr. Jacquot's first decision was to avoid recreating the world of "Tosca" in
the manner of, say, the 1992 television version with Plácido Domingo, which
was done in the setting and period of the opera's action - Rome, in 1800.
Rather, taking a stylized approach, he has separated music, plot and
locations to create a dreamlike atmosphere that could work only on the
screen. Indeed, this "Tosca," which opened on Friday in New York, goes out
of its way to announce it is a movie.

The cast is top-rank operatic: the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu as
Tosca; her husband, the French tenor Roberto Alagna, as Tosca's lover,
Cavaradossi; and the Italian bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi as the
deliciously evil Baron Scarpia. They are accompanied by the Orchestra and
Chorus of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Covent Garden's new music
director, Antonio Pappano.

But even with the music, Mr. Jacquot conceived of something daring: he
wanted the voices to be live. The entire opera was first recorded in a
London studio, with Mr. Jacquot's team also recording the session on video.
An orchestral version was then recorded with the idea that it would
accompany the singers in their live performance during filming. Then, three
weeks before production began, the plan for live singing was torpedoed by
budget problems, notably the cost of sound-proofing a large movie studio in
order to capture the quality of the voices.

"I was furious," Mr. Jacquot recalled in an interview near the old Paris
opera house at the Palais Garnier. "I felt ambushed. But, as is often the
case, I think it is better now. I invented some tricks to compensate for the
loss of direct sound, and the singers went along with me. I even like it
when the lip-synching is not quite right. It's a reminder that it is a

It hardly seems necessary. The film cuts between the black-and-white video
of the sound recording session, impressionistic location shots in Rome and
the opera's melodramatic story, filmed in a large studio in Cologne,
Germany. There is no pretense that the "Tosca" we are seeing is real: it
might even be renamed "The Story of Tosca." Yet the libretto by Giuseppe
Giacosa and Luigi Illica as well as Puccini's score are faithfully

"What I like about Benoît Jacquot's work is its certain chilliness," said
Mr. Toscan du Plantier, who has produced six other opera movies, including
Joseph Losey's "Don Giovanni" (1979) and Francesco Rosi's "Carmen" (1984).
"Opera is so hot that cinema must cool it before it can be consumed. `Tosca'
is so extreme that it cannot be inflated. It should be scanned, it should be
cut up, almost like vivisection."

The opera's plot is unremittingly dramatic: Tosca's artist lover,
Cavaradossi, is arrested by Scarpia for helping an escaped prisoner;
Scarpia, eager to seduce Tosca, is persuaded by her to allow Cavaradossi to
escape after he undergoes a mock execution; Tosca then murders Scarpia and
rushes to her lover's side, assuring him that the firing squad will use only
blank bullets; when Cavaradossi is in fact executed, Tosca leaps to her

Mr. Jacquot, using images shot in Rome with a handheld camera, merely
suggests the opera's locations: the church of Sant'Andrea Della Valle for
Act I, the Palazzo Farnese for Act II, and the Castel Sant'Angelo for Act

"I wanted it to be like when you hear music and you close your eyes and
images pop into your head, evocations, not illustrations," he explained.
"Above all, I tried to avoid illustration. Most filmed operas are
illustrations, good or bad, but illustrations. That didn't interest me at

For the main story shot in the Cologne studio, Mr. Jacquot again chose
abstraction. For Act I, an ornate marble floor, some pillars and an iron
gate suggest the vast nave of Sant'Andrea Della Valle. A large fireplace and
a table set for dinner create the mood for Act II, while an execution wall
and a broad terrace suffice to accommodate the action of Act III. And beyond
pockets of light, there is darkness.

"I think of the decor simply as quotations," Mr. Jacquot said. "But
everything is surrounded by total blackness, real quotations in a mental
night. Very strange really. It is not at all naturalistic. It's an
interpretation of what Puccini called `verismo.' "

In his direction of the singers, Mr. Jacquot also takes some movie
liberties. In some duets between Ms. Gheorghiu and Mr. Alagna, one or the
other singer falls silent, but their voices can still be heard in the
recorded music, as if the aria were continuing in their heads. In one moment
of passion, Mr. Alagna even talks over the music; it was one of the few
times Mr. Jacquot recorded live in the studio.

For the singers, of course, lip-synching posed a special challenge.

"We're used to singing differently each evening," Mr. Alagna explained in an
interview in his dressing room at the Bastille Opera, where he was
rehearsing for the role of Don José in "Carmen." "Here you have to follow
your own voice, trying to sing in the same second, to breathe in the same
place. It's strange. It's like being both a participant and a spectator."

While opera singers usually perform before an audience some distance away,
here they were frequently filmed in close-up. But their acting stood up to
the test. As it happens, Mr. Raimondi is an old hand at Scarpia (a role that
he also sang in the 1992 television version), while Mr. Alagna has performed
"Tosca" on stage once before. The role of Tosca, though, was new to Ms.
Gheorghiu. She, however, was the inspiration for making the film.

"I saw Angela in `La Traviata,' " Mr. Toscan du Plantier recalled by
telephone, "and I thought, `She's not Violetta, she's Tosca.' She has the
temperament of a diva. I was stirred by memories of Callas. She's

Mr. Alagna is delighted that this "Tosca" is indeed different.

"You don't go to the cinema expecting the same feelings as at the opera," he
said. "It's impossible. It's like listening to a piano concert and hearing
the same music on a CD, or attending a soccer match and watching it on
television. You can't say which is better. They are different experiences."

And, as it happens, he has a soft spot for opera on the screen.

"I entered opera thanks to the cinema," he said. "I remember I was 10 when I
saw `The Great Caruso' with Mario Lanza and that gave me the idea of
becoming a singer. If one day a few years hence I meet a young tenor who
says, `I'm doing this because I saw "Tosca," ' I'll be the happiest man in
the world."


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