Tosca, Royal Opera House, September 2000

Superstars just want to show off, The Sunday Telegraph, 17 September 2000
Let's all do the Tosca time warp again, The Independent on Sunday, 17 September 2000
Haunted by the ghost of Maria, The Independent, 14 September 2000
Tosca, The Evening Standard, 13 September 2000

Superstars just want to show off
Michael Kennedy, The Sunday Telegraph, 17 September 2000

The Royal Opera's new season opened at Covent Garden on Tuesday with its venerable production of Tosca, a work once so inaccurately brushed aside by the American critic Joseph Kerman as a "shabby little shocker".

It is certainly not little; compared with Salome it is not shocking; and to call it shabby implies an adverse view of Puccini's craftsmanship that cannot seriously be sustained. Whether you like his music or not, it is a high-quality product, anything but shabby.

Covent Garden's production was new in 1974 when it was the work of Franco Zeffirelli. Since 1991 it has been credited to John Cox, and this latest revival is directed by Jeremy Sutcliffe.

It was created for Maria Callas, with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, and since that hallowed time a succession of illustrious sopranos and baritones has sung these roles, with the principal tenor role of Cavaradossi having been sung by Pavarotti and Domingo among others.

The sets by Renzo Mongiardino now look like a permanent fixture. They are still as imposing as most you can imagine, and I rather dread what might one day replace them. The work suits this theatre better than La Boheme. (I long to hear the more intimate Madama Butterfly at Glyndebourne, although I'm sure the very idea would never be entertained there.)

During the run until October 18, London will hear three Cavaradossis, two Toscas, two Scarpias and two conductors. Team A on Tuesday had Roberto Alagna making his role debut as Cavaradossi.

Why does a nice light lyric tenor who excels in the music of Gounod and Massenet want to take on this much heavier role? The challenge, I suppose. But I hope the audience's undiscriminating applause will not encourage Alagna to think of himself as a future Otello or Radames. Straightaway in Recondita armonia, the tell-tale shake betrayed vocal strain.

Yet one cannot gainsay that it was a gallant effort and he looked the young romantic artist to a T. In the Act 3 duet O dolce mani, his most dulcet tones were entrancingly in evidence. In E lucevan le stelle and elsewhere, he was shamelessly indulged by the conductor, Carlo Rizzi, in drawing out phrases and holding on to high notes in a good old-fashioned way (his Vittoria in Act 2 seemed to last as long as the Battle of Marengo it celebrates!).

We have all become so musicologically sanitised that, in mildly deploring (although perhaps secretly enjoying) this tenorial malpractice and showing-off, one runs the risk of feeling like a Gordon Brown of music criticism, all puritanical prudence and no dinner jacket, or like those squeamish souls who shy away from the vulgar exuberance of the Last Night of the Proms. The public is determined that Alagna is a superstar and on the visual evidence of this performance he believes them.

Tosca was sung by Catherine Malfitano, an artist to her fingertips who invariably gives her all. Not that her all is quite as much as it was a few years ago. A certain frailty in the top of the voice showed in those dangerously high held notes towards the end of a Vissi d'arte that had otherwise been sung as the prayer it really is rather than as a showpiece. The religious faith which is an essential feature of Tosca's character - even if only superstitious - was well brought out by Malfitano, especially in her coquettish asides about the Madonna in Act 1.

Yet Tosca is also a great diva and one sensed this most strongly in Act 3, when her instructions to Cavaradossi on how to feign death after the firing squad were vividly characterised by Malfitano, whose anguish when she realises that they have been tricked and that Cavaradossi is dead was as convincing as I have ever heard.

Incidentally, no other Cavaradossi in this production has ever managed to approach the way Domingo conveyed an awareness of his doom, and that the safe conduct and fake execution were delusions.

Anthony Michaels-Moore's burnished baritone, although not quite strong enough to ride the big Act 1 climaxes during the Te Deum (unless Rizzi tames the orchestra at future performances), is well suited to Scarpia's seductive advances towards Tosca, but he is not sinister and villainous enough, rather a silky smoothie. I found it hard to believe that all Rome had trembled before this tyrant.

The smaller roles were routinely sung, Henry Waddington as the Sacristan, Roderick Earle as Angelotti and Robin Leggate as Spoletta. Under Rizzi, the orchestra played lustily but without that refinement of tone that is so essential a part of first-class Puccini interpretation. It was a reasonable start to the season, but not the fizzer the occasion warranted. ENO this week promises more excitement.

Let's all do the Tosca time warp again
Anna Picard, The Independent on Sunday, 17 September 2000

Opening nights generally have an atmosphere of barely subdued hysteria; it's the guilty anticipation of outrage at whatever crazy scheme some young turk of a director may have come up with. Deconstruction, reconstruction, blood, faeces, corpses, modern clothing, lack of clothing? Seen it all before. It's hard to shock an audience these days, but still there is that seductive thought that maybe this time it will happen.

Well there was no chance of that at the opening of Franco Zeffirelli's "classic" 1964 production of Tosca, because everyone knew exactly what they would be getting; big sets, big names, and no tricky stage-stuff (like, say, acting) to interfere with the all-important business of belting out the big numbers. With Roberto Alagna trussed up in tight pants and a frilly shirt and spinning his golden sound over Puccini's money-shot tenor arias, interpretive neologisms were as unlikely a prospect as Tosca using her murder weapon to slice off a piece of prosciutto for Scarpia before breaking into a chorus of "I'm just a girl who can't say no."

Lest this seems like it's about to turn into a Covent Garden-bashing session, I should say straight up that I hugely enjoyed Tosca. The singing was wonderful, the cast well balanced in voice (if not in age), the chorus magnificent, the orchestra - under Carlo Rizzi's good mood-inducing tempi and up-front dynamics - highly accomplished. But I can honestly say I have never seen a production that so completely illustrates the whole notion of suspension of disbelief. And at a far from subliminal level, you were aware that the three leads were quite literally walking in the steps of Callas and Gobbi (1964), Carreras (1979), and Pavarotti (1992) - whose performance as Cavaradossi, I am told, involved rather more sitting down than that of Alagna. Our hero, heroine and anti-hero were on a crowded stage, and not just in the crowd scenes.

It's a good job that Catherine Malfitano, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Alagna were as strong as they were or the inevitable comparisons to retired or dead performers would arise. Malfitano is an old hand at Tosca, and simpers, rages, and smoulders most effectively. Michaels-Moore attempted to bring some subtlety to his role with simmering tones and sardonic glares. But it was hard to avoid camp, what with all the crashing chords that shriek "Baddie!" every time Scarpia even twitches, and his permanently flexed riding-crop just made me think of Dirk Bogarde. Alagna in the meantime concentrated on a kind of noble innocence. He was (if you can use this term for a man) radiant, and the anti-penultimate notes of his arias were long enough to cook an omelette by. But of all the cast, he would have benefited the most from more demanding direction, and probably have given much more in return.

"Classic" is an interesting sobriquet for a production. Applied to cars it means expensive and highly desirable. Applied to sit-coms it means appallingly embarrassing but enjoyable to watch - provided you can do so through the irony that comes with hindsight. Applied to Tosca it means all of those things. Endlessly reviving an old favourite places the in-coming director in a strait-jacket. I'm not sure how much of a Houdini Jeremy Sutcliffe is, but from what we saw on stage his input had been restricted to one peculiar moment in Malfitano's first arm's length embrace with Alagna when she suddenly bit his finger. This foxy little nibble was startlingly at odds with the rest of their very chaste coupling - a chastity that can only have been amplified by the presence of Alagna's wife, Angela Gheorghiu, in the audience.

This set the tone for what was both a benchmark vocal performance (from Alagna at least) and a clear illustration of why opera has had to move away from vocally-led drama. For Tosca is exactly what most people who have never been to an opera think all opera is like! Though there was precious little of the pointless falling over that generally occurs every few bars in grand opera, there was still a plethora of two-party conversations where neither party looked even vaguely in the other's direction. There was a lot of precarious buttock-balancing (tenors only, see Pavarotti), bosom-clutching (denotes passion of tragic or erotic nature, see Callas), and a great deal of waving both arms up and down in parallel as though frisking an invisible basketball player for hidden weapons (fills time while singing difficult bits, see opera). Alagna even achieved the great distinction of carrying out two clichés at the same time in Act Three, singing an intimate duet with the back of Malfitano's head while balancing his left buttock on the gaoler's desk - the operatic equivalent of a triple salko. But the pièce de résistance fell to the poor Sacristan (Henry Waddington), who had to put a cute little choir-boy over his lap and spank him in time to the music, ho ho. (And this on the same day that the Catholic Church announced its inquiry into child sex abuse.) I guess this might have been funny in 1964 but surely it ceased to be even camp by the 1980s?

It says a lot for Puccini's music that Tosca still has the power to move despite this. Perhaps, like almost all successful art, it's because the opera works at two levels. There is much that is obvious (the music allows little doubt as to the motives of the characters) but there is such complexity in the orchestral underlining of those characters, so much in the way of ambiguous sub-text that the work is lifted clear of melodrama. I suspect that there won't be many more chances to see a Tosca like this. Opera has moved on and though some new productions might make you wish it hadn't, Tosca proves the necessity for artistic evolution. Take the chance to see it while you can, it's a rare experience in time-travel.

Haunted by the ghost of Maria
Edward Seckerson, The Independent, 14 September 2000

The Act Two frock - red velvet with gold braid - still carries with it the spirit of Maria Callas for whom the production was created 36 years ago. Franco Zeffirelli's name has long since vanished from the production credits, but the still-handsome sets are a living legacy from his heyday.

Even more astonishingly, almost every last production detail remains in place, passed down unchanged from generation to generation, performer to performer. We've seen the world of opera transformed in the most radical period of reassessment in its history - but this Tosca goes on forever. I guess if it ain't bust...

They watched it on the big screen in the piazza on Tuesday night (my, how Callas would have risen to that). Catherine Malfitano wore the red frock, and actually filled it pretty well. The voice is no longer in peak condition, but she has spirit and will and temperament and, yes, artistry in spades - she knows how to spin and support a phrase like "how well you know the art of loving" so as to leave you in no doubt that she does, too. A pity that the difficult descent from the climactic phrase of "Vissi d'arte" defeated her (she is not the first and won't be the last), but at least she attempted the diminuendo. Safety was not an option.

Anthony Michaels-Moore was the suave, silver-tongued Scarpia, the more repellent for being sung, really sung. A gracious legato is worth a thousand sneers. Scarpia doesn't play to the gallery. That's for Tosca. Or in this case, Cavaradossi.

Robert Alagna looks and sounds terrific on stage. He has at last, praise be, abandoned his stubborn refusal to yield to the enticements of the line and is now singing with generous and warmly applied portamento. But in evoking, stylistically speaking, the distant past, the golden age of singing, you might say, he would seem also to be adopting - and here's the rub - some of those less desirable tenorial tendencies. No one begrudges a Cavaradossi a little affectionate or showy tenuto here and there, but when it turns into a case of "anything you can hold, I can hold longer", when the music goes out the window and - as was the case in his second act cries of "Vittoria!" - the sole objective (successfully accomplished) is vulgarly to elicit applause, then the past is best forgotten.

His final act aria "E lucevan le stelle" was ruined by such cheap posturing at the pay-off. Alagna is too talented to be so unmusical.

It was clear that the conductor, Carlo Rizzi, had his work cut out accommodating his star's indulgences. As ever, Rizzi's work was marked by a natural pliability and great rhythmic life. But opera is still the singers' playground - especially with the spirit of Callas watching over it.

Tom Sutcliffe, The Evening Standard, 13 September 2000

The comic Sacristan usually steals the scene at the start of Tosca with
outrageous overacting and predictable routines.

Henry Waddington, a seriously good, young talent, new to a role
generally left to no-hopers, made his mark by singing beautifully and
acting better than anybody else in the entire show - with the
distinguished exception of Anthony Michaels-Moore's decently done
Scarpia. Waddington managed to suggest both that he was sincere in his
religion, and that his jokes about spanking choirboys or having trouble
standing up his mop (until a quick prayer produced a convenient
intervention by the blessed Virgin) sprang from a genuinely jovial
personality. At least, while he was on stage, one felt something was up.

It should have been Roberto Alagna's night as Mario Cavaradossi. His
fellow stars (Michaels-Moore, and Catherine Malfitano, uncomfortably
shrieky and lustreless in the title role) were never going to be
competition, though Malfitano has been a fine operatic actress. But
Alagna hadn't gathered the essentials, and couldn't sustain the required
heroic scale of singing. Though usually a strong actor, he never
conveyed Cavaradossi's, selfless character - a painter with dreams
and passions, who doesn't always act in his own best interests.

In fact, this revival is all about tenorish egomania. Alagna pumped out
the statutory top notes, which he held for disgustingly too long - as if
such tones were what the job was about. His indifferent performance of
Recondita armonia earned applause from fans around the house, some of
whom barked out unwarranted cheers later in the performance. Singing it,
he abandoned his canvas upstage and moved down to the footlights to
have a better chance of registering throughout the auditorium. You'd
never have guessed this number is a meditation on Cavaradossi's artistic
credo and on the beauty of the model for his painting. Mongiardino's
sets looked impressive on the new Royal Opera stage, but so what when
the tenor sticks to just singing. Unfortunately, this is a very badly
directed revival.

The dreamy prison aria E lucevan le stelle got no applause. Alagna
habitually pulled his music around tastelessly, and delayed cadences to
milk the chance to show off his timbre. The more he slowed down or
stopped the music to advertise himself, the clearer it became that he
lacks the right equipment. Carlo Rizzi conducted doggedly, uninspired,
and with no real concern for the drama or shape of the music.


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