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Critic’s Notebook: Kill Tosca! (Or Don’t)

Also reviewed for Die Presse: „Tosca“ in der Staatsoper: Scarpia als stiller Sieger

The production of Vienna's Tosca is so old, Joe Biden considered it for his running mate. Should the Staatsoper elect to keep it?

Tosca, oh Tosca. Very possibly the most singularly annoying character in opera, to the point where one wonders, if Puccini had meant to create the caricature of a soprano after an unpleasant experience or 99. In Vienna, on February 2nd, Tosca was allowed to roam free on the set of Margarethe Wallmann’s production again, for the 647th (!) time. The production must be one of the longest running at any major opera house, beating even the (long-retired) classic Franco Zeffirelli “Callas” Tosca at Covent Garden, six years younger, by 20 years… and it is still going strong. If you have been to Vienna’s Staatsoper for the first time at the age of 14, you’d have to be at least 80 years old to have seen Tosca in a different direction.

available at Amazon
Tosca (1953)
Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi, De Sabata
L'Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala

available at Amazon
Tosca (1953)
Price, Di Stefano, Taddei, Karajan
Vienna Phil

And yes, the sets look musty, in olive-greens and brown grays. The costumes look like they smell of naphthalene, all liveries and powdered Mozart-wigs. And yet, if the Staatsoper were to replace it with a newfangled work that detractors derisively (usually ignorantly) call “Regietheater”, you’d probably have a minor revolt on your hands on the Ring Road. It’s a museum piece, a production as much about the work as it is about how productions used to look, historical more than historic. Not my cup of tea, granted, but popular and very, very rarely not sold out. After I had, in more tempered form, suggested as much in my most recent review (for Die Presse), I got a letter to the editor, a fairly courteous one, actually, begging to differ and pointing out much of the above-cited success of the Wallmann-Tosca and that it served perfectly well to let the work be presented “as intended by its creators”. The letter served as a fine reminder that for all my moaning of old-fashioned productions being inherently incapable of conveying any original intentions from a 100+ years ago, and that only ‘translations’ into a modern visual, dramatic language stand a chance at truly getting to the core of any message a given opera might contain, these productions have a place. They are safe, they ‘work’. They are what opera means to many opera-goers.

Value in Safety

Yes, a modern-yet-conservative production – which is to say one that stays true to the message (that being the conservative part) but relates that message intuitively to a contemporary audience’s reality – can do so much more. If well done, an old Chrysler Saratoga in, say, Don Giovanni or the German Parliament in Parsifal or neon signs and a leotard in La Calisto not only do not detract, they can be essential elements of revelatory nights out at the opera. But while it’s easy for critics and those, like me, who have been pretending to be one for over 20 years, to proclaim our willingness to take the risk of 10 middling, awful, forgettable modern productions only to see one truly glorious one, that’s not as attractive a proposition for those who actually pay for their tickets, especially if they’ve just forked over €264 for two seats. There’s value in safety. Especially if your primary concern is to enjoy the music – and, on this occasion, hear Elena Stikhina, Piotr Beczała (Mario), and Erwin Schrott (Scarpia). Well, mostly Beczała, probably, because he’s a glorious singer, sonorous, comfortable, with a nice dynamic bandwidth, and very decent, if not brilliant acting. In that case, the setting, without offering any distractions, is (and was) perfect to sing your “E lucevan le stelle” to the crowd and repeat it, after the minute-long applause forces you to. Mme. Stikhina was a fine vocal, sumptuous, velvety Tosca, unwittingly betraying and backstabbing Mario all the way (and, of course, front-stabbing Scarpia) until her final date with gravity.

A Quiet Scarpia for the win

Ah, Scarpia! Erwin Schrott used to be the hot ticket as Don Giovanni et al. Mister Netrebko, but actually good. A voice of manly seduction in a broad-shouldered, irrepressibly sexy package who elevated his characters to new heights of appeal; an outlet for projected desires in a time where Dorian Gray hadn’t arrived yet. (Also an irresistibly vivid Leporello in the above-linked Salzburg Don Giovanni.) And then he seemingly disappeared. At least he sang less prominent parts in less prominent houses, which meant that I had heard him for the first time since that 2010 experience of perfection. Yes, the voice is, while not gone, two sizes smaller. It does not, however, sound frail or painfully pushed (à la post-vocal-problems Villazon). It’s just not as loud. While that meant that he couldn’t get above the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, in one of their climactic outbursts, it also meant an unexpected dramatic boon. For starters, he is still the broad-shouldered, in-shape hunk, the kind that Anthony Tommasini would have invariably called “strapping” and who actually made his silly costume and wig look good. That’s a dramatic must, if Scarpia is to be the serious, sexually threatening force he is meant to be, and not just a meanie Falstaff. In that sense, mere physique does wonders to the character in the way that a Günter Groissböck has transformed Ochs, or Georg Zeppenfeld King Marke. But singing quietly, involuntary or not, had the added benefit of making Scarpia truly threatening. A quiet villain is ever so effective. A brutish loud one merely banal. Being able to act helped, too. And in that sense, he might just have been the quiet highlight of the evening – for me, anyway.

Not quiet but in good shape was the orchestra under Bertrand de Billy, who conducted this Tosca for a second run and knows the orchestra well. The band was reasonably explosive, above-average sensitive, surprisingly on point, and downright sensitive, especially the cellos. And the nifty forward thrust Billy created, meant that the whole thing moved more fleetly towards its inevitable end and subsequent elations. If I don’t witness a different Viennese Tosca in my lifetime… who knows: Maybe it’s not such a terrible thing.

Photo © Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn. Erwin Schrott (Scarpia), Elena Stikhina (Tosca)

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