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When an international opera house revives a production perennially for 42 years, staggering on until the sets practically collapse on the singers, you would be entitled to suspect a case of Italian indolence or English penny-pinching – unless the staging was, like The Mousetrap, so dependable a piece of theatrical furniture that its removal becomes commercially unthinkable.
Covent Garden’s Tosca was The Mousetrap of the opera world, a box-office certainty whose allure belonged to a bygone opening but which rolled on regardless through changes of cast and fashion as a fixity in the public mind. Its replacement last night by a new setting in the hands of Jonathan Kent, a respected but non-celebrity theatre director, was an act of knuckle-clenching courage, the most daring opera deed of the year. Setting aside the instant critical acclamation, it puts the work and its presentation into a less hysterical perspective.
The Tosca that we knew all too well was created by the flamboyant Franco Zeffirelli at the height of his film career for the purpose of refocusing Maria Callas on what she did best. The great tragedienne had dropped out of opera in the early 1960s after being sacked by the Met and seduced by the Greek ship-owner Aristotle Onassis, who gave her everything she wanted except the confidence of love.
Turning 40, Callas knew that her voice was cracking under the recklessness of her dramatics. Where other divas sighed and died gently on a sofa, Callas would lurch frighteningly through her roles, chilling audiences and fellow-singers with an incalculable edge of menace. She broke a plastic stage knife once on Tito Gobbi, her regular Tosca partner, stabbing him in the chest until he bled.
The frenzy generated by her appearance in February 1964 was cemented in legend when, the following year, Callas sang one last Tosca at a charity gala before the Queen and retired from opera for good, wounded in voice and pride as the rotter Onassis deserted her for Jackie Kennedy. For the next four decades, sopranos of diverse ability and character were required at Covent Garden to attempt the impossible task of simultaneously sustaining and erasing the indelible Callas aura. The failures were frequently heroic.
Marie Collier, her understudy and the singer closest to Callas in febrile temperament, fell to her death from a window in Leicester Square after being fired by the Royal Opera. Gwyneth Jones was a mite too squally, Birgit Nilsson too granitic, Sena Jurinac too sweet, Maria Ewing too slight, Catherine Malfitano a little too lovable. The show rumbled on without coherent purpose except as an occasional vehicle for the star tenors Domingo and Pavarotti and a perpetually sold-out house – a popularity that defied both theatrical logic and the reasonable requirement of artistic merit.
For Tosca, though popular, is the most misshapen piece in the repertoire. Its two static hours hinge on the slam-bang moment when the soprano, pleading with police chief Scarpia for the reprieve of her tenor toyboy Cavaradossi, reverses her agreement to sleep with the fat tyrant and sticks him instead with a fruit knife that (one imagines) could barely peel a grape. Although supposedly based on an historical event in Napoleonic Rome, nothing in Tosca rings true. The tenor is pure beefcake, Tosca herself is not overly shocked by the policeman’s proposition and Scarpia loses the plot by implying that he wants more than just a quickie with Tosca: he’s in it for a relationship. When our girl jumps off the battlements, thinking her lover is dead, there is no heave of catharsis in the stalls and gallery. It’s strictly a one-hankie night.
Musically, the opera has a defining set of opening chords, a melting aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ and not much else. Puccini never bothered with harmony or counterpoint. The opera is written in a monochrome line that denies any scope for aural fantasy. Indifferently received at its 1900 Rome premiere, Tosca found its footing among the scandal-loving mercantile classes, frustrating the intelligentsia and earning its most famous put-down in 1956 from the American critic Joseph Kerman, who called it ‘a shabby little shocker’, seriously understating the case. Sleazy is a better adjective for the Scarpia-Tosca transaction and tabloid a more appropriate term for the opera’s valueless amorality, its absence of any uplifting emotion. Given the choice of Tosca or a strip club, I’d go for pole-dancers as the more honest option.
Yet Tosca remains one of the ten most performed operas around the world and there is no arguing with the turnstile. Its secret, I suspect, is twofold. Like The Mousetrap, most people know how it is going to end, which means they can take guests again and again with a lightly-worn air of superiority. The attraction of repetition is reinforced by the richness of interpretative possibility. Tito Gobbi, who played Scarpia more than 800 times, invested the tyrant with a shade of Mussolini strut, suggesting a subtle understanding of absolute power and its impotence in coping with personal frustrations. ‘A super-elegant, refined monster,’ Gobbi calls Scarpia in a Studs Terkel interview, newly published by Granta, ‘he cannot control himself 100 percent.’
Callas, as Tosca, gave the impression of being sexually attracted to Scarpia’s power and his pathetic need almost as much as she was to Cavaradossi’s beauty; she is undecided whether to kiss or kill him until a glimpsed opportunity sparks instant decision. The human potential is buried deeper in the opera than Puccini imagined and the reason we go back to see it is to experience the insight of a different performing intelligence.
Covent Garden cast safely with Angela Georghiu as Tosca, daringly with Bryn Terfel as Scarpia. The Rumanian is dangerously combustible, the first soprano since Callas to breathe sulphur on stage and emote physically with her partners. The Welsh baritone is more of a cuddly bear, a performer with a preference for Falstaffian comedy; as Sweeney Todd, for instance, it’s hard to believe he enjoys slitting throats. But the incogruity of his casting allows Georghiu to escape the corsets of Callas and create a Tosca for more cynical times, a Tosca without prehistory. That was a brave and necessary decision by ROH bosses. Terfel fully vindicated their risk, sharing the critical laurels on premiere night with Georghiu's pristine tonal beauty. In less than two hours, the new Tosca had wiped the slate clean of false memory and pointless nostalgia.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]