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Puccini Three Toscas on DVD

Maria Guleghina Tosca ; Salvatore Licitra Cavaradossi ; Leo Nucci Scarpia; Battista Parodi Angelotti; Alfredo Mariotti Sacristan; Virginia Barchi treb Shepherd Boy ; Ernesto Gavazzi ten Spoletta ; Giovanni Silvestro Sammaritano bass Sciarrone ; Ernesto Panariello bass Gaoler

La Scala Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
TDK DV-OPTOS (Milan, March 2000, 121 minutes)

This live-recorded DVD documents Riccardo Muti's first staged performance of Tosca. It is paced with consummate skill and maintains high tension. Maria Guleghina is a powerful Tosca, with a memorable Act 2 encounter with Scarpia, one of my favourite baritones, admired on DVD and at Zurich. Salvatore Licitra as Cavaradossi looks like a tenor and is touching as he approaches his fate, unaware of the trick Scarpia has played on them.

Luca Ronconi’s production heightens the dramatic conflicts. The surreal, distorted sets of Margherita Palli, with no normal verticals, enhance the wierd world in which this drama is played out; they are very effective on the television screen, and compound the developing tragedy taking place in a fearsome police state, the cue probably Scarpia's twisted mind.

Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Ruggero Raimondi

Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus/Antonio Pappano
Director: Benoit Jacquot

Opus Arte OA0883D 16:9, Italian with English Sub Titles
Special Features:Angela Gheorghiu discusses her role, Benoit Jacquot his creation and Antonio Pappano Puccini's music

This is first and foremost a film, a very modern one by a director who doesn't like opera and didn't know Tosca before he was engaged, the music by a composer who Pappano thinks of as the archetypical film composer!

We see many real live shots of the sound recording, done first in black and glaring white in the heat of the studio lighting. The film was dubbed later in Rome locations, the stars pretending to sing, but acting with tremendous concentration for revealing close up, a situation in which Angela Gheorghiu revelled, so she tells us. She loves the camera, and Pappano is a film buff; everyone was identified with a project which is totally different from theatre filming.

There is visible chemistry between the married lovers, and particular intensity in Raimondi's identification with his sinister role. The singing of all three protagonists is fine and Pappano helps to tighten the dramatic screw, sometimes deliberately stretching phrases more than he would in the opera house, as he explains, to wring out the last drop of emotion.

On its own terms it is very well done, and will surely appeal to many who are doubtful about opera as a genre for entertainment. It is frankly over the top, with a particularly wild and dizzying interpretation of the Te Deum scene, but it all needs to be appreciated in the context of the public's expectations of film today.

My reservations are about the director's luxuriating in his settings, and resorting too much to flash backs, so that by the time you've seen the Extras you will have watched many of the key scenes up to four times, one of them with the action going rapidly backwards through all the key scenes, in case you might have forgotten the story! It is particularly tastless to start the music all over again as the credits roll at the end. There is a mainly hostile review of an earlier release of this 2001 film on Opera Japonica, and video clips can be accessed at http://www.opusarte.com

Whilst the Muti/La Scala version is strongly recommended to dedicated opera lovers, a newer version of Tosca from Madrid (and from the same firm as the newly released film) should not be overlooked (Opus Arte OA 0901 D). The cast list is given inelegantly as an image, because I have not found a way to scan texts in colour presentations so favoured by trendy designers!

Of the singing, I enjoyed best of all the slender Fabio Armiliato as Cavaradossi, a memorable assumption of a role which is often overshadowed in this opera.

The DVD is taken from two performances in January 2004. Unfortunately, that did not suffice to record Daniela Dessi in best voice throughout - she had difficulty with the high notes in Act 1, but settled down after that to a commendable scene with the very experienced Scarpia, who maintained the tension dramatically, but his voice seemed to tire in the crucial Act 2. That culminates with Tosca murdering him, to Ruggero Raimondi's regret that he was not permitted ed to live to sing in the last Act!

A particular reason to recommend this DVD, even if you already have a favourite version, is the Extras, exemplary real interviews with the principals, conductor and director (without the redundant repeat extracts we often have to endure). Why is it that a similar approach - especially an explanation of the director's approach - is not habitually included in opera programmes in the theatres? I do not accept that these are private matters, and deplore the plethora of historical essays etc instead which fill expensive programmes (e.g. Covent Garden and Opera North's Eight Little Greats), when most audience members would prefer, and would better benefit from, orientation towards a particular production before they see it - or otherwise to read about it afterwards (as we did with the DVD interviews) if they want to avoid preconceptions.

We learned in their joint conversation that Armiliato and Dessi are man and wife, and their discussion of the musical relationship is enlightening (at ENO recently much was made of the Tosca and Scarpia being married in real life, and the Pappano/Jacquot version has Gheorghiu and Alagna as the lovers!) These are informal, fluent discussions (without notes) - in rapid Italian and Nuria Espert's Spanish - so well subtitled that you understood everything they were saying.

There is a little 'luvvie' mutual congratulation about how pleasurable had been the preparation process, how marvellous the singers were to work with etc, but not overdone, and - far more importantly - they added up to an in depth picture of how everyone concerned perceived this opera, not always taken for granted as a masterpiece, and how the musicians related to Espert & Frigerio's distinctive conception.

There are peculiarities, with particular emphasis on the religious and religiose undercurrents; Scarpia is shown as a cardinal, surrounded by prelates. The second act torturing is made visible, and in the last act corpses, including Cavaradossi's, are tipped through a trapdoor into a mass grave, followed by Tosca instead of the usual leap from the battlements.

All these production decisions are discussed and explained, not always totally convincingly for me (a stage trapdoor is just that!). I suspect that the sets will have looked better in the theatre.

© Peter Grahame Woolf