Saturday, October 24, 2009

Vienna State Opera - Tosca - 10/17/09

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Keri-Lynn Wilson
Director: Margarethe Wallmann
Tosca: Daniela Dessi
Cavaradossi: Fabio Armiliato
Scarpia: Egils Silins

Although it would have been more appropriate to see an opera in German in the Austrian capital, my beloved Tosca was scheduled at the Vienna State Opera during my stay around the corner, and there was no way I was going to miss that. This was my first opera, and its easy-to-follow story of love, lust, jealousy, politics and death dramatically carried out by three explosive characters singing riveting melodies is still my "comfort opera" despite its rather gruesome ending. Originally a French play by Victorien Sardou deemed by some as too violent, Puccini decided to turn it into an opera after seeing Sarah Berhardt perform it, and after a difficult gestation the rest has been history. As I am patiently waiting to go appraise the Met's controversial new production of it in January, I figured a refresher in Vienna couldn't hurt and was the perfect occasion to check out this legendary venue as well. The imposing Neo-Rennaissance building had fittingly quite a high-drama beginning when one of its architects, Eduard van der Null, committed suicide after the emperor Franz Joseph expressed his dislike of the new creation by calling it a "railway station". Less than a century later, it was almost completely destroyed by WW II bombings and eventually reopened in 1955 with Don Giovanni, bringing a new breath of fresh musical air to the still recovering city.
In line with its majestic exterior, the grand marble staircase was definitely, well, grand. Richly decorated with frescoes, mirrors, chandeliers and statues representing the seven arts, the entrance was truly an arresting sight. Even the tea salon was mesmerizing in its shameless opulence. Therefore, I was all the more surprised at how underwhelming the auditorium was. The dominant color was an attractive dark red, but the space was paradoxically low-key, if pleasant, eons away from the free-flowing explosion of red and gold of its Budapest rival. Here again, size is not everything.

The Vienna State Opera keeps on attracting music lovers from all over the world with the quality of it productions, and in that regard, Tosca was another case in point. Once the plot got going, the three main protagonists were fiercely interacting the old-fashioned way, building up dramatic tensions and ruthlessly fighting tooth and nails to reach their own goals. In this rather traditional production, which nevertheless yielded beautifully composed tableaux, they essentially let their singing do the work, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.
As the hot-blooded diva, Daniela Dessi was as incandescently hot as the scarlet dress in which she first appeared. Deeply passionate about every aspect of her life, from her love for Cavadarossi to her singing career and religious beliefs, she intensely lived and breathed her conflicted emotions, effectively expressing them with her high-flying, wide-ranging voice. Her equally ardent lover, Fabio Armiliato, had the unmistakable romantic look and demeanor of the artist/revolutionary Cavaradossi, which combined with its solid, warm voice made him the perfect ill-fated hero. As the big bad villain everybody loves to hate, Egils Silins' Scarpia was all evil deep down inside behind the suave facade and the aristocratic restraint, his rich, dark voice and authoritative tone strongly asserting who was really running the show, at least until he received Tosca's fatal "kiss".
If the singing was relentlessly soaring all evening, the conducting was exceptionally muscular as well, actually up to a fault. The young American conductor Kerri-Lynn Wilson was obviously taking her task much to heart, but may not have always been in control of the intensity of the playing. Tosca being such an "all-fire-no-ice" opera, it is easy to be carried away by its high-octave drama, but it becomes a real problem when the singers cannot be heard. Even if it is to some degree unavoidable, it did happen too often in this case, occasionally causing some major frustration.

But this long sold-out Tosca was still very well put together, and received a delirious ovation from the extremely eclectic audience. As for myself, I was only too happy to have broken the no-going-out-on-Saturday-night rule for such a regal, if not ground-breaking, performance.

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