Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Domingo Hindoyan
Director: Alvis Hermanis
Angela Georghiu: Tosca
Teodor Ilincai: Cavadarossi
Michael Volle: Scarpia
So what do you do when you've enjoyed two fabulous performances by possibly the two most prestigious orchestras in Europe? Well, you go to the opera, of course! So on Sunday evening, in Berlin, I was more than ready to tackle yet another production of Tosca, the first opera I have ever seen and the first opera I've ever attended in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden with my friend Nyla back in 2008. For those reasons and more, there's no doubt that Puccini's "shabby little shocker" has a special place in my heart.
And this Tosca would be truly special because she would be embodied by no less than Angela Georghiu, who by all accounts has the ideal voice, looks and temperament to take on opera's most hot-blooded diva. Michael Volle, whom I had admired in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, would fill Scarpia's detestable shoes, and I was curious to check relative newcomer Teodor Ilincai because, well, you never know.
Due to the extensive renovations going on at the Staatsoper, the current season is taking place in the Schiller Theater, de facto moving one of Berlin’s most prominent cultural institutions from Mitte in the East all the way to Charlottenburg in the West. But the fact is, if the temporary home was rather dull-looking, its small size and good acoustics allowed for a wonderfully intimate experience of the performance, and that definitely counts for something.
More by chance than by design, Tosca is probably the opera I've seen the most in my life by now, and I still cannot seem to get enough of the deliciously campy love triangle whose members all meet rather unsavory ends. The story is straightforward, the text vulgar, the emotions primitive, the deaths violent, and the score highly melodic, so really, what's not to love?
Despite the fact that she is one of the most famous and admired opera singers in the world, Romanian soprano Angela Georghiu has not been showing up at the Met much lately, except for a couple of performances of Bondy's Tosca last season, and I really was not up to see that production a third time, even for her. So I was only too happy to see that she was going to be in Berlin in September and made sure to strategically plan my stay there around her dates. So I booked transportation and accommodations, bought my ticket for the performance, and then spend the rest of the time keeping my fingers and toes crossed that she would actually show up and deliver.
Well, she did! And I have to say that in all my opera-going years there have been very few moments more thrilling than having Angela Georghiu pour her heart and soul out in a glorious "Vissi d'Arte" 17 rows straight in front of me. With her dazzling voice, passionate singing, committed acting and deep familiarity with a role, she effortlessly reigned supreme all night long. By turn tender, coquettish, jealous, angry, scheming and desperate, more self-confident mature woman than impressionable young girl, she was the ultimate Tosca.
German baritone Michael Volle was equally memorable as the sinister Scarpia, the man everybody loves to hate, the kind of SOB that has absolutely no qualms about using everything in his extended power to reach his goal. Although he did not even bother trying to give his evil character any underlying gentlemanly or sophisticated traits, he still came up with a scrumptiously complex villain. It is quite a stretch to go from a Wagnerian comedy to a Puccinian drama, but Volle managed to do it smoothly and convincingly. On Sunday night, his singing was superbly dark and his scenes with Angela Georghiu had the type of red-hot intensity that makes opera-goers' hearts beat faster.
Young Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai was a delightfully impetuous Cavaradossi, routinely expressing himself with a highly flexible, clarion-like voice that brightly resounded in the small theater every time he was making a point. I found him, however, noticeably tentative when it came to Angela Georghiu, and their scenes together did not always have the amount of sizzling chemistry that could have been expected between the famous pair of lovers. But he nevertheless held his own more than adequately. And predictably enough, his “E lucevan le stelle” was a gripping ode to lost love and life that readily brought down the generally reserved house.
The rest of the cast fared very well too, including Jan Martiník as the fearful Sacristan, Dan Karlström as the rebellious Spoletta, Vincenzo Neri as the sadistic Sciarrone, and Dominic Barberi as the jailer who doubled as executioner. The rambunctious children’s choir brought fervor and spontaneity to the church scene.
If the singing was uniformly impressive, the production unfortunately was not. Director Alvis Hermanis obviously tried to inject some modernity into a quintessential classic by having a slide show projected on the upper half of the stage while the lower half was occupied by the traditional church, palace and prison. The main problem was that overall the images projected did not add anything to the action unfolding live below them, but occasionally made it more confusing. Why, for example, was a portrait of the blond Madonna displayed while Scarpia was obsessing aloud about Tosca in the first act?
There were also a few balance problems, which seem to be unavoidable with Tosca, like in the Te Deum scene when Michael Volle's voice, which is not known for being short of strength or stamina, could not be heard over the orchestra and the chorus. This is a minor squabble though, and the orchestra did a laudable job vividly highlighting the score’s rich lyricism under the baton of Domingo Hindoyan.
I did spend all of the third act wondering how on earth Tosca was going to perform her iconic leap of death from the tower since there was clearly nowhere for her to leap from. Well, turns out that she did not leap at all, but ended up standing in front of the stage facing the audience with her arms raised while her projected alter ego did took the leap on the screen. It looked awkward and incongruous, and concluded the performance on an off note. But never mind. The musical rewards were too high to pick at the misguided visuals.