Tiffin Boys Choir
Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Antonio Pappano
CD No: EMI CDS 5 57173 2 (2 CDs) Duration: Reviewed: December 2001
Tosca - ROH/Pappano
Reviewed by Tim Ashley
This is, first and foremost, a recording of Tosca for the modern age. We live in an era when the cry goes up that the live arts are in danger of being sidelined by technology. The primary aim of this performance is not therefore to reproduce the kind of tension one might experience in the theatre (though on the way, it more or less succeeds), but to accompany another example of operas transmutation into cinema. It forms the soundtrack for a film of Tosca by the French director Benoit Jacquot, which opened in Lucca in November and is scheduled for UK release next April.
Filmed opera is notoriously tricky to get right, and only Ingmar Bergmans Magic Flute, Joseph Loseys Don Giovanni and Hans Jurgen Syberbergs Parsifal have, by common consent, made the transition from stage to screen successfully. Whether Jacquots attempt belongs in such august company remains to be seen. Since no members of the music press were, to my knowledge, invited to the advance screenings that have already taken place in London, I havent viewed it. Early reports suggest, however, that its values are relentlessly art-house, swivelling between a studio in which a recording this recording is being made and an extravagant, and equally studio-bound, reconstruction of
the opera itself, the whole intercut with documentary footage of the actual Roman locations where the opera is set.
The on-screen canoodling of operas supposed golden couple, husband and wife Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, has inevitably caused comment, as has a sequence in which Ruggero Raimondis Scarpia, to the accompaniment of much orgasmic grunting, apparently ejaculates in his pants during the Te Deum. Those contemplating buying this set may or may not like to know that Raimondis gurgles dont find their way onto the recording, though it should also be added that its use of sound effects is a tad inconsistent. We hear both Angelotti gasping for breath when he flings himself exhaustedly into the church at the start, and the Sacristan clapping his hands to summon the choir for the Te Deum. No window slams shut, however, when Scarpia attempts to block out Toscas voice during the Cantata, while the gunfire that signals Cavaradossis demise is so faintly dubbed on as to seem like an afterthought.
Ones main awareness that this is a soundtrack derives, however, from a considerable unnaturalness of balance throughout. The singers are consistently placed very far forward. This certainly will give the impression to the uninitiated that Gheorghius voice in particular can cleave through a large-ish orchestra with a heft that it doesnt possess in reality. It also, however, allows a number of passages, notably the scenes between Cavaradossi and Angelotti in Act I, to be voiced in hushed, furtive whispers that would be utterly inaudible in a theatre. Just occasionally theres an emotional inflection in the delivery of a line that seems to need visuals for clarification. Toscas Oh, e inutil (Its useless) at the start of her confrontation with Scarpia, for instance, is marked ridendo (laughing) in the score and is usually sung with edgy bravado. Gheorhgius delivery is more of a panic-stricken aside isolated from the rest of the dialogue, and one is left wondering whether it is used as such in the film.
The recording is, however, modern in ways other than technical, and it is here that the performance may be said to rate highly. Scarpias damp cinematic experience in church points to a more flagrant eroticism than we are used to in Tosca, and this, to a certain extent, is what is found. That there was a strong
sadomasochistic streak in Puccinis temperament is well known. Taboos surrounding the aesthetic depiction of sadomasochism have broken down of late, however, and here the element is brought centre-stage. Raimondis Scarpia is blatantly turned on at the thought of both Cavaradossis torture and Toscas anguish, as proved first by sardonic hints of laughter and irony as he bates her, then by his utterly obscene delivery of phrases like Your tears were lava that burned my senses. Even though there are moments when youre aware that Raimondis voice has lost some of its former velvety lustre, this is a superlative piece of vocal acting, a great assumption of the role as well as a shocking one that far outstrips his earlier performance on Karajans DG recording.
Neither Gheorghiu nor Alagna are quite in his league; whether by accident or design, they highlight the whiff of sadomasochism that also runs through the relationship between Tosca and Cavaradossi, turning it into a mirror image of Toscas encounters with Scarpia. While Scarpia admits to being aroused by Toscas vulnerability, Cavaradossi, in a line played down by some interpreters, discloses that his attraction is for her wild anger and her spasms of love. Gheorghiu and Alagna come close to portraying the lovers as a dominatrix female and her submissive mate, an interpretation heightened by the vocal inequalities between them.
Whatever ones doubts about Gheorghius famed off-stage temperament and, in this specific instance, the way the recording has been engineered, theres little question that her voice, with its voluptuous, morbid tones, is, in itself, superb. Her Tosca is suitably fiery, self-dramatising, manipulative with Cavaradossi, a bit too self-consciously so in places genuinely affecting when she breaks down before Scarpia. Roused to anger and violence, however, shes vicious rather than titanically grand, while the recording cant quite disguise the fact that there are moments of forcing in the lower registers. There isnt really the weight for E morto! Or gli perdono, which is close to snarl rather than genuinely tragic.
Alagna, however, proves a major disappointment yet again. To hear him here serves as a reminder of what a fine singer he used to be, and to be continuously aware of the subsequent slippage in both voice and artistry. His tone is frequently patchy, the high notes ringing but effortful, his delivery of the text slipshod and uncommitted. Only once in E lucevan le stelle does he really settle down, producing some beautiful, genuinely reflective soft singing that illuminates both music and words. His decline begs inevitable questions as to its cause. The answer probably lies in the fact that he and his wife have persisted in singing together, when they in fact are not vocally suited to the same repertoire. They have appeared in, and recorded, works that consistently show off Gheorghiu to advantage, but which have left her husband over-parted, now very much to his detriment. He once possessed a voice ideally suited to the lyric French repertoire, where great interpreters are thin on the ground. He should never have been persuaded away from it.
Antonio Pappanos conducting, however, is glorious. Hes urgently expressive and sensual, brutal and tender by turns, shaping the whole with an almost relentless pace. The playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra is spine tingling throughout, the juxtaposition of delicate textures with oppressive clamour flawlessly judged.
Impressive individual contributions dont, however, always add up to a satisfactory whole and my reaction to this was decidedly mixed. Raimondi, above all, demands to be heard. Alagnas performance, however, prevents this recording from being included in a list of the finest versions available. Fans will doubtless want it, but those who really want to hear Tosca must turn elsewhere.
The versions by Colin Davis (Philips), Sinopoli (DG) and Karajan (his first recording on Decca is better than his DG remake) are all equally well conducted and more consistently sung. Pride of place, however, still belongs to Victor de Sabatas 1954 La Scala recording (also EMI) with Callas, di Stefano and Gobbi an achievement that no one has ever matched, and I rather doubt whether anyone ever will.