L’amor della diva: Tosca at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Puccini – Tosca

Tosca – Anja Harteros

Cavaradossi – Marcelo Álvarez

Scarpia – Ivan Inverardi

Angelotti – Noel Bouley

Il sagrestano – Seth Carico

Sciarrone – Andrew Harris

Spoletta – Álvaro Zembrano

Un carceriere – Tobias Kehrer

Un pastore – Jannis Fölster

Kinderchor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin /  Donald Runnicles.

Stage Director – Boleslaw Barlog

Deutsche Oper, Berlin.  Sunday, January 18th, 2015.

Tosca is a work that is a director’s goldmine with so many issues to be explored.  The struggle of the individual against the state, the oppression of religion, the role of artists in social resistance – the piece is full of opportunities to provide an insightful social commentary combined with a dramatically gripping experience.  Tonight we got none of that.  Instead, the Deutsche Oper’s 1969 production, here revived for the 370th time, was a straightforward reading of the libretto in sets that looked a century older.  It certainly looks more than its age – though it did succeed in looking younger than the Royal Opera’s recent Ballo – yet it was an efficient enough framework for the drama.  I just craved something that really provided a gripping showcase for these great artists to perform in and at the same time, really made me think.  I have no doubt that this show has paid for itself a thousand times over but perhaps it is time for the Deutsche Oper to think about a new production – certainly I would love to one day see Calixto Bieito’s take on the work.

Anja Harteros as Tosca  © 2013, Bettina Stöß
Anja Harteros as Tosca © 2013, Bettina Stöß

The biggest disappointment for me tonight was Donald Runnicles’ conducting.  I thoroughly enjoyed his reading of Don Carlo in this very theatre but tonight his weighty approach to the work really did it no favours.  This is a piece that revels in its high drama yet Runnicles seemed focused on luxuriating in the sound world rather than pushing it ahead.  The end of Act 1, with the swirling string figures around the ‘te deum’ went for nothing, the violent jabbing motifs as Scarpia tortures Cavaradossi in Act 2, likewise, seemed not to register.  The opening of Act 3 was taken at a funereal pace – not inappropriate given what was happening – but could have done with being taken a notch or two swifter.  The slow tempo did pay off in ‘vissi d’arte’, more on that shortly.  The orchestra played extremely well and where Runnicles allowed the brass to open up, the sound was glorious.  The off-stage chorus in Act 2 also highlighted the superb quality of the Deutsche Oper’s fine chorus.

Indeed, one element that was most remarkable was the quality of the supporting roles.  The Deutsche Oper really does host an outstanding ensemble and the quality of its members is unmistakable.  Angelotti is a role that allows a young singer to make a real impression and Noel Bouley, with his rich, oaky bass-baritone really did.  The curtain opened on Seth Carico’s resonant and rich Sacristan sung in impeccable Italian.  Later we were introduced to Andrew Harris and Álvaro Zembrano as Scirarrone and Spoletta respectively who both impressed with the quality of their vocalism and the healthiness of their instruments.  It’s clear that the Deutsche Oper can cast from strength.

Ivan Inverardi as Scarpia © Bettina Stöß
Ivan Inverardi as Scarpia © Bettina Stöß

The Brescia-born baritone Ivan Inverardi is new to me but I am very happy that I have had the opportunity to hear him.  His is a luxurious voice, rich and even.  The bottom is perhaps weaker than the top but it is such a pleasure to hear such a healthy instrument in this role.  His was a maliciously aristocratic reading.  There was no barking and the role was well and truly sung – the voice was never pushed but always used with real intelligence.  The vibrations are wonderfully even and he also has a genuine legato of a quality that is seemingly hard to find.  The smoothness of the line and the way that he insinuated his way into Tosca’s attentions were absolutely fascinating.  He is also a fine actor, completely dominating the stage in the Act 1 finale.  His career so far has mainly been concentrated in Italy.  I very much hope that he will be heard more widely.  He is a notable artist.

Marcelo Álvarez brought his trademark Latin warmth of tone to Cavaradossi.  There is something quite wonderful in the way the voice opens up at the top and the way he uses the text.  At the same time, some of the phrasing was distinctly choppy, for example in an ‘e lucevan le stelle’ that was more extrovert than introspective.  That said, his was certainly one of the most vocally satisfying Cavaradossis I’ve heard in a long time and he had a genuine chemistry with Anja Harteros’ Tosca.

Anja Harteros as Tosca  © 2013, Bettina Stöß
Anja Harteros as Tosca © 2013, Bettina Stöß

Harteros really was an exceptional Tosca.  I fear that I am about to exhaust my vocabulary of superlatives to describe her performance.  I have had the pleasure and privilege to hear some glorious Toscas over the years – Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett on recordings, Violeta Urmana and Sondra Radvanovsky in the theatre.  Harteros deserves to be mentioned in the company of the very greatest exponents of the role.  Let’s start with ‘vissi d’arte’.  It was devastating in a way that that I have never heard that aria sung before.  I often talk about that unteachable ability to marry text and music that only the very greatest singers have.  Harteros has that.  The way she sang the words ‘non feci mai male ad anima viva’ was unforgettable, you genuinely believed in what she was singing and it was unbearably moving.  The tears started and flowed throughout the whole of that aria.  She also plays the part of the imperious diva to perfection, throwing herself vocally and physically into the part.  She also finds a tenderness in the Act 1 duet and in the final scene that is overwhelmingly realistic.  The voice has a pearly richness that fills the theatre wonderfully.  It would be wrong for me to say that intonation was always true – there is an occasional tendency to push the voice towards sharpness and there was always a doubt in the back of my mind that the role is on the large side for her.  But make no mistake, this is singing and acting that deserves to be considered among the very greatest.  Harteros’ Tosca is one of the major portrayals of our time and I feel incredibly humbled and privileged to have witnessed it live.  All I can say is that I am waiting eagerly for her Trovatore Leonora in Munich next month and her Marschallin in Baden-Baden in March.  Truly outstanding.

Tonight was an exceptional evening crowned by Anja Harteros’ glorious assumption of the title role.  She was joined by a superb cast, showcasing a major talent in Ivan Inverardi and Marcelo Álvarez’ fine Cavaradossi.  It also showcased the excellent strength of the Deutsche Oper’s ensemble.  A stupendous evening.

Anja Harteros as Tosca  © 2013, Bettina Stöß
Anja Harteros as Tosca © 2013, Bettina Stöß
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4 comments

  1. Wait: Deutsche Opera? I think I saw this very production c. 1993, and it looked old-fashioned and shabby even then. I’m at work or I’d look up the cast, but my chief memory is that both the tenor and baritone tripped on Tosca’s train at various points. Finally, during some ‘dramatic’ move in Act 2 she tripped on it herself (!!) and shot a completely exasperated look to the audience. It was enormous fun, actually.

      • OK, found my file on Dropbox: It was Oct. 13, 1992, with Maria Abajan, Corneliu Murgu and George Fortune; Stefan Soltesz, cond. I also made a special notation that the production was from 1969, hah! Can’t believe it’s still up and running, but sounds like it was a memorable night for better reasons than the one I saw was.

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