Love in an Age of Austerity: Tosca at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Puccini – Tosca

Tosca – Sondra Radvanovsky
Cavaradossi – Jorge de León
Scarpia – Ambrogio Maestri
Angelotti – Goran Jurić
Il sagrestano – Christoph Stephinger
Sciarrone – Christian Rieger
Spoletta – Kevin Conners
Un carceriere – Igor Tsarkov
Un pastore – Member of the Tölzer Knabenchor

Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Daniele Callegari.
Stage director – Luc Bondy.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Saturday, May 14th, 2016.

Tonight undoubtedly confirmed the the depth of casting and the excellence of the quality of the performances that the Bayerische Staatsoper offers to its public.  Indeed, with the orchestral playing and a majority of the singing, the theatre’s status as one of the world’s leading houses was confirmed.

Sondra Radvanovsky © Wilfried Hösl
Sondra Radvanovsky © Wilfried Hösl

The late Luc Bondy’s staging was produced in collaboration with the Met and the Scala and was tonight revived by Johannes von Matuschka.  In many ways, it’s a Tosca that seeks to strip away much of the baggage the work has acquired over the years and presents the core of the drama without much of the garish window dressing that so many previous productions have insisted on.  For example, the church in Act 1 is completely devoid of ornament, no overwhelming vision of Catholic decoration here; rather, the colour comes with the entrance of the chorus.  Likewise in Act 2, Scarpia’s headquarters is furnished with a couple of couches and a table with a single map on the wall providing visual decoration.  In the last act, the stage is almost completely bare, apart from a tower at the right of the stage from where Tosca flings herself at the end.  What we get then is a staging that concentrates on the individuals, and yet in order for such a staging to succeed, the narrative needs to be driven through the personenregie.  In many respects it was tonight, but in others there was a lot of standing and delivering.

Jorge de León & Sondra Radvanovsky © Wilfried Hösl
Jorge de León & Sondra Radvanovsky © Wilfried Hösl

Bondy’s view of Scarpia is interesting in that he sets him up as a sadistic sex addict who kisses a statue of the Madonna during the climax of the ‘te deum’ and who is seen enjoying the company of some enthusiastically amorous ladies at the start of Act 2.  In a way, the only possible outcome of his pursuit of Tosca is to blackmail her into having sex with him, and setting Scarpia up in this way certainly creates a coherent theatrical argument, even if it is somewhat heavy handed.   The issue tonight was in its execution.

Sondra Radvanovsky & Ambrogio Maestri © Wilfried Hösl
Sondra Radvanovsky & Ambrogio Maestri © Wilfried Hösl

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Ambrogio Maestri as an exceptional Falstaff but on the evidence of tonight I’m not quite convinced that Scarpia is his role.  As the only native Italian speaker in the cast, I was hoping that he would make much of the text. Yet that ability to combine words and notes to create a compelling character didn’t quite seem to be in evidence.  Indeed, he seemed to be singing the ‘te deum’ with the ardour of someone placing an order at the Rome location of Domino’s.  He appeared much more comfortable joking with his lady companions in the opening of Act 2 where the wit that distinguishes his Falstaff was present and as the act developed, he finally started to make something of the character towards the end.  His Scarpia was neither a bruiser nor sadistically aristocratic, yet I’m not quite convinced he gave us a compelling alternative reading.  He has all the notes, the voice is a good size and he has undeniable stage presence.  The legato is perhaps a little too aspirated but there’s definitely a voice there.  On this viewing however, what I missed was a manipulation of the words and the notes to create a fully lived-in portrayal.

Jorge de León © Wilfried Hösl
Jorge de León © Wilfried Hösl

Jorge de León’s Cavaradossi is certainly a lived-in portrayal and the Canarian tenor was extremely well received by the Munich audience, as indeed was the whole cast.  After hearing so many Cavaradossis with lumpy phrasing over the years, it was a real pleasure to hear someone sing the role with a genuine legato. The voice also has real ping and his cries of ‘vittoria!’ in Act 2 filled the theatre yet were never gratuitous.  There are some issues with sustaining the line though, with a tendency for the tone to tighten up in the higher reaches of the voice and the vibrato can become uneven high up at louder dynamics.  That said, his singing was passionate and generous, and his two arias were honestly sung.

Ambrogio Maestri, Sondra Radvanovsky, Jorge de León, Kevin Conners © Wilfried Hösl
Ambrogio Maestri, Sondra Radvanovsky, Jorge de León, Kevin Conners © Wilfried Hösl

Sondra Radvanovsky was a fabulous Tosca.  The American-Canadian soprano really is in her absolute prime right now.  Her orange-toned soprano is round and rich and she had no trouble carrying over the tremendous noise from the pit, with the registers absolutely integrated from shining top to smoky bottom.  Her Tosca was coquettish in the first act with Cavaradossi, feral as she stabbed Scarpia, and optimistic in the last act, thereby completely mapping the character’s journey both vocally and histrionically.  Her ‘vissi d’arte’ was deeply moving, sung with nicely shaded dynamics and a rewarding ease of production.  In the past I have found her to have a tendency to sit on the underside of the note but not so tonight.  Radvanovsky is without a doubt one of the most important sopranos before the public today.

Ambrogio Maestri, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper © Wilfried Hösl
Ambrogio Maestri, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper © Wilfried Hösl

The remainder of the cast was naturally of the exceptionally high level of the ensemble of this distinguished theatre.  Kevin Conners’ peppery tenor made its presence known as an insinuating and vocally distinctive Spoletta.  Likewise, Angelotti is a role that allows many artists to make an impression and so it was tonight, with Goran Jurić’s chestnut and well-rounded bass distinguishing itself from the start.  As so often in Munich, the playing of the ladies and gentlemen of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester was a genuine highlight of the evening, in a score that I have no doubt they’d be able to play in their sleep.  The brass especially rang out magnificently and the strings offered us some nicely unanimous portamenti.  I found Daniele Callegari’s conducting curious.  The pace felt slow but Act 1 clocked in at just over 43 minutes, which isn’t especially spacious, but what it seemed to lack was forward momentum.  He had a good sense of line and was a sensitive accompanist to the events on stage; he brought out the stabbing sforzandos and the full range of colours in Puccini’s score.  And yet, in Act 2 as the tension should have built up unbearably while Cavaradossi was being tortured, there seemed to be something missing.  It wasn’t that it was conducted measure to measure instead of taking an overview of the score, rather there seemed to be a lack of propulsion to match the performances on stage.  Make no mistake however, the quality of the orchestral playing was unmistakable.


As I mentioned at the top, tonight really was an evening that once again cemented the Bayerische Staatsoper’s reputation as one of the greatest lyric theatres in the world.  It was presented in an intelligent production, one that attempted to strip away much of the glitz that the work has acquired over the years.  It was decently sung and in many cases much more than that.  It was a terrific evening in the theatre in just the way that a Tosca should be.

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