A Tosca for Today: Tosca at Den Norske Opera, Oslo

Puccini – Tosca

Tosca – Svetlana Aksenova
Cavaradossi – Daniel Johansson
Scarpia – Claudio Sgura
Angelotti – Jens-Erik Aasbø
Il sagrestano – Pietro Simone
Sciarrone – Ludvig Lindström
Spoletta – Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy
Un pastore – Aksel Johannes Skramstad Rykkvin

Operaens Barnekor, Norske Operakoret, Norske Operaorkestret / Karl-Heinz Steffens.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Den Norske Opera, Operaen, Oslo, Norway.  Sunday, June 11th, 2017.

Tosca is of course an iconic work, a constant presence on opera house schedules all over the world.  And yet with that exposure, comes the baggage of tradition – the place-specific settings and detailed stage instructions mean that so many Toscas are inevitably hard to tell from the next.  Naturally, Calixto Bieito was never going to give us a traditional Tosca.  Of course, there are those who will miss picturesque Rome, but what Bieito does is, as always, based in the text.  Here, Cavaradossi is an artist working on an installation of the Madonna, so that when Tosca refers to kissing in front of her, they really are.  What Bieito has given us is a twenty-first century Tosca that strips the work down to a minimum – no elaborate sets here just a simple black box setting, and the removal of the baggage of tradition also includes removing the intermissions.  The result is a concentrated shot of dramatic adrenaline.

Photo: © Erik Berg

In an age where media celebrity and business deals lead to the presidency of the free world, the idea of the obedient unthinking crowd supporting him is most pertinent.  Here, Scarpia is a telegenic dyed-blonde figure, constantly trailed by two henchmen.  He is unafraid to ‘grab [Tosca] by the pussy’ in Act 2, even in front of his well-coiffed lady companion.  Cavaradossi on the other hand is the resistance (a theme Bieito also explored in his Turandot, seen in Nürnberg and Belfast).  There is goodness and generosity to this Cavaradossi.  In addition to helping Angelotti, he also takes in a homeless person (the Sacristan) and makes him part of his world.  As Scarpia destroys Cavardossi’s artwork, the pain of the Sacristan is tangible.  Some might find this dichotomy between the good revolutionary artist and evil politician far too simplistic and yet, this is something that confronts us today.  That unthinking mob that maintains him standing in rows at the back with their children, dressed in uniform, drained of their individuality and destined to conform – I found this an exceptionally powerful and cogent theatrical argument.

Photo: © Erik Berg

As expected, Bieito created highly vivid characters with his principals, fully mapping their individual journeys.  Tosca appeared initially to be very much the lover, searching for physical satisfaction from her boyfriend with fighting the system a second thought.   As the evening progressed, Tosca also became more of an activist, taking things, literally, into her own hands.  As an actress, Svetlana Aksenova fully inhabited her role.  There was something quite exciting about the blend of steel and quite strident top in her vocalism.  I imagine some will find it an acquired taste, I quite liked her uninhibited wildness in places .  It seems that as yet, she hasn’t quite found the ability to fully combine the words and the notes.  Her ‘muori dannato’ didn’t quite have the almost feral abandon that it really needs but she did sing her ‘vissi d’arte’ with genuine dignity.  Aksenova has the potential to become a truly thrilling Tosca but I felt that tonight, inevitably perhaps on a first night, she wasn’t quite there.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Daniel Johansson was a very impressive Cavaradossi with a big and robust yet sunny, Italianate sound and a good line.  He was fearless in his physicality and his cries of ‘vittoria’ were ecstatic and fortunately not held on interminably.  Very occasionally tuning would head south, however.  His ‘e lucevan le stelle’ was beautifully shaded bringing home Cavardossi’s romantic dreaminess.  Johansson is a new name to me and one I will certainly be looking out for.  Claudio Sgura’s Scarpia most definitely had the magnetism to incorporate that telegenic yet sadistic leader.  He was dangerously seductive, singing with a honeyed legato during his interjections to the ‘te deum’ and he never once appeared to compromise the beauty of the tone.  His immaculate diction and use of text also gave much pleasure as indeed did Johansson’s.

Photo: © Erik Berg

The remainder of the cast reflected, as always, the excellent level of the house – every single role was well sung with voices of very high quality.  It seems unkind to single out individuals but Jens-Erik Aasbø’s Angelotti was sung in a very handsome baritone and Pietro Simone’s Sagrestano had real character.  The house band was on thrilling form for their current music director, Karl-Heinz Steffens, the brass especially filling the house in a blaze of sound.  From my seat, the strings seemed to be lacking in full-bodied warmth but that impression may have been different in another part of the house.  Steffens built up the tension unbearably in the torture scene, yet also found the stillness required at the start of Act 3 with ‘e lucevan le stelle’ benefitting from the haunting clarinet solo, beautifully phrased.  The chorus gave us singing of splendid amplitude and unanimity of tone in the ‘te deum’, the children also well drilled.

Photo: © Erik Berg

While wishing to avoid spoilers, I guess it isn’t unexpected that there was no leap from the battlements tonight.  However, what Bieito did instead felt ingenious, with ‘avanti a Dio’ taking on a whole new and very convincing meaning – Tosca taking on the role of revolutionary for herself.  In many ways, Bieito’s staging with its contemporary echoes and revolutionary spirit feels very true to the nature of the work.  It may well be that further performances will be even more visceral than tonight.  Yet this really was gripping and vital music theatre, with performances of extreme dedication from the entire cast and it was very satisfyingly sung.  By stripping away the layers of assumed tradition, Bieito has succeeded in giving us a Tosca that is very much for today.

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  1. Tosca, Oslo Opera, Søndag 11.juni 2017

    The music was wonderful, the singers superb, the Opera House magnificent, the production a disappointment.
    I understand a producer needing to interpret and to provoke. Opera should recreate and reinvent itself.
    The Audience pays the ticket and comes to the Opera to leave the everyday world behind, to forget stresses at work, worry over kids, demands of elderly parents, anxieties about today’s chaotic and threatening politics.
    We come to hear the greatest music, to be moved by passion and torment and hope and victory.
    To hear and to see another world, beauty and fantasy, imagination and extravagance, colour and nuances, arousing our sensibilities.
    Not the heroine wearing a woolly cardigan, men in everyday suits and ties, monumental dark walls, and worst of all, children in English school blazers.
    Opera is auditory and visual, to hear and to see, le parole, et la musica.
    My mind needs to be given the space to concentrate on the music and wonderful singing, while my breath is taken away by the presentation, by visions that are far from my kitchen sink and giant sellotape.
    There was provocation, but it was towards producers who wish to see how far they can go, I was not provoked to mount the barricades or seek into my own soul.
    The same is happening in ballet and even Shakespeare, where the text is second to distracting visual effects.
    Sincerely, Janet Eriksen

    • Madame, thank you for taking the time to write. While there are quite literally hundreds of productions of Tosca set in Rome with churches, candles and castles, it’s fascinating to think back to the power this work would have had when it was first performed. Then, Italy was in crisis with the premiere even having to be postponed by a day. Imagine the impact of a work with its first act taking place in a church during a time when anti-clericalism was on the rise. What I think Bieito really succeeds in doing is not only combining the music, words and excellent singing but also recreating that revolutionary aspect that the work must have had on its first listeners. Not everyone will be comfortable with this approach but I do think art has a role in confronting us and making us reflect on our own reality and in so doing, gives us a catharsis greater than any escapism, especially so last night with that quite empowering final tableau.

  2. Fascinating! Tosca is one of a handful of operas about which I have asked “can they be reinterpreted?”. One of the others was La Bohème. How strange that both should get a fresh and insightful treatment in Oslo!

    • Absolutely. It’s a fantastic house, so enterprising and of course architecturally stunning. As you read, I found it a completely convincing interpretation though clearly others were less enamoured of it.

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