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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.