Living for Art: Tosca at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Puccini – Tosca

Floria Tosca – Angel Blue
La Prima Donna – Catherine Malfitano
Mario Cavaradossi – Joseph Calleja
Il barone Scarpia – Alexey Markov
Cesare Angelotti – Simon Shibambu
Il sagrestano – Leonardo Galeazzi
Sciarrone – Jean-Gabriel Saint Martin
Spoletta – Michael Smallwood
Un carciere – Virgile Ancely

Maîtrise de l’Opéra de Lyon, Chœur de l’Opéra de Lyon, Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon / Daniele Rustioni.
Stage director – Christophe Honoré.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Friday, July 12th, 2019.

In a stimulating note in the program book, the director of this, the first ever production of Tosca at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Christophe Honoré, argues that the way the work is regarded is symptomatic of a view of viewing the operatic genre as a whole.  He argues that ‘one sometimes has the impression that opera-goers go to the opera like people who go to museums to view the Demoiselles d’Avignon or the Mona Lisa, as if these operatic works were frozen in time, eternally boxed in, whereas opera has continually been looked at afresh’ (my translation).  Indeed, one need only think of Jonathan Kent’s London Royal Opera production, which looked precisely the same as the previous Zeffirelli one it replaced.  Or David McVicar’s Metropolitan Opera staging, which looks the same as any other production of the last hundred years.  In many ways, this is simply down to the fact that the libretto is so specific about time and location.  At the same time, it’s perfectly possible to distil the drama, remove the trappings of tradition, and render it very much ‘her’ story, a feminist tale of a woman rising up against a fascistic police state, as Calixto Bieito did in his revolutionary Oslo staging back in 2017.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

What Honoré does is even more radical.  He introduces a new character, the Prima Donna, played by the veteran of many Tosca productions, Catherine Malfitano.  The premise is a film crew making a documentary of an aging diva, watching her as she coaches a cast through the piece in her own apartment – complete with full orchestra, chorus and children’s chorus (it looks like quite a spacious home).  Each act takes us through that initial coaching, to the cast rehearsing, to a closing concert performance with the orchestra now on stage.  Along the way, Honoré reveals several perceptive observations.  Whether it be the Prima Donna singing Tosca’s opening lines, unwilling to give up her signature role, to the backstage insights of the tenor with a drinking problem, or Tosca herself being sexually harassed by Scarpia and his henchmen.  Honoré also makes a pertinent observation on the fleetingness of fame – the choruses prostrated themselves in front of the Prima Donna for the ‘Te deum’, or mobbed her for her autograph; yet in Act 2, she’s left alone, resorting to paying her houseboy to lay in his underwear on her bed while she watches.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

What Honoré doesn’t give us, then, is a conventional Tosca with Roman scenery.  Although, those who like their opera as fashion show will appreciate some of the fine couture on show.  On paper, I’m sure Honoré’s concept would come across as distracting.  However, the reality is that it’s a fascinating evening in the theatre.  It thinks the work afresh and gives us a meditation on what it means to be worshipped, and what happens when that worship transfers to the next generation.  There was something extraordinarily moving to how Angel Blue’s Tosca took over her music from Malfitano – this iconic role being passed on to a younger singer.  Similarly, in ‘vissi d’arte’, Blue was accompanied by images of great Toscas of the past and, rather than her being overshadowed, she more than held her own.  Despite the wealth of extraneous action on stage, it never felt overwhelming.  Rather, Honoré used live action video to focus attention on where it needed to go.

The downside is that in Act 1, the drama felt prosaic, the focus being on the Prima Donna’s story.  That said, by Act 2 it was crackling, the big Tosca/Scarpia confrontation thrilling in electric energy, not least due to Daniele Rustioni’s conducting ratcheting up the tension unbearably.  Of course, there was no leap from the battlements tonight, but instead a reflective ending that felt satisfying in tying up the journey fully.

Honoré’s reflection on the passage of generations had added impact due to Blue’s magnificent incarnation of the title role.  This run marked Blue’s debut, both in the role and in France, and she really does have what it takes to be the Tosca of her generation.  Her use of vocal colour to portray her character was masterful.  The voice is in fabulous shape – big, rounded and plush, founded on a cushion of sound and not afraid to fully exploit some deliciously resonant chestiness.  She rose to a heart-breaking ‘vissi d’arte’, phrased in endless lines, colouring the tone to find the sadness and the regret within.  In the confrontation with Scarpia, the top opened up thrillingly, as it did in her climactic ‘avanti a dio’ ringing out into the Provençal night.  The text is extremely clear, but perhaps Blue could do more to bring out the double consonants, singing with them, rather than over them.  That said, Blue is already a superb Tosca and it will be a privilege to see her grow even more into the role over the next decade.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Joseph Calleja brought sunny lyricism to Cavaradossi, similarly singing his music with long, easy lines and golden tone.  His painter was very much a dreamer, rather than a firebrand revolutionary, shading the tone with great delicacy.  It did seem that Calleja was somewhat out of sorts, perhaps an unannounced indisposition, with the top problematic and a worrying tightness and rawness up there.  Alexey Markov was a maliciously aristocratic Scarpia, sung in a firm column of sound, absolutely even from top to bottom.  The voice is huge, acidic even, and hits the listener in the face with a huge tower of malevolent tone.  Most impressive.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

In the remainder of the cast, Malfitano also sang the Shepherd Boy in a leathery but still resonant soprano.  Michael Smallwood’s Spoletta had peppery nastiness in the tone but it was sung in very Anglophone-sounding Italian.  Leonardo Galeazzi’s Sagrestano was full of character, the text nicely clear in a narrow baritone.  Simon Shibambu’s Angelotti was extrovert and sung in a nicely complex bass-baritone.  The Opéra de Lyon forces were on splendid form for their chief, Rustioni.  He brought out the modernity of Puccini’s scoring, making it sound quite revolutionary, with the torturous strikes in Act 2 combined with brassy half-lights and string lyricism with easy portamenti throughout.  The quality of the orchestral playing was most impressive.  The children’s chorus had been well-prepared and the adults sang with tight ensemble, if perhaps blowzy tone in the ladies.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Musically, tonight’s Tosca more than reflected the extremely high standards of the festival.  Blue’s Tosca made notice of a major new interpreter of this iconic role.  Honoré’s staging was definitely interesting.  It isn’t a classic Tosca, and I’m not entirely convinced the narrative of the piece itself wasn’t completely lost in the first act.  Despite these reservations, Honoré gives us a show of rare insight into the lives of those who give us pleasure on stage, and what happens after the lights go up and the audience has gone home.  The entire cast was fully signed up to his vision and the audience responded with a warm and positive ovation.

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  1. The production sounds desperate! Reviewer seems to know little about music or indeed voices. What the hell is a “nicely complex bass-baritone”. Making descriptions sound intelligent belies ignorance of real factual grasp of voices.

    • Monsieur, I have 10 years of vocal studies as well as a degree in vocal performance. If you were to read any of the reviews on this site you’ll see that not only do I understand voices, but I can articulate this in a way that the general public can understand. The site has received very positive feedback from singers & intendants alike. Indeed, I received an email from an intendant of a major house just last week complimenting me on this. Maybe monsieur would like to direct us to his writing to show us how it’s done?

  2. Thanks for interesting review. FWIW (and you probably know this anyway), when one shows appreciation for the kind of production traddybores hate, even if they haven’t actually seen, someone is likely to suggest that you know nothing of anything (and probably that your mother was a hamster). So it goes!

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment! I had one next to me at the Mozart Requiem last night who insisted on informing his neighbours (fortunately on the other side from me) loudly how much he didn’t like it. He then proceeded to keep checking his watch ostentatiously, noisily writing notes and commenting throughout the show. No idea why went when it was clear what the show was going to be like in advance.

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