Living for Art: Tosca from Finnish National Opera

Puccini – Tosca

Floria Tosca – Aušrinė Stundytė
Mario Cavaradossi – Andrea Carè
Il barone Scarpia – Tuomas Pursio
Cesare Angelotti – Tapani Plathan
Il sagrestano – Heikki Aalto
Sciarrone – Nicholas Söderlund
Spoletta – Matias Haakana
Un carciere – Henri Uusitalo
Un pastore – Kris-Andrea Haav

Finlands Nationaloperas kör, Suomen kansallisoopperan orkesteri / Patrick Fournillier.
Stage director – Christof Loy.  Video director – Hannu Kamppila.

Suomen kansallisooppera ja -baletti – Finlands nationalopera och -balett, Helsinki, Finland.  September – October, 2018.  Streamed via Arte.tv.

As an opera, Tosca is one that feels so closely tied to the times and places specified in the libretto – with the result that so often, productions of the work seem to be indistinguishable from the next.  That isn’t to say that it’s impossible to create a compelling, alternative reading of Tosca – Calixto Bieito succeeded in his transformation of the title role from loving girlfriend to freedom fighter in Oslo; while Christophe Honoré gave us a meditation on what it means to be a diva at Aix-en-Provence.  Yet, productions that really question the piece, that bring to life its brutality, its violence, as well as its tenderness, are much rarer.  This is a story full of sexual obsession, of torture, rape, murder, and suicide.  Far too often, it’s subjected to Zeffirelli or McVicar-esque prettification, all in the name of entertainment.

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Photo: © Heikki Tuuli

As the curtain rose for this, Christof Loy’s staging of the work in Helsinki back in 2018, I feared the worst.  The handsome period sets (Christian Schmidt) and costumes (also Schmidt) led one to believe that this would be just another Tosca.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Of course, much of the success of the evening is due to the electrifying Aušrinė Stundytė in the title role.  With her first entry, she transforms the evening, pulling it up to a higher plane of dramatic energy – and is instantly rewarded with similarly compelling performances from her castmates, Andrea Carè as Cavaradossi and Tuomas Pursio as Scarpia, who both rise to the occasion following Stundytė’s appearance.  Act 2, in particular, is incredibly visceral – Loy doesn’t shirk the torture, nor the attempted rape.  Tosca begins ‘vissi d’arte’ while being pawed by Scarpia, Stundytė’s body displaying an alarming tension that made this aria feel less of a set piece and much more of an outpouring of grief for the life one thought one knew.  Similarly, Cavaradossi’s look of disbelief at Tosca in Act 3, he knowingly facing an imminent death, but wanting to make her believe that there was still a chance of happiness, was heartbreaking.

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Photo: © Heikki Tuuli

There were a couple of things that didn’t quite convince – the presence of a young man, as Cavaradossi’s assistant, in the church in Act 1 felt that it added little to the action.  While Scarpia rolling around on the floor in orgasmic ecstasy in front of the crowd at the start of the ‘te deum’, felt a little de trop – but at the same time, did reinforce Scarpia’s nature as a dangerous sex pest, using his power to take advantage of others.  Otherwise, what Loy gives is a vital piece of theatre, one that doesn’t shirk the nastier side of the story, but that instead gives us an evening of high passions, of danger, and imminent horror.

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Photo: © Heikki Tuuli

Undoubtedly, this evening would not have had the impact it had, had it not been for Stundytė’s assumption of the title role.  She injects the music with so much urgency, filling the text with feeling, colouring it, whether in jealousy, sorrow or in hope.  The voice is somewhat thick in the middle but the top is exciting.  Tuning can also come in and out of focus and towards the end of the evening, the top started to thin out somewhat.  And yet, even with these small vocal imperfections, Stundytė gives us a performance that genuinely lives, a perfect antidote to the blandness one so often sees on the lyric stage.  Her stage presence is remarkable, the depth of facial impressions picked up by Hannu Kamppila’s direction for the small screen.  Stundytė brings so much to the role, she lives it, charting the journey from confident diva to a broken shell of a woman doomed to take her life in her hands.  This is the work of a master singing-actor.

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Photo: © Heikki Tuuli

As Cavaradossi, Carè grows in confidence as the evening progresses.  As is so often the case, ‘recondita armonia’ sounds like the vocal equivalent of walking a tightrope, sitting as it does awkwardly in the passaggio.  I also left with a distinct impression of a lighter lyric tenor taking on this beefy role.  Carè is a dashing and handsome stage presence – in addition to being an enthusiastic actor – and as the evening progressed, he grew into the role, both vocally and physically.  He dispatched his ‘vittoria’s with energy, and his ‘e lucevan le stelle’ was sung with genuine introspection and long-breathed phrasing.

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Photo: © Heikki Tuuli

Pursio’s Scarpia was carved from granite in a firm, column of sound from his impressively even bass-baritone.  There was a slight loosening of vibrations where he put pressure on the tone in the ‘te deum’, but as he relaxed, the tone came out with impressive consistency.  There was an evil to his vocalism, the firmness of the emissions making his character sound even more single-minded, and his stage presence was palpable, even on the small screen.

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Photo: © Heikki Tuuli

The remaining roles reflected the very fine standards of the house.  In particular, Tapani Plathan’s youthful Angelotti.  Patrick Fournillier led a reading that felt as equally vital as the action on stage, founded in a string sound of notable depth and an excitingly extrovert brass section.  He ratcheted up the tension masterfully in Act 2 and navigated the opening of Act 3 with purpose, never allowing it to drag or feel like filler as it often does.  While it might feel like damning with faint praise to say that he was an effective accompanist, his direction felt all of a piece with what happened on stage, reinforcing its effect.

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Photo: © Heikki Tuuli

This is definitely a Tosca worth spending a couple of hours with.  Loy has given us a traditional Tosca that for once feels radical and vital, reminding us that this really is at heart a shocking story.  He benefits from the presence of a cast completely at one with his vision, in particular Stundytė who gives us a performance of visceral impact, alongside her highly dedicated co-principals.  The performance is received with a huge ovation by the Helsinki audience, who were clearly aware of the fact that they had witnessed a powerful evening of music theatre.

During this period of theatre closures, earnings from both the Patreon community and paypal will be donated to musical and environmental charities.

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