Bringing the Past to Life: Tosca at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Puccini – Tosca

Floria Tosca – Saioa Hernández
Mario Cavaradossi – Vittorio Grigolo
Il barone Scarpia – Roberto Frontali
Cesare Angelotti – Luciano Leoni
Il sagrestano – Roberto Abbondanza
Sciarrone – Leo Paul Chiarot
Spoletta – Saverio Fiore
Un carciere – Fabio Tinalli
Un pastore – Carola Finotti

Scuola di Canto Corale del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma / Paolo Arrivabeni.
Stage director – Alessandro Talevi.

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Rome, Italy.  Saturday, December 4th, 2021. 

There are few operas so connected with place as Tosca and what a privilege it is to see the opera, not only in the city where it takes place, but also in the theatre where it was first performed.  This is a house that has this score in its soul, and that was apparent in the way that the orchestra phrased the music, as well as in the way that the public reacted generously to the performance.  Alessandro Talevi’s staging dates from 2015, but rather than providing the house with a brand-new production, what we get instead is actually a replica of that very first production.

Tosca is a work full of drama, one that deals with the abuse of power, of religious hypocrisy, of love, torture, and murder.  It’s one that has so much to tell us about life today and about fighting back against oppression.  Of course, it’s entirely possible to do a relatively traditional production of Tosca and fill it with drama – Christof Loy’s in Helsinki, seen via streaming, is one such staging.  Talevi’s (here revived by Arianna Salzano) isn’t one of these, nor perhaps does it intend to be.  Instead, it’s one that provides a safe evening of entertainment, one where the drama needs to be powered through the electric connection between the principals, rather than through a cogent reading of the work.  The sets (Adolf Hohenstein reconstructed by Carlo Savi) are ornate, but the cloth backgrounds in Act 2 and 3 looked creased.  There was a considerable amount of standing and delivering from the principals, with Vittorio Grigolo’s Cavaradossi seeming to spend more time wanting to sing into and look at the audience, rather than addressing Saioa Hernández’s Tosca’s ‘occhi neri’.  There was little sense of that connection between oppressive religion and abuse of power in the ‘te deum’ – instead we got a visually impressive spectacle.

Perhaps, I expected too much – particularly after Talevi’s excellent Roberto Devereux in Madrid, also back in 2015.  But it’s hard not to feel that this staging of Tosca is a missed opportunity to revisit the work, to truly mine its meaning and bring out its contemporary resonance, especially in the city where it was first brought into the world.  Of course, it gives the Roman audience a slice of theatrical history – and that’s interesting.  Yet as a theatrical experience, it could have been so much more.

Photo: © Fabrizio Sansoni

Musically, however, as mentioned above, there were some considerable rewards.  Not least in Paolo Arrivabeni’s conducting.  His was a stimulating reading, because while his tempi were relatively moderate, the evening sped by.  He achieved this through the constant moulding of tension, building up the climaxes masterfully, so that when Scarpia made his first appearance, it felt like a sadistic inevitability of what had come before.  Similarly, Act 2 unfolded with inexorable inevitability.  Arrivabeni obtained thrilling playing from the house orchestra.  The string sound was both full of depth, yet achieved a gossamer lightness where required.  They made frequent use of warm portamenti, giving their playing a lyricism that felt as one with the vocal melodies.  There was also some big, warm brass playing, and that feeling of the floor vibrating underfoot in the ‘te deum’ was something very special indeed.

Hernández took some time to get into her stride in the title role.  I found her vocalism initially to be serviceably secure, but lacking in individuality.  I longed for her to do something with the text, to really spit out the consonants in her confrontation with Scarpia, to use the language to drive the line and drama forward.  Her ‘vissi d’arte’ was sung with poise, floating the line with ease.  Hers is an interesting instrument – somewhat brassy in tone, with a full and meaty bottom, although I’m not entirely convinced the registers are fully integrated.  Perhaps Hernández was holding something in reserve, since in Act 3 she injected her music with drama, her account of Scarpia’s murder sung with exciting abandon.  Certainly an interesting artist who I would be happy to see again.

Grigolo was Grigolo.  This is his home crowd in a house where he sang the Pastore as a youth.  He has tried to rein in his extroversion over the years and it must be admitted that he sang with sensitivity and the kind of sunny Italianate tone and use of text that gives much pleasure.  His ‘vittoria’s were sung out in full voice, but held on just long enough to stay on the right side of tasteful.  Grigolo’s is a fundamentally lyrical instrument and it felt that he was fully aware of what it was capable of.  His ‘e lucevan le stelle’ was greeted with an enormous ovation and demands for a ‘bis’, to which he obliged.  I found it, unlike the rest of his performance that evening, overly mannered, the tempo pulled around and distorted, with gratuitous pianissimi that were held on interminably.  The public loved it though. 

Only six days after having seen him as a congenial Dulcamara in Bergamo, Roberto Frontali gave us a vocally gripping Scarpia.  The voice was rock solid throughout the range, never any sense of hectoring, just firm tone with easy reach.  He brought so much out through the text, digging deep for meaning, rendering his Scarpia both aristocratic in line, but highly dangerous in his demonic desire for Tosca and lust for power.  With Frontali, there was never a sense of a voice being pushed beyond its limits, instead he used his instrument with intelligence and sensitivity, all while never holding back on the power.  The remainder of the cast reflected the high standards one would expect from a house with a profile such as this.  Roberto Abbondanza was a suitably gruff Sagrestano.  Luciano Leoni sang Angelotti in a secure bass-baritone with good resonance, while Fabio Tinalli sang the Carceriere with an impressively sonorous bass.  The Pastore was confidently sung by Carola Finotti.

There was something undoubtedly impressive about being able to see this work in the house where it came into the world, in a staging that aimed to reproduce that initial production.  Musically, the values were extremely high – not least in the superb orchestra, Arrivabeni’s compelling conducting and Frontali’s aristocratically demonic Scarpia.  And yet, as I mentioned above, it felt like a missed opportunity.  Opera is a living art form, one that lingers long in the memory, but one that also gives us the opportunity to confront our realities and make us reflect.  While we were given the opportunity to experience an interesting theatrical resurrection, which was received with audible pleasure by the Roman audience, I did wish that we had been given the chance to think and feel more.  That said, it was a pleasure to be here and musically I most certainly left satisfied.  

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