Cinematic Ambition: Tosca at the Macerata Opera Festival

Puccini – Tosca

Floria Tosca – Carmen Giannattasio
Mario Cavaradossi – Antonio Poli
Il barone Scarpia – Claudia Sgura
Cesare Angelotti – Alessandro Abis
Il sagrestano – Armando Gaba
Sciarrone – William Corrò
Spoletta – Saverio Fiore
Un carciere – Franco Di Girolamo
Un pastore – Sofia Cippitelli

Pueri Cantores “D. Zamberletti”, Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini”, FORM-Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana / Donato Renzetti.
Stage director – Valentina Carrasco.

Macerata Opera Festival, Sferisterio, Macerata, Italy.  Friday, July 22nd, 2022.

Tonight marked my first visit to the Macerata Opera Festival, this year celebrating its fifty-eighth edition.  The festival takes place in the striking Sferisterio, located in the heart of this ancient hilltop city.  Originally constructed as a sports arena, the open-air venue has been hosting opera for over a century.  It’s a truly magical place to see a show, under the stars.  The stage is extremely wide and shallow, which allows directors many opportunities to create visually stimulating productions.

Photo: © Luna Simoncini

And that’s precisely what we got from Valentina Carrasco tonight.  She sets the action in what appears to be the 1940s or 1960s Hollywood.  I give such a broad date range because I left the theatre confused as to when the action was due to be set.  Scarpia is a film producer, Tosca an actress.  The set (Samal Blak) consists of Scarpia’s trailer, a large fresco for the Te Deum, and a tower from which we see a double of Tosca racing up the stairs with her body splattered over the floor at the end.  Carrasco uses a black and white film, typical of those of the 1940s, The Battle of Marengo, with credits referring to both members of the cast and the production team, to situate the action, and this is shown intermittently on the back of the Sferisterio’s stage.  Yet when Scarpia interrogates Cavaradossi, we are shown images of the McCarthyism in the United States in the 1960s.  Similarly, at the start of Act 3, names of prominent figures investigated by McCarthy are projected on the back of the stage.  This led to confusion as to when the action was meant to be set and indeed what moral point Carrasco was trying to make – was she drawing parallels with the Napoleonic wars and McCarthyism, or was she trying to make a wider point about societal paranoia?

Photo: © Luna Simoncini

One particularly interesting aspect of Carrasco’s production was the way in which Scarpia seemed to want to provoke Tosca emotionally in order to get a reaction out of her which he could film.  There was a kernel of an idea there worth exploring further, particularly as he filmed ‘vissi d’arte’ in closeup, which was then projected on the back of the stage as Tosca sang.  Consequently, Tosca using the camera to kill Scarpia, made for an interesting idea in how that she used the object that represented Scarpia’s power over her to gain revenge. 

Photo: © Luna Simoncini

As I mentioned above, the Sferisterio stage is very wide and Carrasco seemed to find it necessary to use every last centimetre of it. This meant that we got a perambulating Batman and Cleopatra while Cavaradossi sang ‘recondita armonia’, and a dinner party filmed and projected on the back of the stage while Scarpia interrogated Cavaradossi in his trailer.  While I was seated in the centre of the venue, I can only imagine that this must have been highly distracting for those at the sides of the venue and much detail will have been lost to them.  I longed for Carrasco instead to focus on her principals and use them to drive the drama.  The lady next to me spent the entire evening checking her phone for Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, and it struck me that Carrasco might have been aiming to gain the attention of those more used to the instant gratification of their phones – although if my neighbour is any guide, she didn’t quite achieve this.  That said, the business with Cavaradossi having his eye threatened with a razor blade and this being projected onto the back of the stage was certainly striking.

Photo: © Luna Simoncini

Musically, the performance was dominated by Claudio Sgura’s Scarpia.  This was incredibly well sung, his baritone in great shape – no barking here – and everything sung with beauty.  This gave his assumption a horrifying edge.  He sounded so reasonable in this psychopathy, making his threats and obsession with Tosca sound so sensible and even romantic.  He achieved this through superb textual acuity, using the language to project the tone, combined with an impeccable legato.

Photo: © Luna Simoncini

Carmen Giannattasio was an enthusiastic Tosca.  Her grapefruit-toned soprano is not conventionally beautiful, but she did sing with passion and generosity.  The top also doesn’t spin, making the uppermost reaches sound more like screaming.  In the parts of the role that require more heft, such as in Act 1 as she reacted to Scarpia’s insinuations, the stress on her instrument was audible with vibrations widening.  Tuning in ‘vissi d’arte’ was also problematic, frequently below the note.  I admired Giannattasio’s scenic energy, she was definitely at one with Carrasco’s staging, but vocally the role sounds like a stretch too far for her current means.

Photo: © Luna Simoncini

I first heard Antonio Poli as a Mozart tenor around a decade ago.  Having not heard him since, I found him intriguing casting as Cavaradossi.  The middle of the voice now sounds extremely dry, while the top is bright but lacking in metal and power.  His extended ‘vittoria’s sounded like a cinquecento trying to be a Lamborghini – the sound had agreeable brilliance but also sounded narrow.  His ‘recondita armonia’ was sung in a lumpy, aspirated legato with droopy intonation, although by the time he got to ‘e lucevan le stelle’, he had clearly warmed up and he sang it with dignity and improved tuning.  In the remainder of the cast, a special mention for Alessandro Abis as Angelotti, singing in a warm bass-baritone with good resonance.  Throughout the cast, the clarity of the diction was a pleasure to hear.

Photo: © Luna Simoncini

Donato Renzetti led a reading that was nicely swift in Act 1.  Yet in Act 2, the more deliberate tempi meant that the action didn’t crackle with the excitement one might have expected.  What Renzetti did achieve was a wonderfully soupy and elegant string sound, in this particularly dry acoustic.  Most impressive.  The orchestra was on superb form, especially given the challenges of this venue where, by all accounts, musicians cannot hear those on the other side of the pit, the quality of the playing worthy of any major lyric theatre.  The choruses had been extremely well prepared, the adults singing with beauty of tone and impeccable blend. 

Photo: © Luna Simoncini

This was an audacious evening in the theatre.  We were given a staging that had clearly been painstakingly rehearsed and aimed to give us a visually stimulating evening.  Similarly, we had a youthful Tosca and Cavaradossi taking on big roles with primarily lighter instruments.  That said, the evening was especially notable for Sgura’s thrilling Scarpia, who made evil sound so perniciously quotidian, and the playing of an orchestra that lives and breathes this music.  The audience responded with a warm ovation for the cast. 

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