‘And Before Him All Rome Trembled?’ — Where the Villain Outshines the Hero: Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ on the Radio

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“Oh, Scarpia, We Meet Before God!”

Sondra Radvanovsky in Act II of Tosca (Ken Howard)
Sondra Radvanovsky in Act II of Tosca (Ken Howard)

Never let it be said that Giacomo Puccini was a mere ladies’ man. Oh, he was that, all right — and more! But one should also regard him as strictly a man’s man. In fact, he loved boating and fishing, hunting and hiking, as well as fast cars and all things mechanical. And let’s not forget those fast women, people. We could say that Puccini lived in the fast lane before speed became a fact of modern life. He’d even be a regular fixture on the E! Network, were he alive today.

In his opera Tosca, broadcast live by the Met on Saturday, December 28, speed is of the essence. The drama flows continuously, from one scene to the other, in riveting spurts. All three of his leading characters, the opera singer Floria Tosca, the painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, and the dreaded chief of police Baron Scarpia, show facets of the composer’s love/hate relationship with both sexes: Tosca, by turns flirtatious and loving, jealous and pious; Cavaradossi, daring and reckless, irreverent and passionate; Scarpia, bigoted and repulsive, lustful and duplicitous.

By now, everyone knows the story of how Puccini, who had a high degree of difficulty finding (then settling on) a proper subject for his operas, had wrangled away the rights from a rival composer, one Alberto Franchetti, to French playwright Victorien Sardou’s blood and thunder stage-work La Tosca.

The play was originally conceived as a vehicle for actress Sarah Bernhardt, who made quite a show of it in her day. Puccini saw the play while working on Manon Lescaut. He was suitably impressed by it, understood nothing of the text, but felt the action a ripe prospect for operatic treatment. He then promptly forgot all about it, until, shortly after La Bohème’s premiere, Puccini had read in the local papers about Franchetti’s involvement in the project. At that point, the composer swore he had to have it!

In that respect, Puccini had the full support of his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, the head of Casa Ricordi, who conspired with his protégé to “trick” Franchetti into giving up the rights. In the general scheme of things, it was providential that Franchetti eventually saw the light, for a Tosca by any other composer, even the elderly Verdi, would not have sounded quite the same.

For one, Puccini was as an absolute master of the short signature phrases the verismo style called for. Those wonderful hit tunes the Tuscan-born Puccini became famous for were made up of fragments of melodies that, strung together and shaped into the main story line, blended aria and recitative into a seamless whole. Few Italian composers of the era were as adept as Puccini in conveying the rhythms of everyday speech into his work. Also, the secret of his success was the constant and relentless badgering he subjected his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to. From the ruins of this torturous relationship, a workable text was fashioned that would somehow placate the unsatisfied composer.

As a result, the title and supporting roles in Tosca have been much coveted by singers the world over for more than a century. Many of our modern-day Toscas, in this country at least, were the cream of the operatic crop, beginning with the incomparable sopranos Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Dorothy Kirsten, Antonietta Stella, Montserrat Caballé, Raina Kabaivanska, and Galina Vishnevskaya. Her tenor lover Mario has been taken by the likes of Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti.

As for the part of Scarpia, such stalwarts as Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei, George London, Cornell MacNeil, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris, and Ruggero Raimondi have provided the requisite thrills in the baritone department. Needless to say, the above-named vocal categories are all tailor-made for showing off an artist’s capabilities. If a singer fails to impress in Tosca, it’s probably due to miscasting.

Sondra Radvanovsky (silive.com)
Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca (silive.com)

If there was any fine singing to be had on Saturday afternoon, it certainly came from the ravishing Sondra Radvanovsky as Floria Tosca, who gave the part luster. While I felt she was too subdued throughout her lengthy Act I scena with the scheduled Cavaradossi (tenor Marcello Giordani), Sondra soon came into her own in her brief sequence with Scarpia, just before the Te Deum. Gorgeous tone and a silky-smooth delivery were the hallmarks of Radvanovsky’s performance thereafter. Her prolonged Act II encounter with the wily baron was a battle of two strong wills, a classic match-up and one that Puccini and his librettists took great care to preserve from the play.

A Callas and a Gobbi, or a Tebaldi and a London, could chew up the scenery, yet still give off sufficient allure or an equivalent amount of regal splendor to their respective roles to believe in their plight. One had a reasonable sense of the diva’s situation, as it began to unfold and spin out of her control.

“Vissi d’arte,” Tosca’s “I live for art” moment, was, as expected, the highpoint of Radvanovsky’s art as well. A long, sumptuous line, the tone beautifully flowing, an authentic enunciation of the text, along with a dark and lustrous vibrancy to her voice, lent an air of distinction to the diva’s suffering at the hands of the ruthless bad guy.

Her highest note, sung near the end of the phrase “Perchè, Signor?” (“Why, O Lord?”), a veritable cry of despair, was trailed off by the softest of sounds. She was greeted with an explosion of applause that held up the action for several minutes, a well-earned ovation. Sondra also excelled in her Act III narrative describing Scarpia’s murder at her hands. Speaking of which, her half-growled, half-sung tossing of the line, “È morto… or gli perdono” (“He’s dead… now I forgive him”) sent a collective chill down the audience’s spine. We must also mention her long-held final note, whereby just before leaping to her death she hurls out the line, “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio” – “Oh, Scarpia, we meet before God.”

Marcello Giordani (Dario Acosta)
Marcello Giordani (Dario Acosta)

Unfortunately, Marcello Giordani as her partner Mario simply was not up to the task of this most dashing of lovers. In addition to my previous commentary about this once illustrious artist’s annoying habit of singing sharp can be added a noticeable and quite disturbing wobble, one that detracted from this listener’s enjoyment of the part. His cries of “Vittoria, vittoria!” were forceful enough; they were just not very pleasant to the ears. He went hoarse at one point in Act III, during his final rapturous duet with Sondra, which is inexcusable.

Giordani must have been having a bad day. In Act III, he tried mightily to sing softly, but the strain of doing so was more than evident. His attempts at pianissimo were raw and beat driven, as well as not very ingratiating. The applause for his otherwise handsomely delivered “E lucevan le stelle,” which tenors from Di Stefano, Del Monaco and Corelli to Domingo, Carreras and Kaufmann, not to mention Pavarotti, made especially memorable, was more polite than vociferous. His was a disappointing assumption of this can’t-miss role. And Giordani missed it by a theatrical mile. Here was a case where the snarly villain clearly outshone the wimpy hero.

And speak of the devil, George Gagnidze, from the former Soviet Union’s Georgia of all places, was an old-fashioned, snarly-toned Baron Scarpia. A real mustache twirler (to be perfectly blunt about it), with a beefy essence and imposing physique (I saw Gagnidze in the HD telecast a few years back when this production was new), frankly there was nothing subtle or mellifluous about his conception of the part. He was all brute force, with little of the aristocratic bearing that marks Puccini’s most dastardly creation to be such a formidable foe. His Italian enunciation was slightly accented, but not in a distracting way. In truth, it made his Scarpia novel but not entirely out of place as Rome’s guardian of the peace. Note: The historical Scarpia was a Sicilian by birth, so the accent can be defended on those grounds alone.

George Gagnidze as Scarpia (Ken Howard)
George Gagnidze as Scarpia (Ken Howard)

Indeed, Scarpia should be “different” from the other characters. In the hands of a superb singing-actor such as Gobbi, my generation’s model baron, or the leonine Mr. Taddei — even the distinguished and smooth-voiced bass Raimondi, who’s recorded the part in almost every medium, including several outstanding film forays — the dubious nature of this vicious bully shines through, but with the proverbial “iron fist in the velvet glove.” Vocally, Gagnidze bludgeoned the role to death, long before he got hold of his “nemesis,” Mario. And Tosca without a credible villain is one-half of a great opera.

On the plus side, Met maestro Marco Armiliato knows his way around this score as well as anyone. He helped move matters along smoothly, and kept the various bits of stage business in check, especially during the crowded Te Deum that concludes Act I. The music’s ebb and flow, which this opera is justly famous for, were expertly handled. Puccini is in this conductor’s blood, no doubt about it, and Armiliato proved it time and again with an atmospheric reading of the lovely third act introduction, an evocation of Rome at dawn. In the best productions, the city itself is a major contributor to the drama.

Sadly, this lame excuse of a programmer lacked the usual finesse. The décor was, shall we say, appallingly bad and of the bargain-basement variety. The stage action was even worse, which featured (at the time of its premiere) Scarpia kissing the statue of the Madonna, while caressing her bosom as the Te Deum peeled forth. If this is what is meant by Regietheater, I’ll take the tried-and-true formulas anytime.

It’s my understanding this notorious bit of hokum has been thankfully removed (or maybe not). Good heavens! It never made much sense to begin with. We know that Scarpia is a sexual deviant, but as an aristocrat and holder of high office he would never — and I mean never! — have exposed his inner self in such an obviously obtuse manner.

French director Luc Bondy, whose previous work with Verdi’s Don Carlos I very much admire, went way over the top, not just here but in Act II as well, where Scarpia has not one but three prostitutes hanging around to service him. How about showing those “ladies” the door, Luc?

John Del Carlo was the burly, bustling Sacristan, but nothing too original or enlightening. It smacked too much of Paul Plishka’s old interpretation, seen as well as heard for many seasons at the Met. Del Carlo added little to Plishka’s legacy. He sounded dry-toned and overly fussy. Perhaps that’s how director Bondy saw the character. I, myself, didn’t see it that way.

On the other hand, Eduardo Valdes’ Spoletta was too restrained to comment positively on. I found him too vague and tonally adrift to be effective. It’s a small role, granted, but character players from Alessio de Paolis, Andrea Velis, Paul Franke, Charles Anthony, Anthony Laciura, and the unforgettable Piero de Palma, made much of this distasteful individual. Where’s the fun in just singing the notes?

David Crawford, substituting for an indisposed Richard Bernstein, as Angelotti (the first voice heard after the thundering opening introduction) had trouble rolling his “r’s” in a most un-Italianate fashion. He could have sounded more out of breath, too; after all, his character has just escaped from prison. He’s fleeing for his life, whereas Crawford sounded as fresh as a daisy — not convincing, fellas. Jeffrey Wells was a wooly sounding, hollow voiced Sciarrone.

In sum, not the best served Tosca in memory, but not the worst either. At least we had Sondra Radvanovsky to salvage the day. And a Tosca without a Tosca is simply not worth staging — period. As one of my favorite Puccini works (I’m biased, I know, since I love all of the master’s output), it should be treated with care and respect, and a modicum of fidelity. I’m all for avant-garde productions and I’m certainly no prude, but to have mediocre singers and pointless directorial touches does nothing to preserve the quality. Why make compromises where none are called for? Such is opera life!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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