A WEIRD SURREALIST TOSCA

Opera aficionados are dependant these days on platforms like Opera Vision to get their frequent doses of operatic fare. So, myself being one of those, I tuned in to the Teatro Real production of Puccini’s Tosca, looking forward to the satisfaction that a fine cast and production would bring. Little did I know that stage director/designer Paco Azorin would have his way with Puccini’s gem and would leave it in lamentable shape, with little or almost no hints of what the composer wanted for his brain child.

To begin with, Puccini was extremely fastidious and ever demanding of what he wanted from any production of any opera of his. In the case of Tosca he famously demanded that a certain set of church bells be brought to the theater where the work premiered so as to authentically replicate their exact sound in Act III. Past such eccentricities, Puccini knew exactly what he wanted from his singing actors and from the set in which they would work.

The Church of Sant’ Andrea della Vale has a certain layout that Puccini examined and he specifically wrote music that would underline the scenic action in that space. In the surrealistic production of the stage director/designer for Madrid’s Teatro Real, the crucially important Atavanti chapel is not there, so that the hapless singer who portrays Angelotti has to endure being covered up in a canvas to avoid being seen by Tosca instead of hiding in the chapel.

A basket that contains the food that is consumed by Angelotti and the elegant fan of the Atavanti Marchioness appear out of nowhere, rather than being discovered by the Sacristan in the chapel where Angelotti hid. The painting that Cavaradossi is working on becomes a sheet fom a sketch pad, so that tenor Joseph Calleja has to sing a routine Recondita Armonia to a piece of paper, and Tosca’s jealousy is reduced to her holding it and badgering her lover with it in hand. When she asks Cavaradossi to change the color of the eyes of the woman depicted in his work the request makes no sense at all, as a pencil sketch has no color.  

Most confounding of all, the start of Act I is handled by the director as a dream, in which a naked woman appears to a prone Angelotti. Later on the surrealism continues when Scarpia (baritone Carlos Alvarez) runs against incoming traffic and almost crashes into the Cardinal entering the church to lead the Te Deum. But the prelate is actually Tosca in disguise, which motivates Scarpia, after several collapses to sing “Tosca, mi fai dimenticar’ Iddio!” (“Tosca you have made me forget there is a God!”

Act II began with Scarpia right where we left him at the end of Act I. Brief blackout. When the lights went up again we found ourselves in badly appointed digs in a Palazzo Farnese of the designer’s imagination, complete with – more surrealism – a collection of paintings of large spying eyes for décor and a jail  in full view.

I soldiered on, morbidly fascinated by the come-as –you-are costume design of Isidre Prunés: vintage 1800 Empire gowns for Sondra Radvanovsky’s Tosca, contemporary grey business suits for several of the men of the chorus and basic black for the women, high fashion design cut-away coats for Scarpia and his henchmen, and Covid-proof facial masks for the young members of the children’ chorus.

In act II I focused on the great singing of Sondra Radvanovsky and ignored the tentative acting and unrelenting barking of baritone Carlos Alvarez while reminiscing about some of the great Scarpias of the past. I waited for the ending, hoping that no more weird directorial stuff would plague the proceedings. But I was wrong. The naked woman from Act I reappeared to assist Tosca to cover up Scarpia with a similar red cloth to the one used in Act I. Sondra Radvanovsky sang a lovely Vissi d’arte to an equally prone Scarpia, who appeared to have fainted. Moments later she stabbed him and stabbed him and stabbed him in a moment reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho.

Act III? Similar stuff… The roof of the Palazzo Farnese done in designer metal… Another visit by the naked woman…

Some will accuse me of ingratitude since the Opera Vision presentations are free, and indeed they may be right. I look forward to more free offerings from this indispensable on-line platform, while hoping for better-conceived productions – the kind that honor a composer’s intentions and respect singers so that no idiocies are imposed on them and us as intelligent members of an audience.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

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