March 8th & 9th, 2014, Liceu Barcelona
Giacomo Puccini could be described as the 19th-century opera-composer equivalent of today’s Stephen King or James Patterson: his works, awash with blood, torture, death and retribution, aroused audience passions (except at the first performances of “Tosca,” back in 1900, when the critics were offended by its realism and convinced that it wouldn’t become a classic). Boy, were they wrong! At a time of financial crisis, the Liceu could have made no safer bet than to present 15 performances of “Tosca,” the composer’s most-loved work, with three different and internationally admired leads.
On both opening night, Saturday, March 8th, and again on Sunday, March 9th, both the singers and the orchestra sustained the suspense and drama throughout, and the audience clearly demonstrated its exhilaration. Crowd-pleasing is necessarily of great importance to the Liceu, which is struggling valiantly to maintain its excellence in the face of overwhelming financial difficulties. And the anxiety is palpable: this is the first time that I have seen them pushing so hard for their next production, with discounts, come-ons in the programs and the handing out of bookmark reminders of the next production as the audience is leaving.
It is a great pity that they are obviously concerned that the audience will be thin for Rimsky-Korsakov’s stimulating opera, “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh,” and I can only hope that people who don’t know it will be curious enough to buy tickets. It is a great evening of drama and music and the Liceu deserves to be rewarded for its second brave venture with this opera. The first took place more than 80 years ago, when it was the first non-Russian theatre to present the opera in the West.
I count myself lucky to have heard two of the three casts: the first with Sandra Radvanovsky as Floria Tosca, and Ambrogio Maestri as Baron Scarpia; the second with Martina Serafin and Scott Hendricks. I regret that, to date, I have not been able to hear the third, but am willing to bet that Fiorenza Cedolins, who has never disappointed me yet, will be well-worth the price of a ticket. Unfortunately, Riccardo Massi, who was to have sung the artist Cavaradossi in the first cast, was taken sick. On opening night he was replaced by Jorge de León, who was moved up from the second cast, and on the second night, León was replaced by Jose Ferrero.
Both of the casts I heard were superb, but I rather wish I had heard them in reverse order. That is because both Sandra Radvanovsky and Ambrogio Maestri owned the roles they played in a way one rarely comes across. Radvanovsky sang with a power and assertiveness that at first was a bit overwhelming but made more and more sense as time passed. Tosca was, after all, a prima diva, rich and fêted and demanding. She was also deeply insecure emotionally, leading to easily aroused jealousy that propels forward the tragedy that ensues. Her Vissi d’arte was magnificent and the audience responded with unbridled enthusiasm. Maestri, fresh from his triumphant Falstaff at the Met, was a splendid, credible Scarpia. It is a role that can easily be both over- and under-played, but Maestri, with his accomplished acting, his impressive stature and, not least, his rich baritone voice, was Scarpia. Alas, Jorge de León’s Cavaradossi was not in the same class, and this was true the following night when the role of Cavaradossi was sung by Jose Ferrero. Both were adequate but disappointingly thin. Both improved as the evening wore on, but neither approached the heights reached by Tosca and Scarpia.
Had the casts of the opening night and the second night been switched, the exquisite Martina Serafin would not have had to endure comparison with Radvanovsky. (I was enormously eager to hear her, having gone four times in as many weeks this fall to hear her superlative Maraschallin in the Met’s “Rosenkavalier.”) As Tosca, her elegant and lyrical voice was delightful, as was her controlled and credible performance. But coming one night after the major storm that was Radvanovsky, this Tosca felt a little light.
The same could be said for Scott Hendricks’ Scarpia. To be sure, he did not have the inbuilt advantage of a threateningly huge frame, but that need not have mattered. What did matter was that, good as it was, the performance lacked the unusual force and conviction of Maestri.
On both nights, Valeriano Lanchas, sang the small but meaty role of Sacristan, mean-spirited and, it was clearly hinted, an informer for Scarpia. He was excellent. And opening night’s Spoletta, Francisco Vas, was flawless as Scarpia’s quietly sadistic assistant.
As for the staging, I have to confess that my distaste for the modern vogue of messing around with the mise-en-scène may be unenlightened prejudice. But, so often, in the larger opera houses all over the world, the stage designer seems to have become the big man on campus, permitted to take liberties with time and place and logic for the sake of shock value. Setting the Met’s “Falstaff” in the Fifties was so counter-intuitive that it spoiled the performance for me despite the excellence of the cast which included Maestri as a Falstaff as iconic as his current Scarpia. And “Rusalka” at Covent Garden last year was sung beautifully against a background that fought for attention in the silliest of ways.
Certainly, stage designer Paco Azorin was not in that class of iconoclast, but there were many uncalled-for touches which would have been better left out. The first act setting in the church initially delighted me with its elegance, until the pictures over the altars started to morph and interfere with the realism. In the second act, huge eyes peered out of, or into the windows (spying, yes thanks, we all get it) and in act three, the sternly beautiful Castel St. Angelo turned out (cleverly, indeed, and certainly economically) to be Scarpia’s act two study laid on its back, looking more like the roof of a railway terminus than an ancient fortress, I yearned for a classical production to complement rather than overpower the excellence of the artists.
Conductor Paolo Carignani coaxed a passionate performance out of the orchestra, at times a little overwhelming, but for the most part, deeply satisfying and emotional.
I hope that the bet paid off for the Liceu and that they get a full house for all 15 performances. And I hope that Barcelona appreciates its fortune at having such a world-class opera house, and supports it wholeheartedly during these troubled times.