Simon Rattle conducts “Tosca”
22 Apr 2017
Sir Simon Rattle
Kristine Opolais, Stefano La Colla, Evgeny Nikitin
Tosca (concert performance) (127 min.)
Kristine Opolais Soprano (Floria Tosca), Stefano La Colla Tenor (Mario Cavaradossi), Evgeny Nikitin Bass Baritone (Baron Scarpia), Alexander Tsymbalyuk Bass (Cesare Angelotti), Peter Tantsits Tenor (Spoletta), Douglas Williams Bass (Sciarrone), Maurizio Muraro Bass (Sacristan), Walter Fink Bass (Jailer), Giuseppe Mantello Boy Soprano (Shepherd Boy), Kinderchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Vinzenz Weissenburger Chorus Master, Rundfunkchor Berlin, David Jones Chorus Master
2017 Live Lounge from the Easter Festival Baden-Baden (12 min.)
Floria Tosca is a highly gifted singer and a passionately loving woman, fortunate both professionally and personally. But then misfortune strikes: in order to rescue her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, from the clutches of the unscrupulous chief of police Scarpia, she becomes a traitor and murderer and the victim of a fiendish intrigue. Within one day she loses everything: her love and her life. Victorien Sardou’s successful play La Tosca, which takes place in Rome at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, contains all the ingredients to spark the musical fantasies of an opera composer like Giacomo Puccini: “I see in this Tosca the opera I need, with no overblown proportions, no elaborate spectacle, nor will it call for the usual excessive amount of music,” he wrote in 1889 to the publisher Ricordi, requesting that he acquire for him the rights to set it to music. Puccini, who was intensively studying Richard Wagner’s musical language just then, was at the time still a young, unknown composer; eleven years would pass before Tosca was premiered in Rome. Together with the two previous operas, Manon Lescaut and La Bohème, and the subsequent Madama Butterfly, the work is one of the stage works that account for Puccini’s international renown as an opera composer.
What is impressive about Tosca is the dramatic concentration of the emotional events. Moments full of love and intimacy alternate in a breathtaking tempo with moments of jealousy, hate and sadistic brutality. Puccini traces this range of feelings in his psychologising, veristic musical language; at the same time, with the two famous arias of Tosca and Cavaradossi, “Vissi d’arte” and “E lucevan le stelle”, he composed two musical numbers in which interpreters can show their vocal dramatics. Kristine Opolais, giving her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker as Tosca, is currently considered one of the most compelling Puccini singers. “He’s my favourite composer,” she admitted in an interview. “I’m a very emotional person and Puccini is such an emotional composer.” At her side is Stefano La Colla as Cavaradossi; he is one of the leading tenors of the Italian repertoire. The two have already been greatly acclaimed in the roles. The trio of protagonists is rounded out by Evgeny Nikitin, who can be experienced in the role of the villain Scarpia. The Berlin Philharmonic has enjoyed tremendous success with Puccini’s masterpiece. One need only think back to the magnificent performances under Herbert von Karajan in 1982, 1988 and 1989 in Berlin and at the Salzburg Easter Festival, as well as the legendary complete recording with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras.
A Nerve-Rending Melodrama
Giacomo Puccini’s Opera Tosca
Even by operatic standards, Baron Scarpia is a villain of epic proportions. Not only does the Chief of Police in Puccini’s Tosca represent clear political interests and know how to promote them with a system of informers and official power, his character is also sinister. He celebrates the moments in which he inflicts pain and suffering on others; he devises cruel plans with relish. Sadism is the driving force behind his actions. In Tosca’s jealousy he recognizes the means to achieve his political goal, the apprehension of republican opponents such as Cesare Angelotti and Mario Cavaradossi. He has Cavaradossi tortured (offstage), in order to revel (visibly and audibly onstage) in Tosca’s anguished compassion. And Puccini knew what he was asking of his public with such a display of overt sadism: “With Tosca we want to arouse the people’s sense of justice and tax their nerves a little,” he wrote to his librettist Giuseppe Giacosa.
During the first few years after the premiere, the public was bewildered by this unexpected show of maliciousness; thus, people did not expect the opera to be a resounding success: “In thirty years,” one critic wrote, “Tosca ... will be an obscure and uncertain memory of a time of confusion in which music was subtracted by the logic of history from its own dominion, from its own laws, and from common sense.” It was already clear shortly after the premiere in Rome on 14 January 1900 and at the other performances that quickly followed throughout Europe that this prediction would not prove to be correct. Nevertheless, it is interesting to ask what left Puccini’s contemporaries so confused. A critic who attended the London premiere on 12 July 1900 provides a clue; he thought that Tosca was “too artificial ... when the composer wishes to be most intense, there is little save irritating noise – much sound with little musical sense”.
The critic alluded to the fact that Puccini was actually aiming at a particular layering of sound, an acoustical game of deception with foreground and background. Within the musical texture Puccini makes various backdrops audible, against which the individual figures can succinctly delineate themselves. A key example of this is the finale of the first act. Scarpia and Cavaradossi come into conflict in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, and the power-hungry Scarpia immediately senses the potential he can exploit from this encounter. He begins his campaign of political and sexual conquest with strategic calculation. First a soundscape is heard: the Te Deum, with which the (supposed) military victory is to be celebrated. Puccini put a great deal of effort into staging the tonal sphere of the church as realistically as possible. In a letter to his friend Guido Vandini he asked Vandini to make a copy of the “Ecce sacerdos magnus”: “Go to some priest or monk and copy it. Please ask as well what the priests say when a bishop moves from the sacristy to the high altar with a grand procession to begin the Te Deum for a military victory. I plan to have the entire cathedral chapter or even the congregation in the church murmur the ‘Ecce sacerdos magnus’.” Another tapestry of sound is added to this eulogistic monotony, giving the scene its harmonic foundation: two bells, alternating between B flat and F for several minutes. The cannon shots, which are fired from the Castel Sant’Angelo to signal Angelotti’s escape, complete this almost noisy sound backdrop and at the same time provide an aural representation of the political power structure: the church and the political system united in their demonstration of power and their relationship to the people, who in audible uniformity are helplessly dependent on the belligerence and military success of the powerful.
Against this backdrop, the Chief of Police is acoustically isolated during his monologue, which contrasts with the murmuring. A perceptible tension results, which is focussed on Scarpia and his claim to power. Given the spiritual tone of the soundscape, “this demon gets caught up in a grand religious ceremony” (Carolyn Abbate). On the one hand, the hymn of praise excites him to fantasies of power with himself at the centre as “high priest” and combines his blasphemous impulse with sexual desires. While he hears the “Ecce sacerdos magnus” in the background, he lusts after Cavaradossi’s lover: “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” (Tosca, you make me forget God!). As though the people are responding directly to this blasphemy, the Te Deum acoustically forces its way in between and intensifies the audible music to the limits of noise: “Just when you imagine things couldn’t get any louder, the full orchestra then blares forth Scarpia’s leitmotif (full of evil tritones, rasping brass and cymbals). When the curtain comes down, you almost expect the stage fabric to fall with a crash” (Abbate).
Puccini frequently works with this technique of noise and sound layering in the rest of the opera as well, interweaving acoustically “authentic” material with his own. This was too much for his contemporaries: “The sonatinas and cantatas from the wings, and the organ, and the Gregorian chant, and the drums that announce the march to the scaffold, and the bells, and the cow bells, and the rifle shots, and the cannon fire, which at times constitute essential elements in the development of the opera, are not enough to fill the holes left by the lack of music.” Incidentally, a “lack of music” of sorts is also found in the vocal parts of Tosca. At dramaturgically significant moments Puccini takes the voices to the threshold of noise and speech.
In the second act, when the plan that Scarpia began to hatch in the previous act takes shape, there is another remarkable example of playing with spaces, with acoustic vanishing points. In the Palazzo, moments of great aesthetic pleasure (Tosca’s singing) and scenes of cruelty (Cavaradossi in the torture chamber) occur simultaneously, each at an invisible but audible level. They form one layer, while the stage provides the space for the other, where the protagonists react to the invisible but audible events on the first level. The invisible event also draws the audience’s attention to its own imagination, and at the same time it becomes a witness to the characters reacting on the stage: Scarpia, whose desire is intensified by Tosca’s singing, and Tosca, whose suffering escalates beyond all bounds at the sound of her lover’s cries of pain in the torture chamber – suffering which amuses Scarpia, however. Puccini works with sharp contrasts here, for example, when Scarpia and Cavaradossi publicly exchange insults with harsh rhythmic contours during the (invisible) melodious cantata sung by Tosca. In the acoustic layering principle, the confrontation of emotions becomes as tangible as the aestheticized cruelty of Scarpia. Sadism, according to Georges Bataille, “appears as the radical negation of the other, as the denial of the social principle as well as the reality principle”. The fact that Puccini chooses precisely the latter, however – the audible relationship to reality, compositional verismo – to depict the drastic character of Scarpia down to the last detail explains the immediacy and nerve-rending effect of this melodrama.
Kristine Opolais is much sought-after as a soprano in the world’s top opera houses and appears regularly at the Metropolitan Opera New York, the state opera houses in Vienna, Berlin and Munich, at La Scala and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. She works with conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Semyon Bychkov, Daniel Harding, Andris Nelsons, Fabio Luisi, Antonio Pappano and Kirill Petrenko. Born in Latvia, Kristine Opolais studied singing at the Academy of Music in Riga, and under Margreet Honig in Amsterdam. In 2006, she made her debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in the title role of Tosca. Other noteworthy roles in her repertoire in addition to those by Puccini are the title role in Dvořák’s Rusalka and Janáček’s Jenůfa. In 2014, the singer wrote music history at the New York Met with two debuts within 18 hours: after her acclaimed performance in Madama Butterfly, she stepped in at short notice the next day for the live matinee performance of La Bohème which was shown in cinemas worldwide, and was enthusiastically received by critics and audiences alike. Concert appearances have taken her to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the WDR Sinfonieorchester, the Salzburg Festival, the BBC Proms and the Tanglewood Festival. After performances at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, Kristine Opolais now makes her debut in the orchestra’s Berlin concerts.
Stefano La Colla studied at the Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali Pietro Mascagni in Livorno where his teachers included Luciana Serra and Carlo Meliciani, and made his debut at the city’s Teatro Goldoni in 2008. With his debut as Calaf (Turandot) in Regensburg in 2011, his international career began. Since then, the tenor has sung at major Italian houses, including the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Arena di Verona and the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, and at the Parma Festival and the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago. Guest engagements have taken him to Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Oper Leipzig, the Theater St. Gallen, Theater Dortmund, and the opera houses in St. Petersburg, Zagreb and Belgrade. His repertoire includes roles such as Ismaele (Nabucco), Radames (Aida), Alfredo (La traviata) and Manrico (Il trovatore). Since 2015, he has appeared in Berlin in roles including Cavaradossi (Tosca), Des Grieux (Manon Lescaut) and Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly). Stefano La Colla now makes his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation concerts.
Evgeny Nikitin was born in Murmansk and played drums in a rock band as a teenager. While still studying at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory, he was offered his first engagements at the Mariinsky Theatre, where his roles included the title role in Boris Godunov, Prince Igor and The Flying Dutchman, and worked with Valery Gergiev. This was followed by invitations to prestigious festivals in Europe and the USA. He has also appeared at the opera houses in London, Paris, Vienna, Zurich, Berlin, Madrid, New York, Chicago and Tokyo. Nikitin’s repertoire includes the roles of Tomsky (The Queen of Spades), Don Pizarro (Fidelio), Fasolt, Wotan, Gunther (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Klingsor and Amfortas (Parsifal), Philip II. (Don Carlo), Orest (Elektra), Jochanan (Salome) and the title role in Don Giovanni. In concert, he has sung, among others, Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra and Oedipus Rex with the Munich Philharmonic. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2006 in the concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in the role of Fasolt, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.