The Arts in Cinema programs—one for opera and one for dance—has changed a little since its inception. Originally we got live performances beamed to us from La Scala and The Bolshoi, performances that we saw usually at odd hours on Sunday and which were then re-broadcast on a weekday evening for those who didn’t want to be in the twelve-plex at 10:30 in the morning, say, on the weekend.
Recently we’ve been getting no live, but two recorded showings of Arts productions. Last weekend, Opera in Cinema brought us a pre-recorded version of Tosca at 2 on Sunday afternoon, to be replayed at 7 on Tuesday night. Moreover, this was not a Tosca from last week or last season. It was a Royal Opera production recorded on the stage in London’s Covent Garden on July 2011—twenty months ago.
And actually, this version of the 1900 Puccini show wasn’t fresh and new in 2011. Soprano Angela Gheorghiu and baritone Bryn Terfel had appeared in director Jonathan Kent’s 2004 version, playing Tosca and the evil Scarpia, the roles they returned to for a couple of nights two years ago, the nights filmed for this broadcast.
Kent’s Tosca was a celebrated one. This is why the Royal Opera brought it back to the stage and why Gheorghiu and Terfel were brought back to appear in the filmed performances.
The hero, Cavaradossi, was sung by Jonas Kaufmann, obviously at the peak of his powers. He brings his vitality to every one of his scenes, and the aria he gets off at the beginning of the opera is the musical highlight of the entertainment. He, too, had earlier appeared in a run of Kent’s Tosca.
One can understand the admiration of opera fans for Gheorghiu. Terfel makes a terrific villain, singing mostly out of one side of his mouth and towering over the other characters, fully menacing. Oh, yeah. This was a version of the opera that deserved to be recorded for posterity.
Add to this the relatively quick baton of conductor Antonio Pappano, dressed (as pit conductors almost always are these days) as if he were a cook. Pappano uses dynamics without allowing the playing to become sappy.
The sets and costumes were up to Covent Gardens standards, which is high praise. Paul Brown’s night sky in the third act is an exciting element that makes sense. The first act church set doesn’t look much like any nave I’ve ever seen, but it provides the stairways, gates, exits, and scaffolding to allow Angelotti’s appearance, hiding, and escape, it helps us make sense of what the Sacristan is up to, and it allows the chorus to appear on an up-stage bridge, to announce the distant battle victory.
I’ve never really understood why the opera sets up the military victory by republican forces and then doesn’t use Scarpia’s impending political doom. But opera lovers know the story is about singer Tosca’s love for painter Cavaradossi. When the Papal States strongman, Scarpia, condemns her lover, Tosca agrees to sexual intimacy with the villain if he will arrange for Cavaradossi to be saved. But Tosca and Scarpia each trick the other, with gloriously melodramatic results.
The Opera in Cinema version of Kent’s staging preserves a couple of famous performances for future generations. But those future people aren’t here yet to be impressed. One wonders why we are seeing the two-year-old production out at the movie theater. Not that many opera fans will complain.