Sometimes a hodgepodge of the most disparate elements coalesce to give birth to something that feels like it has been conceived as a unit from the very beginning. Such was the case of this Tosca: its painted sets belonged to a Florentine mise-en-scène from the 1970s, with props and costumes imported from the Festival Pucciniano. Renato Bonajuto, the stage director, created a traditional looking production, lest the basically conservative audience of Italian “teatri di tradizione” (regional opera companies) were too disappointed, while inserting here and there several more unconventional details so as to keep the most jaded spectator such as this reviewer sufficiently stimulated. It is a reasonable and economic approach, extremely useful in these lean times, particularly to present the old chestnuts without excessively lowering the standards or putting on shows of the most trite and predictable routines. The only truly censurable element was persisting in portraying the Sacristan as a downright buffoon; it is certainly true that Puccini introduces him with jaunty music, and even highlights his tics, but having him sticking out his tongue to the cops in front of Scarpia is really exaggerated and implausible. The costumes should be singled out for their comeliness and elegance, particularly the ones worn by Scarpia and his assistants, original and menacing in their red and black combinations.
Matteo Beltrami, although young in age, behaved – and in such a repertoire this must be viewed as nothing but a compliment – like an old-fashioned theatre conductor who knows how to make all the key points, keep the structure intact, and point up the descriptive detail without letting it get out of hand. His work had no quirks, no real surprises. Beltrami, one gathers, seems not to consider it his role to make us hear the score in a new light. Rather, he satisfies us with the old one; he usually makes what sound like the obvious choices of a wise, experienced conductor, then carries them out with the utmost conviction and care, with no little drive and swing. The second performance found him favouring faster tempos in Act II, correcting a certain torpor that had somewhat hindered the confrontation between baritone and soprano the evening before.
While the three principals changed, the same artists sang the supporting roles in both performances, with the exception of the Shepherd (Martina Niccolini and Alessio Mannelli, equally effective). Both Veio Torcigliani (Angelotti) and Alessandro Calamai (the Sacristan) frequently perform for the local opera companies and are well-known entities: Torcigliani once again displayed a booming bass baritone, and Calamai confirmed to be a vastly talented buffo, this time indulging into excessive histrionics, certainly stimulated by the producer’s idea of the character. Michele Pierleoni performed double duty as Sciarrone and the Jailer, while the casting against type of Spoletta with Andrea Schifaudo, a very young baby-faced tenor with a sweet Nemorino-like timbre, was a little touch of genius.
I can tell whether the soprano singing Tosca is going to be exciting or disappointing just by the way she sings the tricky ascent to the B flat in “le voci delle cose”, something Irene Cerboncini delivered with ease, caressing the high note with perfect pitch. And sure enough, the Genoese soprano turned out to be quite a good Tosca. Her sizeable voice, a true spinto, has plenty of ring at the top due to an accurate use of her resonating “chamber”,that is the “maschera”. Very effective was her crescendo on “Egli vede ch’io piango!”; her top was normally reliable: one high C and one high B during the confrontation with Scarpia were a little unfocused and flat, while the infamous high C of “la lama” turned out secure, loud and endless. Another litmus test for a great Tosca is the very end of “Vissi d’arte”, with the treacherous final descending intervals: while she did not work miracles in terms of legato and perfect breath support, it was nevertheless decorous. She was probably the most experienced member of the cast, with a twenty-year career behind her in some of the most prestigious international opera companies; her svelte and attractive looks completed the package.
Giuseppe Altomare, also a singer with a long and impressive resume, was a first-rate Scarpia. His voice is aptly dark and well produced, and as an interpreter he was even more convincing. His Scarpia almost never resorted to shouting or similar vulgarities. He hunted down Tosca with the attitude of someone slyly observing his prey from a certain distance, with the awareness that she will soon be caught in his trap; he was appropriately mellifluous, and able to disguise his real intentions until after Cavaradossi’s Act II paroxysm. Phrases that are normally shouted off one’s lungs, such as “Segno ch’è bel celato”, he coldly sang almost whispering through clenched teeth. His being tall, dark and handsome added new elements to the sadistic game of cat and mouse he played with Tosca.
Any Tosca worth a grain of salt would have preferred this Scarpia to the Cavaradossi of Alberto Profeta, who, without beating around the bush, was an unmitigated disaster. His timbre has a bleating quality, something that would be acceptable (and indeed it is in much superior singers) only if his technique were just slightly passable. On the contrary, his delivery was constantly throaty, with a suffocated passaggio and high notes that were occasionally (if he had the time to prepare for them) effective, though they still retained fibrousness and effort; the high B of “la vita mi costasse”, and the A sharp of “Vittoria!” did fill the house but were hurled to the high skies as if there were no tomorrow.
He transforms the Puccinian canto di conversazione into a sort of Sprechensang, something that crept in even in the recitative of “E lucevan le stelle”, the rest of which showed little finesse, no legato, and the attempt to engage in the traditional piano on “disciogliea dai veli” backfired, mutating into an anaemic falsetto.
The second Tosca, Maria Cioppi, while several notches below Ms Cerbonicini, still had much to offer. Contrary to her colleague, Ms. Cioppi was making her debut in the role. Her instrument does not have the same volume or timbric pleasantness as the other Tosca; it is more brittle, fragile, brighter, while her top fared better, and on “la lama” she also delivered a remarkably long and confident high C. Her Tosca was less the passionate, pathologically jealous woman described by Puccini than a gentle and protective mother figure to Mario. One thing to her credit is her actually singing “Quanto?..Il prezzo”, something I do cherish, while Ms. Carboncini had followed the usual vulgar tradition of emphatically speaking it. As per “Vissi d’arte”, something truly bizarre happened: part of the audience started to applause before the aria, right after Scarpia’s “non resta che un’ora di vita”, visibly unsettling the poor soprano. The rendition of this most popular piece was correct, a bit monotonous and the very final note not perfectly in pitch.
Mamuka Lomidze cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Altomare. His aptly dark timbre could be a model for how a good Scarpia should sound, but his technical and interpretative limitations are too many to even remotely approach that goal. His voice delivery is too reminiscent of the former Soviet block low-voiced singers, guttural, choppy, laced with inserted vowels, strange diphthongs, and pushed phrase endings. When things got heated, he tended to speak or scream rather than sing. His Scarpia is snappish, unceremonious, a villain from the moment he comes on stage and in the first dialogue with Tosca. His best moment was the “Te Deum”, but as for the rest of the opera, he still has a long way to go before becoming a plausible Scarpia.
On the second evening, one was on a completely different planet with the performance of Max Jota, a Brazilian tenor I had already had the pleasure to review as the lead in Les contes d’Hoffmann just a few months ago on the same stage. Jota possesses a luxurious lyric tenor with a liquid, springy timbre, his high notes characterized by a meaty, juicy resonance, exuberant freedom and tonal refulgence. This is the consequence of a voice perfectly in the mask, a homogeneous delivery with an excellent understanding of how the passaggio works: he starts to prepare it by slightly covering the notes immediately preceding it, which yields a top gifted with all the above described qualities. In “Recondita armonia”,he managed to convey sensuality by a skilled game of tasteful ritardandos on phrases such as “E te, beltade ignota”, using even the normally neglected acciaccaturas (“cinta di chiome bionde) to that purpose, the concluding B flat was full of squillo and the aria ended with an enchanting – and long – diminuendo on the F natural of “sei tu”, an expression mark that Puccini indicates for the orchestra. And this aria summarizes his vision of Cavaradossi: an aristocrat, a gentleman with courteous manners caught in a game much bigger than himself, something he shows at the fullest in his Act I duet with Tosca, in moments like “Mia vita amante inquieta…”, which he began with a dulcet whisper and then steadily increased the volume as written in the score. He is rhythmically alert, never losing a beat (the evening before, Profeta had seriously compromised his Act II confrontation with Scarpia by always entering late). The highlight of the evening was perhaps “E lucevan le stelle”, where he communicated true lacerating nostalgia without sobs or any sort of histrionics such as the unwritten stressing of “flagrante”. “O dolci baci”, was not the usual display of a tenor trying to show he can sing piano on a crucial note like the F#, but a real disclosure of regrets and pain of the soul. “E muoio disperato” was sung slightly dallying on each note so as to express the required stentato un poco, the A natural was perfectly nailed and the aria concluded with a skilled diminuendo that left the audience almost breathless. Then the ovation exploded, the real true applause of the two evenings combined, with people repeatedly asking for an encore that unfortunately the conductor decided not to grant.
On top of this, Jota, despite being at the beginning of his career, moves effortlessly on stage as a natural born actor, responsive to the words and gestures of his colleagues, and with the facial expressions of the most consummate Thespians, without ever overdoing it; his being attractive certainly does not hurt. All in all, he has charisma to sell and a sympathetic personality. I will go out on a limb and say he is one of the very few complete Marios I have seen (and this was my 77th Tosca), with all the right credentials to become an “A Class” tenor in the near future, especially considering that he is only 28 years old: “ecco un artista!”
If only Jota had been placed in the first cast, he would have been the crucial contribution to a performance that would not have been out of place in any major opera house.