Troubled waters at Puccini’s lake.  It is virtually impossible to keep mum about the vicissitudes that have been plaguing the Festival Puccini for the past few weeks, only because they have had enormous repercussions on the inaugural show, a new production of Tosca.  I will restrict myself to giving a brief report of the events, keeping a neutral positions, because my knowledge of the whole affair is limited to the information published in the press, which is only the tip of the iceberg.  The new mayor of Viareggio, the municipality that has jurisdiction over of Torre del Lago Puccini (where the Festival takes place), right after being elected in June decided – and it falls within his prerogatives – to fire the President of the Puccini Festival,  Adalgisa Mazza, who had requested to remain in her place until the end of this edition.  The mayor accepted, only to quickly change his mind by appointing Alberto Veronesi (formerly artistic director of the Festival), who on the 7th of July fired the stage director of Tosca, Vivien Hewitt already in the midst of rehearsals.  This is not the place to give the details of this termination and the agreement Veronesi reached with Hewitt in order to avoid an inevitable lawsuit.  In her place Veronesi called Giorgio Ferrara, a reputable stage director and artistic director of the Festival dei due Mondi of Spoleto.  Because of an alleged budget hole, Veronesi made significant changes to all the other scheduled productions, also inviting the singers to accept drastic fee cuts; some of them took up arms and wrote to the mayor and other officials.  Giovanni Meoni, who was to perform the role of Scarpia, is replaced by Alberto Mastromarino less than two weeks before opening night.  Moreover Fabio Armiliato became indisposed and Aquiles Machado was flown just hours before the performance.  This is the background and now on to the review.  I do not know what Vivien Hewitt had in mind for her Tosca, but Ferrara’s offering was not much more than a concert performance with costumes, which – with the exception of those donned by the protagonist- were rather unattractive.  There was no concept whatsoever, and it is thus legitimate to call it “Mimmo Paladino’s Tosca”, referring to the famous sculptor who created the sets.  The singers moved about the stage with utterly predictable gestures, imported by the dozens of other Tosca productions in which they have performed, amidst debatable, if not downright unsightly sets.  The interior of Sant’Andrea della Valle looked like one those ungainly churches that proliferated in the outskirts of Italian towns in the 1960s and ‘70s, with only three props: an altar, a marble portal depicting the Eucharist, and a sort of irregular parallelepiped, the meaning of which I could not understand (perhaps another planet like the one featured in the last act?).  Even less attractive were the Act II sets, formed by three red striped walls (which at least guaranteed favourable acoustics) covered with dozens of identikits of Scarpia’s wanted people or fugitives.  A huge sphere took up the whole sets of Act III; in Paladino’s intention this ball represented an asteroid, a meteorite full of little lights that shone during Mario’s aria, and then split in two parts to allow the shiniest star, the diva Tosca, to climb up the stairs and jump.

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Or perhaps the star was meant to be Daniela Dessì, one of the brightest lights of the operatic firmament of the last few decades, singing the role that has more than any others defined the second part of her very long career; so many years of activity unfailingly have left their mark, but in this performance, except for a few reedy high notes, Dessì was in a true state of grace, portraying a virtually ideal Tosca, especially for her right on the mark interpretation of the capricious diva.  Above all her vocal technique and delivery, typical of the old – and on its way to extinction – Italian school, allowed her to float the sound and produce a supple and caressing central register (which is after all where the role is played): the sinuosity of phrases such as “Finché congiunti alle celeste sfere” allowed one to visualise and almost touch the “light clouds”.  I have long developed my own way to judge right from the start if a soprano is going to be a good Tosca or not, that is the way she tackles the very first thorny moment of her role, the ascent to a B flat in “le voci delle cose”, something Dessì resolved with elegance, softly lingering on that note.  Out of all the numerous high Cs peppering the score, just a couple were shrill and poorly contained; the infamous Act III “do della lama”, the high C on the word “blade”, was a long, secure and powerful column of sound.  Misfortune continued to hound this performance when, right in the middle of “Vissi d’arte”, noisy hustling was heard and seen in the audience, and finally a member of the audience was rushed out of the auditorium on a stretcher; this all happened in the first sector of the orchestra, in full view of the soprano who, however showed remarkable self-control with an laudable rendition of her romanza, which – bowing to the audience’s pressing requests, she graciously encored.  Incredible coincidence, a similar episode happened two years ago during the same aria,  at the time sung by Oksana Dyka.  Dessì was most convincing in one of the most naturally, less artificially uttered “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” I have ever heard, and I immensely appreciated her singing all the traditionally spoken or screamed phrases “Quanto? Il prezzo”, a choice probably dictated by the conductor, as even Scarpia sang the Ds and As of “Ma fatelo tacere!”.  Scarpia was Alberto Mastromarino, also a veteran of his role, seen and reviewed in that production of Tosca two seasons ago.  Just like then, the Tuscan baritone, in spite of a quite imposing physical presence, gave a restrained and muted portrayal of the evil police chief, well aware that a powerful man needs not scream to high heaven to be obeyed and feared, and such a vision extended to his vocal interpretation: most effective then becomes the explosion on the monologue “Se la giurata fede” when Scarpia unmasks himself and shows his hand.  Aquiles Machado, as I mentioned earlier, arrived at Torre del Lago just hours before the performance, and this of course explains some uncertainties about the tempos.  It is however undeniable that the volume of his tenor is too limited to sing Cavaradossi, especially if paired with a soprano with a ringing middle register such as Dessì, who drowned him in their duets.  Just  few years ago he was an excellent Rodolfo on this same stage, but now a wobble could be heard in his high register, at the moment still contained but not well aboding for the near future; moreover the two crowd pleaser moments “La vita mi costasse” and “Vittoria!” required too much effort.

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Among the secondary roles the casting of seventy-three year old white-maned Luigi Roni as Angelotti was perplexing: even conceding that “prison has transformed him out of knowledge”, one is inevitably drawn to wonder about the age of his sister, the famed Marchesa Attavanti, the beauty who provokes such intense jealousy in Floria Tosca.  Angelo Nardinocchi (Sacristan), Ugo Tarquini (Spoletta), Velthur Tognoni (Sciarrone), Pedro Cirillo (Jailer) and Marco Rimicci (Sheperd) dutifully completed the cast.

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Valerio Galli, a young conductor hailing from Viareggio, happily belying the famous locution, has been a “propheta in patria” since his debut, as he has graced the Festival for several years.  I have reviewed him many times and am happy to observe that he keeps honing his remarkable talent.  Galli offered a lyrical and spacious reading of the score, without however being afraid to press hard on the accelerator to bring forth the opera’s big moments, with a thunderous power, which however never morphed into cacophonous racket, maintaining an orchestral crystal-clear sound even in the most orgiastic frenzy.  I would like to single out the “Te Deum”, one of the trickiest mass scenes in opera, presented with a clean and round sound.  Priceless is also his ability to guess ahead of time when singers are about to get into trouble, and help them best as he can.

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Despite the unreassuring premises, the Gran Teatro Puccini was packed to the rafters as it had not been in a very long time, and the atmosphere was that of an old time performance, with the diva being greeted with enthusiastic applause at her very entrance and after each big moments such as “Egli vede ch’io piango”.

Nicola Lischi

three stars

Photo credit: Giorgio Andreuccetti

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