Friday, 29 September 2017

Puccini - Tosca (Oslo, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

Den Norske Opera, Oslo - 2017

Karl-Heinz Steffens, Calixto Bieito, Svetlana Aksenova, Daniel Johansson, Claudio Sgura, Jens-Erik Aasbø, Pietro Simone, Ludvig Lindström, Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy, Aksel Johannes Skramstad Rykkvin

Opera Platform

One of the criticisms that can perhaps be legitimately be made against Tosca is that it is indeed little more than a cheap violent thriller, or a "shabby little shocker" as Joseph Kerman once characterised it, a term that it now wears as a badge of honour. Kerman's other criticisms against it for breaking the so-called rules of opera composition are rather more dubious subjective opinions based on a personal interpretation of what opera should be, but Tosca certainly is a dark, violent piece of verismo whose shock value threatens to submerge any human qualities that might be found in the opera, if indeed you think there are any. You could pretty much say the same about Calixto Bieito's production of Tosca for Den Norske Opera's production in Oslo.

Bieito's rather bleak outlook on the opera then might well be the only really valid way of approaching this work. To take it seriously as a historical piece or even as a strictly realist piece of drama, it's obviously absurd and quite overblown. Whether Tosca has any real commentary to make on historical events or whether it has any insightful point to make about ordinary people caught up in a political nightmare is doubtful. It's safer to think of Tosca as purely a political thriller and nothing more, and on that basis it is undoubtedly a thoroughly effective piece.

Similar criticisms could be made about Puccini's final unfinished opera Turandot, which is a work that seems perversely cruel and rather heavily scored out of all proportion to the opera's fairy-tale setting, and Calixto Bieito likewise focussed on the sinister authoritarian undercurrent that runs through that work in his production of it. Bieito's Tosca is more or less a companion piece to that Turandot, a study in the corruption and brutality of totalitarian rule that crushes individual freedom, going further to explore the repression of the arts within such a regime and the duty of the artist to speak out against it.

"Your silence will not protect you", states the placard wielded by political prisoner and fugitive Angelotti before the Oslo production of Tosca starts, and more so than in Bieito's Turandot where a similar warning was made about the silencing of dissent by artists who dared speak out against a cruel regime, Tosca does indeed deal with two artists - the opera singer Tosca and the artist Cavaradossi - who find themselves forced to take a stance against a cruel regime and address the real issues of its corrupt activities when those issues are brought to their door.

Director Calixto Bieito does his best to make that situation as shocking and as sinister as it is possible to make it on a stage and within this particular work. The audience are subjected to an onslaught of violence for the full three acts of the opera, with no interval to provide a breathing space. It's somewhat stylised and representational, but it still carries the requisite shock value. The Madonna painted by Cavaradossi is not a painting but a real woman, stripped naked, her robe held out as a 'fan' for Tosca to discover. Cavaradossi is brutally tortured on-stage, Bieito makes use of dwarfs in school uniforms for henchmen, and even introduces a son for Scarpia, another schoolboy who licks lasciviously on a lollypop. There's no innocence to be found anywhere here.

Least of all in Scarpia. And, as you might expect, Bieito makes him as vile a character as possible, pawing over Floria Tosca and another woman who we presume is his wife, and Claudio Sgura does his best to make him as repugnant as possible. That's to be expected, but Bieito also seems to want to explore how this corruption also extends to destroy the purity of the artist and how this might even be a necessary thing. This Floria Tosca goes rather further than most before killing Scarpia (bizarrely with his own spectacles rather than a knife) and is fired up by the experience. As Cavaradossi observes those "sweet hands pure and gentle" have "dealt out death".

For Bieito's emphasis to work - if it is even possible to truly depict the horror of a totalitarian state on a live theatre stage and in an opera like Tosca - it needs a Tosca who can respond to it on those terms, reacting to the violation of her integrity with horror and then come to terms with opposing it, even if that endeavour in Puccini's opera is ultimately futile. That, on top of the kind of the role's singing demands is a lot to ask of any soprano, and Svetlana Aksenova struggles somewhat. Aksenova doesn't have quite a big enough voice or personality to carry such a role, but sings well nonetheless. Her acting performance however lacks conviction to such an extent that when Scarpia says his is fired up by the new woman who has explosively adopted a new role he has never seen before, you do wonder what he's talking about.

Aksenova however does come more into the part in Act III when the trauma of the experience seems to tell on Tosca, and it's in this act that the effectiveness of Bieito's direction of the work becomes evident in its relationship with the music. You can't really put the true violence of Tosca on the stage; it's too brutal and it needs the medium of music to translate it. Karl-Heinz Steffens's conducting is a bit light in places when you need more forceful hand and a greater dynamic between the verismo violence and the more idealised human sentiments, such as those sung so beautifully by Daniel Johansson in Cavaradossi's 'E lucevan le stelle'. Half measures won't do and I don't think you can overstate in Tosca; the contrast needs to be there to show the force with which those gentle human sentiments will inevitably be crushed.

Puccini shows no mercy for any of his characters and neither does Bieito. The lighting is harsh permitting no soft colours, the stark bright spotlights picking out the characters in the darkness and throwing shadows. There is no place to run and no place to hide on Susanne Gschwender's sets. Nor is there a place to jump. You can hardly expect Bieito to be as crude as actually having Tosca leap from the Castel Sant' Angelo, but whether it's an acknowledgement that there's only so far you can push such 'realism' before it becomes sentimental or whether the director believes that both Tosca and Cavaradossi have to live at least long enough to acknowledge their actions, Bieto spares them the final famous denouement, but not their torment. Ultimately however, it's Puccini's extraordinary building and contrasting of the musical forces that determines their fate and Bieito follows it to its appropriately devastating conclusion.

Links: Den Norske Opera, Opera Platform