I suppose many opera mavens have noticed that open-air productions have tended to be more traditional, not least because they are more lavish. And they are more lavish mainly because of logistics: in productions, for instance, that feature animals, like horses or even elephants, it is obviously easier to get them on stage at the Arena di Verona here or at the Austrian-based St. Margarethen Festival than it would be at the Met or Vienna State Opera. That said, there are no animals in this Tosca, but there are some very large sets, including a twenty-foot high painting of Jesus and Mary Magdalene that Cavaradossi is working on, and there are statues – really, ruins of statues – that include a huge bust of a Roman head and arm clutching a sword and crucifix, all items that would overwhelm a normal-sized stage. And there are canon blasts and gunshots that pack a wallop. Anyway, you get the picture – this open-air production takes advantage of available resources and logistics and is thus visually resplendent in its lavish scenery.
It also features historically accurate and attractive costuming, including Tosca's glittering and colorful gowns (with lengthy train), Scarpia's nobleman's garb and uniform, and the strikingly opulent clerical attire of those in the huge procession during the famous number Tre sbirri. Incidentally, as the camera pans away at the end of Tre sbirri, the visual splendor on stage is almost indescribable in its size, mixture of colors and sense of balance.
Does the singing match the visual beauty of this production? Fiorenza Cedolins has been receiving mixed reviews in some quarters since she trimmed down a year or so before this production. Here, her dramatic skills are fine, especially as her character gets more and more desperate, and her voice is quite powerful and mostly attractive. There are a few spotty patches, but overall her performance is very effective. Her Vissi d'arte is sensitively sung and could compete with most other versions on record. The drama and passion she puts into this number is worthy of an acting award. No wonder the audience responded so enthusiastically.
Even more enthusiastic applause and cheers followed Marcelo Alvarez's E lucevan le stelle, and his Recondita armonia was also splendidly sung and received. Arguably, he has delivered some of the finest portrayals of Cavaradossi in recent years. Though Ruggero Raimondi, sixty-four at the time of this performance, is past his prime, he turns in compelling work as Scarpia. The rest of the cast is strong and Daniel Oren, as usual, conducts with great insight and a fine sense for Puccini's lush lyricism and colorful orchestration. The orchestra and chorus respond with spirit and accuracy. The sound, the one slight drawback of open-air performances, is a bit dry but quite detailed and powerful. The camera work is excellent.
There are many other fine Toscas, of course, including several with Renata Tebaldi in the lead. Besides a few versions in both stereo and mono with her, there is a video performance on DVD (Video Artists International 4217), from 1961, that offers quite excellent sound. Of more recent vintage, there is a worthwhile Zubin Mehta-led version on Decca 473710-2 from 2003 that also features Fiorenza Cedolins as Tosca and Andrea Bocelli as Cavaradossi. There is another successful version by Mehta, this one on DVD, with Catherine Malfitano as Tosca and Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi (Kultur Video 4603).
Regarding this new Arthaus Musik rendition, you may be able to find better-sung versions of Tosca, but you'll encounter few, if any that can surpass this one in their visual splendor and overall production aspects.
Copyright © 2011, Robert Cummings.