Tosca

After yesterday’s examiners meeting at Queen Mary  I downed a quick beer and took the tube to the West End in order to meet up with  a couple of friends (Joao and Kim) to see last night’s production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Just over a year ago I posted about Welsh National Opera’s Tosca here in Cardiff, so I’ll refer you there for details about the plot synposis and background. Let me just say even though the WNO production was very good, it’s very difficult to match the special atmosphere of Covent Garden. It’s such a famous venue but at the same time is so intimate. I’d forgotten just how close you get to the stage.  The prices were special prices too! Our tickets were £220 each and drinks in the two intervals were eye-wateringly expensive. But then you don’t go to Covent Garden for a cheap night out.

This was the only night that I could make it to this run, and as a result we actually saw the “second” cast: no Bryn Terfel, no Angela Gherghiou, and as it happens to Marcello Giordani either (owing to illness). In the performance we saw, Floria Tosca was Martina Serafin, Baron Scarpia was Juha Uusitalo, and making his Covent Garden debut as understudy thanks to Giordiani’s indisposition was  was the young tenor Giancarlo Monsalve as Cavaradossi. I wasn’t too disappointed not to see Angela Gheorghiou, as I think she’s quite overrated, but I would have loved to have seen Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia. Perhaps some other time.

Anyway, it was a thoroughly enjoyable production if perhaps lacking that extra sparkle that the headline cast might have supplied. Serafin took a while to get going but from Act II onwards was very good, although she never quite managed to get across the fiery unpredictable side of her character’s persona. Uusitalo was a brutish Scarpia with a strong stage presence; the dashing Monsalve took his opportunity well and was warmly received by the full house.

I’ve often wondered how this Opera, which on the face of it is a straightforward melodrama, manages to work so well. I think part of its magic is that the characters, as is often the case with Puccini, are not quite what they seem. Tosca is the heroine but she’s far from Snow White. She’s jealous and temperamental and in many ways quite unattractive. In this production, after initially stabbing Scarpia in self-defence, she carries on stabbing him in a kind of bloodlust which is quite scary. Cavaradossi is the hero, but he’s not a particularly heroic hero because he crumbles under the strain of his imminent execution in Act III. And then there’s Scarpia, the baddy. I find him the most fascinating of all because, although he’s evil,  there are flashes of loneliness and contrition. I think he’s monstrous because something in his past has made him monstrous. A prequel to Tosca based on Scarpia’s earlier biography would make a very interesting opera indeed..

I know it’s deeply unfair to make comparisons, but I thought nevertheless I’d include this clip of a live broadcast of  Tosca from the same venue, way back in 1964, featuring perhaps the greatest Scarpia, Tito Gobbi, and perhaps the greatest Tosca, Maria Callas.  I heard the composer Michael Berkeley talking about what a revelation it was to see Callas at Covent Garden in this role; he simply hadn’t imagined that acting in the opera could be so good. Even in black-and-white you can get idea of the mesmerising stage presence that was Maria Callas and what a fine actress she was. Here she is, with hatred burning in her eyes, plunging the knife into Scarpia, standing over him willing him to die, then realising what she has done, turning back into a frightened, vulnerable and remorseful woman then doing the best she can to pay respect to his dead body. Magnificent.

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5 Responses to “Tosca”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I love Tosca. It’s a wonderful opera.

    However, I don’t think I’d want to pay £200 for a ticket. I’ll stick to concert halls and orchestral concerts.

    This illustrates the problems with the Royal Opera House in London. A different building, with many more seats, would allow much cheaper ticket prices, but at the expense of intimacy.

  2. To what extent do the ticket prices cover the costs of the production? Aren’t most opera houses heavily subsidised, either by the state or by sponsors? (Were there any ads between acts?) IIRC, Pavarotti’s standard fee for a performance was DM 250,000.

    • telescoper Says:

      The Royal Opera House does get Arts Council sponsorship, and individual productions attract private and corporate sponsors too. There aren’t adverts between the acts, but sponsors get noticed in the programmes and other literature. I believe that Covent Garden is far less reliant on state subsidy than other opera houses, but couldn’t give you the exact figures.

      It’s easy to see why Opera is expensive, though. The sets are often lavish, casts are often very large (not so with Tosca, but in others it can be so), and you need a full orchestra as well as the actors, chorus and principals. Moreover, the demands on the singers mean that they can only perform two or three times a week not every night (or even twice daily) as in the theatre. That’s why this production has two casts of principals.

      With opera, you either do it properly or you do it cheap.

  3. Wendy Sanders Says:

    I was at that same performance on 29 June. We paid something like £62 per head for amphitheatre seats, which, although expensive by many people’s standards, I think is good value for a night out for a live performance of this magnitude once in a while. There’s no need to pay £200 odd as I think you will get a good view from most seats at the ROH. (For Eugene Onegin we sat on “bar stools” at the very back of the amphitheatre and still had an unimpeded view and they were £37 each).

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