Bryn Terfel is Baron Scarpia; Angela Gheorghiu is Floria Tosca – and Jonas Kaufmann is Mario Cavaradossi. The Royal Opera house had the savvy to realize this, as well as the fact that in Antonio Pappano it has the most passionate advocate for this music – hence the film version, shot over two evenings in July, and now on show at cinemas all over the world. Even if, like me, you’ve seen these same three singers in Tosca on the ROH stage, it’s still very much worth catching one of the showings, not only to relive the memories but to find yourself surprised again and again by the singing, the playing and the direction.
The film begins with a brief but inspiring introduction, featuring Pappano in full spate and endearing comments from the singers: Gheorghiou – “I love to sing Tosca because I am singing myself!” and Kaufmann – “If you don’t have these passionate feelings, then stay away from this music!” For those with any doubts about how the production appears on film, you can be assured that the direction, by the very experienced and musical Robin Lough, is spot on in every way. The only technical glitch was a transmission or projection issue in that it was 2-3 frames out of synch – a matter of some 80-120 milliseconds.
Jonathan Kent’s production is blessedly lacking in ‘message’ beyond the already powerful one of the story itself, and within a traditional setting the singers are allowed to shine, whilst still being given plausible things to do – ideal, in other words, and the only people likely to be disappointed are those who expected to see Kaufmann and Gheorghiu stripping down to their undies during ‘Qual’occhio al mondo’ as the former and Anja Kampe have to do during ‘O namenlose Freude’ in the DVD of Fidelio.
Pappano drives the ROH orchestra into a performance of raging splendour, coaxing the most delicate of pianissimi and the most rousing fortes. Terfel is stupendous as Scarpia, the burnish on his tone as lovely as ever and his acting far more subtle than that of any other bass; just look at that moment when he almost feels a wisp of compassion for Tosca. His Act I aria was delivered with absolute conviction and the kind of authority owned only by the greatest interpreters.
Subtlety is not really what you look for in the heroine, and Gheorghiu does plenty of prima-donna style gesturing, but all seems right in context, with ‘Vissi d’Arte’ far more touching than you might expect, and her cries of ‘Muori!’ deeply stirring. She looks fabulous dripping in all that Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery, and she creates a sympathetic diva and lover – her scenes with Cavaradossi were a delight.
Kaufmann was the star of the show onstage, and nothing changes on screen; his acting is utterly convincing and his singing is surpassingly beautiful. ‘Recondita armonia’ brought the house down not only for its thrillingly held top notes but its ecstatic diminuendo at the close, his cries of ‘Vittoria!’ shook more than the Baron’s bookshelves, and as for ‘E lucevan le Stelle’, it was even more revelatory here in close-up. Most tenors belt out this aria, seeming to forget that it’s actually a reminiscence of love-making followed by an affirmation of life; Kaufmann sings the final line ‘E nn ho mato mai tanto la vita!’ with undiminished power yet ineffable tenderness.
Where ever you live, you can experience all this for yourself in the comfort of your local cinema, all over the world from Belfast to Brisbane, with UK performances on November 14th, 20th, 27th and 30th in places as diverse as Wolverhampton, Hawkhurst, Watford, Kingston and Gateshead. I saw it close to home in Wimbledon, and I can tell you that there are few pleasures in life superior to sitting in a comfy high-backed seat and slurping on a Ben & Jerry’s shake whilst Jonas Kaufmann breathes ‘O dolci mani’ over Angela Gheorghiu’s fingers.