It’s the end of an era for Covent Garden. After being revived during nearly every season for the past 40 years, the Zefirelli production of Tosca is to be scrapped, so that when Angela Gheorghiu makes her debut in the role in the 2005-06 season she will be inhabiting a new production.
The Zefirelli production gained instant iconic status when Maria Callas appeared in it in 1964 with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. Although the production was redirected about ten years ago by John Cox, the sets have been retained ever since the Callas debut.
However, compared with the intelligence of modern designs and stagings, this Tosca seemed drab and old-fashioned on its final outing, and it’s not hard to see why they’re replacing it. One would have hoped that the Royal Opera would pull out the stops in terms of casting for this final appearance of the production, but we were left disappointed. Compared with the dismal ENO staging earlier in the year, this was not quite so dreadful, but the performance left a lot to be desired.
In the title role, Maria Guleghina sounded either past her best or maybe just in very bad voice. Her Non la sospiri in Act 1 lacked the legato/staccato contrasts normally used in this aria, and the big Callas moment in Act 2 – Vissi d’arte – was nothing short of appalling: poor phrasing, inaudible words, deviance from the melody and incorrect tuning. It’s true that she acted reasonably well, but there was no sense of her passion for Cavaradossi.
That was unsurprising, considering that the tenor role was inhabited by a young Chinese singer at least twenty years her junior, making his Western debut in an inoffensive but entirely unengaging performance. Yu Qiang Dai (originally called Dai Chang in the press release twelve months ago – has he changed his name or is he a replacement?) rose to most of the big challenges – Recondita armonia and E lucevan le stele in particular – but was a wooden actor, and totally unconvincing as the diva’s lover. Bring back Domingo – I don’t care if he’s 60-something!
As Baron Scarpia, Chief of Police, the veteran American baritone Samuel Ramey made a solid return to the house, but even he could not lend the evening some well-needed spark.
This was largely due to the terrible conducting of Christian Badea, whom I hope will not be returning here in the near future. There was no life in this performance at all – no dynamic contrasts, no dramatic drive, no passion – and it felt like the conducting was largely to blame, along with the tired, cluttered and unimaginative staging. The chorus was the one redeeming feature, but they have nothing to do after the Act 1 Te Deum.
When Antonio Pappano conducts this work here in the future, I have little doubt that it will seem like a completely different piece of music – and I hope the singing and staging are better.