A first night with mixed reactions
Back in 2013, the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley said in an interview, ‘if there is a Scarpia out there somewhere I’d be happy to do that.’ Come four years later and he is doing exactly that. On Monday night at the Royal Opera House, his Scarpia had long hair, a burnished rich vocal tone and menacing demeanour in Jonathan Kent’s ninth revival of Puccini’s Tosca. For a first-timer, Finley gave a distinctively refreshing portrayal of Scarpia that I shan’t forget.
The production began 12 years ago with set designs based on the Napoleonic era. I’ve seen it twice before and this version is my favourite. This is mainly due to the tremendous cast, which includes Finley, his fellow Canadian Adrianne Pieczonka and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. These international artists have a huge following and if it wasn’t for their sensational voices and breadth of experience, I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing the production at all.
Musically, Tosca is a great Puccini opera, but the traditional set designs in this production aren’t mind-blowing. Monday’s first night was dedicated to the production’s original designer Paul Brown, who died last year. As much as I thought the stage was sufficient for my first viewing, years ago, I feel a revamp is necessary.
As frequent theatre and operagoers know, the first night of any production is a hit or miss event. Let’s not forget that artists and performers are nervous too. Performing a show in front of critics and impatient audiences for the first time is no mean feat. The pressure to entertain and pull off an incredible night is high. The last thing performers want is a bad review or a nasty post on social media to upset them. Yet, with saying that, the first night wasn’t seamless nor a waste of time. As the run goes on, I am confident the production will improve, just not the old staging.
The first half was particularly strong with all three singers and chorus, in Te Deum, performing as well as they could, but soon enough the production’s energy and excitement began to wane. The Royal Opera House orchestra was bold and loud, not just for the dramatic parts, but for most of the opera. It seemed as if its conductor Dan Ettinger wanted this from the outset. For those who were watching Tosca for the first night, they would have thought that every second of Tosca was purely dramatic with all of its murdering, death and tragic ending. This is a huge misunderstanding. The opera has softer and tender moments too. In the beginning scenes, Tosca cheekily asks her lover Cavaradossi to paint the eye colour of the female figure, of Mary Magdalene, to the same colours as her’s to calm her jealousy. Puccini deliberately contrasts the music’s tone from a lighter and tender first act to accommodate the disastrous conclusion in the final scenes. Despite these nuisances Puccini put in place, the musical detail simply wasn’t there on Monday night.
Together, Calleja and Pieczonka seemed to have great chemistry. This is the second time Calleja has sung the role of Cavaradossi, since his first outing at Grange Park Opera last year, and his Mediterranean sheen showed through. The audience was enthralled by his exceptional performance of ‘E lucevan le stele.’ Pieczonka also received an applause for her vocal abilities and passionate singing in the title-role aria, ‘Vissi d’arte’. During the night, at no point did I feel Pieczonka struggle with her role.
Other cast members worth praising include Jette Parker Young Artist Simon Shibambu who was confident and well-suited to the role of the fugitive Angelotti. There’s also Jeremy White who gave an engaging performance of a humourous and easily likable Sacristan.
Go and see the charming and incredible cast, but don’t expect a visual reward for the dated set design. The real pleasure is in Puccini’s moving music and the tremendous voices — the stuff of an Italian opera.
There’s another saving grace about this production which directors and creative teams should take note of. It’s the reminder that insinuated rape scenes don’t have to include naked skin or revealing the act itself. Finley’s character is a sex predator. He tries to bargain with Tosca for sex in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life and no one has to get their clothes off to present this. I hope this may prompt directors to re-evaluate the way they wish to portray such horrific acts of sexual violence on stage, now and in the future. Especially in a post-Weinstein world.
Tosca is showing at the Royal Opera House until March 3rd. There are different cast changes on various dates including conductor Placido Domingo and singers Martina Serafin, Angela Gheoghiu, Massimo Giodano, Ricardo Massi, and Marco Vratogna. Please check the website for the schedule times and purchase tickets (here), or wait for Friday Rush tickets for some reduced tickets (here).
Mixed reactions on Twitter: Click here to see them.
IMO #ROHTosca first night was dramatic, moving & the stuff of an Italian opera. Triumphant performance all round from @pieczonka_a, the Italian sheen @MalteseTenor and a homourous @GeraldFinley. The @ROHchorus sang from their heart, and the astute ROH Orchestra were brilliant too pic.twitter.com/V5mS2IzwhR
— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) January 15, 2018
— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) January 15, 2018