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Tosca 1923, a Frenchman’s Italophobic Fantasy

National Theatre
07/03/2019 -  & October 7, 15, 2018, January 6, 12, April 28, May 17, August 28, 31, October 13, 21, 2019
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
Anda-Louise Bogza/Barbara Haveman* (Floria Tosca), Peter Berger/Valter Borin*/Hector Sandoval (Mario Cavaradossi), Francesco Landolfi*/Jirí Sulzenko (Baron Scarpia), Roman Vocel*/Frantisek Zahradnícek (Cesare Angelottti), Ivo Hrachovec/Oleg Korotkov*/Yevhen Shokalo (Sacristan), Jirí Hruska*/Václav Sibera (Spoletta), Tomás Bartůněk/Oldrich Kríz* (Sciarrone), Alexander Laptěv*/Andrey Styrkul/Nikola Tasev (Jailer), Lukás Brautferger/Jan Musil* (Shepherd)
Kühnův dětský sbor, Jirí Chvála (chorus master), Sbor Národniho divadla, Adolf Melichar (chorus master), Orchestr Národního divadla, Karl-Heinz Steffens/David Svec/Andreas Sebastian Weiser* (conductor)
Arnaud Bernard (stage director, costumes, light design), Camille Dugas (sets), Jitka Slavíková (dramaturgy)

B. Haveman (© Patrik Borecký)

This Prague production of Tosca opts for a change of epoch, from Napoleon’s invasion of Italy (and the Papal States) in 1800, to Rome at the time of Mussolini’s ascent to power in 1923, but with mixed results. We were subjected to a seven minute idiotic pantomime at the Headquarters of the Secret Police: clerks typing away, stiff officers parading in and out, and prisoners being interrogated and brutalized. This was meant to set an ambiance of tension. All it produced was widespread yawning. In Puccini’s two-hour opera, seven minutes of non-musical nonsense is an eternity.

The Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle was presented by drab papier mâché panels. The ugly sets were the antithesis of the Italian sense of beauty. But this production was not without its bright moments. Oleg Korotkov was excellent in portraying a fussy and obsequious Sacristan. Italian tenor Valter Borin was a convincing Cavaradossi, with good stage presence. His voice is nasal in the middle register, but the nasality diminishes in the upper register to give bright high notes. Despite conductor Andreas Sebastian Weiser’s slow pace, Borin’s opening aria “Recondita armonia” was well sung. Barbara Haveman was an exemplary Tosca with a good spinto voice capable of portraying Tosca’s temperament and passion as well as her fragility. Her “Vissi d’arte” was majestic, interpreted more as a prayer to herself rather than to Scarpia. Her emphasis on certain words in her Act II confrontation with Scarpia was exemplary. Words such as “Sogghigno di demone”, “Ebben, ma cessate, cessate”, “ah, non posso più!” and “Si, l’anima mi torturate” were poignant. Her first act Greta Garbo-like costume, a non-feminine pant suit worthy of Hillary Clinton, was most unappealing. This is most unfortunate as Tosca has to establish who she is when she first appears. In contrast, her diadem and Eleonora Duse-inspired second act black ensemble were glamorous.

Despite several qualities, baritone Francesco Landolfi is miscast as Baron Scarpia. His voice is too light for the role. He attempts but fails to intimidate as the all powerful Chief of Police. In his Act II scene with Tosca, his threats and intimidation fall short as his voice is drowned out by Haveman’s Tosca. Dramatically, Scarpia’s natural authority eludes him as does the aristocratic Baron’s deportment. This is a glorified clerk, but certainly not an aristocrat. Some phrasing, especially in his first act meeting with Tosca, was deliciously enunciated, such as “Ho sortito l’effetto!” and “Già il veleno l’ha rosa!” Landolfi perfectly captures the slimy side of Scarpia. But slimy with little menace is not Scarpia. The smaller roles were vocally acceptable, but all, save for Oleg Korotkov’s Sacristan, had diction problems. This is a real pity as Puccini, more than most opera composers, is a man of theatre, and poor diction by a few minor characters dampens the drama.

Among the many sloppy stage directions, Scarpia exclaims “Il suo stemma” before being given Marchesa Attavanti’s fan in Act I. This Chief of Police must be clairvoyant, or more likely, the comprimario handing him the fan has no idea of what’s going on. Baron Scarpia performs the Act I Te Deum in his office rather than in church! The background chorus is not the congregation but arrested Jews being brutalized and undergoing measurements for racial classification. The boy in the third act, who sings a shepherd’s song in Roman dialetto, was absurdly transformed into a child wandering into the office of the Secret Police, making it a very permissive department on the outskirts of Rome rather than in the city’s center. This masquerade was a pretext to show a scene of looted art being sorted. These last two scenes are totally unrealistic for 1923, and only distract from the opera’s plot. Prior to Cavaradossi’s singing “E lucevan le stelle”, the jailer here, oddly dressed as an officer, offers him the services of a priest before being shot. The priest in question is the Sacristan, a lowly church function not entitled to hear confessions or administer last rites. In this staging, the opera’s finale is in the Secret Police’s office (yes that of the idiotic pre-opera pantomime). Tosca has no roof to jump from, so goes through a door and supposedly runs up some stairs. A lightweight dummy falls off the ceiling to risible rather than dramatic effect!

Arnaud Bernard’s absurd staging diminishes the drama of Victorien Sardou’s grand guignol play. It is sordid enough with Tosca stabbing Scarpia with a dinner knife, Cavaradossi being shot by a firing squad and Tosca jumping off the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo. Evoking Fascist Italy, racial laws and the looting of artworks only distracts from the actual drama. The change of epoch renders the production absurd as it does not jibe with the libretto’s battle of Marengo (1800), Napoleon, Austrian General von Melas, or a safe passage via the rustic escape route of Civitavecchia when planes and trains are available. The historical distortion is especially scandalous seeing as the facts are patently wrong. Yes, Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister by the King in 1923 following the infamous March on Rome in October 1922. However, he certainly did not achieve absolute power immediately. By 1926, Communist members of Parliament were arrested. Only as late as 1938 were anti-Jewish racial laws instated. These shameful laws were against miscegenation and against Gentiles serving in Jewish homes. After Italy’s surrender in 1943, Germany occupied a chunk of Italy where Jews were persecuted and deported. Italy’s record however is far less shameful than many European countries during WWII. In contrast, France – whether German-occupied or Pétain’s Vichy “France” – deported huge numbers of Jews to the death camps. Perhaps Frenchman Arnaud Bernard ought to reset Tosca in Paris or Vichy instead of denigrating and misrepresenting Italy in this travesty of a production.

Ossama el Naggar



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