Richard Strauss’ last opera Die Liebe der Danae has a pretty chequered production history. It was scheduled to premiere at the 1944 Salzburg Festival but that was scuppered when all theatres were closed following the July bomb plot. A special exception was made for Die Liebe der Danae in that a single, public dress rehearsal was allowed at the conclusion of which Strauss is said to have bid farewell to the Wiener Philharmoniker with the words quoted in the title. It then remained unperformed until the 1952 festival where it got its true premier followed by productions over the next two years in most major European houses. After that it pretty much dropped out of the repertoire with occasional performances in Germany but apparently the production recorded at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2011 is only the sixteenth production all told. It’s a bit hard to see why it has been so neglected. The music is perfectly good Strauss though maybe it lacks a headline aria of the “Es gibt ein Reich” variety. Maybe the subject matter was just too frivolous for the immediately post-war world; it’s described as “A Joyful Mythology in Three Acts”. In any event, I was happy to discover it.
Puccini’s Tosca is on at the Canadian Opera Company right now. It’s this years “bums on seats” production. There are fourteen performances scheduled; compared to eight for most shows. It’s double casted. It’s a conservative friendly, traditionalist production seen before just four years ago and it features hone town diva, Adrienne Pieczonka. We saw it last night and were a bit disappointed. It wasn’t the sort of show one comes out of spluttering “travesty” or “disgrace” but it wasn’t the sort of performance that gets a standing ovation and excited deconstruction on the subway home either. It felt like a revival of a traditional production. It has to be said that my reaction, while more positive than some reviews I’ve read, wasn’t shared by a large chunk of the audience who switched from their customary coughing to an extended standing ovation. From the chatter I could hear in seats around me that was largely the reaction of the “once a year” crowd so, in a very important sense, this production accomplishes what it needs to do.
Still it’s sad to come out of a performance of Tosca relatively unmoved so let me try and dissect why. Paul Curran’s production is very traditional so there’s no gimmickry to either offend or help overcome shortcomings in the singing or acting department and, of course, there’s no sense of novelty. A reasonably seasoned opera goer is, inevitably, comparing it with other Toscas. Mr. Curran’s programme notes are quite explicit about the success criteria for an enterprise of this type.
The joy and challenge of directing Tosca is not only in the glorious music and razor-sharp libretto, but ideally in workingclosely with the talents of the singers playing and fleshing out their roles. As the curtain rises it is the characters and relationships we must believe in. Characters are built bar by bar, phrase by phrase and discussion by discussion. No word is too small that it might not be the trigger for a singer to find a new angle into their character’s life or psyche, and the job of the director, I believe, is in part to help the cast explore and discover just these subtleties.
The trouble is that not much of this happened. The three principals; Adrienne Pieczonka (Floria Tosca), Carlo Ventre (Cavaradossi) and Mark Delavan (Scarpia), are all established ‘A’ list singers and sang as well as one would expect but neither their characters nor the relationships between them came fully alight. I can take my Tosca somewhat overblown but lukewarm doesn’t really cut it. Delavan is a big man with lots of physical presence but here he struck (rather odd) poses and never really exuded any sense of menace. He didn’t even seem to be that into Tosca. His physical encounters with her in Act 2 suggested that their mutual priority was not upsetting the costume shop. You could find steamier scenes in any high school parking lot. This just reinforced the aloofness of Pieczonka’s very “in control” Tosca. Vissi d’arte, though beautifully sung, came out of nowhere. This wasn’t a woman on the edge of breakdown and when she stabs Scarpia our surprise isn’t that she’s done so but that she didn’t rip his balls off with her bare hands ten minutes earlier. The less said about Ventre’s acting the better though he too sang very well indeed and E luceva qualche stella was probably the emotional highlight of the evening.
Besides fine singing there was quite a lot to like in the production. The orchestra under Paolo Carignani sounded great. I really like the atmospheric lighting plot which used light level and tone to create a variety of effects, especially in Act 1 and in Act 3, where it managed to suggest night time without being so dark one couldn’t see. The chorus both adults and children were excellent and curran creates some pleasing visual arrangements in Act 1 (nice touch where Scarpia barges out past the bishop celebrant). Unfortunately none of this really overcomes the emotional hole at the centre of the production.
I’ve heard it said, from various quarters, that the second cast of Julie Makerov in the title role and Brendan Jovanovich as Cavaradossi (Delavan sings Scarpia in all performances) may up the EQ a bit so they may actually be a better bet. Sheer curiosity may even get me to go find out.
I’m sure what I’ve written above sounds really negative. It needs context. Expectations for COC productions have been raised very high by some truly excellent efforts in recent years and so a “pretty adequate” production that would have received rave reviews ten years ago barely cuts it today. That’s the price of success.
Opera 101(I) at the Duke of Westminster last night was more interesting than I expected. Besides the usual host, Brent Bambury, we had the director of the current production Paul Curran, Mark Delavan, who is singing Scarpia, and Julie Makerov, one of two Toscas. Delavan and Makerov were engaging and funny if not specially revelatory though both revealed a taste for country music which is a bit disturbing. Most of the interest came from Curran. He’s an intense little Scot who tells it how he sees it. He grew up in the less salubrious parts of Glasgow (I’m reliably informed that there are salubrious bits!) and the first opera he saw was Wozzeck which he describes as the story of his life. I was struck by his emphasis on the role of the music in his directorial process. He described himself as a “musician first” and talked at some length about his role in making sure that the singers can sing to their best ability. He’s also no literalist. I asked him whether the very specific time and place setting of Tosca was constraining or liberating and he went on a bit of a rant which I loved! He listed off the historical inaccuracies with the Tosca libretto with encyclopaedic accuracy peppered with expressions like “complete bullshit” basically ending up at “so I feel I can do pretty much what I like with it”. He’s also not one for the pretties. He told a story about being criticized because Tosca’s dress in Act 2 was inelegant. His response “It’s a rape scene (F word not far away here we feel). I don’t think she’s asking ‘does my bum look big in this?'”. I liked his take on “Vissi d’arte” as a Jewish aria too. He’s alluding to it’s sense of a contractual relationship with God as opposed to Tosca’s over Catholicism (he’s from a very Catholic family). All in all good value.
We had a brief chat afterwards about Britten, ‘difficult’ operas and stuff. I want to see his Peter Grimes but, unfortunately, Santa Fe isn’t exactly next door.
In a couple or three hours it will back to COC for me for the third time in 24 hours. This time for the 2012/13 season announcement.
fn1. Opera 101 is a pub based series of fairly informal talks by members of the creative team for various COC productions.