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OPERA

Review: Tosca with a Russian twist

DESPITE being a dedicated opera fan for over 15 years, until recently I had never seen any of the Toscas staged at the Slovak National Theatre (SND). The reason I finally went to see the opera on February 21 was the presence of promising Russian soprano Lada Birjucov in the role of the main character - singer Floria Tosca.
The schedule also said that Tosca's lover, painter Cavaradossi, would be played by Slovak opera star Peter Dvorský. However, it has become increasingly difficult to count on the maestro's presence, and the role was played instead by the young tenor Michal Lehotský, in his first principal role at the SND.
Regardless of its popularity with audiences worldwide, Tosca is one of the most criticised operas in history. The libretto, based on the play La Tosca by French author Victorien Sardou (premiered in 1887 with Sarah Bernhardt), was considered inappropriate for opera. And even though Puccini's music perfectly complied with the theme, it almost eliminated the Italian bel canto style out of which opera had grown - a shock back in 1900.


RUSSIAN soprano Birjucov as Tosca and Vongrey as Scarpia.
photo: Alena Klenková

Tosca

By: Giacomo Puccini:
Where: Slovenské národné divadlo (Slovak National Theatre), Hviezdoslavovo námestie, Bratislava
Next performance: March 31 (Iveta Matyášová as Tosca), May 16 (Ľubica Rybárska as Tosca) at 19:00
Rating: 8 out of 10

DESPITE being a dedicated opera fan for over 15 years, until recently I had never seen any of the Toscas staged at the Slovak National Theatre (SND). The reason I finally went to see the opera on February 21 was the presence of promising Russian soprano Lada Birjucov in the role of the main character - singer Floria Tosca.

The schedule also said that Tosca's lover, painter Cavaradossi, would be played by Slovak opera star Peter Dvorský. However, it has become increasingly difficult to count on the maestro's presence, and the role was played instead by the young tenor Michal Lehotský, in his first principal role at the SND.

Regardless of its popularity with audiences worldwide, Tosca is one of the most criticised operas in history. The libretto, based on the play La Tosca by French author Victorien Sardou (premiered in 1887 with Sarah Bernhardt), was considered inappropriate for opera. And even though Puccini's music perfectly complied with the theme, it almost eliminated the Italian bel canto style out of which opera had grown - a shock back in 1900.

The three-act opera features only three arias and the work is a drama more than anything. The fragmented style of music and the opera's pessimistic finale, confirming deep scepticism about the illusion that love and goodness will triumph over evil, are only two reasons why some people avoid this piece.

The main problem with the opera is that the interpretation of all three characters requires not only great singing but also acting talent. The latter, though, is rather rare among classical singers. Most people would prefer to listen to the three arias recorded on a decent-quality CD at home than go to the SND, unless it was guaranteed that the acting would also be good.

In this case, the performance of the Russian Birjucov was at least one notch above those of her fellow performers, Lehotský as Cavaradossi and Zoltán Vongrey as Scarpia, who were very average and hardly held one's attention.

Set in Italy in 1800, when Napoleon was fighting a battle over the village Marengo, the story develops around three main characters: Tosca, the famous and very jealous opera singer; Scarpia, the most perfect criminal in opera history; and Cavaradossi, an apolitical and rather naive painter who is also Tosca's lover.

Cavaradossi is helping Angelotti, a former member of the Italian government who has escaped from prison. Scarpia, a cruel police officer who is in love with Tosca, is after Angelotti. When he discovers that Cavaradossi is assisting the prisoner, he sees his chance to get rid of the painter and to have Tosca all to himself.

Despite the opera's tragic ending, the sad atmosphere is eased by a surprise during the scene when Tosca discloses to Scarpia where Angelotti is hiding, while her lover is being tortured. At this point, the SND's audience experiences one of the few modern novelties incorporated into an otherwise very classical production - multimedia projection. The behind-the-scenes torture of poor Cavaradossi is projected onto a large sheet, while Tosca and Scarpia act in front. The exaggerated expressions on the victim's face are rather entertaining.

At the world premiere of Tosca in 1900, the Vissi d'arte aria had to be repeated twice because of the constant applause. Today's audiences rarely use their applause to register approval or disapproval of a performer, preferring to offer the same amount of applause for good performers and bad.

However, the night of February 21 was an exception, as Birjucov was given a well-deserved standing ovation. It will be even more interesting to hear her in five years' time, when her talent will doubtless have been enhanced by experience. However, the theatre will probably not be able to afford her then.

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