In Vienna State Opera’s classic staging, with its vaulted ceiling and wrought iron, the chapel where Mario Cavaradossi (Neil Shicoff) is painting Mary Magdalene is spookily realistic.’You, mysterious beauty, are blond and have blue eyes; Tosca’s eyes are black’. (‘As I painted I thought only of you, Tosca.’) In his first aria Shicoff sounds strained, the vibrato a little insecure- although he’s well experienced in the role. With his greying hair, Angelotti appears at first unrecognisable, prison life has changed him deeply- a premonition of foreboding.
Tosca (Emily Magee), a dark brunette appears in a white gown with a red cloak carrying flowers. Magee is a wonderful, rich soprano, and she acts quite naturally. In her first aria, Non la sospiri, she hears the amoretti whispering in the woods; doesn’t he long for their secret love nest. Tosca is filled with an unbridled love. Their duet is enthralling .’How you tempt me siren’.Then Tosca notes the blonde Mary Magdalene is too beautiful; and snaps,’It is Attavanti! You are seeing her, she was here’. How she stares at me, mocking me!
‘Qual’ occhio al monde’, he rebuts, her black eyes are incomparable, gentle in love, wild in anger. Reassured, Tosca,’How well you make me love you again’. But ‘Make her eyes black!’ Shicoff’s high notes are a bit strained; but in fairness, he’s come on in spite of illness. Notwithstanding Shicoff and Magee have that chemistry. ‘I worship you Tosca, love everything about you, my jealous love’. ‘Say it once again’. He sings repeatedly, sempre t’amo until – in Puccini’s psychological realism- Tosca, abruptly breaks free, ‘There, you’ve undone my hair!’ Scenes like this have inspired countless 20th century musicals, but without Puccini’s inspiration.
Scarpia- ‘that hypocritical satyr, gratifying his lust’- appears, his entrance ironically preceded by the partisans’ celebrating victory. Falk Struckmann’s Scarpia is outstanding. Struckmann- white -haired, black cloak, and red waistcoat- is very impressive: a superb baritone, he chillingly enacts the part. In Puccini’s realistic detail, Scarpia observes Angelotti’s food basket is empty. And, seeing Tosca,’Your life in the theatre, and you come to church to pray?’. Scarpia’s like a very clever police interrogator. So he is; and he uses torture.
Scarpia plays on Tosca’s jealousy; ‘finds’ and misplaces Marquesa Attavanti’s fan. His poison starts to work. Their first scene seethes with passion and hatred. Scarpia would give his life to wipe her tears away. If only he could catch the ‘traitor’; Cavaradossi the ‘traitor’ has betrayed her. Mario’s villa for two love affairs? Magee falls to her knees, realising she’s giving him away. (Scarpia slyly orders her carriage be followed unobtrusively.)
In his aria, ‘Tosca! Now Scarpia settles down in your heart.’ Struckmann’s rendition is excellent. (In black and red) he’s the devil incarnate, the suppressed lecher.’Tosca, you make me forget God’,he admits.
Their fateful confrontation in Act 2, the drama unfolding, is as good as I’ve seen. We see- in Baron Scarpia’s luxuriously furnished apartment, red-brocaded wall coverings in carved oak panellings; the secretaire/writing desk right stage; and an ominous red couch. ‘I’d prefer a violent conquest to a gentle surrender’, Scarpia declares in his lustful aria (Ha piu forte sapore) He craves, feasts, tosses it away… God created so many beautiful creatures. (‘How was the chase, he asks his coachman. And Angelotti? His priority is Tosca.)
Shicoff, in a blue satin frock coat- short, slightly built , looks like the artist- denies knowing Angelotti’s hiding place. ‘Let’s try some whipping: Scarpia instructs ‘the usual formalities’. Wonderful orchestral playing; nothing routine about this performance!
‘And now let us talk like good friends’, Scarpia addresses Tosca. Magee is dressed-like a princess-in a sparkling gold chiffon, black cloak ensemble, and wearing a gold crown headpiece. ‘Your lover bears a cross of thorns’- we hear groans, increasingly disturbing. They fight. ‘Would you laugh at his torment?’she pleads. We hear stifled screams from the depths. Clinch. ‘Where is Angelotti?’ Tosca can’t take any more. Cavaradossi is dragged in, his shirt bloodied.
Ironically republican victory is announced as Cavaradossi realises Tosca has betrayed him (when Scarpia shouts the (garden-well) location of Angelotti.) Struckmann’s Scarpia reminds of a stereotypical Nazi general. ‘His meal was interrupted. Let’s talk about how we may save him.’ Struckmann’s lythe baritone is now beguiling and lyrical. But he’s lewd. (Gia …mi dicon venal)’They say I’m mercenary, but a beautiful woman will never pay me …’ He’s seen her in a new role, he’s never seen before (on stage). The sadist is aroused by her real-life suffering. She scorns him. ‘I shall possess you’, he leers. And Tosca, prophetically, ‘I’d sooner jump off the tower’. ‘Do you hear the drum?’, Scarpia points to the gallows being erected.
Emily Magee is very fine in Tosca’s heart-rending aria: ‘Vissi d’arte’ ‘I lived for art, and never did any harm,; secretly gave help to the poor. Why, good Lord do you desert me in my hour of pain?’ Now Magee is kneeling, on Scarpia’s rich oriental carpet. Is this the actress; or is this from the heart? There’s wild applause. She raises her head; she is vanquished: be merciful.
‘You ask a life of me, I a moment of you’. Scarpia will requite his lust, just once.
Now the horse – trading for Cavaradossi’s release. The prisoner will be shot, but a feigned execution. Scarpia’s stabbing- Tosca’s concealed knife as they embrace- is realistic; no histrionics. E morto! To think all Rome trembled before him!
The ramparts, huge stone blocks, steps ascending, overlooking a view of Rome: the Prologue to Act 3. Shicoff is much better; he has a favour to ask, to write a letter to a loved one. A wonderfully expressive cello solo, then clarinet, precede Cavaradossi’s lament, E lucevan le stelle ‘She came to me fragrantly scented (Oh,sweet kisses as I released her body from the veils)…and now dreams of love have vanished. He sings, in desperation, ‘I die and never have I loved life so much.’
Magee and Shicoff excel in their closing scene. Tosca appears, dressed in red -black, shot- satin cloak, with a ‘safe conduct’. She sings of how she had promised herself to Scarpia’s lust. Then saw a knife… Mario: ‘You killed him, sweet hands!’ You so devout’. She has ‘gold and jewels and a carriage waiting, but first of all he must be shot!’ It would be melodrama in less accomplished hands.
Shicoff’s tenor, still a little shaky, but their duet is powerfully enacted. ‘The love that saved your life shall guide us’. Magee was also most expressive, a powerful actress the role demands. They soared together
The famous closure is still great theatre. ‘Fall to the ground at the first shot’, she instructs, ‘it’s just a comedy’; but then increasingly anxious, ‘this waiting lasts forever’.
This production was anything but routine (as I’d cynically anticipated). All seats sold, Tosca is always a sell-out.
From the full-bloodied orchestral Prologue, veteran conductor Philippe Auguin (once Karajan and Solti’s assistant), coaxed Vienna State Opera orchestra to give their very best-with breathtaking solo playing. Scrupulous detail is key to Puccini’s descriptive musical realism. Puccini’s opera (and libretto) so full of subtleties, never boring, still needs a committed performance to reveal his genius.

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