Sunday, 17 August 2014

Tosca on Video: Kabaivanska (1976) and Gheorghiu (2000)

There are those who object to film-operas on the grounds that when the singers do not sing live, but merely lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, the whole thing is fake. They do have a point, but let’s not make too much of it. Opera is a great deal more mere singing. It is supposed to be “drama per musica”, and drama requires acting. The combination of singing and acting is what makes opera most compelling. Sadly, this also makes it a nearly impossible art. It’s hard enough to do the singing alone, oratorio-like in the concert hall, but to combine it with powerful and convincing acting at the same time is superhuman. Very, very few exceptional singer-actors from the last century, for example Boris Christoff, Mario del Monaco, Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, have managed to achieve that, and even they weren’t always successful. Sometimes their voices failed them and they had to save the situation with their acting genius. Many others, such as Renata Tebaldi and Ettore Bastianini for instance, did the opposite. They managed to overcome their relatively limited (but by no means absent!) acting skills with glorious voices. Both approaches are fine as long as you don’t have singing statues or anti-musical actors on the stage. To repeat myself, opera is no oratorio, and on other hand great voice and great acting, when unevenly distributed as is always the case, compensate each other only to a certain extent.

Tosca, in fact, is no opera at all. It’s a music drama par excellence. So the acting looms even larger than usual. The great thing about film-operas is that the singers can concentrate on their acting. As these two films show, the results can be stunning. Both come, in their own and very different ways, as close to perfection as possible. You may find certain details better done in other productions, but I think you will be very hard pressed to find another film, let alone a live performance, in which everything – singers, conductor, director, sets, costumes, lighting – combines into a whole so much greater than any of its parts. This bold statement refers just as much to the filmography of Tosca as to that of any other opera/music drama.

The soundtrack for this film was recorded in Walthamstow Hall, London, in August 1976. The shooting took place on location in Rome during the next two months. One of the greatest things about this movie is that the soundtrack can easily stand alone; I don’t think it’s ever been released separately and I do think that’s a pity. The principals are caught in their absolute prime and deliver performances that range from good (Domingo) to excellent (Milnes) to fabulous (Kabaivanska). Bruno Bartoletti conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra with all the passion and dramatic drive Tosca requires. Since the recording was originally made for DECCA, the sound is as sumptuous as you’d expect.

The visual side is stunning. To begin with, the original locations – the church Sant’Andrea (Act 1), Palazzo Farnese (Act 2) and Castel Sant’Angelo (Act 3) – look terrific on the screen: lavish, spacious, evocative. Gianfranco de Bosio is an excellent director who knows how to make the best of both the gorgeous surroundings and the considerable acting abilities of his cast. His direction is a veritable wealth of insight. To take but one example, as pointed out by Kenneth Chalmers in the liner notes, de Bosio imaginatively combines the opening Scarpia-theme with the looming façade of the Sant’Andrea, thus suggesting from the very beginning that the villain is every bit as unscrupulous and corrupt as the church.

Raina Kabaivanska was one of the greatest Toscas of the 1970s, if not of all time. It is a sad fact that she made (except the soundtrack for this film) only one studio recording, as late as 1982 when her voice was no longer quite that fresh, and with largely undistinguished cast. (It is still a pretty good recording worth searching for, though.) She had a light, smallish voice, but quite adequate to the monstrous demands of the title part. She sings with polish and precision rather than with passion, and her subtle inflection of the text repays careful study. But what she truly excels in, and what matters enormously on film, is acting. Each gesture and each glance have meaning. The complexity of Tosca’s character, a fascinating cocktail of piety, devotion, jealousy, bitchiness and goodness, is conveyed brilliantly. This is not grand acting in the best histrionic traditions of Maria Callas; this was no longer possible in the 1970s, and Kabaivanska’s temperament was not like that anyway. This is an intelligent and superbly accomplished portrayal of a woman who is infinitely more than mere “diva”.

I have never understood the widespread adulation that surrounds Placido Domingo. The man is a good musician in the possession of a good tenor. That’s all he is, or ever was in his prime: just good. He seems to have struck the best balance of the “three tenors”. He has neither Pavarotti’s stupendous voice nor the subtle, refined and original artistry of Jose Carreras, yet he outlasted them both and finally attained the greatest amount of worship from the critics if not from the public. Perfect mediocrity, it seems, is the best that can happen to an opera singer nowadays. Add a little longevity and there you have it: a legend in his own time. Anyway, Domingo sings a very decent Cavaradossi here and compensates for his wooden acting with certain presence. In the third act, he does the best fall on the ground. I will give him that.

Sherrill Milnes is a wonderfully baleful Scarpia. He is in terrific voice and more than capable to do justice to the part without resorting, as so many lesser baritones do, to shouting. Dramatically, he is rather restrained, but with his body language and especially with his sinister eyes he works wonders. There is nothing buffoonish in this Scarpia, and that’s saying a great deal because even the finest Scarpias from the previous generation (Gobbi, Taddei, London) were not always free from this unfortunate form of overacting. A very good test is Scarpia’s entrance in the first act. He has to project immense authority to match the music, and he has to do it in a very short time, singing only one brief phrase. It’s a difficult thing to do convincingly. Milnes is perfect: not too fast, not too slow, with ringing voice but without shouting. Or, better still, take his reaction after Tosca’s “Quando… Il prezzo” in Act 2. Many baritones prefer to laugh heartily at the proposition – and they look quite silly. Milnes merely smiles, chillingly, then sits down and leaves the music do the rest.

One can quarrel about minor details if one is inclined to nitpicking. There is an embarrassing lip-sync error during Scarpia’s “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio” (Milnes comes in much too late for the last word), there is much too little blood in his death scene, occasionally the direction is idiosyncratic and decidedly undramatic, things like that. Never mind. No single interpretation of masterpiece as complex as Tosca can hope to be perfect; and perfectionism, let it be reminded, does not lie in getting right all tiny details, as the common delusion runs, but in recognizing the important details and getting them right. This Tosca is sumptuously shot, very well sung and superbly acted. True, Domingo is not on the same level as the other two principals, but that, too, is a minor detail. As a total experience on film of one of the greatest music dramas, this one is very hard to beat.

Interlude: Malfitano, Domingo, Raimondi (1992)

This was an honest attempt to outdo the 1976 version. It went one better by shooting the whole thing, not just on the original locations, but at the precise times of day and night. This ridiculous striving for realism – as if realism had anything to do with opera! – led to some bizarre situations. Imagine you’re an opera singer. How exactly do you sing the last act of Tosca in four o’clock after midnight? The fascinating thing is that this is a live performance, shot and sung on the spot; apparently it was even broadcast live. It is not a feature film to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Considering this, it is a remarkable technical achievement. The camera work is rather crude and shaky, but there are many fine close-ups of the singers and some excellent panoramic shots of the lavish surroundings. Evidently a lot of effort went into this broadcast. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe how they could achieve the continuity “live” without the cameras getting in the way. I also wonder how the sound was captured so well and where the orchestra was during the shooting.

However, despite the compelling immediacy of the live performance, the singing is rather disappointing. Domingo is strained and wobbly, Malfitano struggles with both the lyrical and the dramatic passages, Raimondi is the only one among the principals who handles his notes with authority. He is in slightly fresher voice than eight years later with Gheorghiu, but his acting live, though impressive, is nowhere near as charismatic. Malfitano’s acting is slightly better than her mediocre singing, but nothing to write home about and often cringe-worthy; her confrontation with Scarpia in Act 2 lacks intensity, while some moments in the outer acts are shamelessly hammed up. Domingo is his usual wooden self, acting-wise. He has, perhaps, become a little more relaxed with age, but he still couldn’t act to save his life.

All in all, this filmed live performance at the original locations is a charming experiment very much worth seeing. But, in the end, it only shows that film-operas have their legitimate place, too. They may look more artificial, but they do compensate for that by being more accomplished visually as well as vocally. This, incidentally, is the case with both film-operas discussed here.

Many reviewers have pointed out several disappointing oddities of this movie. I am willing to join the general indignation by repeating them. First, those black-and-white flashbacks from the recording sessions are decidedly annoying. All they do is to interrupt the action, especially harmful in so action-packed a music drama as Tosca. Second, having the singers speaking some of the lines is simply crass – not to use stronger words. All would have been well if Puccini had written them so in the score, only he didn’t. It is likewise stupid to have other lines presented as thoughts, an ingenious stratagem that has the disadvantage of losing the immediacy and intimacy conferred by singing. The beautiful visual side is marred by some odd choices. Now and then shaky shots in sepia intrude, the footage of Rome and Castel Sant’Angelo in the beginning of the third act looks like a documentary from the dawn of colour television.

However, all these unfortunate innovations are minor quibbles. They certainly don’t fit well with the rest, but they happen but seldom. The speaking is confined, mostly, to several lines in the first love duet, the thinking occurs even less frequently, and the flashbacks are not that prominent either. Although these effects can be embarrassing (e.g. Mario’s recognizing Tosca’s voice in his mind only makes nonsense of Scarpia’s interrupting his own speech), it is foolish to degrade the whole production because of a few minor blemishes. The film has considerable merits.

First of all, the singing and the acting are generally excellent, conveying the drama and the dark overtones with great vividness. So, for that matter, is Pappano’s impassioned conducting. My only complain is that occasionally he tends to rush certain passages; slower, weightier tempi would in my opinion enhance the drama. The sound is splendidly engineered, with depth and clarity you don’t always find in modern recordings. Even in the trickiest ensembles, most notably the “Vittoria” trio from Act 2, the voices blend perfectly and every word is audible. The wealth of orchestral detail behind the voices also comes through with startling clarity. This is especially important in a music drama in which the orchestra constantly comments on the characters and the action.

The only exception from the general excellence is Roberto Alagna. Even at his best he is no more than decent. But one should be grateful: live on the stage he isn’t even that. Angela Gheorghiu is totally gorgeous. She has the looks, the voice, the versatility, and the temperament to do full justice to Tosca’s not exactly simple make-up, not to mention vocally daunting part. Ruggero Raimondi is way past his prime, but his frightening face and superb acting more than compensate for his mild vocal problems. I have never seen Scarpia’s consuming lust presented with such shattering force. This is an important part of the drama. Scarpia is a man who worships power. He wants to be in control of everything, himself firmly included. Tosca is probably the first and only case when his carnal lust (as opposed to his lust for power) has ever got the better of him.

Visually the movie boasts lavish historical sets and costumes as well as imaginative lighting and direction. Many moments are both memorable and illuminating. For instance, staging the whole second act against a background of profound blackness is a very effective way to suggest Scarpia’s evil nature. In a way, thanks to his complete lack of moral scruples, everything beyond his study dissolves in nothingness. By the way, the same method works rather nicely in the other two acts as well. To me it is a powerful reminder about the villain’s controlling the action. Tosca’s delivering “Vissi d’arte” against the fireside is both beautiful and dramatically relevant. In this aria she addresses God directly, and a fireside is as good a symbol of Him as any. Tosca’s development from very pious woman in the first act to one who all but accuses the “Good” Lord in the second is often neglected. The direction makes a wonderful use of close-ups that give you the opportunity to appreciate the great acting of Gheorghiu and Raimondi as you can never do in the opera house. Bird’s-eye views are also used to great effect. Wonderful examples include the end of the love duet in Act 3, showing the platform of Castel Sant’Angelo flooded with moonlight but floating in darkness, and Tosca’s gorgeous red dress in the second act. These are striking, unforgettable images.

The film is such a visual tour de force that to find faults in this respect looks like sheer nit-picking. Nor, save Alagna’s mediocre performance, is there anything to complain of as far as the soundtrack goes. On the whole, this is a terribly fascinating surreal alternative to the more naturalistic version with Kabaivanska, Domingo and Milnes. More importantly, the film of Benoit Jacquot stands well as a masterpiece on its own. Fans of Tosca should on no account miss it. Newcomers to Puccini’s most dramatic score could do much worse for their visual introduction.

PS. Two of the films appear to be available complete on YouTube. If there are none of those idiotic copyright restrictions for your country, have a look.

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