ALBUM TITLE: Puccini
PERFORMER: Kristine Opolais, Marcelo Álvarez, Marco Vratogna, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Peter Rose, Peter Tantsits, Douglas Williams, Walter Fink; Vienna Philharmonic Choir; Cantus Juvenum Karlsruhe; Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle; dir. Philipp Himmelmann
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: 8024264178; Blu-ray: 8024264174
Sir Simon Rattle’s first Tosca was always going to be an event. Whether it was intended to be this kind of event is difficult to tell. The extremes of tempo and colour from the Berlin Philharmonic in the first minutes of Philipp Himmelmann’s Baden-Baden Easter Festival production are enough to make one’s hair stand on end: a visceral rush of energy that deliquesces into an oily pool of heavily perfumed sound, reminiscent of being trapped in a high-performance sports car with a man who is wearing far too much aftershave.
There is something to be said for embracing the vulgar in Puccini. Rattle does more than this. He polishes the sadistic brilliance of the instrumentation to a blinding dazzle, most strikingly at the climax of Act I, as Marco Vratogna’s Scarpia sings his blasphemous creed over the Te Deum of the Vienna Philharmonic Choir. There is fleeting tenderness in the melancholy beauty of the clarinet solo in ‘E lucevan le stelle’. But if you give two hoots about any of the surviving characters by Act III you have a softer heart than mine.
Designed by Raimund Bauer, Himmelmann’s staging is conspicuously expensive and devoid of human detail beyond the anguish of mental or physical torture that Scarpia captures on video and projects onto the surveillance screens of his apartment. This is Rome reimagined as a modern oligarch’s fiefdom, with the chorus and henchmen clothed in imitation of their leader, complete with identical Nordic blonde ponytails.
Vratogna shouts and growls while Kristine Opolais concentrates on emphasising the worst aspects of Floria Tosca’s temperament: vanity, jealousy and self-pity. She looks a million dollars but sounds dry and strained, and conveys no sense of attraction to Marcelo Álvarez’s honey-toned but chumpish Cavaradossi. The most sympathetic stage performance comes from Giuseppe Mantello as the Shepherd Boy, here being groomed by Peter Rose’s predatory Sacristan.