Baron Bryn and Jacobin Jonas: Tosca

napoleon pass
Bonaparte Crossing the Great St. Bernard Pass, by Jacques-Louis David (Photo credit: http://www.khanacademy.org)

(Alright, so “Jacobin” is going too far…)

What more can one ask for: we are in Rome in 1800 during Napoleon’s Italian campaign. We have a republican-romantic-idealist painter (Mario Cavaradossi, sung by Jonas Kaufmann) deeply in love with another artist—a singer (Tosca, sung by Angela Gheorghiu), caught up in a political crisis when Mario decides to shelter a political prisoner (who shares his republican ideals and the belief that Napoleon will ride in on his white horse, so to speak, and help those ideals to come true).

All this, and their foil is one of the greatest villains in opera: Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia—sung and acted to perfection by the great bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

If Bryn had a moustache here, he'd be twirling it.
If Bryn had a curly moustache here, he’d be twirling it.

Torture, murder, art, love, lust, politics, suicide, religion, Napoleon, Rome. A recipe for a phenomenal story. When wedded to the music of the incomparable Puccini and conducted by Antonio Pappano, you have pure magic.

This is the magic of Tosca, an 1899 masterpiece in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, first performed in 1900. This particular production is from 2011 at the Royal Opera House, and the DVD can be found on Amazon. I have heard it called “theTosca; “the best Tosca ever,” etc. And it really would be hard to argue with that. Though it really deserves to be experienced without much foreknowledge of the story, there is–spoiler alert!a synopsis on Naxos, here.

(I think I will go hide now...)
The “Te Deum” (I think I will go hide now…)

The set is dramatic, and the staging often inspired (note: particularly the “Te Deum”…chills!); you have an absolute dream team of singers, at least two of whom (Bryn and Jonas) are also among the best actors in opera. It is just about as close to opera-theatre perfection as it gets.

About 6 weeks ago, almost simultaneously to seeing the filmed 2010 Paris Werther, I watched this production of Tosca with my family. Simply stunning.

If one is new to opera, Tosca would be the one I’d recommend starting with—and this particular production. I wouldn’t want to spoil some of the great arias (“E lucevan le stelle”; “Vissi d’arte”) if you haven’t heard them in context yet. But for a glimpse into Act I, I found the closest approximation that I could: our tenor singing the same role, but in a different production from a year earlier (Munich, 2010). Here is “Recondita armonia,” wherein Cavaradossi works on his painting of Mary Magdalene, comparing his model to the woman he loves:

Yes, and our thoughts are of you, Mr Kaufmann.
Yes, you’re a bit distracting yourself, Mr Kaufmann.

See and hear how he savors it, milks it, especially at the end. The whole of the 2011 ROH production has the same intensity.

You won’t want to miss it.

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