Puccini Tosca Unitel Edition

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Tosca (1900)
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica (based on La Tosca by Victorien Sardou)
Floria Tosca – Kristine Opolais (soprano)
Mario Cavaradossi – Jonathan Tetelman (tenor)
Scarpia, Chief of Police – Gábor Bretz (baritone)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
Martin Kušej, stage director
rec. live, January 2022, Theater an der Wien, Vienna
Unitel Edition DVD 809608 [123]

So, let’s say you have been given the task of staging Tosca, one of the most frequently performed operas in the repertoire. Given that most of the audience will already know the work, perhaps from memory, what on earth can you be expected to do? One option will be to follow the score to the letter. This will mean engaging a designer to recreate on stage the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and the Palazzo Farnese. You will also need to convince your leading lady to throw herself from the ramparts of the Castel Sant’ Angelo, preferably without mishap. But supposing you do, why bother, when you could simply go to any one of hundreds of opera houses and hire a similar production off the peg?

Stage directors now frequently feel the need – and not only in opera – to find a new angle when staging a well-known work. Many opera-goers rebel against this tendency. Yet opera is, and should be, a living art form, and living organisms evolve. There is surely no point in churning out pretty much the same thing, time after time. Jonathan Miller, staging Rigoletto for Sadlers Wells decades ago, was brave enough to bring the action forward into Italian mafia territory. Some found this revelatory; others, insulting to the composer’s memory. For Christophe Honoré, staging Tosca at Aix-en-Provence in 2019, one Floria Tosca was not enough: he had two of them on stage, one retired and getting on in years, one up-and-coming. We witnessed Tosca the elder paying off a rent boy, and then were surprised to find that for Act 3 the orchestra had left the pit and assembled on stage, allowing the characters to wander amongst the players. Where Miller, and countless others in subsequent decades, found a way of illuminating a familiar work and making us think, Honoré’s vision obscured and diminished the power of the piece. I must confirm, though that these are only my opinions.

Before watching the whole of this 2022 staging from Vienna I sampled a few minutes here and there. I feared the worst, but how wise I was to persevere!

Martin Kušek, when faced with the challenge outlined above, came up with a series of radical and frequently shocking solutions. Of the three locations in Rome specified in the libretto none is retained. Instead, the curtain rises on a bare, snow-covered landscape in the centre of which stands a tree, its branches quite leafless, its trunk adorned with a crucifix, a Madonna and a limbless naked torso. A decrepit old caravan is also present. Cavaradossi, then, paints his masterpieces in the freezing open air, an impractical and deeply uncomfortable arrangement. When we first see Floria Tosca the great prima donna is wearing a green leather raincoat. Scarpia makes his entrance – musically speaking, a stunning coup de théâtre – from the caravan, which is also where, in Act 2, his attempts to seduce Tosca prove so fatally flawed. We return to the landscape of the opening for the final act to witness the deaths of the two remaining principals. All this is so far removed from the conventional setting that a little tinkering with the words is necessary to eliminate many, but by no means all, of the contradictions between what we see before us and the libretto. There is no sacristan: his scenes are taken by the gendarme, Sciarrone. There is no shepherd either, in Act 3 – no children at all, in fact. Cavaradossi sings the shepherd’s song as he awaits the hour of his execution. And though Tosca does indeed die at the end of the opera there are no castle ramparts from which she can throw herself.

In this completely revised view of the work many details are surprising and confusing. Yet if the first Tosca you ever saw was Honoré’s you would probably have no idea at all of the story, whereas here the story is clear. Kušek has set the opera in a kind of murderous police state where religion is an important, but sublimated, element. So the sacristan becomes a police agent and enters, not with communicants and choir members, but with his henchmen, dressed in black and carrying Kalashnikovs – the jaunty, cheerful music, let it be said, hardly an appropriate backdrop. Scarpia, at the height of his erotic passion for Tosca at the end of Act 1, climbs the aforementioned tree to sing his final words – ‘Tosca, you make me forget God!’ At one point in Act 3 he pours wine into Tosca’s open mouth. Details such as these are surprisingly convincing in the overall context of the production. And then there is ‘Vissi d’arte’. One of the most disappointing things about the Honoré’s Aix production is that the staging got so much in the way that I have no recollection at all of Angel Blue’s singing of this sublime aria. She deserved better. But once you have seen this particular ‘Vissi d’arte’ you are unlikely to forget it. You might not approve of it, but it will stay in your mind.

The first night of this production was apparently greeted with a torrent of booing. I can understand why, but I can only encourage opera-lovers to give it a try, as it works for me. What is beyond doubt, though, is that the musical performance is magnificent. The chorus is very fine, and that despite not always knowing who they are meant to be. The orchestra is superb, with a notably eloquent first clarinet in Cavaradossi’s celebrated Act 3 aria. The masked audience and orchestra remind us of a period we would prefer to forget, and indeed conductor Marc Albrecht was an eleventh-hour substitution for an indisposed Ingo Metzmacher. He really has the measure of Tosca whilst at the same time making it his own. If you compare the wonderful orchestral passage just before the Te Deum in Act 1 with Karajan in his Decca recording with Leontyne Price, you might miss some of Karajan’s surging passion. But Albrecht’s view is very compelling. There is no false sentimentality – some will regret this, perhaps – and he allows no time for audience applause at the ends of arias, driving forward the narrative. Ivan Zinoviev (Angelotti) and Andrew Morstein (Spoletta) are both in-house artists and are very fine, both vocally and visually. Spoletta, Scarpia’s henchman, is portrayed in a particularly detailed and unusual manner. Polish bass, Rafał Pawnuk is a deeply sinister and commanding presence who makes the most of his dark and menacing bass voice. In the Sacristan’s passages he faces a formidable challenge – the two characters could hardly be different – yet it is hard to imagine Kušek’s almost impossible requirements better realised. Sophie Aujesky plays a character absent from Puccini’s score but whose role in this production is a crucial one.

It would be easy to depict the evil Chief of Police as a one-dimensional villain, but Kušek has created a far more complex Scarpia, and Bretz plays him with great skill. There are moments of sardonic humour and even apparent indecisiveness, but above all this is clearly a man who despises women even as he lusts after them. In Act 1, where, Iago-like, he arouses Tosca’s jealousy, Bretz might have acted a little more with his voice: insidious persuasiveness is needed here. Yet how skilfully, in the great duel with Tosca in Act 2, he contrives to show us both Scarpia’s intense sexual desire and his profound distaste for her. So significant, then, become Tosca’s words as he chokes on his own blood: ‘And slain by a woman.’

Kristine Opolais came to Tosca having already taken part in Kušek production, so she might have had some idea of the kind of thing to expect. Even so! That she sings most of ‘Vissi d’arte’ with her back to the audience or lying on the floor is not the half of it: her performance is a testament to her faith both in the director and his project for this particular opera. She is, of course, an outstanding singing actress, using her voice and her body to bring out everything that her character requires. She is ardent and hopelessly in love with Cavaradossi, yet her vulnerability and tendency to jealousy are wonderfully in evidence. Then, in Act 2, when she must use everything at her disposal to persuade Scarpia to save the life of her lover she turns into a single-minded tigress who will stop at nothing. All this is communicated through singing of the utmost quality.

Jonathan Tetelman’s Cavaradossi is a revelation. Though the painter and object of Tosca’s love is a less complex character than the other two principals, Tetelman is skilful at bringing out the steadfast nature of his support for Angelotti and his cause, as he is his utter contempt for Scarpia and all that he represents. The resigned sadness as he awaits his death is also powerfully portrayed. But his main role is that of Tosca’s lover, and here he is quite magnificent. His overarching, intensely lyrical singing leaves you in no doubt as to the depth of his feelings. His voice, even above the stave and at fortissimo, never loses its sweetness, and he achieves an emotional intensity without the slightest vocal mannerism. ‘Recondita armonia’ will have you eating out of his hand. With singing like this Floria could not fail to adore him, nor could she ever quite stop fearing how other women might fall under his charm.

Image and sound on this DVD are impeccable, though Bretz comes dangerously close to being covered by the orchestra in a few louder passages. The booklet contains a useful short essay and some photographs, not all of which match exactly what happens on the screen. There are a few questionable aspects of the production, to be sure, but the power, honesty and sheer imaginative skill should allow most of us to overlook them and to share in Kušek’s vision. It is a production that has stimulated the company to an inspired performance, both vocally and dramatically. Don’t hesitate.

William Hedley

Previous review by Roy Westbrook of the Blu-ray version of this recording (January 2024)

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music

Other cast & production staff
Sciarrone – Rafał Pawnuk (bass)
Cesare Angelotti – Ivan Zinoviev (baritone)
Spoletta, police agent –  Andrew Morstein (baritone)
Countess Attavanti (silent role) – Sophie Aujesky
Annette Murschetz, set designer
Su Sigmund, costume designer
Reinhard Traub, lighting designer

Video details
Mastered from an HD source
Picture format: NTSC/16:9; Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS 5.1
Sung in Italian. Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese