October 2008

Puccini - Tosca
Nadja Michael, Zoran Todorovic, Gidon Saks, Bergenzer Festspielchor, Vienna Symphony; Ulf Schirmer, conductor
Phoenix Edition 801
Format: DVD
Released: 2008

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Image Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

Tosca is one of the most-loved operas in the repertory. Fans are going to have a good idea of what they like in a performance of this ultra dramatic work. I thought I did -- I generally don’t like revisionist performances. This one, however, blew me away. It took place on the water at the Bergenzer Festival of 2007, where it played almost a month with three different casts. The one on this DVD would be considered the front-ranking ensemble. You can see from the cover photo that the production was done in front of scaffolding and that at the center is a huge eye. This symbolizes Scarpia’s secret police, from whom no one can escape. But the eye also tilts, and the iris operates as a video window to offstage events and provides a little stage for Mario in the last-act prison scene. The set changes are full of surprises from beginning to end.

One scene stands out. At the end of Act I, as the lecherous Scarpia ascends stage left on a moving scaffold, the eye opens at the bottom to show a large assemblage of priests and religious types while at the same time prisoners are sent to a below-stage-level room in front of the eye, where they are shot as the act concludes. The singers are all good, the Scarpia (Gideon Saks) and Tosca (Nadja Michael) are outstanding. They sing well and are all about sex, seduction, and power. This is definitely an R-rated Tosca. It begins with some artsy, and distracting, recurring split-screen camerawork, but that settles down after 15 minutes and then the camera is exactly where it needs to be.

The sound is full-bodied yet quite clear. It pushes Dolby Digital to the limit, with every cymbal crash shimmering in the night air and every bass-drum thud going straight to the gut. There’s some amazing surround sound here and there -- offstage cannon, bells, and the like. Judging from the reviews of the live performance, these were present in person as well. Several reviewers commented on the sound being more impressive than Dolby Digital Surround in a movie theater.

One word of caution: There is a cut in Act III that keeps you from seeing Mario’s execution, in which a stunt double takes a 20-foot fall into the water. It startled me at first, but there’s so much to like here that I can overlook it. This Tosca bristles with drama and provides first-rate entertainment.