Haunted by the ghost of Maria

Tosca | Covent Garden, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Act Two frock - red velvet with gold braid - still carries with it the spirit of Maria Callas for whom the production was created 36 years ago. Franco Zeffirelli's name has long since vanished from the production credits, but the still-handsome sets are a living legacy from his heyday.

The Act Two frock - red velvet with gold braid - still carries with it the spirit of Maria Callas for whom the production was created 36 years ago. Franco Zeffirelli's name has long since vanished from the production credits, but the still-handsome sets are a living legacy from his heyday.

Even more astonishingly, almost every last production detail remains in place, passed down unchanged from generation to generation, performer to performer. We've seen the world of opera transformed in the most radical period of reassessment in its history - but this Tosca goes on forever. I guess if it ain't bust...

They watched it on the big screen in the piazza on Tuesday night (my, how Callas would have risen to that). Catherine Malfitano wore the red frock, and actually filled it pretty well. The voice is no longer in peak condition, but she has spirit and will and temperament and, yes, artistry in spades - she knows how to spin and support a phrase like "how well you know the art of loving" so as to leave you in no doubt that she does, too. A pity that the difficult descent from the climactic phrase of "Vissi d'arte" defeated her (she is not the first and won't be the last), but at least she attempted the diminuendo. Safety was not an option.

Anthony Michaels-Moore was the suave, silver-tongued Scarpia, the more repellent for being sung, really sung. A gracious legato is worth a thousand sneers. Scarpia doesn't play to the gallery. That's for Tosca. Or in this case, Cavaradossi.

Robert Alagna looks and sounds terrific on stage. He has at last, praise be, abandoned his stubborn refusal to yield to the enticements of the line and is now singing with generous and warmly applied portamento. But in evoking, stylistically speaking, the distant past, the golden age of singing, you might say, he would seem also to be adopting - and here's the rub - some of those less desirable tenorial tendencies. No one begrudges a Cavaradossi a little affectionate or showy tenuto here and there, but when it turns into a case of "anything you can hold, I can hold longer", when the music goes out the window and - as was the case in his second act cries of "Vittoria!" - the sole objective (successfully accomplished) is vulgarly to elicit applause, then the past is best forgotten.

His final act aria "E lucevan le stelle" was ruined by such cheap posturing at the pay-off. Alagna is too talented to be so unmusical.

It was clear that the conductor, Carlo Rizzi, had his work cut out accommodating his star's indulgences. As ever, Rizzi's work was marked by a natural pliability and great rhythmic life. But opera is still the singers' playground - especially with the spirit of Callas watching over it.

Further performances on 15, 19, 21 & 26 Sept (020-7304 4000)

Comments