OPERA / Suicide in three acts?: This weekend Tosca will be performed over 24 hours in three different locations in Rome. Wolfgang Achtner reports

Click to follow
TELEVISION history will be made this weekend. At least, so hopes Andrea Andermann, who has conceived and produced the first ever staging of Puccini's Tosca to be performed as if it were actually happening in the Rome of the year 1800, with each of the three acts staged at the exact times of day and at the precise locations specified in the composer's score: Act 1 at noon inside the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle; Act 2 in the evening at the Palazzo Farnese; and Act 3 at dawn at Castel Sant'Angelo.

The main roles of the singer Floria Tosca, of her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, and of the lecherous police chief, Baron Scarpia, will be taken by Catherine Malfitano, Placido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi. Zubin Mehta will conduct the Rome Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Italian Radio.

'I wanted to push a bit further the game of television,' says Andermann, who in the past has produced concerts and other musical events for live broadcasting.

All the best that modern technology has to offer will be used in a unique combination of state-of- the-art film, video, audio and radio equipment to guarantee a perfect sound and to cope with the peculiar technical difficulties of this special performance.

For a start, each of the three sites has a different acoustic. Under the dome inside the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle there are nine seconds of reverberation, while Castel Sant'Angelo is comparatively dry. The Palazzo Farnese has perfect acoustics, making it ideal for chamber music.

Yet, while the performers themselves will be singing at each of the three sites, Mehta and his orchestra will be far away, in a recording studio on the other side of Rome. The cast will, however, be able to follow the conductor and orchestra, just as if they were in an ordinary theatre, thanks to television monitors and loudspeakers hidden on set. The orchestra and conductor, meanwhile, will be able to see and hear them thanks to yet more monitors and individual sets of headphones - the cast will be wearing high-quality miniature radio microphones hidden on their costumes and in their hair.

'This presents the greatest difficulty for me,' Mehta says with a laugh, 'because when I sweat, the headphones tend to slip.' Loudspeakers would be cosier, but they create feedback problems.

'It's important for us to hear every word of the singers,' he continues, 'because sometimes we have to get a certain chord right on a certain word. But the real problem is playing together with the singers, because I'm not in the pit, directing every bar of the opera. There are certain measures where they don't see me and there are certain measures when I see only their shoulders. That's when we get the grey hairs.'

'Normally,' Mehta explains, 'a conductor guides the entire opera. He conducts the orchestra and makes sure the orchestra and the stage are homogeneous as an ensemble. He also directs the drama.'

Even if, as Mehta concedes, a lot of the time a conductor may give in to a certain singer when he's accompanying an aria, on the whole it is the conductor who is really the driving force. In this case, though, he says, 'I must give in more because the singer literally can't see me.'

Furthermore, says Andermann, the singers have had to learn to move about naturally, as opposed to in the theatre, where they always need to face the audience. Eight cameras are being used on each of the three sets and steadicams will be used literally to circle around the singers, allowing them complete freedom of movement.

'Ruggero and I have already worked on films of opera and we know how difficult it is to act and concentrate for the camera,' Domingo says. 'But it's really tough to have to try to follow the conductor on the TV monitors.' Raimondo agrees: 'It is a lot harder. Doing a film, you sing in playback, while here we're singing live. You need to control yourself, follow the music and try to keep an eye on the monitors.'

None of this seems to bother Catherine Malfitano. 'Even when I'm on the stage, I hardly ever look at the conductor,' the Italo-American singer admits. 'I have a habit of always trying to be in character and the moment you look at a conductor, you're out of character. Mainly, I just feel and hear the music.'

The co-producers, Andermann's Rada Film and RAI, Italy's state-controlled broadcasting network, have invested dollars 8.5m to stage this event. It will be broadcast to 95 countries around the world and an expected audience of one and a half billion people.

'We wanted to reach the greatest possible audience,' says Carlo Fuscagni, the director of RAI's Channel One. He points out that the rights to the broadcast have been sold to certain countries for a nominal sum of dollars 500.

Fuscagni says the producers expect to recuperate most of their money in the long run, thanks to the sales of a high- quality video tape and laser disc recording. 'More than 10 million records, CDs and tapes were sold of the special live concert of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras we broadcast from the Baths of Caracalla during the 1990 World Cup. If we can generate similar sales for this video, we'll probably break even.'

To underline its particular 'audio-visual' nature, this Tosca will be sold only as a complete film. The performing artists will also be receiving royalties from the sales.

The photography is in the hands of the three-times Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro - cinematographer for Apocalypse Now, Dick Tracy and Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, among many other films - while the opera is directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi: Andermann says that with them in charge, he has every expectation of success.

BBC2 will be broadcasting each of the three acts separately, live at various times across the weekend, beginning at 11am (noon Rome- time), while Channel 4 will repeat the complete opera on Sunday evening. At the beginning of each act, according to Andermann, 'aerial images of the city, shot from three helicopters, will underline that we are in Rome in July 1992 and that this is live television, not a film.'

'More than a billion people will hear Tosca for the first time,' says an enthusiastic Mehta. 'And even those who've already heard Tosca will have a different experience from that in the theatre.'

He insists that 'it's not like filming an operatic production on stage. Because we are not on stage, we are in the church itself and the actors move around freely, unrestricted by the measurements of a certain proscenium. In the Palazzo Farnese, the singers move about in three rooms and there is incredible camerawork involved, and that's the difference that even someone who has seen Tosca 50 times in the theatre, will notice.'

'Taking part in this event,' Placido Domingo says, 'is like a great adventure.' Catherine Malfitano says: 'I feel like I'm a pioneer . . . There are films on opera, but this Tosca takes everything a step further.' But not just on account of the bigger audiences. 'Because we can bring real believability to the art of opera, which is not only an art of singing - it is an art of acting, as well.'

'For me,' Mehta says, 'the most incredible aspect of all is that we are doing it from the exact locations. It's something I still can't believe.'

There are many operas that give indications about approximate locations and periods, he adds. 'We know that Turandot takes place somewhere in China and The Girl of the Golden West somewhere outside Sacramento. But we don't know the exact locations. In fact, they probably never existed. But in Tosca, Sardou, the playwright, has specified Sant'Andrea della Valle, the beautiful Baroque church in the middle of Rome, and the Palazzo Farnese, which is now the French Embassy, designed by Michelangelo. It's all here]'

'I've done Tosca so many times before,' Mehta concludes, 'but to do it from these places is a dream come true.'

'Tosca' will be relayed live from Rome on BBC2 this weekend: Act 1 at 11am on Saturday; Act 2 at 8.40pm Saturday; Act 3 at 6.00am on Sunday. The complete opera will then be shown on Channel 4 at 8.30pm on Sunday

(Photograph omitted)