TELEVISION / Another time, another place: Kevin Jackson watches Tosca staged in its 'real' locations, in 'real' time

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AH, YES, the great televisual Tosca (live on Saturday and Sunday, BBC 2; edited on C 4, Sunday). What a spectacle] What a torrent of grand passions] What a triumph of logistics and international co-operation] What a coup of pure showmanship on the part of Andrea Andermann] What a display of talent from Placido Domingo (Cavaradossi), Catherine Malfitano (Tosca), Ruggero Raimondi (Scarpia) and the conductor, Zubin Mehta] Above all, what an utterly ridiculous idea]

All right, granted, it was good fun, especially for those keen enough to tune in for the final act before muesli hour on Sunday morning. And true, it really did sound grand (to untutored ears, at least) and must have slayed viewers in those 107 countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe or wherever. So why can't the party-poopers just stop their carping for a change?

Well, partly because James Naughtie's reverential claim during its Act 2 credits that this Tosca 'blends the film-maker's craft with the visceral experience of live opera' will hardly stand up to mild scepticism, let alone a Scarpia-style grilling. Even the hiring of one of the world's toniest and most costly cinematographers, Vittorio ('Every frame a pieta') Storaro could not disguise the fact that Tosca was not a film at all, but an outsized telly stunt.

For just one example, cathode rays are notoriously incapable of conveying the kind of sumptuous murk that is one of Storaro's trademarks. And even if they could, a production shot on the hop with a bunch of steadicams could scarcely be lit with the frame-by-frame richness that the maestro can achieve in the cinema as a matter of routine.

Tosca had to be caught that way because of the barmy literalism of its producers' idea that there was something inherently valuable (rather than merely cute) in broadcasting it from the 'real' location in something like 'real' time. You don't exactly need to be Nietzsche to figure out that this grovelling brand of fidelity looks pretty odd in the context of an art form whose essence is stylisation.

The artistic gain of filming Tosca in old Roman buildings is about as negligible as it would be if, say, Falstaff were shot in Windsor or Orpheus in the Underworld were set in a coal-mine. Trumping even this dubious move was the notion that Tosca then had to be broadcast on the times of day at which its three acts take place - which is only marginally less daft than suggesting that The Winter's Tale ought to be staged with a 16-year interval.

In fact, the one real benefit Tosca gained from this style of presentation was not any 'visceral' quality but what Mr Naughtie more accurately referred to as its 'danger' - that is, the threat of an almighty clanger at any moment. Though it may be shameful to admit the fact, live performances always carry a whiff of blood sports, and stage versions of Tosca are famously accident-prone.

The television Tosca, with its remote-control orchestra, its location monitors and its multiple cameras, was a juggling act on such an extreme scale that the production often seemed to be in greater peril than its characters: just as Tosca was steeling herself to stab Scarpia, an even crueller cut revealed a camera dodging out of frame. That gaffe never happened again, but the drama sagged horribly for a moment, and the threat of other such moments hovered throughout Act 3.

In short, one could almost say that Tosca won its finest moments in spite of its real-time format, not because of it. The one major exception had to be the moment in Act 3 when Cavaradossi, on his way to execution, was briefly set free. After a sequence of sensibly tight close-ups and cramped camera movements inside the Castel Sant' Angelo's cells and stairways (Tosca, incidentally, is so much a tale of confinement that even a hint of wide-open spaces would generally look perverse), Domingo clambered out on to its roof just as the first sun was gleaming off the eternal city's domes.

This made for a wonderfully apt visual counterpart to his aria, and for a moment seemed to justify the whole shooting match. For a moment only, though. As soon as Tosca arrived with her note it was back to the standard head-shots that might as well (i e, better) have been pre-recorded on sets. The fact that so much of Puccini's opera survived this pointless obstacle course is a tribute to all the artists concerned. Indeed, it suggested just how fine a film of Tosca they might make some day, provided they don't run into some producer who has the brainwave of setting it on a satellite in geostationary orbit.