Diva vs diva

Tonight, Angela Gheorghiu aims to eclipse the memory of Maria Callas when she plays Tosca at the Royal Opera House. It's a big ask, says Michael Church

Tuesday 13 June 2006 00:00

When the curtain rises tonight on Tosca at Covent Garden, it will mark the Royal Opera's biggest break with tradition. "We're challenging a legend," says the company's music director, Antonio Pappano.

With 230 performances stretching over 40 years, the show that Franco Zeffirelli flung together in six weeks has so embedded itself in the general consciousness that it's hard to imagine the embattled heroine wearing anything but that red dress, and knifing the gloating Scarpia anywhere other than within those darkly burnished walls. And although Maria Callas, who was Zeffirelli's Tosca, has long since departed the scene, it's her spirit that has hovered over it.

Just as Zeffirelli built his production round Callas, so the new Covent Garden show has been built round its new Tosca, Angela Gheorghiu. It was she who asked for Bryn Terfel as her evil tormentor, and for Pappano to conduct. Tosca the woman dominates Tosca the opera, and the star who sings Tosca calls the shots.

It is raw emotion that powers this drama - love, religious devotion, jealousy and loathing. The feelings are visceral, coming from the gut and loins, and they're ratcheted up by the score, from the first electrifying brass blasts onward. The playwright Victorien Sardou, from whose box-office hit Puccini extracted his opera, summed up its thrust in three words: "Torture the heroine." But whereas his play was a political thriller reflecting historical events, Puccini was more interested in "the great pain suffered by small souls".

Sardou's complex canvas was thus reduced to a doomed triangle: Tosca, her painter-revolutionary paramour, Cavarodossi, and the evil Sicilian chief of police, Scarpia. All die violently.

The great Sarah Bernhardt was Sardou's Tosca, but Puccini's divas were no less charismatic. The Romanian Hariclea Darclee, who inaugurated the part, had such power over Puccini that she demanded he write for her the aria that is now every Tosca's calling-card, "Vissi d'arte".

As productions began to proliferate, respective Toscas put their stamp on it. The plot may seem straightforward, but there are infinite variations as to how it's coloured. "The challenge is simply to get beyond the stereotypes, and make her real," says Catherine Naglestad, who will alternate with Gheorghiu in the Covent Garden production. "Some Toscas are loving and tender and joking in the first act, others are bitchy, while yet others radiate pure passion."

And some of these Toscas have fought like cats. When Callas presented her Tosca in New York, champions of Renata Tebaldi, the reigning Tosca, set up a fight between them, with Callas accusing her of having no backbone, and Tebaldi (in truth a subtler artist) accusing Callas of having no heart. But she had libido. "Even though she is in church," said Zeffirelli of Callas, "she giggles, hugs and kisses him... They might have had it right there in the church. Tosca was ready."

Tito Gobbi, Callas's Scarpia, recalled the way she instinctively developed her response to his assault: "She knew she couldn't get away, and in her frenzy, instead of running away from me, she ran towards me and began beating me with her fists... Then, with all my force, I grasped her hands and spread her arms, crucifying her. Maria responded with such suffering."

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We have this electrifying scene on film, and we also have the way Gheorghiu does it, thanks to the video in which she plays against the satanic Ruggero Raimondi. Why did she choose Terfel as her opponent this time round? "I'd seen him singing Scarpia in Amsterdam, and realised he had the personality I wanted for this role. I wanted a gentleman - he must try to seduce me, so he must neither be a hysteric nor crazy - he must know how to speak to me, to get something from me.

"We women often say that a man must be just a little bit nicer than the devil. He must be evil, but he must also be attractive. Scarpia may be chief of police, but he is also a baron who lives in a castle - he has education and breeding." So you are attracted? "No. Her only sexual words to him, when she understands his dangerous joke, are, 'Here is the kiss of Tosca' - which is administered with a knife in his heart. That is all the love he will get from me."

'Tosca', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000; www.roh.org.uk) to 8 July

The Wexford Festival Foundation made further progress towards its proposed opera house with a fundraising recital featuring performances from Doriana Milazzo and Dante Alcalá. The foundation has raised €3.5m, or 50 per cent of the private funding required for the development of the new Wexford Opera House to host the Irish festival. With a government commitment of €26m, it has secured almost 90 per cent of the €33m target. The foundation is chaired by Liam Healy, deputy chairman of Independent News and Media.

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