Friday, June 06, 2008

Tosca, or Why the Best is the Enemy of the Vaguely OK

It was one of those Cloud 9 moments: a man on a ladder starts to sing, the sound hits you in the gut and you undergo some kind of out-of-body experience...The ladder was on stage at Covent Garden, the man was Cavaradossi, aka Jonas Kaufmann and I am still afloat 14 hours later.

The trouble with placing a voice like Kaufmann's centre stage in Tosca, though, is that you need a soprano and a baritone who function at the same artistic level. Not to mention a conductor who knows what his singers are doing. Micaela Carosi as Tosca looked gorgeous and has a big voice, but she proved irritatingly mannered - too much swooping and mucking about with vibrato and lack of - and though she milked 'Vissi d'arte' and got a huge round of applause, it left me faintly chilly. Paolo Gavanelli as Scarpia looked great, but had neither sound nor charisma to match - you kept thinking he was probably quite a nice guy underneath. Paul Wynne Griffiths, in the pit, didn't seem to have liaised much with the chorus master and he and Kaufmann parted company rather drastically several times.

Kaufmann bowls out his black-coffee tenor tone as if it's the easiest thing on earth: it's dark, delicious and leaves you unable to sleep. And he can act, too. He simply showed the others up.

The production, by Jonathan Kent, does what it says on the tin. This is the most classic Tosca you could hope for. Beautiful designs, correct period setting, no monkey business other than that explicitly stipulated. A Tosca for tourists, I thought, trying hard to wish for something more imaginative. But it looks so good that it was impossible to keep thinking that...and I liked the attention to detail: Cavaradossi descending the ladder on a descent in the orchestra, and running up the stairs on an ascent, or a soldier putting out a cigarette at the beginning of Act III with a flourish of light matching a squiggle on the flute.

As for Kaufmann - please, G-d, if you're there, take good care of this guy. Let that voice stick around for a long, long time. It's proof that miracles exist.

There is a video on Youtube of him singing 'E lucevan le stelle' in a TV show, but I think he is best in operatic context, which shows the full range of what he can do. So here he is in the Flower Song from Carmen at Covent Garden last year. Enjoy.