Tosca

on July 12, 2002 by Bridget Byrne
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   Opera on film is never satisfactory. The art demands live viewing. The innate theatrics that provide its thrills and extreme emotions lose their luster when flattened onscreen. Without the depth, height and breadth of all the joys and sorrows, what comes across is usually just sound and fury signifying little.

   This doesn't mean that Benoit Jacquot hasn't taken an earnest stab at capturing the high drama of "Tosca," a tragedy of love and lust and revenge set amid the political landscape of a Europe stalked by Napoleon's all-conquering ethic.

   The choice to film the rehearsal and recording sessions (in black-and-white) and then intercut them with both stylized staging (in color) and real visuals (on grainy video) goes some way to surmounting some basic problems, even as it creates others. The acknowledgement is made that the stars are lip-syncing to their own voices. They are sort of okay at it--though if they want to do it again they should take a few sync lessons from the master/mistress of this talent, the performance artist Lypsinka--but it's still annoying when the moment and emotion don't quite gel.

   The formal settings of church, palace and prison possess the necessary grandeur, with the heavy use of black background working fairly well towards filling in the third dimension missing on screen. The spliced-in video images of text-matching references--the moon and the real Italian buildings, for example--is an idea better in concept than in execution. Imagination would have sufficed; to illustrate seems superfluous.

   Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu as the impassioned singer Floria Tosca, who kills for love, is attractive, sings well and acts nicely, setting a smooth tone. Her real-life husband, French-born Sicilian tenor Roberto Alagna, portrays Tosca's true love, the painter Mario Cavaradossi. The couple is often described in the media as being volatile, but here, at least, Gheorghiu doesn't come close to wiping aside memories of true diva Maria Callas. Many of the couple's scenes together are filmed in tight embrace. They look comfortable, but somehow lack both the fire and sweetness of lovers' passion. However, that comfort provides a good contrast to the scenes in which Italian basso Ruggero Raimondi, as the cruel top cop Scarpia, tries to sexually embrace Tosca. These moments have real bite, but that has much to do with the fact that Raimondi happens to be able to act in a succinct but compelling style that both matches his vocal skills and the bold demands of the villain's role. You really feel his love and hate--high spots in the death-laden tale Giacomo Puccini tells, which here sweeps along almost too fast for its own good.

   The music is played by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Antonio Pappano. Whatever the medium, whatever the level of talent of the stars who pretend to die in the classic roles, it's the music that is forever the star.    Starring Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Ruggero Raimondi. Directed and written by Benoit Jacquot. Produced by Daniel Toscan Du Plantier. An Avatar release. Opera. Italian-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 120 min.

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