Tosca, Don Carlos (Covent Garden); Werther (Coliseum)

New Statesman, Oct., 1977




Perhaps Tosca was too good to be true to life. The evil spy-master Scarpia is surely Puccini's real hero, much as Satan was Milton's. His lust for power, and vice versa, are proclaimed in the opening chords: fff, tutta forza. Even his name suggests the carnal scorpion, all stinging tail. Tosca forestalls him with her own desperate knife-thrust; but then she lights symbolic candles round his corpse and finally leaps to her death with his name on her lips, as if she had really fallen for him. Peter Glossop rightly sees that the secret police force is one of attraction as well as repulsion; and his first-act entry in particular was impressive in its dignity and dominance. But then the evil impetus rather petered out, leaving a stern and dutiful chief constable who was kind to his men and not unkind enough to his victims. So the performance, though arresting, fell short of complete conviction. Still, there was lavish compensation in the brilliant if sometimes overcrowded staging of the Zeffirelli production, and the fine singing of Montserrat Caballé as Tosca and Jose Carreras as Cavaradossi (now Galina Vishnevskaya and Carlo Bergonzi). Robin Stapleton’s alert direction enhanced visual and vocal aspects alike.

    Like several other operas and dozens of Lieder, Don Carlos suffers from Schiller's moralising, which can reduce great literature to mere capital letters - in this case Church and State v. Love and Freedom. The librettists have deftly removed any residual human interest; so it takes all Verdi's powers to colour and animate the black-and-white abstractions that remain. Even so, the opera is like living chess played with singing pieces, destined to be moved, captured or mated as the Spanish power-game requires. It begins with a queen sacrifice; Elisabeth of France, in love with Don Carlos, is forced to marry his father Philip of Spain, for reasons of state alliance. The helplessness of fate's playthings is perhaps symbolised in the admirable Visconti production, staged by Ande Anderson; during the court scene, the entourage is unobtrusively busy at battle-dore and blindman's buff. The orchestra, well directed by Miguel Gomez-Martinez, is fully as allegorical as the decor; score and stage are thronged with ominously static figures. When the characters come to life, so do the melodies. Grace Bumbry as the scheming Princess Eboli was always warm, vital and credible; Nicolai Ghiaurov as Philip was a life-like Velasquez portrait throughout, opulently sombre in voice as in costume. But Katia Ricciarelli and Jose Carreras as the thwarted lovers remained rather featureless for all their earnest and sweet-voiced endeavour. To be realistic, they should have taken more notice of each other and less of the house; at one point it seemed that the Queen was granting Don Carlos an audience in quite the wrong sense. Nor will it do for Yuri Masurok, as Rodrigo, to hurtle through the curtain for an entr'acte call as though he had just been shot; because he had just been shot. Such samples of his identification with the role went far to vitiate a very fine voice.

    The Coliseum offered musical acting, not just costumed singing. One reason is that the original book of Werther is still so open and readable. On the evidence of dozens of operas and hundreds of Lieder, music flows easily and effectively into Goethean channels, which are so much more concrete than Schiller's. The romantic hero's suicidal obsession with a virtuous matron made the first German international best­seller. Its breadth of appeal (to people as diverse as Brahms and Napoleon) stems from its multiplicity of meaning, as fiction, fact, autobiography, symbol and myth as well as straightforward narrative. At one level the cult of Lotte Buff is naked Oedipal fantasy. She is first seen not merely “cutting bread and butter”, as in Thackeray's celebrated lampoon, but supplying that succour to a throng of adoring children. To the enchanted Werther (well played by John Brecknock) this is the very embodiment of nourishing tenderness and maternal charm. I found the mature innocence of Janet Baker's characterisation totally compelling in every note and gesture; and the role lies as snugly within her vocal as her emotional range. Admittedly the score sounds as though Massenet had collaborated with Wagner in turning a German Novelle into a French novelette: Bonjour Tristan. But the tenuous creativity is fortified by a sensitive and subtle musical response to mood, scene and character. Thus an orchestral sigh quietly contradicts the sung words “no regrets”, while harmonies and textures lighten at the mention of springtime or young sister Sophie (the delectable Joy Roberts). Charles Mackerras is outstanding among opera­conductors for his gift of relating expressive nuance to textual audibility. In short, the collation of words, music, action and scene though light was exquisitely served; and it was sad to see empty seats at such a feast.