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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 07:52 GMT 08:52 UK
Curtain rises on new Tosca opera
By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

The Royal Opera House in London is mounting a new production of Tosca for the first time in 40 years. Star Angela Gheorghiu and director Jonathan Kent explain why the time is right to re-evaluate Puccini's classic.

Maria Callas wearing bridal jewellery from Tosca in 1956
Maria Callas' portrayal of Tosca has become legendary
For four decades, Franco Zeffirelli's production of Tosca was a mainstay of the Royal Opera House repertoire.

First presented in 1964 with Maria Callas as Tosca and Tito Gobbi as police chief Scarpia, it returned to Covent Garden year on year and was staged more than 240 times.

In 2004, however, the decision was made to retire this long-running staple and commission a new version.

It is a move that makes sense to Jonathan Kent, the British director chosen to re-appraise Giacomo Puccini's 1900 masterpiece for a 21st century audience.

"Each generation has to reinvent these classics or they become museum pieces," he told the BBC News website.

"Because it was Callas coming together with Zeffirelli and Gobbi, it's one of those productions people who weren't even born get misty-eyed over.

"But I think 40 years is too long, no matter how great it was."

'Taut melodrama'

Kent, formerly the joint artistic director of London's Almeida Theatre, has a strong background in drama but is a relative newcomer to opera.

However, he believes Tosca - which Puccini adapted from a five-act French play - is an ideal vehicle for his talents.

"What I admire about it, quite apart from the thrilling music, is its theatre craft," he said.

Angela Gheorghiu
Romanian soprano Gheorghiu plays Puccini's heroine in the new Tosca
"It's a taut, sinewy melodrama, exquisitely put together. There isn't an ounce of flesh on it.

"Puccini stripped the play down until it was an unstoppable arrow.

"That's what interested me: to find a way within that hurtling narrative to examine the relationships and its themes of sex, power and death."

Set in 1800 Rome, Tosca tells of a celebrated opera singer whose determination to save her lover's life leads her into a deadly imbroglio with the chief of police, Baron Scarpia.

In the first of the production's two casts, Tosca and Scarpia are played by Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

Gheorghiu previously played Tosca in a 2001 film but has yet to perform the entire role on stage.

Surprisingly, she says it was harder to portray the character on screen than in the flesh.

Climactic plummet

"It's much more difficult on camera," the 40-year-old opera star told the BBC News website. "This is one night, but on film it was every day for two months.

"It was hard to be there all the time - there was no way to escape. I got tired."

Gheorghiu appears in six performances of the 12-night run with US soprano Catherine Naglestad stepping in for the remaining performances.

Bryn Terfel
Welsh opera star Terfel portrays the villainous Baron Scarpia
But the ghost of Callas does not haunt the Romanian singer, especially as she found her predecessor's portrayal wanting in some departments.

"To my taste she didn't understand the role," she explains in slightly fractured but highly expressive English. "I think she was all the time furious, hysterical.

"I want to be much more feminine and have moments when I make decisions and have power."

If there is one aspect that gives her pause, it is Tosca's climactic plummet from the battlements of the Castel Sant'Angelo.

"I never done the jumping! That's the only thing I didn't rehearse," says Gheorghiu. "I have a list of people who want to catch me."

Rather that than the trampoline used in one Chicago production, which - or so the story goes - saw Tosca re-appear from behind the castle walls.

Tosca runs at the Royal Opera House from 13 June to 8 July.


SEE ALSO
Callas' stage jewels go on show
14 Sep 05 |  Entertainment
UK honour for director Zeffirelli
24 Nov 04 |  Entertainment
Swansong for opera's 40-year run
18 Jul 04 |  Entertainment
Tenors toast Tosca
14 Jan 00 |  Entertainment

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