In his spectacular new “Tosca,” director Philipp Himmelmann proves it’s not just size that matters, but how you use it. The Bregenz Festival’s 40,000-square-foot floating stage has often hosted scenic extravaganzas with hundreds of supernumeraries. For “Tosca,” essentially a three-character melodrama, Himmelmann has created a world of the mind’s eye which begins realistically, but grows increasingly surreal as the politically-charged sexual triangle moves inexorably to its tragic finale.
Johannes Leiacker’s set is a massive eye –100 feet high by 165 feet wide. Cavaradossi (Zoran Todorovich), the artist and outspoken foe of Baron Scarpia’s oppressive regime, is painting a massive Madonna in a cathedral. His lover, opera diva Tosca (Nadja Michael), is enraged: The Madonna’s eyes are blue, not black like hers.
Sadistic Scarpia (Gidon Saks) harbors a fetish for Tosca and hatred for Cavaradossi. When he plants seeds of jealousy and betrayal in Tosca’s mind, the set metamorphoses: The iris of the giant eye lifts to reveal a huge, incense-infused procession for the “Te Deum” while Scarpia, high above on Cavaradossi’s painter’s scaffold, rips off his shirt as he sings that Tosca makes him forget God.
Like something from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the iris then folds out toward the audience and becomes a smaller playing area for the intimate drama of the second act.
Scarpia tortures Cavaradossi, then orders his death unless Tosca gives herself to him. As desperation mounts, the video screen that replaces the iris shows silhouettes of the painter’s punishment and stream-of-consciousness flashes from Tosca’s mind.
Himmelmann offers a perfect solution to the “Visi d’arte” problem. Puccini had to include a showpiece for the soprano, but where to put it? It comes halfway through act two, totally stopping the action, and has been the nightmare of many a director.
Here, as Tosca is about to be raped, she escapes the horror by mentally putting herself in another place. Red velvet theater curtains slide across the iris, and Tosca sings the aria to an imaginary audience in another dimension.
In another Spielbergian moment, the iris returns to its vertical position but moves forward and hangs far out over the lake as the entire set flips over to a horizontal position. Cavaradossi is chained to a wall inside the eye’s pupil.
Tosca appears as if in a dream, high atop the iris. When Cavaradossi is killed, Tosca only realizes he’s dead when his corpse plunges several stories into the lake. As the iris rises to an incredible height, Tosca makes her famous death leap, while her slow-motion descent is depicted on video, scarf and gown billowing.
The stagecraft and video are truly extraordinary, but the performers also hold their own. Saks masterfully makes Scarpia simultaneously repulsive, sexy, sadistic, creepy and bizarrely endearing.
Todorovich sings the hell out of Cavaradossi’s heroic music, but, awaiting the firing squad, delivers his big number, “E lucevan le stelle,” with tender, caressing phrases.
Michael is every bit the obsessive diva, passionate in her art and love (in the cathedral she pops the straps of Cavaradossi’s overall before a fit of Catholicism spoils the mood).
Ulf Schirmer conducts a riveting, expansive performance from the Vienna Symphony. The many church bells, so important to Puccini, positioned throughout the 7,000-seat arena make Surround Sound seem like child’s play.
This “Tosca” is a triumphant marriage of mind-boggling, state-of-the-art technology with musicianship of the highest order.