Recordings > Editor's Choice

Three Live Films: Rigoletto, Traviata and Tosca 

DVD Button Novikova, Gvazava, Malfitano; Domingo, Grigolo, Surguladze, Raimondi, Cura, Panerai; Orchestra Sinfonica della RAI, Mehta. Productions: Bellocchio, Griffi. Naxos 2.110374-77, 385 mins. (operas), 190 mins. (bonus), subtitled

Location Isn't Everything

Three classic operas were filmed in the real places where they’re set, but the neat gimmick impedes their dramatic impact.

Recordings Rigoletto hdl 617
Lake lively: Domingo and Novikova in Mantua
© Rada Film/Cristiano Giglioli
Recordings Live Domingo lg 617

A LOT OF INDUSTRY and ingenuity went into the production of these three televised operas—Tosca (1992), La Traviata (2000) and Rigoletto (2010), all the work of producer Andrea Andermann. Each aired live, broadcast one act at a time from picturesque locations. As the singers went through their onscreen paces, the orchestra played in a remote studio, its sound fed to them through tiny earpieces. The fact that all three play out with hardly a glitch, cameras and performers hitting their marks with pinpoint precision, demonstrates the meticulous planning.

But the final results are deeply uninteresting. The complexity of the production prioritizes the process, rather than the dramatic moment. The thudding literalness of the approach inhibits any theatrical excitement: seeing the actual nave of Sant’Andrea della Valle, for instance, doesn’t really add dramatic conviction to Act I of Tosca. Implausible moments that pass muster in the opera house—the blindfolding of Rigoletto, Germont’s surprise visit to Flora’s party—here stretch credulity past the breaking point. The locations are supposed to convey cinema-like realism, but they seem as artificial as painted flats.

The productions have a luxury-goods gloss. Although Tosca uses the locations specified in the work’s libretto, the settings on the other videos err on the side of lavishness. The Traviata locations house the courtesans well beyond their stations: Violetta and Alfredo hole up in Marie Antoinette’s hamlet at Versailles, while Flora throws her soirée, absurdly, in Paris’s Petit Palais. In Rigoletto¸ Sparafucile’s tavern could well serve as an overnight stop on an Agriturismo vacation.

But the element that most keeps these videos from taking flight is the music-making. Despite the presence of some top-notch singers and a name-brand conductor, not much is musically insightful or satisfying. An air of rigidity pervades all three performances: you sense the effort the singers are making to buck the daunting circumstances. Zubin Mehta, leading the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale RAI in all three videos, treads heavily through the works. Presumably the deliberate tempos help keep matters in control, but they also keep the music distinctly earthbound.

The Tosca video boasts Plácido Domingo’s practiced Cavaradossi; he’s in fine, representative form here, but his assumption can be sampled, with better surroundings, on quite a few other video and audio releases. Ruggero Raimondi’s bass doesn’t have the bite on top that makes for an ideal Scarpia, but his saturnine presence is more than sufficient compensation. Catherine Malfitano’s Tosca, however, provides little pleasure. She has to keep her several-sizes-too-small instrument in high gear merely to navigate the role, a factor that adds to the pervading tension. She seems to have made no distinction between acting onstage and on video: the faces she pulls while Domingo sings “O dolci mani” might seem less grotesque from the Family Circle than in close-up.

The Traviata leads were clearly chosen for their looks rather than their musical suitability. José Cura is the rare tenor who can show up in an undershirt without embarrassment, but his leathery dramatic tenor is a poor fit for Alfredo. Eteri Gvazava wears Agnès Evein’s costumes beautifully, but she has no business singing Violetta; she proceeds in a textless whimper. The Germont, amazingly, is Rolando Panerai, seventy-four years old at the time. Of all the performers on these discs, he seems least to get the hang of the production method, falling alarmingly out of sync in the Act III finale. Still, even though his voice had dried to a husk, his singing has tremendous stylistic authority.

The title role of Rigoletto falls to an older Domingo, and he’s not a natural for the part in either voice or temperament. His canniness as a singer comes through, but otherwise his performance, especially of “Cortigiani, vil razza,” seems rough. Vittorio Grigolo’s bad-boy good looks help define the character of the Duke of Mantua, as does his exuberant, lyrical approach to the role. “È il sol dell’anima” demonstrates a kind of piano singing to be heard nowhere else on these discs. Julia Novikova has an interesting look for Gilda: her face has a childlike quality that suggests the character’s extreme naïveté. Her voice, though, is woefully pallid, and her singing barely skims the surface of the role. The disc features a return appearance by Raimondi, full of wicked humor as Sparafucile, and Nino Surguladze as an apt Maddalena, voluptuous in voice and appearance.

Vittorio Storaro’s lush cinematography in Traviata and Rigoletto is stunning, if not really apposite to the works at hand. But the transfer of the Tosca does him a dreadful disservice by blowing up the original 4:3 image to fit today’s 16:9 screens: the bleary, overexposed result is almost unwatchable.  —Fred Cohn 

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