A gigantic eye dominates the stage of Bregenz’s Seebühne. It is the blue eye of Cavaradossi’s painted Madonna. It is also Orwell’s Big Brother, all-seeing eye of a brutal totalitarian state, and a window into the soul of each character.
Philipp Himmelmann’s new Tosca is a thriller par excellence, a spectacular mastery of both Puccini’s gaudy drama and Bregenz’s extraordinary possibilities. With a gargantuan floating stage and the Lake of Constance as a backdrop, every gesture must be amplified to semaphore size if anything is to come across to the audience of almost 7,000. Orchestra and conductor are broadcast by sophisticated technology from the opera house behind.
Himmelmann takes on the challenge and gives as an overblown, larger-than-life Tosca that nevertheless overflows with detail and refinement.
Johannes Leiacker’s set is a masterpiece in itself. The eye is part of an oversized canvas, the folds of which form a contoured stage below. Then the iris opens to reveal surreal scenes behind. Nauseatingly compelling projections hint at awful deeds beyond.
In the third act, the canvas swings up to show prison cages and the iris sweeps forward, now Cavaradossi’s lonely prison cell. The hydraulics work on a hallucinogenic scale, spectacular and devastatingly effective.
The characters flit about the space with fleet assurance. It is as athletic as circus, flawlessly theatrical, with special effects worthy of a Bond film. This is what Bregenz’s big stage is all about – opera as mass entertainment, without any compromise on content or handiwork.
Himmelmann updates the action to a modern-day mafia scenario. Scarpia’s henchmen are frightening thugs in suits and dark glasses; master torturer Roberti a dominatrix in a white dress, boots and surgical mask. The dead Cavaradossi takes a vertiginous final tumble into the lake far below (a breathtaking stunt), while Tosca leaps from a dizzying height to spiral into video-projected eternity.
Bregenz runs to three casts, so that Tosca can run every night through the summer. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, in addition to his evident physical courage, has a take-no-prisoners vocal approach. His Cavaradossi is suicidally bold, and he pushes a lithe, open, polished instrument beyond its limits to striking effect. Karine Babajanyan is a little more cautious but just as charismatic a Tosca, with a big dramatic range and plenty of style. Peter Sidhom’s Scarpia is a rough brute of a figure. As conductor, Ulf Schirmer’s job resembles that of air traffic controller, and he proves amply dependable at keeping his vast forces together and letting the music flow.