I'm not risking anything by predicting that this Tosca performance will receive all possible viewer ratings from one to five stars. There are better-sung Cavaradossis and Toscas on cd and even dvd. Lehnoff's staging will attract cries of "eurotrash" from the traditionalists. But for me this is not only, by far, the best recorded Tosca available, but it is perhaps the most involving performance of any opera I have seen. If ever there was a case for assessing opera as a total sensory experience rather than by aural benchmarks alone, this is it.
Malfitano, as Tosca, is hardly in the same class as Callas or any one of a dozen renowned sopranos who have put their stamp on the role. But she is a fine actress, gives us a more than presentable "Vissi d'arte" and is able to create chemistry between herself and Richard Margison in the role of Cavaradossi. He is not the most prepossessing tenor, visually, but his voice has a rare evenness of focus through the entire range, he sounds reasonably Italianate, and he can act. I find few Cavaradossis believable face-to-face with Scarpia, but Margison brings it off. Lenhoff gives us a symbolic setting that works remarkably well considering all the references to traditional Roman landmarks. Stairs appear and disappear leaving rooms without access, a huge propeller dominates most of the sets giving us the impression of some vast and awful state machinery against which the individual is puny. Scarpia and his henchmen wander around in leather trench coats or decadent glitter costumes, the ever-recognisable outfits of institutionalised thuggery. In the final scene there is only one apparent exit, the one Tosca uses to take her own life. The feeling of claustrophobia and omnipresent threat is unmistakable.
Stage direction is superb. Puccini can often seem like a series of loosely-connected fine tunes. The dramatic seams show. In most performances Act 1 of Tosca, up to Scarpia's entrance, comes across as one thing after another leading to not much except Act 2. Here, for the first time in my experience, it all makes sense. Angelotti looks like an escaped prisoner, a state victim, and I had never before noticed just how weasely the Sacristan is. There was an interaction and flow that had me on the edge of my seat instead of marking time to the big arias.
Then came Scarpia. Terfel, for me, obliterates memories of all previous performers in this role, yes, including Gobbi. He is evil incarnate but not in a moustache-twirling way. There is a subtlety of expression that demands we stay rivetted to every detail of his acting, the hands, the eyes, the posture. Lenhoff adds a superb touch at the start of Act 2, when Scarpia fondles a ginger cat. We fear for the animal. The voice, of course, is magnificent. "Va Tosca" chills you to the bone. When Tosca knifes him in what is, by far, the most convincing version of his death I've seen, we can't help a pang of regret that this titanic performance is at an end.
But what makes this an absolutely indispensable performance, first note to last, is the work of the Concertgebouw under Chailly. Delicacy and power are so readily available it feels like a ride in some mega-engined limousine. The end of Act 1, as the offstage chorus (superb) intones "Adjutorum nostrum in nomine Domini" and Scarpia reflects on his ghastly personal credo, feels like we are standing at the gates of hell. Lenhoff's flame-spurts at each gong stroke may be a little over the top here, but the sense of ritual allied to grim bacchanalia is so effective.
Extras, behind the scenes mainly with Malfitano, Chailly and Lenhoff, are brief. Perhaps mercifully so in Malfitano's case, although the other two offer some very interesting insights. Chailly is a breath of fresh air.
Sound and visuals are excellent. Altogether, an unforgettable experience.