Wednesday
Oct042017

Tosca

Puccini Tosca opera to libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed 2001 as a 35mm celluloid film opera movie by Benoît Jacquot at a movie studio in Germany. Stars Angela Gheorghiu [when she was young] (Floria Tosca), Roberta Alagno [then he was hot] (Mario Cavaradossi), Ruggero Raimondi [when he still looked scary] (Baron Scarpia), Maurizio Muraro (Cesare Angelotti), Enrico Fissore (Sacristan), David Cangelosi (Spoletta), and Sorin Coliban (Sciarrone). Antonio Pappano [when he was just getting started with the Royal Opera] conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra, the Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director Terry Edwards), and The Tiffin Boys Choir (Chorus Master Simon Toyne). Set designs by Sylvain Chauvelot; costume designs by Christian Gasc. Released 2017, package includes 2 discs: a 2K (old fashioned) Blu-ray and a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. It's important to note, however, that this title does not have the High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature or any of the advanced sound technology available with the new 4K films. As  best I can tell, the only difference between the two discs in the package is the higher 4K resolution. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

Jacquot is a movie director who also loves opera. He did the mildly controversial Werther HDVD which we graded A+. Subject Tosca is the only movie shot on 35 mm film that has remained good enough to benefit from Blu-ray presentation and has qualified to be covered on this website.  (At first we covered the impressive Joseph Losey Don Giovanni, which was one of the best opera movies. But we eventually excluded it because of thin sound and a print that showed its age and didn't benefit from Blu-ray standards.)

The music and singing for Jacquot's Tosca opera movie was recorded first. Then the singers acted out their ports singing as the movie cameras rolled. This lip syncing is, for mysterious technical reasons, off in several places in the movie. Sometimes this defect is not noticeable because you get the impression that you are hearing the characters sing thoughts in their minds. Other times you assume the defect was intended because, as you will soon see, Jacquot has his own agenda in making movies and is not much concerned with the idea of maintaining a suspension of disbelief!

The movie was made in a studio---there is no stage and no natural location. The few set pieces and props are sumptuously conceived but surrounded by an utterly black and empty universe in the background. Act 1 is in a church as seen (in part) below:

Act 2 plays out in the palace of Scarpia, the police chief:

And in Act 3 we see here Tosca at the prison:

There are natural locations (interior and exterior) shown throughout the film, but always in an absurdly ugly and grainy mode shot from a hand-held camera:

And the director shifts many times to primitive B&W images---this is an art movie, not an opera production: 

The film is further full of motion-picture tricks like, as seen next below, extreme manipulation of depth-of-field-of-focus:

Or physically surprising views like the aerial angle below:

Jacquot likes cozy head-shots with dramatic lighting as seen in the next two screenshots:


 

And you can't get a view like this from the back row of the top balcony:

So what is Jacquot up to here with all these tricks? Well, here's the answer in his own words (quoted from our Werther story):

When I make a film, for me the whole thing stems from the actors who are going to inhabit it. The aim of all the gestures, pacing and blocking, momentum, repose, sets, costumes, and lighting was to give the singers the sort of presence that makes it impossible not to believe what they are expressing, just as they truly believe what they are singing. In any case, these wonderful singers are also excellent actors, interpreters of a music that, quite apart from its subtleties, asked for the simple, uncluttered truth, in all its pathos. It is for you to hear, and to see.

The presence of the actors is what makes you believe. And in this opera, and this film, the actor who leads us believers into the cataclysm is Scarpia, chief of police:

Is Scarpia the greatest example in all literature of the corrupt chief of police? Every time I watch Jocquot's Tosca, I think of how accurately Giacosa and Illica foretold of the priapic Latvia Beria, Stalin's most fearful policeman, the rapist and killer of countless women and girls who were the wives and daughters of enemies of the people. Here next below we see Scapia's face reflected in the blade of his steak knife as he confesses:

And professes:

And now Tosca is the prey:

The beginning of the end:

It seems Jacquot believes that opera is a "hot" art. First you have the orchestral score reacting like a jungle cat to everything happening on the stage. Then you have everyone signing instead of talking. Ideally the singers look good in their roles; and with Jacquot, they are expected to accept direction and act. That's enough molecular motion. If you have elaborate sets, costumes, and lighting as well, Jacquot feels the production can overheat and melt. So he surrounds the action with cooler elements that act as foils to focus attention on his stars living out their roles. And one he gets this going, there's no stopping for an intermission!

Ruggero Raimondi steals the show here from our pair of lovers. But Gheorgiu has been highly praised for her performance as well. And Alagna sounds and looks fine even if his acting skills are overshadowed by Angela and Ruggero.

Well, you can't go wrong with this 2 disc set. If 4K flops as a standard, you always have your Blu-ray. Beware of the fact, however, that this 4K presentation only has one advantage over the Blu-ray: higher resolution. This 4K disc does not have the HDR (High Dynamic Range) feature nor can I detect any evidence of an expanded color gamut from my auditions of both discs. And the sound is also conventional (although quite good) with 5.1 dts-HD master audio output.

Many viewers sitting in a comfortably large HT will probably not be able to distinguish the Blu-ray version in the package from the 4K version. And oddly, the black level display in the 4K is in at least one instance inferior to the lesser quality 2K Blu-ray version. See, for example,  time-stamp 40:11 - 40:25 for a challenging scene in which the black background in the 4K version falls apart but manages to hold up well in the Blu-ray disc!

The music on both discs is excellent in normal surround sound with sumptuous playing from the orchestra that matches exactly with the demands of the singers and the libretto while never overwhelming the singing line. The English subtitles are fine.

You can probably tell that I personally like Jacquot's approach to making an opera movie. But I'm disappointed that the 4K version lacks the HDR feature. According to all the experts, HDR is a more important new feature than the mere increase in resolution from 2K to 4K---this title provides a good example of this observation by those in the know.

Now for a grade. This title has been available in a respected DVD version for many years. I'm confident either disc in this product will look and sound much better than the DVD. But since the 4K disc is missing HDR and advanced sound technology, the best grade I can give the 4K version is a B+. I'll drop back to a B for the Blu-ray,  and I give the package a blended grade of B+. I really like Jacquot's movie approach. But I'm still waiting for someone to give us a 4K Tosca with HDR and advanced sound features.

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