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Seen and Heard Opera Review


G. Puccini, Tosca (semi-staged concert performance): Soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo, CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 25th September 2004 (BK)


Sakari Oramo: Conductor
Simon Halsey: Chorus Director
Michael Barry: Stage Director


Claire Rutter: Tosca
Andrew Reese: Cavaradossi
Juha Uusitalo: Scarpia
Neil Jenkins: Spoletta
Quentin Hayes: Angelotti
Richard Suart: Gaoler / Sacristan
Mark Evans: Sciarrone
Matthew Rayner: Shepherd Boy

Sung in Italian with English surtitles

Picture of Juha Uusitalo: Savonlinna Festival 2004

Tosca may still be a ‘shocker,’ but shabby this production was not. Mix Oramo and opera and you always find excitement: add Juha Uusitalo and an attractive and very competent Tosca (Claire Rutter) and you cook up a near-miracle. Fresh from his majestic Wotan in the recent Helsinki ‘Ring’, the now-great Finnish bass-baritone surpassed himself as Scarpia.

Juha Uusitalo

What Uusitalo does these days, is difficult to describe without superlatives. His voice is obviously beautiful and a huge instrument now: against the vast sound of the CBSO, the two choruses and the other soloists, he was perfectly audible throughout the whole Te Deum. His diction is also outstanding: every word is crystal clear whether in English, German or Italian and I have heard him more than once in each; as Rance in La Fanciulla, as Balstrode in Oramo’s Grimes as well as in recent Wagner.


But the real thrill in hearing him again is the effortless and apparently limitless technique with which he manages his vocal range. His low notes are a genuine bass yet he soars seamlessly to true baritone without noticeable ‘gear changes’; always (and it really is always) regardless of the volumes required. When you couple these gifts to his talents as an actor with a remarkable stage presence, and remember that he is still a relatively young man whose development over the past five years has seemed almost exponential, you have the ingredients for an outstanding and long-lasting career. If he is this good now, you ask yourself, whatever might he be in five or ten years’ time? I very much hope to find out.


Sakari Oramo is good at opera and he too is still developing. The Helsinki Grimes was something of a tour de force in which he brought out beauty and raw aggressiveness from the music in properly equal measures, while paying attention to the needs of his singers. So how does he fare with Puccini? Very nicely, thank you. There was the same care for the soloists - not easy when they’re standing behind the conductor - and after a short initial period when the orchestra was too loud for the voices, Oramo quickly corrected the balance. There was considerable passion in this performance too without any suggestion of hysteria and there was also tenderness without sentimentality. Did it sound Italian though? Well, it was certainly Puccini but with a darker tinge than usual, with a good deal more vigour than is often the case and with fewer histrionics. It was Suomi meeting Italia perhaps, with positive outcomes for both drama and music


If the performance was dominated by Uusitalo and Oramo, it was also aided greatly by Claire Rutter’s Tosca. She made easy work of the role and after a slightly muted start (not helped by the awkward orchestral balance before Oramo corrected it) she soon blossomed fully into the experienced singer-actress that she is. Jealous and tender towards Cavaradossi by turns (her insistence that his Mary Magdalene portrait should have brown eyes brought laughter from the audience) she made a fine job of Vissi d’arte before dispatching Scarpia with nothing but loathing in her voice. In contrast to many portrayals nowadays, she gave no suggestion of being attracted to Scarpia.


Tosca's enduring love for Cavaradossi is based on his virtue and heroism. While Andrew Reese gave a decent enough account of the part, with what would normally have been more than adequate singing in the big numbers, the sheer contrast between him and Uusitalo’s Scarpia made Scarpia the alpha-male. If Tosca had fallen for Scarpia this time, her choice would have seemed inevitable.

The youth choir was excellent in the Te Deum scene and the adult chorus sang the Act 2 cantata music very sensitively, with their backs turned to Sakari Oramo while being conducted by Simon Halsey. Perhaps their large forces didn’t have quite the immediacy and impact of a professional opera house chorus, but their contribution was nonetheless significant, adding weight and excitement to a very satisfying event. In the minor solo roles, Mark Evans and Neil Jenkins made fine henchmen to Scarpia while Matthew Rayner was an appealing treble Shepherd Boy, perched apparently fearlessly high up by the Symphony Hall organ.

Bill Kenny

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