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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Terfel Outplays Soprano Causing Angst

The month of June is traditionally asporting one in England. It’s thattime of year when lesser mortals arecreated heroes for a week or sobefore hubris and nemesis crash though theturnstiles and spoil the fun. The airwaves arefull of the sound of willow hitting ball, of thelatest Russian grunting her way through Wimbledon,and in 2006 the snuffles of tearful footballersin Germany. It’s the season of punts,punters, punnets, and Pimms. Boaters, top hats,strawberries, and umbrellas define for many theessence of Englishness and, except for a fewmiserable politicians, there is a general air ofbonhomie in the land at this time. The socialhighlight is Royal Ascot, an anagram of Toscawhich leads me somewhat deviously to my firstpiece.During my first university vacation I workedas a carpenter’s labourer at the Royal OperaHouse where some refurbishment was takingplace. Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca had openedin January 1964 and in July, while I was workingthere, Maria Callas, Renato Cioni, and TitoGobbi returned for more performances. Mymemory is dim, and we mechanicals were banishedfrom the theatre during rehearsals, butsomehow I saw Callas on stage chatting withZeffirelli. This exotic moment, between carryingplanks of wood everywhere, has stuck with meand I have relished the subsequent visits there.But after 42 years Jonathan Kent’s new productionat Covent Garden rings the changes.The programme contains a number of excellentessays with musical, political, and religiousinsights into Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’, asAmerican musicologist Joseph Kerman dismissedit in 1956. There are also a couple oferotic depictions of Mary Magdalene, includingthat of Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, which reminds usthat she is the subject of Cavaradossi’s portrait.There should be no surprise that Tosca is jealousof the woman in the painting. In anotheressay there is a reminder of the use of the infamoustritone (a diminished fifth) anathematisedas ‘diabolus in musica’ (the devil in music)by mediæval theorists. This becomes Scarpia’sleitmotif and is but one example of Puccini’sextraordinary musical innovation in 1900 thatheralds modernism.Elsewhere, Terrell Carver’s article refers to AbuGhraib. Events in the Middle East today areechoes of the turmoil in Rome in 1800 andNapoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo ledto ‘regime change’ across what is now Italy.Tosca herself, had she lived, would have not benefited from the new world order in whichthe Napoleonic Code classified ‘professionalwomen as legally incompetent, along with childrenand imbeciles’. The religion and mores ofthe three main characters also resonates today.Tosca is a true adherent of the Italian Catholicculture of 1800. Scarpia is a brutal hypocrite.Cavaradossi is patronising towards the former,and contemptuous of the latter. As Susan Nicassioconcludes in her essay: ‘Each of the charactersmiscalculates his or her social position. Andall three pay for it with their lives.’The actual performance lacked such directinsights, of course, although the staging makesa reasonable replacement for what we have seenfor the past 40 years, and the lighting is superb.On the night I saw the show Marcelo Álvarezwas unwell and the tenor from the second castsubstituted. Regrettably, Nicola Giordano wasill at ease and neither of his big numbers(‘Recondita armonia’; ‘E lucevan le stelle’)thrilled the audience. Bryn Terfel was unquestionablyvile as Scarpia, demonstrating again hisacting skills. Angela Gheorghiu was not convincingas Tosca and ‘Vissi d’arte’ was strangelyunmoving for me. The great embarrassment ofthe evening was Miss Gheorghiu’s prolonged,unjustified, and narcissistic curtain call. Theperformance was saved by Terfel’s presence andthe fascinating programme notes.Some distance from papal Rome, the see ofSherborne was created in AD705 and its cathedralserved St Aldhelm and his 26 succeedingSaxon bishops until the Norman conquest afterwhich the bishop’s seat was moved to OldSarum, and later to Salisbury. The abbeyremained a Benedictine house until 1539, whenit was surrendered to Henry VIII. Its main gloryis the earliest great fan vault in existence and itwas with a view of this that I enjoyed a concertconducted by Richard Hickox. Mozart’s Mass inC minor, K.427 was the principal item and theJoyful Company of Singers sang the greatdouble choruses with splendour. SopranosSarah Tynan and Joanne Lunn were joyfullyoperatic in the ‘Domine Deus’.Tenor James Gilchrist had already sung Finzi’s‘Dies Natalis’ in the first half and shown theexceptional quality of his voice in such anacoustic. The concert had opened with Holst’ssettings of Psalms 86 and 148 during which MrGilchrist had sung off stage from a gallery tothrilling effect. These settings from 1912 aresublime and, when heard in the right setting,utterly affecting. They, like the summer sportingmadness, are very English.