For better or for worse, director Benoit Jacquot has dealt with Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca — ”that shabby little shocker,“ in critic Joseph Kerman‘s immortal words — pretty much as the opera deserves. Nobody has ever mistaken the work for a subtle, life-size drama of heartbreak and redemption, and neither do Jacquot and his generally superior cast. The opera was designed for scenery chewing, eyeball popping and all the rest of the cornball melodrama vocabulary. If Puccini, and the playwright Victorien Sardou, whose stage drama served as source, didn’t design their respective Toscas from the first as high-pitched wide-screen surround-sound fodder, that can only be ascribed to the incidental fact that the medium was still in its infancy. You can say, therefore, that Jacquot‘s film of the opera elevates it to its rightful place.

Or might have, if it weren’t for various accompanying nuisances. Producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, or so the handout goes, persuaded Jacquot to try his hand at Tosca even though, says Jacquot, ”Italian opera is not my cup of tea.“ Since du Plantier‘s escutcheon had already been soiled by the Joseph Losey Don Giovanni he produced in 1979 (a real mess of nuisances, including weird day-to-night lighting changes and hokey staging, plus cuts in that most uncuttable of scores), some of what goes wrong this time should probably be laid at his door.

There is, for one thing, a strange sense of distrust — of the medium of opera, or film, or both. Uncut, as here, Tosca runs a paltry two hours, yet its fluent course is continually intercut with segments of a ”making of“ black-and-white documentary: conductor Antonio Pappano wildly gesticulating during the recording session, surely more for the cameras than for the expert players of London’s Royal Opera House Orchestra, soloists and choristers in street clothes (a great saving in costume costs for the ”Te Deum“ scene). These interruptions document nothing; they merely intrude.

So does the curious practice — even, of all places, in the very pretty Act 1 love duet — of destroying vocal lines as singers move from song to orchestra-accompanied speech. So does the strange sense of visual disconnectedness, with some of the settings real (the three places in Rome where the action occurs), some of them rebuilt on sound stages (with Cavaradossi‘s completed painting — of a woman he’d only seen the day before! — billboard-size), some of them flashed in as a series of fuzzy photographs of places mentioned. Might this be the first-ever ”Annotated Tosca“?

Angela Gheorghiu is the Tosca, and she is spectacularly good — to hear and to see. She looks right, her dark eyes flashing love, jealousy and desperation. She sounds right, her voice a ravishing song of pain and ecstasy finished off with a dusky sheen that has opera nuts whispering ”Callas.“ What she manages most of all, in her scenes in the opera itself and even in the black-and-white backstage shots, is a projection that seems to merge Tosca‘s fire-etched passion and Gheorghiu’s own love of the act of performance. Her Cavaradossi, real-life husband Roberto Alagna, though reasonably fair of face and forthright of voice, is not quite her equal. She, for one thing, has the knack of looking as though she‘s singing even when lip-synched; he does not. Nor does the veteran (61) Ruggero Raimondi, the closed-mouth, stolid Scarpia.

Opera on film, even more than opera on video (which has its own problems), has its built-in, probably insurmountable drawbacks. One of the most basic is the fact that the human mouth when singing in close-up is simply not beautiful. (This should have been clear at least as far back as Ingmar Bergman’s Magic Flute.) I tire, after two hours, of watching Gheorghiu‘s dentition, no matter how nearly perfect; Alagna’s one out-of-line tooth up front; Raimondi‘s clenched jaws; even the orthodontia of James Savage-Hanford, who sings the Shepherd Boy in the last act. This filmed Tosca — not the first, by the way — is a pretty good job, if it’s filmed Tosca that you want. I‘ll stay with the stage versions, however, which bite cleaner, and deeper.

TOSCA | Directed by BENOIT JACQUOT | Music by GIACOMO PUCCINI | Libretto by GIUSEPPE GIACOSA and LUIGI ILLICA, from the play by VICTORIEN SARDOU | At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Laemmle‘s Playhouse 7

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