Ever since its first performance some 110 years ago, Tosca has commanded the attention of the listener's eyes as well as ears. Who can forget the vivid images of the interior of the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the iconic candles-and-crucifix ritual following Scarpia's murder and the eerie pre-dawn calm preceding Cavaradossi's execution atop Castel Sant'Angelo prison?
The problem with staging this opera is that audiences tend to hold directors and set designers accountable for the preservation of these images. Just ask Luc Bondy.
Bondy, a veteran theater and opera director who dared tinker with audience expectations in last season's ill-fated Metropolitan Opera production of Tosca (he attempted to portray the mood of the story rather than its looks), was widely criticized in the media and soundly booed by outraged audiences who preferred a curator of the opera's cherished images to a purveyor of the drama. While some (myself included) disagreed with Bondy's critics, the message was clear: Don't mess with our beloved Tosca.
The caveat was not lost on Director Ned Canty and Set Designer Donald Eastman, who were commissioned by Glimmerglass Opera to craft a production of Tosca using only existing scenery from prior years' sets (a cost-saving measure that affects all four operas of the 2010 season).
Canty's production team managed to find a way to satisfy the needs of the drama and the audience, both — shrewdly re-assembling older sets (particularly the company's 2005 production of Death in Venice) to forge three mood-driven backdrops that project the proper atmosphere of a police state with its pervasive sense of hopelessness, despair and unrelenting fear, while remaining mostly faithful to work's sacrosanct icons. Add to the mix some strong singing efforts and good acting by the three principal roles and you've got a potent Tosca that can engage the listener's eyes, ears and imagination.
The story, based on Victorien Sardou's play, La Tosca, sets the story in Rome at about 1800 — a time of political strife between the oppressive regime in-power (the monarchists, led by Austria) and the freedom-fighters (the Bonapartists). Canty transposes the time to early 20th-century Rome, making the police-state, with its allusions to 1930s-style Italian/German fascism, more relevant to modern audiences.
As the politically-active painter, Cavaradossi, Adam Diegel cuts a handsome and earnest figure whom the audience can believe is torn between his love for Tosca and his uncompromising loyalty to fugitive friend and anti-government conspirator, Angelotti.
There's a pleasant and engaging quality to Diegel's voice that was at once apparent from his opening Recondita armonia — sung as the painter compares his unfinished portrait of the Madonna to the beauty of his paramour, Tosca. Diegel delivered this aria in a hefty voice that radiated confidence and self-assurance, and he maintained his mighty vocal presence throughout the performance. Although Diegel at times had a tendency to push his delivery too hard, causing his pitch to sag on the high notes, his handsome vocal timbre never lost its luster.
Diegel's tenor can be as expressive as it is powerful, as demonstrated in his character's signature aria, E lucevan le stelle. Singing from a sitting position, Diegel delivered this cherished aria in molto espressivo style, with great feeling and attention to nuance of phrasing. Ironically, there was no applause at the end of this show-stopper: Listeners simply remained frozen in their seats, like deer in the headlights, until conductor David Angus cued the orchestra to continue.
Soprano Lise Lindstrom fashioned a suitably mercurial Tosca — the cagey diva whose feelings for Cavaradossi may at any moment turn from affection to jealous rage. While she may not dominate the stage to the extent of others who have played (or overplayed) the role, Lindstrom acted convincingly whether singing or reacting to others sing, and seemed comfortable negotiating the many facets of her character — from possessive lover to protective guardian to self-pitying victim and, ultimately, remorseless executioner.
Lindstrom's powerful soprano packs a punch — reaching decibel levels that made me wonder whether her voice was carrying all the way down Route 80 into Cooperstown — and her pitch was tight on target. The third act scene where she recounts to Cavaradossi how she plunged the blade into Scarpia's heart, culminating on a brilliant high C, was a dramatic tour de force (and smack on-pitch).
At the same time, Lindstrom's firm vocal presence occasionally borders on shrill during the louder sections — such as in her duet with Diegel in the first act and especially during her scene with Scarpia in the second, leading me to wonder whether she hears herself onstage the way others do sitting in a venue the size of the Alice Busch Opera Theater (Lindstrom's successful Met debut as Turandot last October took place at the much larger Metropolitan Opera House). The softer and more delicate sections fared much better and showed her voice in a much more flattering context, such as in the celebrated Vissi d'arte, and again in Act 3 during her tender and lengthy duet with Diegel.
You've got to love Lester Lynch's resounding baritone, with its deep, resonant overtones and hearty vibrato that bounces around the corners of the theater like a ball in a pinball machine. As Scarpia, Lynch exuded confidence — belting out his self-congratulatory Va, Tosca! and creed-defining Ha più forte sapore with panache. I only wish he would have added some softer (and much-welcome) dynamic contrasts. It's not that he doesn't sing with feeling, it's just that he sings in only one feeling.
Lynch played the part of the archetypical tyrant convincingly, but only as a one-dimensional villain with a single purpose. There's more to Scarpia, of course — Puccini tells us so in Ha più forte sapore, in which Scarpia sings that his idea of making love involves conquest and subjugation. For all his histrionics, Lynch gave us little more villain than your run-of-the-mill Snidely Whiplash. Ultimately, it wasn't the rape of Tosca's soul or the crushing of her spirit that he craved, just her body. Surely there's more to Scarpia than this.
Among the smaller roles, populated by members of the Glimmerglass Young American Artists program, Robert Kerr looked and acted the part of the jolly church sacristan, and sang with a full and rich baritone that suggests he's ready for prime time.
As the ill-fated fugitive, Angelotti, a disheveled Aaron Sorenson crafted a sympathetic and pitiful character as the prisoner on the run from Scarpia's not-so-secret police. Although Sorenson could learn a thing or two from the production's principal singers about how better to project his voice, he sang with a handsome bass-baritone and his acting was beyond reproach. Dominick Rodriguez and Zachary Nelson looked suitably unctuous as Scarpia's storm troopers Spoletta and Sciarrone, respectively.
Canty bends, but does not break, the ritual of Scarpia's murder — Tosca places lanterns on either side of the corpse's head, then pulls a pendant (possibly a small crucifix) from her neck and lays it upon his torso. The smooth staging of the children's chorus in Act I could not have worked out better had there been a traffic cop onstage, and the deaths of both Scarpia and Cavaradossi were convincingly staged (I don't think I'll ever forget the look of disgust on Lynch's face as he laments being slain by a woman). On the other hand, there's remarkably little blood on Diegel when he's laid at Lindstrom's feet after having been brutally tortured, and I'm at a loss to understand why Canty had Lindstrom leap to her death from the prison roof while facing the audience, and not the ground.
The utilitarian props are effective and fit in nicely with the scenery. The one exception is the set of four small tables and chairs resting in Scarpia's "apartment" at Farnese Palace — which looked more like the setting for a chess tournament than a torture chamber. It's also unclear where in this room Scarpia would have placed the reluctant Tosca had she followed through with her promise to be seduced by him.
Jeff Harris' mood-evoking lighting effects captured the drab interior of the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle to great effect, suggesting perhaps that under Scarpia's regime a church is unable to provide sanctuary to the hunted. The pre-dawn scene atop the prison castle at the opening of Act 3, with its ever-so-gradual sunrise, was especially impressive.
Matthew Pachtman's costumes were in-harmony with the production's sets and props, which appears to place the action somewhere between the two world wars. Scarpia is outfitted in a Nazi-vintage leather while his henchmen wear the customary storm-trooper uniforms, boots and luger holsters. Ironically, Tosca dresses rather modestly — belying her presumed status as a celebrated opera diva. An exception is the stunning gown she wears at Scarpia's quarters, a delicate white gown that contrasts sharply with brawny black storm trooper uniforms worn by those standing beside her.
Until the final act, the Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra, under the direction of David Angus, sounded uncharacteristically wimpy. The famous opening three-chord leitmotif, intended to evoke the terrifying image of Baron Scarpia, produced nothing more frightening than an image of Richard Simmons, while the sharply-syncopated rhythmic passages that permeate the first act came off rather sloppy and lethargic. The orchestra came alive in the third act — beginning with firm ensemble and good intonation among the horns during their opening tutti unison section, and especially during the outstanding cello quartet ensemble in the altissimo register. The Glimmerglass Chorus, prepared by Chorus master Bonnie Koestner, fashioned a suitably dramatic Te Deum at the end of Act 1, in counterpoint with Scarpia's chilling soliloquy.
Tuesday afternoon's crowd must have thought they had purchased tickets to an opera buffa. Late in Act 2, after Tosca stabs Scarpia and chants "now you can't hurt anyone else," they laughed. When a patron sneezed during the exquisite horn section solo that opens Act 3 atop Castel Sant'Angelo prison, they laughed again. Later, when Tosca advises Cavaradossi not to hurt himself when he falls to the ground after what she presumes will be a mock execution, the crowd laughed yet again.
I'm curious to learn how much wine and champagne was sold that afternoon during the two intermissions...
By David Abrams
Photo credits: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera.