Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tosca, San Francisco Opera

Tosca is one of the trio of Puccini works that opera companies haul out like clockwork, along with La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. They're crowd-pleasers, they sell tickets, and there aren't too many expensive principal roles to fill.

I've seen all of them at least three times each, and as far as I can tell, Tosca is by far the hardest to bring off, Boheme the easiest. Where youthful singing, enthusiasm, and half-decent direction are more than enough to carry Boheme successfully from attic feast to teary conclusion, Tosca is full of improbabilities, requiring oversized personalities and sharp conducting to persuade or move.

I vaguely think I saw Tosca at some point in the 1980s, though nothing in the San Francisco Opera archives is particularly ringing a bell. I caught the current Thierry Bosquet production when it was new in 1997 and again in 2004, both times with a vocally threadbare and underpowered Carol Vaness doing her Callas imitation, accompanied by weak tenors and the genial Scarpia of James Morris or the ramrod stiff, in a bad way, Mark Delavan. Genial - now there's a word I don't want to see describing Scarpia.

The current revival, starring debuting dramatic soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, debuting baritone Lado Ataneli, and returning tenor Carlo Ventre, had more promise; Pieczonka's roles include Sieglinde, at least guaranteeing enough volume and heft to make a credible go at the Roman diva. I was unimpressed with Ventre in a previous appearance, but Ataneli's been getting good reviews elsewhere.

Imagine my concern upon seeing this in handouts from the Opera about Pieczonka:
The Los Angeles Times praised Adrianne Pieczonka's role debut as Tosca with Los Angeles Opera in 2008 as "radiant," noting that "she sang with effortless purity and impeccable taste."
Uh-oh. Radiance, and even purity, I can deal with, but impeccable taste? Tosca's not the Countess Almaviva, after all; what I want to hear is little filth, and some willingness on the part of the soprano to get down and dirty with the music and the role. It's melodrama, for crying out loud.

And unlike you (and you, and you, and you), I've even read the Sardou play, La Tosca, a Sarah Bernhard vehicle, on which the opera is based. Is it ever a melodrama. But it's in five sprawling acts, where Puccini's opera is a compact three, and thus there's more time and space for fleshing out the leading lady.

And you know? She needs it. Do you buy anything about how she behaves in the opera? She's deeply religious, insanely jealous, easily led, untrustworthy, and stupid; she's also an unworldly innocent (who spends nights with her lover), beautiful, passionate, and a great singer. She tries to out-maneuver Scarpia, with disastrous results. She gives away a secret moments after her lover makes it clear he's willing to endure any pain to protect that secret.

Are we supposed to admire this woman? Or love her? Well, maybe. And maybe a singer with the stature of Callas, Tebaldi, Price, or Olivero can persuade us that there's something admirable or lovable about her - a tough sell with me, given her capricious and foolish behavior, which leaves four dead.

The performance I saw got off to an unpromising start: the Scarpia chords sounded, the curtain went up, and there stood Angelotti (Jordan Bisch). Yes, stood. The libretto says he's supposed to hurry in, nearly running. This isn't a difficult stage direction to observe, requiring no special equipment or effects. And it was just the first of several misjudgments in the act on the part of director Jose Maria Condemi - which surprised me, because I've read a number of good reviews of his work.

The Cavaradossi/Tosca scene was something of a shambles. If Tosca's not a tigress - and Pieczonka was more of a domesticated than a wild cat - if there's not much chemistry between the lovers, if the conductor doesn't have the music well in hand...well, sadly, that's what the first half of Act I was like. Whatever errors Condemi made, Marco Armiliato's slack account of the score did much more damage. Joshua Kosman called it fluid; I call it soggy.

Worst of all would be the thudding, leaden performance of "Recondita armonia," Cavaradossi's first-act aria, which should be a lilting, radiant paen to Tosca's beauty. It wasn't, and Carlo Ventre, in coarse voice, sounded worn and verging on wobble. He got an enormous hand, though, presumably for holding the last note for a long time. Sigh; audiences!

With Scarpia's entrance, the opera perked up quite a bit; Lado Ataneli has a beautiful voice and succeeded in projecting menace and power through a sinister manner, with no snarling, sneering, or moustache twirling. He could have used somewhat more vocal firepower; in the Te Deum, the orchestra, which was loud without projecting the right feeling, occasionally swamped him.

Act II pretty much played itself, thanks to Puccini and his librettists, and came across well despite Armiliato's continuing lack of tension. Here Pieczonka came into her own, given a situation that unambiguously calls for the fierce Tosca. And her "Vissi d'arte" was magnificently sung, with a firm line and sterling control. She deserved the ovation that followed. Ataneli continued to be the menacing and sadistic Scarpia; I can carp only about the amount of time he spent casually sitting on a corner of his desk, which seemed...undignified.

Ventre improved in Act III, or perhaps he was saving himself. "E lucevan le stelle" was acceptable, though not what it could have been in the hands of a great (or better) tenor. Personal to CB: JS is a fine clarinetist, but remembering your past glories at SFO, I missed you in the intro to that aria. The opera hurtled to its harrowing conclusion even without Ataneli's vicious magic, ending better than it began.

How I'd like to see a great Tosca performance some day. And perhaps we'll get one, with Nicola Luisotti in the house.


Gavin Plumley said...

Hmmmn... I don't think any of the Puccini works are easy to pull off. Have you ever seen a satisfactory performance of Bohème? I never have... the productions are either too drab, too dull or too post-modern. And getting singers who can do justice to Act 3 is nigh impossible.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, I've seen several satisfactory performances of Boheme - one at the Met and either 2 or 3 (I truly can't recall) at San Francisco. Traditional productions, but lively and well-staged, with good to excellent singing and, in one case, spectacular conducting (Luisotti, last fall).

The Met production is a problem in one way, the Act II traffic jam, which made it almost impossible for me to figure out who the principals were before they start singing.

Boheme will be effective and moving, given acceptable conducting, singing, and direction. Tosca seems to need greatness, and Butterfly also has to have a terrific leading lady.

john banville said...

Hi. Thanks again for your last advise. I have a question: Could you recommend a recording of Schubert's Sonata for Arpeggione, but with viola instead of cello? I have the britten/rostropovich and martha argerich/ mischa maisky versions. Thank you!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Now there's something I know nothing about. I'll put up a posting asking for recommendations.

Narconon Arrowhead said...
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