Long-time readers of this blog know that I have some antipathy toward Tosca, largely because I want to slap the title character silly at multiple points during the opera, but perhaps secondarily because it has not been well-conducted all that often during the last decade or so. I offer as evidence my write-ups of the runs with Patricia Racette and Adrianne Pieczonka. There's a passing remark elsewhere about weak conducting in the November, 2004 run (Jobin/Vaness, Dvorsky, Delevan), but no full review. I remember almost nothing about the 1997-98 run, conducted by Nello Santi, other than that James Morris just couldn't get the nasty on for Scarpia and that Carol Vaness looked a lot better than she sounded.
It's been on my don't-need-to-see-for-a-while list since I saw Racette in it, because she was so charming and dramatically convincing in the part, so I did not expect to see this year's revival: same production, same Cavaradossi (Brian Jagde, whom I didn't like at all in 2012), same Scarpia (Mark Delevan). I went into San Francisco last Saturday assuming I'd pick up a rush ticket to see SFS (S.Adams, Prokofiev, Ravel)....but I was urged to come over to the opera house to see debuting soprano Lianna Haroutounian, and Jon Finck, of SFO, very kindly offered me a seat while doing the urging. So, what the heck, I went.
The bad news first, just to get it out of the way: Riccardo Frizza is a dab hand at bel canto, and I'd liked him a great deal in his previous SFO appearances, in which he conducted Lucrezia Borgia and I Capuletti e i Montecchi. But Puccini is hard, with a deeply layered orchestra and rhythmic/metrical complexities galore. Just take a look at the first page of La Boheme if you don't believe me.
I'd have to see him again in Tosca to tell you exactly what went wrong and where, but Frizza led the worst-conducted Puccini opera I have ever heard. The performance had almost no drive or dramatic tension, and this is an opera with a ton of excitement and drama. It wasn't a matter of tempo; the performance took about the same amount of time that Tosca usually takes. It was more a matter of emphasis and phrasing. Unlike the last run - conducted very well by Nicola Luisotti - Act II felt shockingly lifeless, despite the torture scene and despite the great scene with Tosca and Scarpia.
But there's plenty of good news: Lianna Haroutounian is the real deal, a terrific singer with a beautiful voice. This was her role debut, and while I think she's got a ways to go in working into the part - her characterization was a bit one-dimensional compared to Patricia Racette's - this was a wonderfully sung and reasonably convincing assumption. Haroutounian has a big, colorful voice, great legato, and sterling control; every note sounded strongly and was sung with a beautiful line. Joshua Kosman was effusive about her in his review, and he was absolutely right, though at the last performance there was a bit of shrillness at the very top of her range.
She was decently partnered by Brian Jagde, much improved from his last appearance as Cavaradossi and yet still somehow lacking. His voice is much better integrated and handled the tessitura more cleanly than two years ago, when there was a lot of audible gear-changing and some very square phrasing. The big moments were big, but this opera has intimate moments as well, and those were lacking in, well, intimacy. "Recondita armonia" ought to have lilt and charm; I grant you that Jagde didn't get much help from Frizza, but the color of his voice and ability to deliver a bit of a smile in the tone are up to the tenor. And "E lucevan le stelle" (which dragged interminably) wasn't nearly as despairing as I'd like to hear it.
(If you're wondering how it should be done, look no further than the meltingly beautiful performance of Giuseppe di Stefano on the great, great, great Victor de Sabata recording, which fully lives up to its enormous reputation after sixty years. It is absolutely indispensable for anyone who gives a damn about Italian opera.)
Mark Delevan remains a deeply sadistic and threatening Scarpia, although his voice continues to lose the edge it had more than a decade ago when he sang the Dutchman at SFS.
And a long Rubin Institute aside: I heard part of Anne Midgette's pre-performance talk on Tosca, and am sorry I didn't hear the whole thing. I got there on the late side, and her talk got cut short by a few minutes, so she didn't get to say everything she had to say. She played an excerpt of Franco Correlli exhibiting his magnificent sound and lung power; impressive, but I wish I'd asked her about the conductor, because he was terrible. I gotta say that I also think what Correlli did called attention to himself rather than the music, and I wish he hadn't.
All that aside, she said some interesting things about the opera, one of which I wish more directors realized: when that last act curtain goes up, Tosca and Cavaradossi are both in a state of exhaustion because they've been awake for around 24 hours, during which one of them was tortured and the other committed murder. I think they are in slightly different states; Cavaradossi is on the verge of collapse, between the torture and anticipation of his execution, while Tosca has been preparing for their departure from Rome and is exhausted but running on adrenaline. I hope to see a production some day that takes note of this.
I nabbed poor Anne between when she got kicked off the podium and when the performance started, and subjected her to a few of my pet theories about the opera. Well, actually, I started by agreeing with her about one point she made: that Puccini was completely deliberate in how he composed one particular section, I believe when Mario is realizing that the "fake" execution is going to be real. Anne noted in her talk that her husband disagrees about this, but he is completely wrong: I dare you to find a bar of Puccini after 1895 when he isn't completely in control of the emotional content of what he is writing. (Okay, Turandot, I know, I know, but you know it would have been different if he'd lived, right?)
I do think that the compactness of the opera, as opposed to the sprawling Sardou play from which it is drawn, acts against making Tosca completely believable. The play makes it very clear that she is an innocent, a child of nature, someone motivated by her emotions and with no concept of politics. Face it: anyone with a little worldly knowledge would understand that Cavaradossi is a dead man from the moment Scarpia's men round him up, regardless of whatever deal Scarpia seems willing to make. He is a sadist and he enjoys not only the anticipation of getting into Tosca's panties, but knowing that he won't be making good on the deal.
It's very much up to the soprano to bring out not only Tosca's emotionalism - the easy part - but her worldly naivete, and hoo boy, that is a very difficult assignment.
Anne and I also chatted a bit about Joe Kerman's notorious characterization of Tosca as a "shabby little shocker." It's been a great jumping-off point for all kinds of writing and speaking about the opera, among other reasons because it is pretty obvious that Kerman had little liking for the work and that he didn't understand what Puccini was doing at the point in the opera that he was describing. I think it is too bad that the phrase is what the general public associates with Kerman, because he was an important musicologist who did great work in a number of areas - and I think he wrote that line when he was in his mid-20s. Look, we all said a few dumb things in our 20s. I didn't even like Puccini at that age; I was close to 40 before I got the message. I have no idea whether Kerman changed his mind about Tosca as he aged, or whether he had more sympathy for Puccini in general, but it is certainly possible.