Tuesday, October 23, 2018

New Production, Same as the Old Production: Tosca at San Francisco Opera

Tosca is back at San Francisco Opera, for what seems like the 10 millionth performance. The press handout verges on boastful in discussing how many times the company has presented it: more than 175 performances in 38 previous seasons, opening the season six times, presented in back in the company's first season and inaugurating the War Memorial Opera House in 1932.

I am not sure in how many of those previous seasons I saw Tosca. I know I saw the productions of 1997, 2004, 2009, and 2012; I may have seen 2001 and I may have seen it back in the 1980s.

I decided to see it this year largely because of the presence of conductor Leo Hussain, making his SFO debut, and soprano Carmen Giannattasio making her SFO and role debuts. In the absence of a music director, every conductor appearing in the War Memorial Opera House is worth a look, and I'd heard good thing about Giannattasio.

I'm glad I went -- sort of -- and also mildly regretful, because with better planning, I could have seen SFCMP's Carter program and caught Tosca another night. I'm pretty sure that I don't need to see this opera again for another ten or fifteen years. Oh, the performance did remind me that it's a beautiful score with some humor in the first act, but....I've seen it too often and I'm seriously suffering from repertory fatigue.

Also, this new production? Okay, the church isn't based on Sant'Andrea della Valle, so it wasn't identical to every Tosca Act I set that you've ever seen.

Act I, with Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi and Dale Travis as the Sacristan.

Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

But then you get the Palazzo Farnese, with the desk audience left and a chaise lounge audience right, and then you get the Castel Sant'Angelo, with the archangel Michael and his sword, and they look a lot like other productions you've seen.

Act II. Scott Hendricks (Scarpia), Joel Sorensen (Spoletta), Carmen Giannattasion (Tosca).
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Lianna Haroutounian, Act III, 2014
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

(There's no press photo of the new production showing the whole Act III set, but, honestly, it's not different enough from Bosquet's production to matter. The angel is center stage; its pedestal has a different shape; the silhouettes of Roman buildings are spread out around the background.)

The problem with Tosca is that the libretto is so very specific about the time and place of the opera that unless you go full Regie -- always a risk with a popular and well-known work -- every production will look very much alike. (If you're wondering about the risk, well, after Luc Bondy's Tosca was done at the Met, there was a prominent donor who kept asking Peter Gelb whether she'd see the old Zeffirelli production again before she died. The answer is no, but I'm sure she's happier with David McVicar's production than with Bondy's.)

The question arises why a new Tosca was necessary. I mean, maybe the Thierry Bosquet sets in use since 1997 were in terrible shape, but considering how great the Hockney Turandot looked after refurbished, perhaps the Tosca could have been similarly treated.

Also, let's just say that I'm getting a little jaded by the company's choice of tenor. This was the third bring-up in a row with Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi. I'm somehow certain that he is not the only tenor who can sing this role. He has improved greatly since the first time around, but the roles of Turridu and Canio had his name written all over them, as I noted in my Cav/Pag write-up.

He benefitted a lot from Shawna Lucey's direction, which I thought overall excellent. His Cavaradossi seemed very human and sensitive; the director gave him a wide range of emotional expression.

I feel like his "Recondita armonia" is still lacking in charm, and his high notes seemed a stretch with the darkening of his voice, but "E lucevan le stelle" was excellent, in part because of Hussain's conducting, which was in some ways very beautiful and in others just bizarre.

Act I seemed to be pretty typically paced, perhaps a bit slower than usual, and the orchestra sounded especially beautiful. But Act II was...well, let me put it this way: Act II typically gallops like a runaway horse right up until the chords preceding "Vissi d'arte." Hussain's Act II was more like a gentle amble, almost completely lacking in tension and excitement. It hung together, barely, but it was rather the way I'd imagine Reginald Goodall might have conducted the opera. It was so unidiomatic that I was tempted to put on the great de Sabata recording when I got home, just to remind myself of how Tosca usually sounds.

All of this said, should you go see this Tosca? Well, Carmen Giannatasio, singing the title role, might just be worth the price of admission. She is about the best Tosca I have seen. A fine actor, she has exactly the right kind of voice for the role, a full, richly colored, large, and beautifully projected genuine Italian spinto soprano. You just don't hear this kind of voice much! She is a wonderful singer and would have been perfect for, say, Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlo. I certainly hope she'll be back.

Carmen Giannattasio, Tosca, Act II.
She just pulled the knife out of that shield behind her.
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera


Unknown said...

Hey Lisa,

Wish my ear was as fine tuned to the orchestra like yours. I can only tell when the orchestra is really bad - so off the deaf can tell. And I've heard some bad orchestra playing. Something SFO is not guilty of. I only seem to notice if the orchestra is not in sync with the singer - ahead or behind the singing.

When Liscotti was conducting, I did start to notice certain instruments standing out - in a Boheme the beautiful stringed instruments that closed Act I; something I never really noticed before. But since he has left, I can't really tell. Perhaps you have to hear the piece many times to be able to pick out something detail that is being emphasized.

Like you, I have no idea why management felt a need to get a new production of Tosca. The old one worked fine. I missed to Ponnelle Tosca set, but I do recall a Tosca in like 1992 or so that was "new" - it played once, never to be seen again. This set had the title printed on the curtain that came with the set - guess they wanted to remind you that they were presenting Tosca. I recall this was Maria Guleghina house debut. I don't think she ever returned. Wonder what happened to that set. It was my first Tosca so I remember it quite well. Maybe SFO sold it. Also, the costumes for the ladies look not in period. Isn't Tosca supposed to be set during the Empire period? As such women wore those dresses that belts right under the bust? The costumes in for this production looked more in line with the period after Empire, before the wide hoop skirts of the mid 1800s.

I did enjoy Ms. Giannattasio's performance immensely. I think she may be the best Tosca I've seen. Great voice and good acting. Hope she comes back. I too would like to see her in Verdi or even more Puccini.

I also liked Mr. Jadge. I agree he has improved since he first sang the tenor lead at SFO. Back then I thought he was pushing his voice to fill the hall. Now, it is plenty loud and still very lush. He has definitely refined his performance - but maybe it's time SFO got another tenor - especially one with the same initials for Caravadossi. But am plenty happy Brian sings here often; if only management would cast him in different roles.

Back to the production. Every time I see a new Tosca, I am always hoping to see the director stage section where Tosca places the candles around Scarpia differently. But perhaps the staging is so tied to the music it's impossible to do something else. But I keep hoping.

It also amazes me that Tosca's don't cross themselves after they killed the good Barron and realized what they've done. They pretty much drop the knife and look terrified. I think most Roman Catholics would cross themselves as they are in the presence of a dead body. At least that's my reaction. But I've never seen it done that way, not even with the great Maria Callas (what little taped evidence we have of her Tosca, Act II).

Anyway, just wanted to share my thoughts. Keep the reviews coming. I suspect Arabella will be next. Another one will I miss, but we talked about that in previous posts.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi! Thank you for the extensive comments.

Yes, it's rare that the SFO orchestra doesn't play extremely well. They're really good, although not quite in the class of the Met Orchestra or the Bayreuth Orchestra, among opera orchestras. (In truth, I haven't heard that many overseas opera orchestras, so....)

Luisotti's style and ear did sometimes balance the orchestra differently from other conductors.

I do not think that I saw the Tosca with Guleghina. She was back the following year for Queen of Spades, according to the SFO archive. Here's the cast page for Tosca .

The opera takes place in June, 1800, and it should be possible to date it closely based on the news of Napoleon's victory at Marengo. You mean the dresses in the current production? They do look a little later than what you usually see.

LOL, I don't know whether the other BJ has Cavaradossi in his repertory, but yeah!

I will be at Arabella on Nov. 3.