Tuesday, June 9, 2009

San Francisco Opera, "Tosca," June 5, 2009

Tosca can be a physically brutal little opera, and SFO's latest production takes this notion to the hilt, stressing pure power in both its singing and acting. The energy of it all makes for an outstanding evening of theater.

With a magnificent series of tromp-l'oeil sets by Thierry Bosquet, inspired by a 1932 SFO production, and a straightforward approach to the music and action, the differences come largely in the small touches and decisions, notably those made by talented stage director Jose Maria Condemi. One must begin with Scarpia, played by Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli as a sort of creepy ringleader, choreographing events around him for his own maximum entertainment. At one point, he rushes to the front of the stage to reveal the torture being inflicted upon Tosca's beloved Cavaradossi, and the effect is almost like a magician announcing "presto chango" before a masterful illusion. Another particularly sleazy moment comes when he offers to take Tosca's wrap, then gives it a thorough sniffing before setting it down. He spends a large portion of the rest of his stage time pushing his lackeys to the ground - particularly the equally creepy Spoletta, Joel Sorenson, who does a lovely job of smacking the stage with maximum impact. Vocally, Ataneli doesn't quite have the lower-end gusto for the Te Deum, but his high baritone of serves him well for the rest of the performance.

Our Tosca, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, brings a strong lyric voice to the role, and isn't afraid to go a little ragged for Floria's frightened screeches (particularly after Scarpia reveals the price she must pay for Cavaradossi's freedom). She also plays the opening lines of her "Vissi d'arte" a little breathy, accentuating her character's emotional torment, and finishes the aria with some beautifully wrought diminuendos. As an actress, Pieczonka makes an excellent showing of contemplating the carving knife that has made its way into her hand (almost channeling the approach Sarah Bernhardt used in Sardou's original play), then delivers a deliciously rough stabbing. And her final leap from the parapet is quite convincing (which is more than I can say for most of the Toscas I've seen).

Cavaradossi is played by Carlo Ventre, who sings the part with a rugged lyric spinto, and delivers his top notes with a lushly broad, bronze tone. He excelled in his "E lucevan le stelle," but perhaps was even better in the arioso that follow, "O dolci mani."

In the supporting roles, Dale Travis invests his sacristan with a delightful array of tics and nervous gestures. My favorite among the costumes (costume supervisor: Jai Altizer) is Scarpia's Act II coat, purple with intricate white embroidery. Marco Armiliato's orchestra was strong throughout, especially the horns and percussion, who took great pleasure in Scarpia's thunderous motif (is there better entrance music in opera?).

Puccini's use of motif in the opera is an endless well of discoveries, and this time around I found phrases from the first-act duet "Mia gelosa" ("My jealous one") floating around as Scarpia pursued his Iago-like endeavors to use Tosca's jealousy against her. It's also a constant pleasure to study the way Puccini uses different musical forms against each other: Scarpia's vows of conquest played against the congregation singing the Te Deum, the confrontation of Scarpia and Cavaradossi against the cantata sung by Tosca in the neighboring church, and the shepherd's song (performed by Zachary Weisberg) used as a prelude to the painter's morning execution, a scene whose quietude and comings-and-goings harken back to the tollgate act of "La Boheme." It's fashionable these days to downplay Puccini's talents (and seemingly to punish him for his popularity) but it's stupid to deny this level of musical mastery.

Through June 26 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$290, 415/864-3330, http://www.sfopera.com/.

Side notes: The opera was simulcast to AT&T Park, the stadium of the baseball Giants, and the principals took their bows wearing Giants paraphernalia (the sacristan, for instance, with a "#1" foam finger). They did, however, miss a prime opportunity: Scarpia should have appeared wearing the jersey of the hated rival Dodgers. Walking to the performance, it was impossible not to think of the movie "Milk," which told of the assassination of gay rights leader Harvey Milk, a crime which took place directly across the street from the Opera House at City Hall. The movie made brilliant use of scenes from "Tosca" to foreshadow Milk's murder. One of the singers in those excerpts was tenor Joe Meyers, a friend and choirmate from my college days, which made it, for me, even more personal.

Image: Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) and Lado Ataneli (Scarpia).
Photo by Cory Weaver.