Saturday, November 17, 2012

San Francisco Opera’s Tosca

November 15, 2012

San Francisco lost its Tosca a little ahead of schedule Thursday. Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, having delivered an excellent first-act performance, was suddenly off to the hospital, suffering the ravages of intestinal flu. (Next-day reports had Gheorghiu resting comfortably, recuperating from severe dehydration.)

Fortunately, SFO’s high-stakes run of Puccini’s opera – featuring Patricia Racette in the alternate cast – also featured a top-notch understudy. Soprano Melody Moore, a product of SFO’s Adler Fellow program, has performed Figaro’s Contessa, Bohème’s Mimi, and also created the role of Susan Rescorla in SFO’s 2011 world premiere of Heart of a Soldier.

Following an extended intermission while Moore got into costume and make-up, she was thrust into the turmoil of Act 2, but not before a beautifully apt introduction, Baron Scarpia’s comment on the delayed concert next door: “With the diva still missing, they can’t start the cantata.” Conductor Nicola Luisotti duly paused as a round of laughter rolled through the opera house.

Moore seemed a little unsure at the opening of the act (conveniently fitting the mental state of her character), but a few well-placed screams at the torturing of her Mario had her fully warmed up, exhibiting a tone a bit more on the dramatic side of Tosca’s lirico/drammatico split. The lyricism was certainly there, however, for “Vissi d’arte.” Moore sang the piece to perfection, applying a bracing piano to its penultimate phrase, and seemed to be held aloft on the wishes of an entire opera house, all of them seemingly holding their breaths. I don’t know if I have witnessed a more inspiring moment in the theater.

Moore then shifted back to dramatic, applying a forceful vocal presence to her wrestling match with Scarpia, and then to the chilling taunts delivered over the villain’s corpse. Considering the circumstances, her execution of the scene’s complex movements was a miracle unto itself. The trick seemed even more amazing the following day, when SFO reported that this was Moore’s first performance of the role. She was duly rewarded for her courage: the audience remained subdued during the other singers’ curtain calls so that they could burst to their feet at Moore’s appearance, certainly a more memorable ovation than most performers will receive in a lifetime.

The evening’s drama had the unintended effect of overshadowing some superb performances. Italian baritone Roberto Frontali, a memorable Jack Rance in SFO’s 2010 La Fanciulla del West, delivered a Scarpia that was divinely creepy. Frontali was particulary good in the Act 1 Te Deum, savoring his lascivious dreams of Tosca even as his followers sing the sacred liturgy behind him (even today, Puccini’s musical meshing of the sacred and profane – including the Act 2 cantata-interrogation scene, seem astoundingly radical).

The pronounced vocal technique of Pompeiian tenor Massimo Giordano was initially a little distracting, but it’s hard to argue with the results, first revealed in the heart-melting tribute to Tosca’s eyes preceding the “Mia gelosa” duet, and later in a beautifully understated performance of “E lucevan le stelle.” We can also assume that both Frontali and Giordano played a significant part in navigating Moore through her maiden voyage.

Dale Travis endowed the Sacristan with an endearing crabbiness, helped by a particularly rascally group of altar boys. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn delivered the fugitive Angelotti with a thunderous tone and a genuinely desperate countenance. Luisotti’s orchestra played sumptuously, particularly the sweeping strings following Scarpia’s killing and the many outbursts of brass announcing Scarpia (has anyone short of Darth Vader had better entrance music?). The set is Thierry Bosquet’s 1997 trompe l’oeil masterpiece, based on a set originally used by SFO in 1923.

Through Dec. 2, alternating casts, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340, 415/864-3330,

Images: Melody Moore as Tosca, Roberto Frontali as Scarpia (taken from the wings during the performance). Photos by Kirsten Loken.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novel Operaville, available at