Tuesday, October 28, 2014

San Francisco Opera's Tosca

Mark Delevan as Scarpia, Lianna Haroutounian as Tosca. Photos by Cory Weaver.
October 26, 2014

I am terribly fond of dynamic phrasing and crafted singing, but there are times when you can’t beat sheer power. SFO’s latest Tosca is the perfect example, featuring a memorable company debut by Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, a pint-size singer who fills the hall to the rafters. She is joined by tenor Brian Jagde, whose forceful lirico spinto was such a memorable factor in the company’s recent Madama Butterfly, and baritone Mark Delevan, who played Wotan in the company’s 2011 Ring Cycle. (Needless to say, timid baritones do not play Wotan.)

Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi, Lianna Haroutounian as Tosca.
I’m always intrigued by Baron Scarpia, a character who can undergo all kinds of interesting shifts, depending on the performer. I’ve seen legitimate takes on Scarpia as a Giovanni-esque antihero (notably by James Morris), as well as several in the greasy weasel department. Delevan, befitting a Wotan, plays the part with Darth Vader force. I swear, when he entered with his black-cloaked henchmen, hot on the trail of the escaped prisoner Angelotti, I could hear the old Monty Python line, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Tenor Joel Sorenson plays his right-hand man Spoletta with a full supply of nervous tics – understandable, since the boss reacts to his failure by holding a knife to his throat.

Haroutounian’s spunky intensity serves her well, maximizing the humor of her first-act jealousies (the same jealousies that will undo them all) and adding fire to the second-act faceoff with Scarpia. The difference in size alone delivers a striking David-and-Goliath visual. Which leads to…

SPOILER ALERT!!! The stabbing is excellent, accomplished as Scarpia descends over her on the settee, with a bonus back-plunge as he stumbles across the room. Don’t mess with Armenian sopranos, bruddah. (Kudos to fight director Dave Maier.) Which leads to…

SPOILER ALERT II!!!! Floria’s leap from the parapet is a rather elegant swan dive. Nicely done.

Dale Travis as the Sacristan.
Bass-baritone Dale Travis has played the Sacristan all over the country, and endows this small, important role with some interesting elements: a shuffling, quirky walk, a humorously stern relation with his altar boys, and a suitably terrified response to Scarpia. The poor man visibly shakes, giving a good hint at just how horrific the Baron can be.

Delevan excels in the Te Deum (Puccini’s delicious mixing of the sacred and the profane), and in Scarpia’s Act II anti-romance, outlining his preference for the rape-and-conquer approach as opposed to the effeminate ways of courtship. Jagde delivers an expectedly impassioned “E lucevan le stelle.” And Haroutounian gives “Vissi d’arte” a subdued opening, allowing extra room for the expansive climax, and inspiring a vision of the aria’s place in the opera. Sardou’s famous potboiler play places its heroine in one impossible dilemma after another: let her boyfriend be tortured to death, or seal Angelotti’s fate by confessing his whereabouts; let Cavaradossi die before a firing squad, or give herself to the disgusting Scarpia. What all this pressure eventually produces is a diamond, and the name of the diamond is “Vissi d’arte.”

Thierry Bosquet's first-act set.
Conducted by Riccardo Frizza, directed by Jose Maria Condemi. Production design by Thierry Bosquet.

Through Nov. 8, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370, www.sfopera.com, 415/864-3330.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the best-selling Amazon Kindle novel The Popcorn Girl.

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