in: Reviews

November 8, 2010

Tosca at the BLO—Success Despite Weaknesses

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loria Tosca, soprano Jill Gardner, struggles with Baron Scarpia, bass-baritone Bradley Garvin (Jeffrey Dunn photo)

For good reason, Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca has long held one of the central positions in the operatic repertoire. The plot’s tight mix of betrayal, political intrigue, tragic romance and violence, all perfectly matched by Puccini’s verismo score, has riveted audiences since its premiere in 1900. In many ways, the Boston Lyric Opera’s current production of Tosca works well within this framework to create an overall successful production that, at moments, is positively stunning.

Jill Gardner’s Floria Tosca is superior. She transports her character from the petulant jealousy of act one to mortified disbelief in act three with a convincing presence and an instrument that is both powerful and nuanced. Richard Crawley, brought in at the last minute to replace an ill Diego Torre, gave a compelling performance as the artist Mario Cavaradossi. Further, Crawley’s stentorian tenor, most notable in its clear upper register, complements Gardner’s radiant tone so well that it sounds as if the two were cast together. Bradley Garvin’s Scarpia is also striking.  His rich bass-baritone, sheer height and black uniform (a generalissimo in jackboots) is appropriately terrifying. Finally, Anton Below gave a passionate Angelotti, and T. Steven Smith provided delightful comic relief as the Sacristan, even if his voice was at times overwhelmed by the orchestra.

The version of Tosca that the BLO is using was adapted from the Scottish opera’s which, according to the BLO’s release, has “long been popular in Europe.” One of the better changes in the production is the setting. Moving the story to Mussollini’s Italy not only brings the opera closer to a modern audience, it allows the opera to reverberate in the context of fascist Italy and the period’s neo-verismo movement. Further, unlike those modern stage sets of Tosca that reach for enormous proportions and additional shock effect (think, for example, of the giant eyeball set used at the Bergrenz festival in 2007) this staging enhances the intimacy. The architecture of the huge church of Sant’ Andrea in the first act and the Castle of Sant’ Angelo in the third spills far offstage, bringing the human figures tightly into focus.

However, some of the changes to the production are problematic. See, for example, act two when Tosca murders Scarpia. In Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, the play on which the libretto is based, the murder is ritualistic: Tosca kills Scarpia with a knife, places candles by his side and a crucifix on his chest. As such, this ritual and all of its components were carried over to the opera and have become part of its performance tradition. Perhaps to put their mark on the scene or just to break with this tradition, in the BLO production Scarpia knocks the knife out of Tosca’s hand without noticing her intent and continues his amorous advances. She then rushes to his desk and finds a pair of scissors that she uses to finally stab him to death. It is all very slapstick. Then she places the candles by his side, and after briefly considering the crucifix, she tosses it aside and exits the stage.

These needless changes make the entire scene improbable. When Tosca had first noticed the knife on the table, a sinister theme is heard in the strings, marking her resolve. When the knife is knocked from her hand her resolve is undermined and the arrogance at the coup de gras line “Questo è bacio di Tosca!” (“This is Tosca’s kiss”) becomes implausible. Further, one wonders why Scarpia would have such big scissors on his desk, or that the production did not alter the libretto’s “lama” in Tosca’s third act line to “forbice” as in: ‘lo quella lama forbice gli piantai nel cor.’ (“I am the knife scissors that were planted in his heart”). Similarly implausible is Tosca’s treatment of the crucifix. Perhaps she would not consider Scarpia worthy to have a crucifix on his chest, but she is a pious woman; she would never toss a crucifix aside for any reason—it is just not part of her character.

A Sacristan, bass-baritone T. Steven Smith, rehearses with members of Boston’s PALS Children’s Chorus and BLO’s Chorus (Jeffrey Dunn photo)

In fairness, the tendency to alter this scene is common in modern productions. Most recently the Metropolitan Opera had Tosca kill Scarpia and then retire to the couch: as Alex Ross famously described it, “Tosca murders, then dithers.” Admittedly, the BLO revision works better than the Metropolitan’s, but it is no improvement over the original. Ultimately the traditional scene is so memorable and the work is so tightly constructed that these little alterations are bound to do more harm than good.

However, the worst alteration in my opinion is at the opening of the third act. The pastoral setting of the breaking dawn and Shepherd-boy’s song are now placed in the context of a graphic execution. After an anonymous man is summarily shot, the Shepherd-boy sings as he cleans up the blood from the execution. Although hearing the light prelude and charming boy’s song within the context of a graphic murder fits the verismo aesthetic, Puccini obviously wrote this music to provide a respite from the torture and murder of act two and the murder and suicide to come in act three. The loss of this contrast upsets the opera’s delicate balance, weighing down the entire second half of the opera with a near unending misery. Although Ryan Williams sang the Shepard-boy’s short number beautifully, it was terribly difficult to hear while you watched him simulate mopping gray matter from the stage with a rag. An opera long criticized as a “shabby little shocker” does not need more graphic violence.

Finally, under Andrew Bisantz baton, the BLO orchestra brought Puccini’s score to life. The reminiscence motives were subtly marked and Puccini’s instrumentation was treated with an extraordinary sensitivity. Particularly remarkable was the first act’s grand crescendo. Beginning with the light buffo motive that accompanies the Sacristan and the restrained double bassoons at Scarpia’s entrance, Bisantz brought the act to a truly terrifying climax at Scarpia’s exclamation “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” (“Tosca, you make me forget God!”). Overall it is moments like these that save the production from its weaknesses and make it a success; you should see it. It will be at the Schubert theater in Boston through November 16.

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the tip; I closed my eyes at the beginning of Act III and imagined a “usual” production showing the light breaking over St. Peter’s and the off-stage shepherd singing. I thought putting a gun into Tosca/Lauren Bacall’s hands that, according to Cavaradossi, were meant “a bell’opre pietose, a carezzar fanciulli,” was inappropriate. Maybe the gun was a third “sacred weapon,” after the knife and scissors, and was meant to evoke the Holy Trinity. The aluminum ladder in Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese was a striking anachronism, too. And what about Il Duce’s cameo in Act I? (That got laughs!) Accurate review, but a “PhD graduate of Brandeis” oughta use a spell-checker.

    Comment by David Bean — November 11, 2010 at 8:41 am

  2. Thanks Mr. Bean! I too found the gun disturbing in Act Three, but because I thought that they might have her shoot herself instead of leaping from the wall. You’re right, I oughta use a spell-checker.

    Comment by Joseph E. Morgan — November 11, 2010 at 11:14 am

  3. … and I should have caught those spelling errors as well.
    The Holy Trinity allusion by Mr. Bean is droll, indeed.
    I don’t agree about the ladder, though; the whole point was the lack of respect for the building by questo Fascisto Scarpia – like the tenement-era bed with its chipping paint.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — November 11, 2010 at 3:03 pm

  4. This was one of the finest opera productions I have ever seen. It was seamless in its flow, and the orchestra, singers, staging, direction, sets and concept were almost flawless. I totally disagree with Mr Morgan’s petty quibbles. As one who had never seen, heard, nor read “Tosca”, I found all of the business compelling, especially Scarpia’s death scene. Perhaps there is something to be said for not knowing what the “traditional” performance practice is. This is equally true of music in general, where there is often much to be enjoyed in a performance that represents a fresh look at something that’s been around a long time. Bravo to the Lyric Opera for this production.

    Comment by Karin Tate — November 11, 2010 at 5:34 pm

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