By Giacomo Puccini
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
Most people with even a passing interest in opera are familiar with Tosca. One of a trio of blockbusters from the height of Puccini’s career, Tosca (along with La Bohéme and Madama Butterfly) cemented the composer’s position among the greatest masters of the operatic form.
Puccini chose to tell stories of passionate love entangled with political intrigue and betrayal, and the lyricism of his music both reflects the passion of the characters and creates a stark contrast with the dark days they inhabit.
Over a hundred years after they were first performed, Puccini’s works retain a remarkably contemporary feel. That, and the familiarity of most opera audiences with the plotlines, makes these works particularly fertile territory for directors and production designers wishing to reimagine them in a more “modern” setting.
In the case of Lyric Opera’s latest production of Tosca, director John Caird and set/costume designer Bunny Christie have moved the opera forward from its original setting in the early 19th century to the turn of the twentieth, about the time the work first premiered. The story of two free-spirited lovers, the painter Cavaradossi and the diva Floria Tosca, takes a dark political turn when the artist’s friend, an anti-government revolutionary, seeks shelter at Cavaradossi’s villa after escaping from prison.
Government henchman Baron Scarpia sees the situation as the perfect opportunity, both to capture an enemy of the state and to create a situation in which Tosca, long the object of his sexual obsession, will have to submit to him in order to save her lover from the gallows.
From both musical and design perspectives, Lyric’s production falls just short of perfection. Two rising young stars, with major voices and even more major onstage chemistry, bring Cavaradossi and Tosca into brilliant focus. Model handsome tenor Brian Jagde inhabits his character with satisfying ease, and his delicious voice is everything we love about bel canto singing.
For her part, Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan possesses both the physical and vocal fire that Tosca requires. Together these two young singers create an appealing and totally believable pair of passionate lovers. We wished for a bit more of that passion in Evgeny Nikitin’s Scarpia.
Though possessed of a marvelous voice, Nikitin’s portrayal of Tosca’s nemesis seems a bit lukewarm. There are many aspects of character development in Tosca‘s libretto that adapt well to contemporary interpretation.
The character of Scarpia is not one of them. Scarpia represents everything evil in Tosca’s world: greed, political corruption, sexual degradation and domination. Caird’s decision to develop Scarpia into a more thoughtful character makes little sense. Men like Scarpia, then as now, are driven by their instincts not by their intellect.
Satisfying their desire is the sum total of the thought process which eventually leads to their demise. To make Scarpia any more reasonable is to take away a good deal of the drama from Tosca‘s story. The Baron never really bargains in good faith for Cavaradossi’s life. He will have Tosca and kill her lover too.
Bunny Christie’s updated production design fares quite a bit better than Caird’s reimagined villain. From bloody curtains to the desolate feel of the deconstructed sets, Christie’s vision of a war-torn nation rife with religious fervor, political intrigue and death creates a compelling new backdrop for Tosca.
Between acts, the curtains fall to the stage as if revealing a new work of art: the lighthearted painter exposed as a devoted insurgent, the pious Tosca’s fiery sensuality revealed, the dedicated public servant Scarpia’s mask stripped away to expose his lascivious treachery.
Another effective visual device, a mysterious child dressed as the Madonna, appears and disappears throughout the production, ostensibly at points where Tosca turns to her faith for guidance.
That connection is not totally clear, but the child’s presence adds an other worldly feel to the proceedings that is not at all unpleasant. One small detail, however, does steal a bit of melodrama that is always quite satisfying when experiencing Tosca.
After the shocking act of stabbing her would-be rapist to death, not one drop of blood sullies Tosca’s white ball gown, and so we are robbed of what should be the culminating visual image of her very satisfying revenge.
After the big tease of those transitional curtains, the only trace of blood we see is Tosca’s own, before she flings herself into oblivion in the concluding scene.
Were it not for the perfect emotional tone and flawless technique of the singers in this production, along with the exquisite musicality of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus (under the direction of Dmitri Jurowski and Michael Black, respectively), these small production missteps would be game changers for Lyric’s Tosca. As it stands, they are minor distractions to a major display of world-class operatic talent in a thought provoking new setting.
3 ½ STARS