Tosca tonight

Puccini’s Tosca can take one of at least a few possible shapes:

  • It can be a riveting thriller of a story, at times keeping you glued to the action
  • It can be a virtuoso vehicle, an opportunity for any one of the three principals to step forward and seize the moment

Those two would be understood as successful productions, yet there are still other possibilities.  One of the principals may be unconvincing dramatically, or incompetent musically.  And even so, when one (or more) of Tosca-Scarpia- Cavaradossi isn’t dramatically persuasive or vocally commanding, this opera still is a powerful piece of music theatre.  I love it so….I have seen a lot of productions over the years, many of them here in Toronto, and I’ve always enjoyed myself no matter which of the components didn’t quite carry the day.

Imagine my surprise at encountering a production where everything clicked, with no real weaknesses.

director Paul Curran

Director Paul Curran

The Canadian Opera Company production directed by Paul Curran is the most urgently dramatic Tosca I’ve ever seen.  It’s full of fascinating bits of business that pull it together.  For example, during Mario Cavaradossi’s aria “recondita armonia”, we know that the Sacristan has been asked to get the painter his colours.  In this reading, sung by Brandon Jovanovich as the painter and Peter Strummer as the Sacristan, there’s a remarkably vivid exchange going on.  Strummer is not simply giving us the usual buffa lazzi (thinking of the ways I’ve heard Fernando Corena, for example, twist his voice into something grotesque during these lines), but taking the stage with something more substantial.  There are no throw-away lines between the pair, nothing wasted.  Similarly, when Angelotti (Christian Van Horn) emerges from hiding, but is unrecognizable in his prison attire, Jovanovich shoves his unrecognized friend away, making what is often one of the most heart-breaking moments of the opera that much more compelling, as Angelotti looks up at his friend from the floor of the chapel.

Julie Makerov calls to her beloved Mario from offstage, and then appears.  I’ve often rolled my eyes at the various diva antics of Toscas playing up the high-maintenance aspects of the role.  Makerov underplays, while Jovanovich twitches, obviously mindful of the hidden fugitive he wants to help.  I’ve seen this opera so many times, and usually find myself aching for Tosca to just get out and let Cavaradossi help his friend escape; this time I didn’t mind Tosca’s behaviour at all, because it was just enough.  I have been craving this kind of delicate handling of these characters I know so well.  I found myself loving them more than ever, because they were saved from the hidden melodrama, that nasty tendency some singers have to over-act.

I was especially impressed by Mark Delavan as Baron Scarpia.  Of all the characters in this opera, Scarpia is the one who is most abused by mediocre performances, bellowing singers, and melodramatic approaches.  While Scarpia will behave like a monster in due course, I have no love for productions that hit us over the head with his excesses, insulting our intelligence.  Curran & Delavan gave us something quite different.  For most of his Act I appearance Scarpia functions simply as a terrifying policeman bent on catching a fugitive.  Only in the Te Deum do we see him begin to show his true colours, thinking of Tosca, and just before her exit, there was a tantalizing moment when their eyes met.  How wonderful that Curran & Delavan make Scarpia more than just a villain.  And for much of Act II as well, Delavan’s body language is very effective, calmly taking the stage but mostly standing his ground and waiting for Tosca to come towards him, rather than merely pushing himself upon her.  When he finally gets what he wants –Tosca’s declarations of hatred—Delavan changes his approach and begins to stalk her physically, but even then it’s wonderfully underplayed compared to what I’ve seen.

I’m looking forward to seeing whether the cast that opened the production (starring Adrianne Pieczonka and Carlo Ventre) bring a similar degree of dramatic conviction as the cast I saw tonight.  The production, co-produced with the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, with sets and costumes designed by Kevin Knight, has a handsome and authentic period feel to it.  Of all the operas ever written Tosca might have the greatest claim on a kind of historic verisimilitude, considering that the scenes all are set in real historically verifiable locales, complete with the actual bells one might hear on a morning in Rome (at the opening of Act III).  One overlays or ignores the text at one’s peril, and thankfully neither Knight nor Curran departed very far.

Paolo Carignani, conducting the COC orchestra and chorus led the piece at a good clip for most of the evening, never sinking into excessive sentimentality, and often presenting Puccini’s sonorities to us with the violence of a sucker-punch; I am sure he would have approved.

Tosca presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre runs until February 25th.  See it if you can.

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