San Francisco Opera:”Tosca”

San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House, Season 2012
Opera in three acts, libretto  by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Based on the drama La Tosca by Victorien Sardou
Music Giacomo Puccini
Sciarrone AO LI
San Francisco Orchestra and Chorus
Conductor Nicola Luisotti
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Director Jose Maria Condemi
Set and Costume Design (based on the Company’s original 1932 production designed by Armando Agnini) Thierry Bosquet
Lighting Designer Christopher Maravich
15, 24th november 2012

San Francisco Opera concluded its Fall 2012 season lineup with a Tosca that went a bit over the top, pun fully intended. As a marketing ploy, the company pitched the leading ladies of the production’s two alternating casts, Angela Gheorghiu and Patrica Racette, as “Dueling Divas.” And who could possibly pass up a duel, especially one between two divas no less? I for one was curious to find out who would make for a better Tosca, and so I went to see both casts on two separate evenings.
Days before opening night, the opera house was abuzz. During the rehearsal period, I heard from several sources who were involved in the production that Gheorghiu was a nightmare to work with. She refused to follow the stage direction, ignored the conductor, and was frustrating all of her colleagues. The show, apparently, was supposed to revolve around her. With this type of diva behavior, one would expect a performance that would rival Callas’. However, on the evening of the premiere, not only did Ms. Gheorghiu fail to impress me with her singing, she couldn’t even make it to the end.
In an interview with Blomberg News, Gheorghiu said, “I believe in cameras and microphones, and I believe in everything recorded, because this is the only way to leave a testimony.”  As it turns out, this is also the only way for one to hear the inaudible diva – through the amplification of recording. Sitting in the Orchestra section, her voice sounded quiet and weak. Gheorghiu played a coquette Tosca, but one that was devoid of passion. Her performance was sterile like a controlled laboratory experiment. Her every move appeared rehearsed, each premeditated and meticulously calculated to maximize her attractiveness on stage as though she was voguing for a series of poses for the paparazzi. I wasn’t sure if I was at the opera or a photo shoot. Nothing about her performance was spontaneous. Her character never develops and does not gain any additional layers of complexity. Even when Scarpia suggested that her dear Mario had run off with another woman, her despair seemed inauthentic.
After the first intermission, a very nervous David Gockley stepped on stage to announce that Ms. Gheorghiu had become indisposed with a severe case of intestinal flu and begged for our indulgence. The audience was asked to wait another fifteen to twenty minutes as Gheorghiu’s cover, Melody Moore, got into costume. Now, had this been anyone other soprano, the audience would have been much more sympathetic. But because this was the notorious Angela Gheorghiu, known for her diva antics and unprofessional conducts which has already gotten her fired from Coven Garden, the Met, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, eyebrows were raised and the audience members whispered speculations amongst themselves in between eye rolls and sneers. Luckily Ms. Moore stepped into the role gracefully and sang the rest of the performance with the fire and power that Gheorghiu lacked.
Patricia “Pat” Racette, who performed on the evening November 24th, is the polar opposite of Gheorghiu both on and offstage. She has a pristine reputation in the industry and opera companies keep inviting her back to sing because she is a wonderful team player who is professional and kind to others. Racette’s Tosca was exactly what I have always imagined the role to be when performed correctly: a complex blend of ferocity, insecurity, piety, and playfulness. Unlike Gheorghiu, Racette allows herself to be manipulated by the music, surrendering to it, letting it take her where it will. She is not afraid to explore the uglier facets of Floria Tosca’s character (the jealousy, neuroses, and insecurity) and she’s also not afraid to grimace her face in agony or horror.  As a result, Racette’s vulnerable Tosca is a sympathetic one who wins her way into the hearts of the audience.
The breakthrough performance of the season award belongs to tenor, Brian Jadge, who blew me away as Cavaradossi. He positively owned the role and the chemistry between him and Racette was undeniable. When I first saw this SF Opera Adler Fellow on stage back in 2009 as a member of the Merola Program, he was awkward, nasally, and not particularly pleasant to listen to. But, wow, what a difference a few years make! Now, as the leading man, Jadge exudes confidence in every note he sings (and nails them all). His large, brilliant voice fills the opera house and he approaches his high notes in such a way that you never have to worry if he’ll hit them – they all sound effortless. It’s as though he can sing this role in his sleep.  Italian tenor, Massimo Giordano, was somewhat underwhelming. While I did not find his performance offensive in any way, it was unremarkable. For someone who’s supposed to be “one of the world’s leading tenors” as stated on his website, I expected more from his performance. In fact, I much preferred Jadge’s singing and acting over Giordano’s.
The weakest link in the second cast was Mark Delavan, who was a dud as Scarpia. In my opinion, what makes a truly exciting Scarpia is the character’s pure wickedness. Like Iago, who the baron admires and references, Scarpia is a true villain (as opposed to a sympathetic villain) who is evil for the sake of being evil. Delavan, who played a very sympathetic Woltan in SF Opera’s 2011 Ring Cycle, was almost too likable as Scarpia. A little clumsy and too good-natured for this role, Delavan’s Scarpia did not relish enough in his tormenting of poor Tosca and her lover. As a result, he made for a ineffective and somewhat boring antagonist. His character did not inspire far or trepidation. Roberto Frontali, on the other hand, displayed much more Schadenfreude in his portrayal. You can hear the treachery and ruthlessness in his voice.
Despite his small role as Angelotti, Christian Van Horn‘s deep, robust voice was impressive and made my ears perk up from his first notes. Joel Sorensen was a comical Spoletta, and Dale Travis did a fine job as Sacristan. The very traditional production was a revival that lacked imagination. I’m disappointed that Director Jose Maria Condemi did not use the opportunity to inject something new or thought provoking, but instead gave us the average run-of-the-mill stage direction. Nicola Luisotti definitely evoked some lovely moments from the orchestra, but as with most of his performances, there were moments of erratic tempi and overwhelming swells. At times it seems as though he was so lost in the music that he forgot there were singers on stage who are trying to make themselves heard over the orchestra. Photo by Cory Weaver

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