Lyric Opera Chicago: “Tosca”

Chicago, Lyric Opera – 2014/2015 Season
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca (1887)
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Mario Cavaradossi BRIAN JAGDE
Orchestra & Chorus Lyric Opera
Conductor Dmitri Jurowski
Director John Caird
Set and Costume Designer Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer Duane Shuler
Chicago, February 5, 2015
Today’s regie directors are typically confounded by works like Puccini’s Tosca. Set in an exact time and place (1800, Rome), the opera’s specificity of locale does not lend itself to radical revisionism or reinterpretation. However, the work has both existential and archetypal dimensions which, given the right expression, could transcend matters of literal representation. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current venture, a co-production with Houston Grand Opera, manages to be neither fish nor fowl, eschewing the standard period trappings but not supplying anything of illuminating value.   Featuring a unit set designed by Bunny Christie, the visual picture is an unremittingly drab and claustrophobic interior, resembling a bombed or decaying warehouse. Mario Cavaradossi is hard at work on restoring what appears to be a damaged fresco rather than a portrait of the Madonna. Scarpia’s apartment is a storage area of random, possibly stolen works of art, emphasizing his reputation as a collector of beautiful objects, including “The Rape of the Sabine Wome”n and “The dying gladiator both with interesting resonances to the dramatic situation unfolding at the Palazzo Farnese. Cavaradossi is one of many prisoners at the Castel Sant’Angelo, here a Fidelio-like prison yard with a restricted view of the starry night. Everything was rendered in unrelenting shades of black, white and gray, monotonous to the eye and lacking any accent of color. The costuming was particularly egregious: no soprano portraying a glamorous prima donna should ever be saddled with costumes of such drab austerity (and why a bustle gown for Tosca’s appearance in the Act Two cantata, when the production’s primary visual references are those of the 20th century?). John Caird’s staging is similarly blank and lacking in inspiration. His principal dramatic motif is the inclusion of a girl (Annie Wagner), representing the youthful and innocent Tosca, who we know from Sardou’s original play began life as an orphaned shepherdess (indeed, the girl is assigned the shepherd’s solo in the final act). She appears at crucial moments in the drama as a sort of internalized psychological object for the adult Tosca, reminding her of whom and what she represents as an artist and spiritual being. It’s an interesting idea but not established with any coherency or elaborated in a way that illuminates something about the character or opera. Even worse, seemingly indestructible moments, like Tosca espying the knife or laying out the candles and crucifix, are here rendered impotent by poor timing and unmusical synchrony. In a final act of ineptness, the heroine is directed to stab herself in the neck, lurch about during the final measures and then fall through the hole in the wall on the final chord (but to what end? Is it to spare herself the pain of impact?   Is it to atone for murder by using the same method of destruction?) Puccini’s guaranteed frisson is diluted by uninspired Grand Guignol. As Tosca, Tatiana Serjan gave a creditable, artistic portrayal. She has the temperament for the part and brought a keen, detailed theatrical sensibility to every scene. The Russian soprano’s voice was more problematic: ruby colored and richly textured in the lower register, it became constricted the higher it went, the tone unruly and with a certain edge. Climaxes were lacking in the requisite power and the high B-flat at the end of the opera was a tired scream. Still, she summoned the needed poise for an eloquent “Vissi d’arte” and displayed a remarkably firm sense of line during “Ed io venivo a lui” earlier in the opera. Serjan gave the performance much needed gravitas, as her colleagues ranged from merely competent to appalling.
Brian Jagde was a late replacement for Misha Didyk as Mario Cavaradossi, who withdrew from the production for “personal reasons.” The tenor possesses a beefy, burly sound but there was no seduction in either voice or presence. His phrasing and Italian diction remained steadfastly pedestrian throughout the afternoon. Similarly, his characterization was more frat boy than dashing revolutionary. At least he achieved a certain level of competency, which is more than can be said of Evgeny Nikitin as Scarpia, who delivered one of the worst performances by a lead singer at Lyric Opera in memory.  In a normally fool-proof role, Nikitin managed to drone on and on like a slowly expiring foghorn—and not a particularly sonorous or imposing one at that. His instrument is a non-event, lacking depth, presence, range and security. There was no sense of “accento” in his use of the text, every word and phrase delivered with the same deadening dullness. Neither did he compensate with any electric physicality or penetrating dramatic ideas. Nikitin was a cipher, a dramatic hole in the proceedings and the performance suffered immeasurably because of him. A spectacularly awful showing in a part once owned here by the legendary Tito Gobbi.  Dale Travis managed to be both comic and sinister as the arch-conservative Sacristan, while Rodell Rosel as Spoletta exuded an oily menace that made his performance more arresting than that of his master. Bradley Smoak’s Sciarrone lurked ominously as needed while Richard Ollarsaba crafted a particularly compelling portrait of Angelotti, here so traumatized by his imprisonment that he cannot find the energy to flee the chapel without Cavaradossi’s accompaniment. Dmitri Jurowski was curiously schizophrenic on the podium. In lyric passages, the orchestral playing bloomed under his baton but the more vigorous, climactic moments were totally lacking in power, majesty and force. Nevertheless, many of the instrumental sections shined on this occasion, especially the cello quartet preceding “E lucevan le stelle” and the breathtaking clarinet playing in the same aria.   In summary, this is a strangely fragmented performance of TOSCA, featuring a leading lady of some merit and ability, but largely undone by weak casting and a wishy-washy production, which offers neither innovational insight nor traditional virtues. Photo Todd Rosenberg