Dallas — The opening night performance of Puccini’s Tosca by The Dallas Opera the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera house was an odd combination of the ordinary, the exceptional, and the surprising. Overall, it was a most satisfying performance of one of the most popular operas in the repertoire and well worth seeing by fans of the score as well as first-time operagoers. There were some of both at the simulcast at Klyde Warren Park, which attracted a massive and exuberant crowd.
One of the challenges of staging Tosca is that it set in actual buildings and locations in Rome. For example, the first act takes place inside the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, which is located on the Piazza Vidoni. The Franco Zeffirelli production for the Metropolitan Opera famously recreated all of the buildings where Tosca takes place in astounding detail. (Its retirement caused a firestorm when it replaced by a stark modernist new one.) Director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer makes her Dallas Opera debut with this staging.
Rather than go into such realistic lengths, TDO resurrected Ulisse Santicchi’s sets and costumes that, while not completely realistic à la Zefferelli, conveys the feeling of the buildings. The act one set does a good job of creating a Rococo church without doing so literally. Act two gives the villainous Scarpia some fancy digs and act three features what appears to be a courtyard off of the prison cell area. There is a high wall at the back of the stage, required for Tosca’s ultimate demise, with some strangely placed Escher-like staircases.
As far as singers go, this is a memorable cast. The strong cast has big voices that are perfectly suited to verismo Italianate opera. Everyone’s high notes are secure and right in the mask so that they all fill the Winspear with vocal excitement. The net result of a cast with similar vocal production is a serendipitous uniformity of sound and matched size of voice, even in the smaller roles.
In the role that dominates the opera, soprano Emily Magee uses her Wagnerian sized voice to make a close approximation of an Italian sound. (Other than Tosca, she is best known for the Wagner and Strauss roles.) Dramatically, she started out slowly, going through the motions, but improved as the opera progressed. The entire act two interaction with the despicable Scarpia sizzled with resentment and fury.
The young and handsome tenor Giancarlo Monsalve portrayed her lover Mario Caveradossi with virility and rash spontaneity. This made him believable as a man who would attract the glances of other women, giving the volatile Tosca some reason for her jealous behavior. It also gave veracity to his impulsive and personally dangerous outbursts while Scarpia tries to extract some information by the use of torture. Vocally, he took a while to warm up, but he soon proved to be an equal match to Magee’s vocal fireworks.
As the villainous government functionary and sexual predator Scarpia, Raymond Aceto displayed a rich and sonorous baritone of a size to easily match the other singers. His acting in the role is more internal than the usual serpentine portrayal that radiates a constant stream of evil. Here, Scarpia is more like a petty governor whose method of holding onto absolute power is cruelty and intimidation. But his fatal weakness, and eventual downfall, is a fascination with the great diva Tosca that has turned to the uncontrollable lust of a stalker. Trying to hide his descent into madness as act two progresses, Aceto’s stiff politeness is terrifying to behold.
As already mentioned, all of the cast members have big voices but they also bring a believable stage presence and a reasonable physical resemblance of characters they portray on stage. This extends to the secondary roles as well. As the escaped prisoner and rebel leader Angelotti, the bass-baritone voice of Ryan Kuster is different from the others on the stage during his brief act one, offering good sonic contrast. William Ferguson makes an oily Spoletta while Wes Mason’s Sciarroni is suitably subservient. The Shepherd Boy, more usually sung offstage, gave Campbell S. Collins III a chance to show off a clear soprano and Christopher Harrison made a kindly jailor.
Tosca also gives us a look at The Dallas Opera’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, conducting a verismo Italian score instead of Mozart or his specialty, French opera. The results were unexpected.
First of all, his height put him in plain view of the audience from the waist up: conductors are more frequently just a bobbing head. This meant that we could see everything he did during a presumably under-rehearsed performance to get things back on track when they went awry.
Here is an educated guess: Understandably, the world premiere of Great Scott, which is difficult to play and unusually long, had to take more of the precious orchestral rehearsal allotment than a well known and oft-played score like Tosca (Patrick Summers conducts Great Scott, but they share the same orchestra). However, Puccini’s style is based on constant rubato, give and take within almost every measure. All this loosening of the measure’s boundaries throughout the score cannot be left to the inspiration of the moment. These things must be decided well ahead of time between the conductor and the singer. After that, all these decisions have to be communicated to the orchestra in rehearsal so that they can mark their parts to better anticipate what will happen.
As a result of (presumably) shortcutting this process, on opening night Villaume had troubles in establishing the frequent tempi changes, which are always in flux anyway, and was frequently behind or ahead of the stage. Sometimes this was barely noticeable but other times it was more significant. Thankfully a fine conductor with lots of opera experience, such as Villaume, is always able to rectify such situations quickly. But the stress of the situation was obvious from an increase in the size and intensity of his already expansive conducting technique.
The other result of what is assumed to be inadequate rehearsal was that the orchestra was often too loud. Every one of the exceptionally big voices on the stage was covered at one time or another.
Not to worry. All of this will surely be repaired in subsequent performances.
TDO’s Tosca is a straightforward, excellently sung and dramatic production. Director Schlaefer makes no attempt to comment on the characters by adding in extraneous distractions to show how clever she can be with a classic. This is Tosca the way Puccini intended: beautifully sung and believably acted against a functional, but not distracting, set. For those who want to try going to a opera but are hesitant, this is a good one for first-timers. And don’t worry about not understanding the language. The English translation projected above the stage allows you to understand every word of the Italian text.