“See Tosca! Now play ing at a theater near you!” Such movie-biz hype might have applied recently as Southern Californians enjoyed a choice of two possible productions: one at Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa and another at Los Angeles Opera in downtown LA. The first of these two shows (Opera Pacific) has already been reviewed here at this site – but it was, in act, double-cast, and I was able to attend only one of the performances. The LA offering, probably the superior of the two, features a glittery cast – soprano Violeta Urmana in the title role of the infamously jealous opera diva; tenor Salvatore Licitra as her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi; and veteran basso Samuel Ramey as the lascivious Baron Scarpia, a police chief “before whom all Rome trembled” until he got Tosca’s “kiss” implanted in his midriff. The conductor is Kent Nagano, doing hard work and double-duty because of a concurrently running production of Wagner’s Parsifal.
If there is an afterlife, one form of torment for an opera critic might be to be confronted with all his or her reviews of Tosca. I know they’d surround me like demons. How many times have I seen this opera? Each time, of course, invites comparisons with any number of former experiences — live ones, or ones in some movie, video or sound recording.
I mention this only because – sure, this current LA Tosca is extremely good. But are Urmana, Licitra and Ramey good enough to erase the great casts I’ve stored away in memory? Or ones that I imagine that have never existed? I think this is called “becoming jaded.” So I’ll just say, Licitra does not disappoint with his strong, ringing Italianate (he’s Swiss-born) tenor; Urmana commands the stage with great authority and displays a clear, clean tone (despite rumors to the contrary) from top to bottom; and Ramey is still able to make a terrific vocal impression despite the passage of decades. We get an excellent Angelotti in Hyung Yun, an outstanding Sacristan in Michael Gallup, and a gratifyingly nasty Spoletta in Joseph Frank. Conductor Nagano rushes though everything without stopping to smell the flowers, but maybe he needs to run after creeping through Parsifal.
With sets by John Gunter and stage direction by Ian Judge, this Tosca was last offered during the summer of 2001 with Catherine Malfitano, Richard Leech and Tom Fox. It was also seen before that in the fall of 1996 with Carol Vaness, Richard Leech, and Justíno Díaz. I have traced the same sets as far back as 1989 (perhaps the production’s even older), and I certainly feel it’s time for it to go. While it’s a handsome, representational design (as opposed to avant-garde “Eurtotrash” creation), it has never seemed to fit the stage especially well, and God help you if you are seated too close and are off to the side. The sets for all three acts are like shaped like slices of pie with their tips pointing upstage. If you are too far to the left, you cannot see the wall on the left – nor can you see the performers except when they are downstage. Ditto if you are too far to the right. Both sides of the theater‘s proscenium flanking the pie slices is elaborately masked with darkly illustrated canvases: in short, the production looks as if it were originally designed for a much smaller venue and awkwardly adapted for this one.
Despite these limitations, with the help of some good looking tough-to-name-the-period costumes collected from the company’s costume shop, the director has created some interesting if problematic stage pictures. The first act takes in a sanctuary of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and we can glimpse a mass of people (literally and figuratively) moving in the church nave downstage. Unfortunately, there is no room in the apse for Cavaradossi’s painting equipment, so he’s forced to do his work in the center of the floor. For the famous “Te Deum” scene, the picture has to be removed – and all the folks in the main part of the church have to come forward, a bit incongruously, into the nave in order to form the requisite chorus.
I must say, overcoming all the awkwardness just described, as Scarpia in this ultimately blasphemous scene, Ramey gave a gratifyingly resonant and deliciously sensual performance – and if his voice may be acquiring a wobble these days, you certainly could not have detected it from anything this extremely experienced artist did in the two acts in which he appears. Here’s a man who really knows his business – and he’s so good at doing villains, he’s gotten to the point that he knows just where the recognizably “human” side of such characters lives and breathes. Wonderful.
We meet him again, of course, at curtain rise in Act Two – Scarpia’s residence in the Palazzo Farnese. Gunter’s sets here are marvelously lurid, and lighting designer Maidie Rosengarden makes some wonderful use of shadows in the gloom. The torture chamber is down a passage backstage left, and people come and go through large double doors on the right (for the info of those who could not see these things!), and the whole effect is rather cramped looking. But nothing quite equals the constricted feel of the top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the scene of Mario’s execution and Tosca’s leap into the Tiber River in Act Three. If we are going to have more Tosca revivals in LA, I hope someone junks these sets first.
Urmana’s suicidal leap, by the way, was not as much fun as Malfitano’s last time around. She slammed a door shut on her Scarpia’s henchmen (same for Urmana) and made it to the top of the parapet. Then, for one or two memorable seconds, Malfitano looked as if she wanted to jump down on top of her pursuers – but then she changes her mind and jumps off the side of the building instead. Earlier in Act Two, Malfitano had seemed conflicted about killing Scarpia – but this is eliminated in the Urmana version. I must say, it looks ridiculous for Scarpia (Ramey) to try to top this ample woman in his death throes (in which Ramey actually gasps a final erotic, breathy “TOES-KA!” – not in the libretto.. And for those who care about such things, Urmana speaks the line, “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!”
Saturday November 19, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Sunday November 27, 2005 2:00 p.m.
Thursday December 1, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Sunday December 4, 2005 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday December 7, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Saturday December 10, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Thursday December 15, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Sunday December 18, 2005 2:00 p.m.
Violeta Urmana — TOSCA
Salvatore Licitra — CAVARADOSSI
Samuel Ramey — SCARPIA
Michael Gallup — SACRISTAN
Hyung Yun — ANGELOTTI
Joseph Frank — SPOLETTA
Andrew Wilkowske — SCIARRONE
Jinyoung Jang — A JAILER
Ivy Beech — SHEPHERD’S VOICE
Elizabeth Goodrich — SHEPHERD’S VOICE
Josiah Yiu — SHEPHERD’S VOICE
CONDUCTOR – Kent Nagano
DIRECTOR – Ian Judge
SET DESIGNER – John Gunter
LIGHTING DESIGNER – Maidie Rosengarden
2 hours 40 minutes