Puccini’s “Tosca” in Costa Mesa

Review by David Gregson: 11/16/05

In the words of the famous song from Gypsy, "You gotta have a gimmick." It’s an effective creed for strippers, and it works well for some set designers as well. I recall that Jean-Pierre Ponnelle once designed sets for a Tosca in which the perspective was continually from behind the scenes, so to speak. In the Act One set for the church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, we viewed the action from behind the main altar — and we could see that architecturally all that glittered was not real marble: just a bunch of painted wood. (A comment on what? The shallowness of religion? The stagey melodrama of Tosca itself? Who knows?) And when Act Three rolled around, we saw the back of the great winged figure guarding the summit of the Castel Sant’ Angelo. It, too, was revealed as nothing but a phony prop, held up by plain two-by-fours.

I cannot recall what the gimmick was for Act Two, Scarpia’s inner sanctum in the Farnese Palace — but I do recall that Ponnelle continued to use his reverse perspective idea for a few other operas he directed and designed. His behind-the-actors Pagliacci was especially memorable: we saw all the players’ backstage drama while we were looking out at another audience looking back at us.

The gimmick in Opera Pacific’s new Tosca (in a production borrowed from the Opera Company of Philadelphia) is that Rome is under construction. Everything is in a state of transition: the opera’s romantic hero, Mario Cavaradossi, is painting on a tall, shaky scaffolding in the church; the Farnese Palace is just now getting its elaborate frescos installed; and the giant winged figure on the Castello is just being lifted by a system of cogged wheels and levers. The reasons for all of this? Just ask Gypsy Rose Lee.

Because Opera Pacific still double-casts things, and because I saw the opening night performance only, I cannot speak definitively about the total success of this show — but the one I saw was good. Not brilliant. (All critics await the ultimate Tosca — which may exist only in our minds, or on an old Angel Records set made at La Scala with Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi). But quite good. The soprano may be tall, for all I know, but she looked like a pretty little thing, first in innocent pink, then in diva jungle red. She was one of the more girlish Tosca’s I’ve seen, but she sang with enormous force and acted with conviction. She is a Romanian soprano named Doina Dimitriu. I have not heard of her before, but she’s sung Mimi at La Scala. Tosca may be the most dramatic role on her resumé. Her phrasing of certain passages often struck me as very odd, but in general her voice is pleasant and powerful. It does not display too much of that disagreeable edginess one hears in many sopranos from her part of the world.

Bass baritone Richard Paul Fink made a terrific impression as the treacherous dwarf Alberich in Seattle’s Wagner Ring Cycle this year, and he is no less snarly and imposing as the evil police chief, Baron Scarpia. I’d say he was one of the best Scarpia’s I’ve heard in years — only he did not bring anything to the part but the obvious. There was not much sense of psychological complexity. Maybe he sees nothing more in Scarpia than a stage villain. Anyhow, the sound he made was ample and exciting.

I only save César Hernández for last because, despite some fine singing, he seemed not to hear himself in Segerstrom Hall. His pitch strayed a good deal. Otherwise, there were times when one might have thought it was Domingo up there, even in the way he looked. Perhaps the conductor, Christian Badea, was not communicating with the stage as well as he should. All the singers seemed rushed at times. Badea did take the score at a brisk pace, but I think dawdling and meditation are wrong for this piece as a rule. I always find the lovely Act Three sunrise (with bells and offstage shepherd song) a drag on the action.

The smaller parts were all very well performed, and Garnett Bruce’s stage direction made good sense most of the time. Act Two always seems to pose a problem since Tosca has to communicate with Mario who is being tortured offstage. I’ve seen sopranos sidle up to supposedly marble walls and coo to her lover through the stone. I’ve seen Mario stroll without guards to his execution. Not here, thank goodness. But I do think the dinner table where Tosca finds her knife should be placed downstage so the prima donna can let the audience see what’s she thinking. Here she was miles upstage and you didn’t know what she was up to. I might add the act-one scaffolding was a formidable obstacle for many people seated on the right of Segerstrom Hall.

A stunt-double jumped 18 feet to Tosca’s death at the end. A lovely dive, but I see no program credit for this dedicated acrobat.

CAST:
Doina Dimitriu (11/15, 17, 19) and Victoria Litherland (11/20) as Tosca
César Hernández (11/15, 17, 19) and Kip Wilborn (11/20) as Cavaradossi
Richard Paul Fink as Scarpia (all performances)

Conducted by Christian Badea
Directed by Garnett Bruce
Set Designed by Boyd Ostroff
Production from Opera Company of Philadelphia

Tuesday, November 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, November 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, November 20 at 2:00 p.m.

Theatre: Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center,
600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Tickets: Prices — $27 to $191
Phone – 714-556-ARTS (714-556-2787)
Box office – Orange County Performing Arts Center Box Office,
600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Subscriptions – 1 800 34 OPERA (1-800-346-7372)
Groups – (714) 830-6361
Information – www.operapacific.org

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