A Well Sung Tosca, Unmoored from History

United StatesUnited States Puccini, Tosca: LA Opera, Placido Domingo (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 18.5.2013-8.6.2013 (JRo)

Sonya Radvanovsky as Tosca, Marco Berti as Cavaradossi Photo Robert Millard

Opera is the exquisite melding of art forms: music, drama, and visual art. The ultimate success of an opera production lies in the perfect balance of all three. On Wednesday evening, June 5, mid-run through LA Opera’s “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini, the music was a success, the drama and staging less so.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca, the tragic heroine whose fatal flaw, her jealousy, sets the drama on its turbulent course, has a powerful soprano that can fill two opera houses. On Wednesday, it was announced that she was suffering from a head cold but would perform with our indulgence. No indulgence necessary – she certainly filled one house, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with a luscious sound. Her acting skills, however, seemed in short supply in the first act, mostly due to the utter lack of chemistry with her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, sung by the tenor, Marco Berti.

Tosca is a complex character: on the one hand she’s an innocent, demonstrated by her childlike faith that her God will turn a blind eye to her “sins” and will protect her from all manner of trouble; on the other, she’s a passionate woman – willing to sacrifice all for her great love. It’s a role that requires a versatile performer moving from flirtatious child in Act One to a character of heroic proportions in Acts Two and Three. Subtlety was lacking in Radvanovsky’s rendering on Wednesday, but it was not wholly her fault. As Cavaradossi, Berti was wooden, seemingly indifferent to Tosca instead of succumbing to the charms of his beloved. Every embrace was a brotherly hug: he seemed afraid of catching Radvanovsky’s cold. As for his singing, his voice, a pleasing tenor, was uninspired in the first act but gained in vigor and expressiveness in Act Three, particularly in his aria, “E lucevan le stele.” (“And the stars were shining”)

The Act One proceedings improved with the entrance of Lado Ataneli as Scarpia. He looked the part of the handsome tyrant, though the director, John Caird, should have devised a way of emphasizing his imperiousness without resorting to the cliché of waving a walking stick at everyone. With his warm baritone, Ataneli somewhat overcame the limitations of the staging, but one wished for darker shadings to convey Scarpia’s sadistic nature.

In this tragic tale of love and death, based on Victorien Sardou’s play, “La Tosca,” and set during Napoleon’s incursions into Italy, all three main characters die by the opera’s end – none of them having achieved their hearts’ desires. And the overarching absurdity, the fact that Napoleon, too, died without achieving his youthful dream of a reformed and united Europe, colors the narrative. Unfortunately, Napoleon’s presence was jettisoned from this staging, leaving us in some vague time period, somewhere between the late nineteenth and mid twentieth century.

Tosca is an opera whose setting is site specific, every building from the flamboyant church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, to the Farnese Palace, to the Castel Sant’ Angelo still stands in Rome today. Puccini and his librettists, Giuseppe Ciacosa and Luigi Illica, were not only telling a romantic love story, but were also dealing with potent historical events in a naturalistic way. Too ignore these in the staging undermines the characters who are swept away by very real incidents. So instead of a church fresco painted by Cavaradossi, we have a visually striking, but unintelligible and massive broken face, which looks more like a painting by pop artist, James Rosenquist. Instead of Scarpia’s sumptuous headquarters in the Palazzo, we have a gloomy warehouse of crated treasures, which makes us wonder why the acting leader of Rome is reduced to running the city from a basement and why the treasures are hidden away. Instead of the parapets of the Castel Sant’ Angelo, we have an industrial, rectangle, an interior space of unspecified locale – all this, as designed by Bunny Christie, distracting us from the drama.

And to add yet one more distraction, a ghostly child in white roams the stage – is she Tosca’s imaginary inner voice, a misplaced character from Britten’s “Turn of the Screw,” or the Ghost of Christmas Past? I’m not a die-hard traditionalist – I understood the clever logic of the Met’s recent production of Rigoletto set in 1950’s Las Vegas, for example, but I found myself yearning for nineteenth century Rome in all its Renaissance and Baroque glory.

One other grave problem: Radvanovsky sang Tosca’s famous Act II aria, “Vissi d’arte,” to beautiful effect, then, in due course stabbed Scarpia and sang, “Now I forgive you.” Titters of laughter broke out in the audience – incomprehensible after what should be a heart-wrenching moment. After all, Tosca has defied her God and the ruling powers of her country to protect the man she loves – not a laughing matter. In fact, in this moment, she recognized that her childlike belief in divine intervention was an illusion. I can only assume the laughter was created by a directorial problem – Caird’s occasional attempts at comic relief in Act One that seemed to backfire in Act Two.

From the pit, Maestro Domingo, conducted the excellent musicians of the LA Opera orchestra. He delivered a lush and colored sound. No one, in my lifetime, seemed to embody Cavaradossi more than Placido Domingo. As a conductor, he offered the soloists his deep knowledge of the opera and room to move vocally through the score, but at times I felt the singers were driving the music forward, rather than the orchestra.

Of note, with his distinctive bass and skillful acting, Joshua Bloom was thoroughly believable as the escaped political prisoner, Angelotti. And in the role of the Sacristan, Philip Cokorinos gave a credible interpretation. One more performance on June 8 remains: the glorious music that is Puccini’s “Tosca,” as sung by this cast and the excellent chorus of the LA Opera, is well worth the visit. Leave your history books behind.

Jane Rosenberg