By JOHN DeMERS
Tosca is the middle child of Puccini’s Big Three, surrounded in his timeline by fellow immortals La Boheme and Madame Butterfly. Each, in its own way, shows a perfection of form and function that the Italian composer never achieved again. And each is now a stage property replete with traditions – you know, the kind of “tired” old ideas that younger, hipper directors can’t wait to put out with the trash. Some times, as with a Houston Grand Opera Boheme of some years back, a bit of that attitude lets us see our old friends as though for the first time – and what an immense pleasure that can be. Other times, as with the current HGO production of Tosca, we barely get to see our old friend at all.
Let me say, right at the start, that this opera is almost always magnificently sung by its own Big Three: Alexey Dolgov as Mario, Patricia Racette as Tosca and Raymond Aceto as the evil Baron Scarpia, all working well with conductor Patrick Summers and his orchestra. Dolgov acquits himself best, gunning with flair through this tenor’s night out, between the deliciously bookended arias Recondita armonia in Act I and E lucevan le stelle in Act III. With the exception of her most famous number, Act II’S Vissi d’arte, Racette is terrific. Her first-act jealous coquette in the church is delightful. And I’m convinced that even Vissi d’arte would have worked had not, well, everything around it been utterly wrong.
This Act II, you see, is a Tosca lover’s nightmare. Set by all logic in Scarpia’s luxurious apartment in Rome’s Farnese Palace, this version inexplicably drops the action into a crumbling concrete warehouse that might be a badly kept union hall in Detroit, or perhaps a warehouse in New Jersey where low-level mobsters keep stolen TVs. To make matters worse, the creative team led by director John Caird dresses Scarpia and his henchmen not in the frilly-frightening attire of Napoleon’s time (when the story says more than once it’s taking place) but in more modern, tailored dark suits, as though they’re reaching for Mussolini’s version of evil, minus the fascist uniforms and without informing the rest of the cast.
Aceto does his best in the wrong set and the wrong costume, rising from Dick Tracy-style comic-book villain as much as his murky bass will allow. Following this line of non-thinking, the people in charge even refuse to let him throw Tosca to the ground before her big aria, thus depriving her of the one traditional thing that might set up her arguably ridiculous (if lovely) introspection. Without the visual aid, Racette sings the number straight through, without the many subtle changes in tone and volume that make it an opera showpiece. It might as well be a catchy tune from Guys and Dolls.
By the time we reach Act III, traditionally set on the postcard-familiar rooftop of Castel Sant’Angelo, I’ve pretty much given up on any of this Roman holiday making sense. And it doesn’t, still apparently stuck in that Act II warehouse except with all the crated televisions removed. Between the body hanging by a noose through almost the entire act and the strange young girl who keeps turning up for no reason (becoming the “shepherd boy” usually heard from offstage), there is simply too much clutter for the drama to cut through. There’s a reason for spotlights in theater, and this Tosca might have done well to ponder that.
When, in the opera’s final moments, we wait for Tosca to fling herself from the castello into the Tiber far below (as every guided tour of Rome says she does), the director comes up with one more cruel trick. Let’s see now: for drama, should our Tosca leap defiantly from the heights of an ancient castle, cursing Scarpia all the way down – or slit her throat and fall out a window like a drunk conventioneer? I’ll take that under advisement. Somebody at HGO certainly should have.
Photos by Felix Sanchez; (above) Mario and Tosca flirt with art in the church; (below) the couple later, in less happy times.