Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca opened the opera season (as opposed to the recital season) in San Diego Saturday night, February 13, 2016, one of the two Puccini operas in the three-opera season, the other being Madama Butterfly, undoubtedly scheduled at a time the Company felt the need to sell tickets or die. Here are my thoughts:
Production. The production, which originated with the New York City Opera, was entirely traditional, a good thing in my book since this opera is set on a specific date in the history of Rome during the Napoleonic Wars. Other productions, which are anachronistically set, let’s say, in the time of Mussolini, grate on me when they conflict with references to the Battle of Marengo. Updating the events to make them seem more “relevant” only insults the intelligence of the audience, who are perceptive enough to relate to love, the desire for freedom, and the evil of cruel tyranny, both political and sexual, in any era.
The Performance. The three main roles were all well sung. Greek soprano, Alexia Voulgaridou’s voice was a bit light for her to be an ideal Tosca, but she employed it well and was a competent actor. I found myself moved by her “Vissi d’arte.” Welsh tenor, Gwyn Hughes Jones, as Cavaradossi, revealed a large, high lying, lyric tenor, possessing some beauty, but with just a hint of nasality. He was a bit wooden on stage, particularly in the First Act, but his Third Act “E lucevan le stelle,” although not sounding quite “disperato” enough, was quite beautiful. (I feel sorry for the tenor in this role because his two short, but beautiful arias allow no pause for applause.) Stentorian bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, as Scarpia, dominated every scene he was in, from his entrance late in the First Act, to his sadistic joy in torturing Caravadossi and oily attempts at seduction in the Second Act. (But is there a slight wobble creeping into his voice that I had not noticed before?). In the small roles, bass-baritone’s Kristopher Irmiter’s Angelotti (he also sang Sciarrone) stood out. Perhaps, Mr. Irmiter should be considered for some bigger parts in the future. Bridget Hogan sang beautifully as the Shepherd Boy, but sounded like a female soprano, not a boy. (Maybe that is just the way it has to be.)
Lesley Koenig provided at least one unusual directorial touch in this otherwise traditional production, namely having Cavaradossi survive the firing squad for a couple of minutes after he is shot, making Tosca’s instructions to him seem more realistic.
My Reaction. The production largely did not catch fire for me, particularly the First Act, until the “Te Deum,” that is. (The chorus, as always, was excellent). Tosca is a bigger-than-life melodrama, but everything seemed a bit subdued, with the exception of Grimsley’s Second Act performance. There was little excitement, little forward thrust. Maybe it was Massimo Zanetti’s conducting, but perhaps I have seen one-too-many Toscas or was just having a bad night. Of course, any deficiencies may be due to first night jitters and things may get better in later performances. For dates and times of those performances, see www.sdopera.com.