Sunday, June 21, 2009

Trompe L'Oeil "Tosca"

I saw Tosca at San Francisco Opera over a week ago, but I haven't written about it yet mainly because it did not affect me that deeply--and because I can't figure out why it left me so unmoved, I wasn't sure what to say about it. Yet I wanted it to touch me--the way it did Harvey Milk in the last scenes of Milk!

It was a very traditional staging, but since thousands of people have been moved by traditional productions of Tosca over the last century, I can't pin the blame on that. All right, the scenery, which mostly consisted of trompe l'oeil painted flats, was rather too old-fashioned for my taste. If an opera house cannot afford to construct or store full sets for an opera like Tosca, I would prefer some tastefully minimalist scenery to these huge walls of trompe l'oeil--and I think many operagoers my age would agree with me. As for the direction, I thought Tosca's leap could have been more impressive, but I really liked the moment in Act I when Scarpia's minions arrived on the scene. Somehow, they managed to slide onstage silently and appear among the crowd of priests and altar boys before you realized how they'd arrived there--it was really scary!

The cast was not as starry as the one Harvey Milk saw in 1978, but Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca), Carlo Ventre (Cavaradossi), and Lado Ataneli (Scarpia) were all suited to their roles. I can see how Tosca could be played as an imperious diva, but Pieczonka stressed her neurotic, insecure side; she really seemed vulnerable when Scarpia made her believe that Cavaradossi was cheating on her. This interpretation--with its emphasis on a weakness or sickness in Tosca's soul--also made you understand why she cracks under Scarpia's pressure in Act II, something that a more domineering Tosca might have trouble conveying. Ventre was an appropriately passionate painter, especially when using the last ounces of his strength to shout out a ringing "Vittoria!" in Act II. Ataneli was not a physically overpowering Scarpia, but he was very sly and slimy. He was also quite charming at the curtain call: his eyes twinkled, the embroidery on his coat twinkled, and he smiled as if to say "See? I'm not really a nasty bastard!"

This was my first time seeing Tosca, and though it's known for its melodrama, I was surprised how much humor is in it--the Sacristan's comments that undercut the romanticism of "Recondita armonia," Tosca's crazy jealousy, and her later efforts to teach Cavaradossi how to "play dead." I also thought about how amazingly fast-paced the story is--Tosca begins her day as a rather self-absorbed artist, and ends it as a murderess, a revolutionary, a martyr. And I noticed the themes of art, life, theatricality and ritual that run though the opera. The hero and heroine are artists, and Scarpia manipulates everyone around him, like a particularly evil playwright or stage manager. The Te Deum mass is an elaborate pageant, and after Tosca kills Scarpia, she arranges the body in a ritualistic fashion. The big arias all deal with the themes of art and life. (Indeed, in a more "conceptual" production, the use of blatantly artificial, painted scenery could reinforce these themes. But somehow I don't think that this was the case here.)

But these are all intellectual responses. And I wanted to have an emotional response.

Photos from San Francisco Opera. Top: Act One. The trompe l'oeil nature of the scenery was much more evident in the opera house than it is in this photo.
Bottom: Pieczonka and Ataneli, Act Two.

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