By Mitchell Hadley
One’s reactions to last month’s run of Tosca by the Lyric Opera of Chicago will depend in great part on how you feel about opera in general, and this opera in particular. If you’re of the opinion that opera is stuck in the hidebound past, and that Tosca is little more than a piece of hoary melodrama that needed Luc Bondy’s recent innovations, then you probably wouldn’t much care for this production. If, on the other hand, Franco Zeffirelli's mammoth, opulent setting fits your definition of grand opera, then you were in luck. Count me in the latter camp.
The Lyric purchased Zeffirelli's staging a few years ago from London’s Covent Garden (for whom it had originally been designed) as a 50th anniversary present to itself, and if the sets were starting to show their age a bit, it was still wonderful to see what has become an all-too infrequent occurrence nowadays - the idea of opera as theater. And not minimalist, abstract theater either, but theater as spectacle - grand opera, in other words. While some complain that singers are dwarfed by the mammoth scale of Zeffirelli's sets, I have no sympathy for anyone who fails to be spellbound by the Act 1 finale, the Te Deum sung inside Zeff's massive recreation of the Basilica Sant'Andrea della Valle, jam-packed with altar boys, priests, a bishop vested in mitre and flowing cape, incense billowing about, parishioners kneeling before life-size statues - and yet, in the midst of a stage crammed with people, the lone figure of Scarpia singing of how Tosca makes him forget God, dominates the scene. The set overwhelming the singers? Nonsense.
Many were surprised by the casting of Deborah Voigt and James Morris, better known for heavy Wagnerian opera, as the two leads. However, Voigt portrayed the diva in a concert version of Tosca at the Minnesota Orchestra a couple of years ago, and if it is true that she didn’t bring back the echoes of Callas with her performance, neither was she any less suited for the role than, say, Karita Mattila in the Met’s production.
The Lyric’s rich history with Tosca stretches all the way back to the company’s beginning, with the famed Tito Gobbi, who played Scarpia to Callas’ Tosca in so many great performances. Gobbi was something of a godfather to the newly formed Lyric back in the 50s, appearing as Scarpia in several of those early productions. Perhaps Morris wasn’t quite in that class, but the man who’s become famous as the great Wotan of our time has actually essayed the villainous Baron more times at the Met than he’s played Wagner’s one-eyed anti-hero, making him well aware of the complexities of this deceptive character, who relies on charm in order to wrap his tentacles of corruption through and around his victims. Whereas Bondy was content to portray the police chief as little more than a cheap thug, Zeffirelli (and by extention Morris) understood that, as with the Devil, it is the smooth exterior and unctuous manner that make evil truly chilling. To be able to say that you once saw Morris playing Scarpia is to say a lot.
The real show-stopper is, of course, the showdown between Tosca and Scarpia which closes Act Two (as well as bringing down the curtain on Scarpia himself). It's a scene of immense drama, with Scarpia at his most sinister and Tosca at her most vulnerable. With Puccini's magnificent score as backdrop, it really is possible to imagine this as true drama, the only difference being that the actors are singing rather than speaking their lines. From Tosca's celebrated aria
“Vissi d’arte,” to her sense of utter despair as Scarpia writes her safe-conduct pass, to her sudden and startling discovery of the knife on the table, to Scarpia's smug sense of victory turning stunningly into tragedy, and Tosca's final, frantic escape from the death room - this scene has it all. Were Voigt and Morris up to the task? Absolutely. And for you Bondy fans out there, the candles do make a difference.
As for the third member of this little triangle, Vladimir Galouzine, who plays Tosca's doomed lover Cavaradossi, more than held his own. It's a role for big tenors, from Pavarotti (literally) to Domingo to Corelli and more, but when you've got such famed names at the top of the bill there may be a temptation to make Cavaradossi an afterthought. However, Galouzine wouldn't allow that, particularly in his big first and third act arias, and his performance completes the character's transformation from a doomed man facing execution to a man suddenly filled with hope - only to have it dashed at the end.
But the real star, as is always the case, was Puccini’s magnificent music, and the Lyric's music director, Sir Andrew Davis, brought his orchestra home in style under what could only be described as unique circumstances - the musicians, playing without a contract, actually held an informational picket outside the theater prior to opening night, and the threat of a walkout was present throughout the initial performances.
No fear on this score or any other, for that matter. This was Tosca as it was meant to be, with all the drama, power and lyricism that involves. The Lyric was a winner, Franco Zeffirelli's staging was a winner, and perhaps Puccini himself was the biggest winner of all - after all, if the master could survive a debacle such as that in New York, think how glorious it is when he's given the respect he truly deserves.