Reflections on Tosca

Photo credit: Michael Cooper

The only known photograph from this production as featured in every other print or internet review I've seen.

Puccini’s Tosca is on at the Canadian Opera Company right now. It’s this years “bums on seats” production. There are fourteen performances scheduled; compared to eight for most shows. It’s double casted. It’s a conservative friendly, traditionalist production seen before just four years ago and it features hone town diva, Adrienne Pieczonka. We saw it last night and were a bit disappointed. It wasn’t the sort of show one comes out of spluttering “travesty” or “disgrace” but it wasn’t the sort of performance that gets a standing ovation and excited deconstruction on the subway home either. It felt like a revival of a traditional production. It has to be said that my reaction, while more positive than some reviews I’ve read, wasn’t shared by a large chunk of the audience who switched from their customary coughing to an extended standing ovation. From the chatter I could hear in seats around me that was largely the reaction of the “once a year” crowd so, in a very important sense, this production accomplishes what it needs to do.

Still it’s sad to come out of a performance of Tosca relatively unmoved so let me try and dissect why. Paul Curran’s production is very traditional so there’s no gimmickry to either offend or help overcome shortcomings in the singing or acting department and, of course, there’s no sense of novelty. A reasonably seasoned opera goer is, inevitably, comparing it with other Toscas. Mr. Curran’s programme notes are quite explicit about the success criteria for an enterprise of this type.

The joy and challenge of directing Tosca is not only in the glorious music and razor-sharp libretto, but ideally in workingclosely with the talents of the singers playing and fleshing out their roles. As the curtain rises it is the characters and relationships we must believe in. Characters are built bar by bar, phrase by phrase and discussion by discussion. No word is too small that it might not be the trigger for a singer to find a new angle into their character’s life or psyche, and the job of the director, I believe, is in part to help the cast explore and discover just these subtleties.

The trouble is that not much of this happened. The three principals; Adrienne Pieczonka (Floria Tosca), Carlo Ventre (Cavaradossi) and Mark Delavan (Scarpia), are all established ‘A’ list singers and sang as well as one would expect but neither their characters nor the relationships between them came fully alight. I can take my Tosca somewhat overblown but lukewarm doesn’t really cut it. Delavan is a big man with lots of physical presence but here he struck (rather odd) poses and never really exuded any sense of menace. He didn’t even seem to be that into Tosca. His physical encounters with her in Act 2 suggested that their mutual priority was not upsetting the costume shop. You could find steamier scenes in any high school parking lot. This just reinforced the aloofness of Pieczonka’s very “in control” Tosca. Vissi d’arte, though beautifully sung, came out of nowhere. This wasn’t a woman on the edge of breakdown and when she stabs Scarpia our surprise isn’t that she’s done so but that she didn’t rip his balls off with her bare hands ten minutes earlier. The less said about Ventre’s acting the better though he too sang very well indeed and E luceva qualche stella was probably the emotional highlight of the evening.

Besides fine singing there was quite a lot to like in the production. The orchestra under Paolo Carignani sounded great. I really like the atmospheric lighting plot which used light level and tone to create a variety of effects, especially in Act 1 and in Act 3, where it managed to suggest night time without being so dark one couldn’t see. The chorus both adults and children were excellent and curran creates some pleasing visual arrangements in Act 1 (nice touch where Scarpia barges out past the bishop celebrant). Unfortunately none of this really overcomes the emotional hole at the centre of the production.

I’ve heard it said, from various quarters, that the second cast of Julie Makerov in the title role and Brendan Jovanovich as Cavaradossi (Delavan sings Scarpia in all performances) may up the EQ a bit so they may actually be a better bet. Sheer curiosity may even get me to go find out.

I’m sure what I’ve written above sounds really negative. It needs context. Expectations for COC productions have been raised very high by some truly excellent efforts in recent years and so a “pretty adequate” production that would have received rave reviews ten years ago barely cuts it today. That’s the price of success.

1 thought on “Reflections on Tosca

  1. I have to agree with you based on what I saw this past Tuesday evening: good singing & orchestra, but tepid interaction & no overall dramatic arc, the whole thing just did not grab you the way Verdi should, and this particular opera especially must. Even the Mass scene didn’t really take flight (the musical result was alright with eyes closed).

    Even allowing for the fact that the house manager announced on the P.A. that Pieczonka had sustained a knee injury and thus would be curtailing her stage movements, the dramatic chemistry never was more than at body temperature.

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