Arts & Events

New: Another Stirring Soprano Debut in San Francisco Opera’s TOSCA

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday October 28, 2014 - 08:14:00 PM

In a season dominated by star-quality sopranos, San Francisco Opera offered yet another outstanding company debut in Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian’s vocally voluptuous Floria Tosca. Critics have sometimes been harsh on Puccini’s Tosca – Joseph Kerman haughtily dismissed it as “that shabby little shocker” – but audiences have always loved it. In San Francisco, the first-night audience for Tosca on Thursday, October 23, offered frequent bravos and bravas as well as a standing ovation at the close of the opera. As was warranted, the greatest outbursts of applause went to Lianna Haroutounian for her sumptuous singing as Tosca, a role in which she offered superb vocalism featuring brilliant high notes and lush low notes. Haroutounian has already sung at Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and makes her New York Met debut later this year. 

Haroutounian’s counterpart here was tenor Brian Jagde as Mario Cavaradossi. Jagde, who ably sang the role of Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in San Francisco Opera’s Spring season, has boyish good looks and a strong well-pitched tenor. Yet, somehow, as Cavaradossi, Jagde’s voice seemingly lacked color. On the other hand, bass-baritone Mark Delavan as Scarpia, the villain of the piece, exhibited his dark vocalism to great dramatic effect, even if occasionally his voice was drowned out by the orchestra, as, for example, in Scarpia’s aside during the climax of the Te Deum in Act I. Incidentally, this beautiful Te Deum, which Julian Budden calls “the most powerful of Puccini’s harmonic oscillations …, not to be equaled until the Act I finale of Turandot,” was movingly presented by the chorus led by Ian Robertson and by the orchestra under the direction of Riccardo Frizzi. 

Utilising the familiar sets designed by Thierry Bosquet, which clearly situate the opera in recognizable sites in Rome such as the Church of Sant’ Andrea in Valle for Act I, the Palazzo Farnese for Act II, and the Castel Sant’ Angelo for Act III, director Jose Maria Condemi moved principals, auxiliaries and choristers adroitly, never allowing the drama to become static. If the plot of Puccini’s Tosca, adapted from the play by Victorien Sardou, is indeed a melodrama, it is melodrama at its best, elevated to its heights by the libretto fashioned by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, and above all by the ingenuity and intensity of Puccini’s lyric genius. 

The opera’s first big aria belongs to Cavaradossi, the painter who contemplates his portrait of the Magdalen, which he has modeled after a beautiful woman he dis-creetly observed praying in the nearby chapel. In his aria, “Recondita armonia,” beautifully sung here by Brian Jagde, Cavaradossi marvels over the way two beautiful women – the blond, blue-eyed woman he saw praying and his own beloved, dark-haired and dark-eyed Tosca – have miraculously combined in his painted Magdalen. Moments later, when Tosca herself arrives, she is quick to notice – and take umbrage at – the blond, blue-eyed woman in the portrait. However, she accepts Cavaradossi’s forthright explanation and is consoled by his passionate declarations of love. Nonetheless, as she exits, she admonishes him half-ironically, and with a hint of malice, “Ma falle gli occhi neri!” / “But make the eyes dark!”  

Act I also offers considerable humor in the person of the Sacristan, a sharply drawn figure of a narrow-minded religious lackey, here ably sung by bass-baritone Dale Travis. Likewise, there is political intrigue embodied in the person of Angelotti, a man of Republican convictions who has just escaped from the Castel Sant’ Angelo and seeks refuge in the chapel at Sant’ Andrea in Valle. Angelotti is portrayed here with great intensity by bass Scott Conner. Cavaradossi, who shares the escaped prisoner’s political convictions, guides Angelotti to his own villa hidden away in the woods. 

When Scarpia enters the church, the music and drama turn ominous. Scarpia, the Bourbon monarchy’s chief of police, is hot on the trail of the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. But it also becomes clear that Scarpia is even more interested in pursuing Tosca for his depraved sexual adventurism than in pursuing Angelotti. When he sees Cavaradossi’s portrait of the Magdalen, which he recognizes as a portrait of the Countess Attavanti, Scarpia instantly realizes he can chase two birds with one stone. In this endeavor he is aided by the discovery in the nearby chapel of a woman’s fan emblazoned with the Attavanti family crest. In an aside, Scarpia notes that “where a handkerchief served Iago, this fan will serve me,” – a reference not only to Shakespeare but also, and to Italian opera audiences more to the point, a reference to Verdi’s Otello. Scarpia immediately uses the Attavanti fan to further arouse Tosca’s jealousy, which has already been amply established. 

Act II is situated in the Bourbon monarchy’s Roman headquarters in the Palazzo Farnese, where Scarpia orders around his minions Spoletta, sung by tenor Joel Sorenstrem, and Sciarrone, sung by baritone Efraín Solís. Although they have not found Angelotti, they have brought in Cavaradossi for interrogation. Cavaradossi defiantly claims to know nothing regarding Angelotti’s whereabouts. Scarpia orders that Cavaradossi be tortured. Tosca, summoned by Scarpia, is alarmed to discover that Cavaradossi is subjected to torture. Though at first she claims to know nothing about Angelotti, hearing her lover’s moans from a nearby room, Tosca soon gives in to Scarpia’s ruthless insistence that Cavardossi’s fate is in her hands; and she blurts out Angelotti’s hiding place. 

Dragged in front of Scarpia by his torturers, Cavaradossi curses Tosca and again declares his defiance of Scarpia and the Bourbon monarchy. Scarpia orders that Cavaradossi’s torture be resumed. He also insinuates that if Tosca gives herself to him sexually, he will give her back her Cavaradossi. While despising Scarpia and resisting his advances, Tosca indulges in a lovely internal monologue. This aria, “Vissi d’arte,” is her plaintive prayer asking God for justice for a life she has given over to good works, art and love. As Tosca, Lianna Haroutounian sang this famous aria beautifully, with passionate intensity and lush vocalism. Then Tosca strikes a bargain with Scarpia. If he will write out a safe-conduct note for her and Cavaradossi, she will submit to him. As Scarpia writes out the note, Tosca grabs a knife, and when Scarpia advances on her, she stabs him repeatedly in the chest and neck. Scarpia falls dying to the floor. 

Act III of Tosca is set on the rooftop parapets of Castel Sant’ Angelo, where Cavaradossi is a prisoner awaiting execution. It is shortly before dawn; and Puccini paints a lovely musical picture of this quiet moment when only a shepherd boy’s plaintive song is heard in the distance. Cavaradossi sings the aria, “E lucevan le stelle,” his beautifully forlorn reminiscence of a night of love with Tosca. Soon Tosca herself arrives and shows him the safe-conduct she has obtained from Scarpia. At first Cavaradossi thinks Tosca has compromised herself in obtaining this favor. But she quickly tells him how she found the courage to stab Scarpia to death. Overwhelmed, Cavaradossi sings “O dolci mani,” a brief aria apostrophizing the soft and gentle hands of his beloved who nonetheless used these same hands to kill Scarpia and obtain the freedom of her lover. Tosca, believing that Scarpia has ordered only a mock execution, informs Mario that he must pretend to die by falling at the first gunshots. Scarpia, however, has ordered a real execution, which is carried out before Tosca’s very eyes. When she discovers the truth of her lover’s death, Tosca leaps to her own death from the parapets of Castel Sant’ Angelo, bringing Puccini’s opera to a dramatic and tragic close. San Francisco Opera has given us a taut, musically rich and dram-atically intense production of Tosca, one featuring yet another bright new star in Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian. 


EDITOR'S Note: There are only three more performances of SF Opera's Tosca. If you're a Tosca fan but these don't work for you or are too expensive, Verismo Opera is doing Tosca on November 8 in Berkeley, as well as several performances elsewhere in the East Bay. See for details.