by Christopher Hyde
PORTopera artistic director Dona Vaughn has done it again, with a fresh look at one of the most popular operas in the repertoire: Puccini’s “Tosca.” I attended the dress rehearsal Tuesday night, which went off (almost) without a hitch, providing a good sense of what can be expected from the final version on Thursday.
“Tosca” is not one of my favorite operas. Puccini seems to have taken a leaf from Wagner, with heavy brass, leit-motifs, high drama and few arias that one can go home whistling. The entire plot is an exercise in futility. Once the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo (and his chef’s invention of a new chicken dish), reaches Rome, Scarpia and his minions should have burned their papers and taken ship for the colonies instead of pursuing their victims to the death and beyond. But self-preservation is never a strong suit of tragic opera.
Vaughn, while faithful to to the libretto, emphasizes Tosca’s evolution from self-absorbed diva to tragic heroine, with religious overtones that echo the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s recent production of “Dialogs of the Carmelites.” During the first act, one is almost sorry for her lover Cavaradosi, to be burdened with a jealous, demanding, insecure and apparently insatiable partner. He certainly doesn’t seem that enthusiastic about another tryst at the cottage.
When things begin to go downhill, and she must overcome her religious scruples to kill Scarpia and save Cavaradosi, Tosca begins to show true strength of character and love rather than infatuation. Finally, her suicide becomes an act of faith, confident that God will judge in her favor over Scarpia.
Vaughn also emphasizes the point made by A.E. Housman in “To an Athlete Dying Young,” that after the height of bliss experienced by the lovers, any kind of everyday existence would be an anticlimax.
The opera is not fully staged, but in costume, with a few simple props placed in front of a full orchestra. A platform at stage right serves both as an artist’s studio and the parapet from which Tosca flings herself in the final scene.
In spite of a lack of stage settings, Vaughn has a lot to work with. Alexandra LoBianco, as Tosca, and Adam Diegel, as Cavaradosi, have powerful, well controlled voices offering a wide range of dynamics and a certain cutting edge. They are well matched and their final duet, a cappella, is marvelous.
The orchestra, under Stephen Lord, leaves nothing to be desired. It could be transferred to the pit of the Met and no one would know the difference. Members of the Choral Art Society and a children’s chorus under Sarah Bailey, gave fine performances.
James Morris, as Scarpia, provides an astonishingly good impression of the Devil as gentleman, expecting every snap of his fingers to be instantly obeyed. His lust for Tosca emphasizes the once-and-done nature of passion, while his physical approach reminds one of Dr. Johnson’s observation about sex: “The position is ridiculous, the pleasure fleeting and the expense damnable.”
The scene in which Tosca stabs him, twice, with a table knife, is worth the price of admission. As Scarpia begins to disrobe for his intended conquest, he seems to inflate, like a balloon or a tumescent organ, and then to deflate just as rapidly when punctured, as he mutters “Killed by a woman,” in sheer amazement.
The supertitles were good, in spite of some anachronisms, but they did not seem quite bright enough to be easily legible, at least from the side of the auditorium.
The single glitch in the dress rehearsal provided some comic relief, when the timing was off for Tosca’s discovery that Cavadarosi is really dead and not play-acting. To repeat the scene, the corpse had to roll over.
As of this writing, there were a few seats left for Thursday’s performance. Now would be a good time to snap them up. And it would also be a good time for an angel to step up and finance a fully-staged version of say, “Porgy and Bess.” What couldn’t Vaughn do with her own set designer?