Puccini - Tosca

Lyric Opera, Chicago, Monday February 2 2015, -11° C

Conductor: Dmitri Jurowski. Production: John Caird. Designer: Bunny Christie. Lighting: Duane Schuler. Tosca: Tatiana Serjan. Cavaradossi: Brian Jagde. Scarpia: Evgeny Nikitin. Angelotti: Richard Ollarsaba. Sacristan: Dale Travis. Spoletta: Rodell Rosel. Sciarrone: Bradley Smoak. Shepherd: Annie Wagner. Jailer: Anthony Clark Events. Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Puccini
In (freezing, of course) Chicago for work, I decided to take the opportunity to hear, in Tosca, two singers new to me: Tatiana Serjan, who has sung a lot of Verdi, often with Muti; and Brian Jagde, a young American tenor who will be new to most people, standing in for Misha Didyk.

Jagde has a big, bold voice of the “Domingo-tenor” kind, with darkish-gold undertones but a bright top, able really to nail the highest notes in the score without hesitation. He was better at loud than soft, and neither looked nor sounded Latin (his acting had more frat-boy charm than gravitas), but perhaps more subtlety, dynamic variety and general smoochiness will come with experience. At any rate, he delivered some real thrills, which these days is far from guaranteed.

Serjan has a biggish voice too, though not as big as I’d imagined from hearing YouTube clips – not that I trust those any more than they deserve – with a lot of metal to it and just enough “edge”. On the whole I’d say she saved her best singing for the best bits, and then it was really very, very good. I often find “Vissi d’arte” a tedious interruption (same goes for “O mio babbino caro”) but here, as Serjan is a convincing singing actress, it was urgent and vital, one of the best I’ve ever heard. Just two reservations: instead of opening out generously, her topmost notes, while in tune and by no means sounding perilous, closed disappointingly into a rapid vibrato; and her diction was as hot-potato as it comes.

Nikitin was as worrying as ever. You always think something is about to go badly wrong, but it doesn’t. His singing seems to be more and more "Russian" - I don’t really know how to describe what I mean: a kind of wild, throw-away style that’s sometimes close to Sprechgesang but is oddly effective. For Scarpia, his voice is relatively light, but while critics have said he lacked “noirceur” (well, perhaps not using that particular French word but I know what I mean) and he strained at the top, I still found him stylish.

Dmitri Jurowski’s conducting was placid and disconcertingly low key, but there were admittedly/undeniably some tender, loving moments. The playing was not always strictly together, surprisingly for an American orchestra, and coordination with the stage was shaky: it seemed to me that at one point in act two the singers were genuinely lost for a few bars. The chorus, however, was very good.

The production had some ideas, not especially convincing. The space was the same in all three acts: a gloomy hall, serving as church, palace (sort of: see later) and prison, with a gaping hole in the roof and a couple of shell-holes at the back. War-torn, we assumed. Also, each act opened with one of those flimsy curtains popular in the eighties being brought down and dragged off, and, as back then, one of them got stuck on a bit of scenery and had to be prised off by a stage-hand. The first was white with bloodstains; the second red and black; the last black and red.

The grim, narrow church looked more protestant than Roman, and when the crowd arrived in equally gloomy costumes from the period Puccini composed the piece, I thought of Peter Grimes in Brussels. You wondered, later, why such a fancy Te Deum was led by such a lavishly-costumed old cardinal in such a drab chapel.

Mario was painting large details of the Madonna (i.e. a single, giant “occhio” per fresco) on large chunks of plaster that had presumably fallen from the gaping hole, one per storey of his three-storey wooden scaffold. The directing wasn’t always in line with the drama (my idea of it at any rate). It seemed odd that Mario should lean jauntily on his scaffold, arms crossed, to banter sociably about his jealous girlfriend with an Angelotti on his last legs, and to me Tosca’s light-hearted flirtatiousness sat oddly beside her faith and jealousy. At this point, and right up to the execution scene, as at the Met, the supertitles had the audience in stitches – but you do see Tosca subtitled as a “melodramma eroi-comico” after all. The lady behind me taught me that a guffaw could actually be quite a high-pitched sound. The translation was modern and sometimes surprising: l’Attavanti was a “slut” and Tosca, having stabbed Scarpia, a “bitch”.

Right weather, wrong opera
Tosca was dressed, by the way, as Mimi, so eventually I forgot Peter Grimes and decided this was Tosca costumed as La Bohème – apparently the director was taking cues from the original play as to her humble origins. OK, by the time of the opera she’s supposed to be the ultimate diva but, well, we’re used to this kind of thing (and more) by now… And, the thing that has got some critics all worked up: in each act we had the ghost of Toscas past, an angelic child in white, holding out her arms: Tosca’s humble origins and lost innocence, emerging almost literally from the woodwork at times of high drama – and singing the shepherd’s song.

The act one and act three sets – act three being a an empty prison with that same gaping hole in the roof – were ugly, but the act two one was surprisingly good, once the gauzy curtain had been whisked away: not Scarpia’s sumptuous office, but a store-room piled high with grey crates and Roman sculptures (a reference, it seems, to wartime spoils). The action was fairly conventional, apart from the little white ghost arriving à point to remind Tosca to lay a rosary on the late Scarpia’s chest, though Tosca’s concert dress was hardly the spectacular John Singer Sargent number it could/should have been: she still looked like Mimi: this time Mimi dressed up for a night out at Momus’s café.

Once Tosca’s little ghost had brought down the final gauze and sung her shepherd’s song at the rear, gazing at the stars, act three took place, as I’ve already said twice, in a prison – a prison-cum-madhouse, as there were other mad-looking inmates bumbling about in shabby white uniforms. Hangman’s nooses hung through the by-now-familiar gaping hole, and Angelotti's body was brought in and strung up, spinning, according to Scarpia’s act two instructions (“Ebbene, lo si appenda morto alle forche!”). Once more, the action otherwise took place quite conventionally (to frequent peals of laughter: “Ma prima... ridi amor... prima sarai fucilato”, hohoho…), with a very creditable bang when the guns went off (compensating for the very unconvincing bourdon of St Peter’s, which sounded like someone banging a tin can with a spoon), making the novices in the audience jump, until Tosca stabbed herself in the neck with the same knife as she had used to dispose of Scarpia, and jumped off the ledge at the rear.

So… in the end, neither a Tosca to die for nor a particular failure, just better-than-often singing in a ho-hum-well-never-mind production. And off into the glacial night for a late dinner. Visitors to Chicago who find it hard to swallow dinner at tea-time may like to know that the highly-recommended (by a food-mad Buckeye in N. Carolina) Purple Pig, a few minutes’ taxi-ride away at 500 N. Michigan, is open till midnight.

Maestro Wenarto sings Recondite Harmony.

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