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Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
12 Jun 2009

Tosca in San Francisco

Like Carmen, Tosca is a constant presence in our operatic lives, frequently revisited like it or not.

G. Puccini: Tosca

Above: Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) [Except as otherwise indicated, photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]


Over the years some of the performances have even been memorable — fiery Carmens and intense Toscas, mesmerizing conducting, productions that have occasionally been gripping. And there have been those performances that are imminently forgettable.

We may all have had our favorite performance, the one to which we compare all others. Or perhaps none of the productions we have seen have come near our idea of what the perfect Carmen or the perfect Tosca should be. This latest San Francisco Opera rendition of Tosca will be many things to many people, though it is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite, more likely for most of us it is one to be forgotten. The sooner the better.

Picture005TMC.gifCarlo Ventre (Cavaradossi) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Back in 1997 SFO general director Lotfi Mansouri had the kitsch idea of reviving the 1923 San Francisco Opera production (the first SFO season) to reopen the repaired War Memorial Opera House. Kurt Herbert Adler had also once dragged it out for some occasion, maybe it was to commemorate the company’s fiftieth anniversary. Just now David Gockley must have calculated the savings to be had by hanging these old canvases instead of paying for a modern production. And perhaps he believes that these old rags are like an old sweatshirt, just too comfortable and lovable to throw out.

Here in San Francisco we were once promised the Tosca of Maria Callas, but instead we had the brilliant Marie Collier. We had the Tosca of Magda Olivero at age 71 (she is now 99), a holdover from the golden age of verismo to show us how it was supposed to have been done. And we have had a host of lesser and greater Toscas over the years. The latest one is Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka, whose full, rich and even voice makes a plush, comfortable Tosca quite at odds with the quixotic temperament of the high strung murderess who crosses herself and then hurls herself into the void. Need one be reminded that Puccini’s Tosca is a character defined role.

Picture001.gifLado Ataneli (Scarpia) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca)

Cavaradossi was Italian tenor Carlo Ventre who brought bona fide Italianate vocalism, and bona fide stock Italianate acting gestures. Mr. Ventre comes from the Carreras mold, heaving his voice from his throat and chest, igniting an exciting squillo when needed. Preoccupied with tenorial sound he found none of the sweetness Puccini imbued into the arias of his sentimental painter, leaving this tenor under appreciated by a crowd ready to cheer. He was however a strength of the production.

Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli seemed a more versatile artist than his colleagues as he was able to combine singing with character. The sheer power of Puccini’s Scarpia though must tower over the artistic personalities of his victims. He must embody both spiritual and temporal power, and the brute force of pure libido. Mr. Atanel’s more sophisticated approach to his role was instead overwhelmed by the more operatic, less dimensional performances of his colleagues.

Picture041.gifAdrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) and Lado Ataneli (Scarpia)

Both conductor Marco Armilliato and stage director Jose Maria Condemi confused verismo with realism, meticulously illustrating every twist and turn of the text. Verismo is direct, immediate emotion, not elaboration of detail. It is thus that verismo lends itself to melodrama — a sudden shocking action that unleashes a huge emotion. Rather than build to the melodramatic moments that cap each of Puccini’s three acts, this production lost itself in tedious detail, exacerbated by a Tosca and Cavaradossi physically incapable of inhabiting their characters. Mo. Armilliato sometimes took his musical illustration to extremes, forcing his singers to establish and hold the beat of the text while he dragged it emotively. It was here that tedium became torture.

Of the smaller roles, the Spoletta of Joel Sorensen was effective, the scenes involving Scarpia’s henchmen were in fact skillfully drawn by stage director Condemi. The Sacristan of Dale Travis and his scenes were terminally cute, the San Francisco Boys Chorus proving itself once again one of our city’s great treasures.

It is time for a new Tosca in San Francisco, a theatrical one.

Michael Milenski

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