It’s fitting that the singer of an opera’s title role be the most dazzling in the cast, as was the case with Lianna Haroutounian in last night’s performance of San Francisco Opera’s Tosca. Maybe less common is for the orchestra to overshadow and overpower the singers.
Puccini’s score is rich and emotionally potent, full of evocative details and impactful themes. Riccardo Frizza and the Opera’s orchestra performed it flawlessly, with assurance and impressive strength. But that power was often too much for the singers, who were sometimes buried beneath the solid mass of the orchestra’s sound.
This was especially a problem with the minor roles, such as Dale Travis as the bumbling sacristan and Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta, played by Joel Sorensen. But the Cavaradossi, Brian Jagde, also sometimes disappeared under the orchestra while in his pale middle and lower registers. His high notes, while easily carrying through the hall, were forced and overdone. Jagde did eventually redeem himself with an ardent “E lucevan le stelle,” Cavaradossi’s signature third act aria.
Haroutounian, making her debut both as Tosca and at the San Francisco Opera, and Mark Delavan, as Scarpia, struggled the least with penetrating the orchestral wall. Tosca and her music were enlivened by the bright vitality of Haroutounian’s voice, so that Tosca’s impetuous flirtatiousness outshone her hysterical passion. On the basis of vocal quality alone, Delavan’s Scarpia had the requisite authoritativeness and obsession with dominance, but his awkward physical presence diminished the effect.
Such uncomfortable, self-conscious movement was endemic to Jose Maria Condemi’s direction. Stock gestures stood in for emotion and psyche, causing the already shallow characters to be as flat as Thierry Bosquet’s painted sets, but without the scenery’s extraordinary illusory depth. The staging’s obvious artificiality was almost laughable, as when Delavan writhed and rolled on the ground during Scarpia’s death throes like a turtle stuck on its back.
More laborious direction marred the first act, which Condemi attempted to fill with dumb humor. The sacristan became even more of a caricature than in the libretto, every action and facial expression exaggerated into forced comedy. Jagde’s Cavaradossi affected superior amusement towards Tosca, inviting the audience to laugh with him at her jealousy and ardor, but cheapening his love for her. This production, with its amateurish heightening of the already unfortunate artificiality of the piece, might do the same for an audience’s love of Tosca.