Review: Grimsley Memorable in San Diego Opera’s Quasi-Traditional “Tosca” – January 27, 2009

As the first offering of its 2009 season, San Diego Opera mounted Puccini’s “Tosca” in the historic Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production that it came to own. The “Tosca” performances, occurring just a month after the 150th birthday  of the Tuscan composer’s birth, starred French soprano Sylvie Valayre in the title role, with Americans Marcus Haddock as the painter Mario Cavaradossi and Greer Grimsley as Baron Scarpia.

The production team importantly included Australian Stage Director Andrew Sinclair and Conductor Edoardo Mueller, whom this reviewer, together and separately, has praised highly on previous efforts. In fact, Mueller and Sinclair collaborated memorably in San Diego Opera’s February 2008 production of Donizetti’s “Mary Queen of Scots (Maria Stuarda)”.  

Mueller received high marks from this reviewer for conducting San Diego Opera performances of several operas of the core Italian repertory – Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and “Aida”, Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”. For “Tosca” he again proved a steady, studied conductor of Puccini’s score, providing a sympathetic presentation that supported, without indulging, his principal artists.

Sinclair is an imaginative director, almost all of whose myriad of performance touches ring true. However, imagination employed to bring life to lesser known works by Bizet and Donizetti, whose works contain sketchy stage directions and sometimes obscure character motivations, ran afoul of the tightly constructed dramatic stage business that Puccini expected stage directors to follow for “Tosca”.

Historically, in productions of “Tosca”, we know that the villainous Baron Scarpia, through his henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone, tortures the painter Cavaradossi (whom we know from other sources is a disciple of the French Revolutionary Painter Jacques-Louis David), in an offstage room.

Ironically, the weak link in Sinclair’s conceptualization of “Tosca” is what he supposes has happened in that torture scene – which, one observes, occurs offstage  and whose results are all that is seen by the audience. Sinclair goes beyond the villainy written into the stage directions by having the torturers assure the destruction of the painter’s career – they break his hands.

Cavaradossi is one-third of the trio of principals, and is a role that attracts star tenors. Much of Cavaradossi’s time onstage occurs after his second act emergence from the torture chamber and during the final (third) act. In the third act, he sings the opera’s most famous aria and is the dominant presence throughout most of the rest of the opera.

Haddock is a lyric tenor who has been taking on heavier roles, like Cavaradossi, at this stage of his career. It seemed a propitious role for the company to choose for Haddock’s San Diego Opera debut.

Unfortunately, Haddock,  in order to realize the stage director’s vision of his hands being broken, was forced into uncharacteristic postures for Cavaradossi’s heroic declamations in the second act, for his third act aria O lucevan le stelle and for his final duet with Tosca. With hands figuratively tied, Haddock’s ability to project the heroic Napoleonic partisan was diminished. 

[Below: Mario Cavaradossi (Marcus Haddock) is on his painter’s scaffolding behind the church altar; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Assaying the title role, Valayre, also a San Diego Opera debut, displayed a gleaming top voice and dusky middle voice, making for an appealing Tosca, winning audience approval for a sympathetically executed Vissi d’arte. Valayre has an expressive face, and can display the open-eyed terror that one associates with certain actresses in European silent movies. 

[Below: Tosca (Sylvie Valayre) pleads with an unsympathetic Baron Scarpia (Greer Grimsley); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Valayre has made her reputation in some of the soprano repertory’s most challenging roles – Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s “Macbeth”, Abigaille in Verdi’s “Nabucco” and the title roles of Bellini’s “Norma”, Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” and Richard Strauss’ “Salome”. (I am scheduled to review her Lady Macbeth at the Berlin Staatsoper in late April.)

Valayre was both vocally and histrionically effective in her first and second act encounters with the Scarpia, Greer Grimsley, integrating Puccini’s stage directions with the overlaid details of Sinclair’s ideas. One could hear muttering in the audience when she failed to arrange the candles around Scarpia’s corpse, but there is a counter-tradition (certainly including the stage directing of Ponnelle, designer of the sets) that does away with that bit of stagecraft.

Even with laudable performances from Valayre and Haddock, Grimsley ran away with the show. Scarpia, appearing in only two acts, is one of opera’s great roles for a baritone with superb acting instincts, and bass baritone Grimsley, whose voice now has a dark, rich quality, is a master of nuance – demonstrating that he can play an inherently evil person who exhibits dignity and impeccable manners. Grimsley established a rapport with the audience that was rewarded by an ovation at opera’s end.

[Below: Baron Scarpia (Greer Grimsley) intends to seduce Tosca (Sylvie Valayre); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

The Traditions of “Tosca”

Interestingly, just two days prior in Houston, I attended a meeting presided over by Houston Grand Opera’s General Director Anthony Freud and Music Director Patrick Summers, in which they expressed their opinion that operas and musicals whose setting is in a very explicit time and place are being produced less often than operas that give great leeway to stage directors and set designers. When it came to their enunciating which operas and musicals they placed in that category, Summers offered the non-operatic examples of Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and  Bock’s “Fiddler on the Roof”.

Obviously, “Tosca” is a quintessential example of an opera that specifies time and place. It takes place at three specific parts of inner Rome on the day in 1800 that messengers are arriving with news of the victory of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Marengo.  

In fact, the San Diego Opera program included an article that, among other details, has researched the historical records of the weather that took place in Rome that day. (It even calculates to the mile the distance that the characters in “Tosca” likely traveled between the first two acts.)

The opera has its detractors. Post-romantic composer Ferruccio Busoni, declared that “Tosca” and, indeed, the whole premise of verismo opera as an impossible idea (after all, true-life people don’t converse with each other in song) and offered Mozart’s “Magic Flute” which occurs in the land of fantasy as the example of a proper opera.

University of California Berkeley Professor Joseph Kerman (now emeritus) regarded all of the operas of Puccini and Richard Strauss as decadent works that polluted the opera repertory. (He likes “The Magic Flute” as well.)  Kerman predicted  in 1952 that “Tosca” and Strauss’ “Salome” would disappear from the repertory – to follow Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” and Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine” in obscurity.

(Both Tosca and Salome continue to tread the stage, their popularity undiminished.  “Lucrezia” is being performed again, and “L’Africaine” was produced for Placido Domingo in two different seasons at San Francisco Opera – across the Bay from Berkeley – since Kerman’s book was published.)

The opera clearly has supporters as loyal as its detractors are fierce. Those directors who “Let Tosca be Tosca” and follow tradition probably are on the safest course. Sinclair and his singers, all of whom exhibit acting ability, showed that little things can enhance the stage action and illuminate the characters. But Sinclair also demonstrated that one deviates from what is specified at one’s peril.

Reflections on the Ponnelle “Tosca”

Interestingly, one person who deviated from the Maestro’s stage directions and got away with it was Ponnelle. And the stage settings that Ponnelle designed for his rethinking of the opera’s stage action, are, with minor alterations, the very sets that San Diego Opera mounted for Sinclair’s re-interpretation.

[Below: the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle sets for Act I of “Tosca” as staged by the San Diego Opera; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

The Jean-Pierre Ponnelle “Tosca” sets were created for the San Francisco Opera in 1972 in the first new production the company mounted for Placido Domingo. The production was seen in San Francisco 36 times in five seasons through 1985, illuminated by the the Toscas of Montserrat Caballe, Dorothy Kirsten, Leonie Rysanek, Magda Olivero, Janis Martin and Dame Gwyneth Jones; the Cavaradossis of Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Giacomo Aragall;  and the Scarpias of Giuseppe Taddei,  James Morris, Ingvar Wixell, Giorgio Tozzi, Kostas Paskalis and Justino Diaz. 

The Ponnelle sets in their San Diego mountings differ somewhat from when shown in San Francisco. The church’s altar in San Diego is a different one altogether than that of the original 1972 debut season.  Cavaradossi’s death by firing squad in San Diego takes places against a side wall, instead of his being tethered to a post with the firing squad standing behind him pointing their guns at the audience.

Although these may seem like minor points, they are the results of retaining Ponnelle’s sets while abandoning his stage direction. Ponnelle’s San Francisco “Tosca” was designed as a non-traditional approach to staging a tradition-bound opera. In it, he deliberately changed the audience’s point of view in each act. Ponnelle’s staging came to be known as the “backwards Tosca”.

In Ponnelle’s original Act I we are behind the altar (as we still are in San Diego), but the audience view of the altar is an unfinished, tattered, scruffy looking furnishing. The priests (as was the custom before Pope John XXIII’s reforms) face away from the congregation, that assembles in the backstage area for the mass. To some considerable extent that is what still happens in San Diego, although having a smooth, finished altar on the side the audience sees considerably lessens Ponnelle’s intended anti-clerical bite.

The second act in the Ponnelle staging differs from the traditional by having Tosca stab Scarpia in the back as he sits at his desk. This departure from Puccini’s intention so infuriated the great dramatic soprano Leonie Rysanek that she simply refused to follow the Ponnelle play-book. Janis Martin took over that season’s later Toscas.

I miss the depiction of an aged, palsied cardinal in wide-brimmed red hat and robes who is one of the officials enlisted to make sure that the torturing is done within the confines of appropriate secular and canon law. At Act II’s end, Ponnelle used the pairs of great double doors that are still part of the Act II sets to time Tosca’s exit after Scarpia’s murder to Puccini’s closing chords. Sinclair incorporated a somewhat similar idea in his own stage direction.

Knowing the history of the production, the Act III sets, in which one sees the prominent avenging angel that adorns the tower of the Castel Sant’Angelo from the statuary’s hollow backside, make more sense. For a chilling finale of Act III, one looks to Ponnelle, with Cavaradossi’s back to the audience and the firing squad’s rifles firing at him (and the audience), and Tosca jumping from behind the angel in center stage so that she (or at least her double) is seen passing by the large central window.

In its place, Sinclair has an execution cleanup crew swabbing down the walls from the previous victim, but, as noted above, Sinclair having crippled Haddock’s Cavaradossi in Act II, it seems rather more a mercy killing than Ponnelle’s coup de theatre. Valayre jumped from a side wall, without a view of her descent that one got from the Ponnelle version.

[Below: the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle sets for “Tosca” Act III; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

On balance, with the notations made above, it was a nice performance of “Tosca”. The comprimario roles were well cast – Joseph Hu a chilling Spoletta, Scott Sikon a humorous Sacristan, Jamie J Offenbach performing both the roles of Angelotti and Sciarrone, and Samuel Spade, who, as the Jailer in the third act, has more acting to do in Sinclair’s version than one usually sees.

Thoughts of a once and future “Tosca”

Last season, the San Diego Opera created an entire new production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser”, which replicated almost exactly the Metropolitan Opera’s historic Guenther Schneider-Siemssen production. It owns one of the remaining Ponnelle sets during a period of time when the worldwide Ponnelle legacy is being lost or destroyed. Therefore, San Diego Opera could have an important say in the preservation of Ponnelle’s ideas about “Tosca”.

Why not, as a future tribute to Ponnelle, plan to re-stage the opera in Ponnelle’s original concept, or, as close to it as can be done at this point in time? Perhaps Ponnelle’s book of stage directions was part of San Diego Opera’s purchase of the production from San Francisco Opera. Almost all of the stage settings exist, and what is missing seems potentially restorable without exorbitant expense.

Although the production’s sets were designed by Ponnelle, the costumes were not. The current costumes are those of Suzanne Mess. The original costumes had been designed by Martin Schlumpf, who also collaborated on the Ponnelle production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in San Francisco. But the costumes of both Sclumpf and Mess are based on the fashions worn in the Rome of 1800.

Planning for such a Ponnelle restoration would take some study and some work and a sympathetic stage director, but planning for operas now routinely takes several seasons. New generations should have the opportunity to enjoy the realization of this dramatic genius’ ideas about “Tosca”.

For a related article, see: 50 Years Ago: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s American Debut at San Francisco Opera