Review: House of Puccini – Striking San Francisco Opera “Tosca” with Pieczonka, Ataneli and Ventre – June 14, 2009

This website has described the San Francisco Opera as the “House of Puccini”, both because of its long association with the operas of the Tuscan composer and the recent excellence of its Puccini productions, since David Gockley assumed the general directorship of the company in 2006.

The 2006 production of “Manon Lescaut” with Karita Mattila and Mischa Didyk, 2007’s  “La Rondine” with Angela Gheorghiu and Didyk and “Madama Butterfly” with Patricia Racette and Brandon Jovanovich, and 2o08’s “La Boheme” with Gheorghiu and Piotr Beczala defined current excellence in Puccini performance.

Even though much of Gockley’s early seasons in San Francisco reflected the opera, cast and production choices of his predecessor, each of these Puccini offerings in 2006 through 2008 had a Gockley imprint, such as a Gockley change of production (“Manon Lescaut”), or the happy result of Gockley coaxing a superstar to come to San Francisco (Gheorghiu in “Rondine” and “Boheme”).

For Summer 2009, the Puccini offering is “Tosca”, the composer’s third most popular opera, after “Boheme” and “Butterfly”. Unlike Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”, “Boheme”, “Butterfly” and “Rondine”, for which one might ask only who is to be the lead soprano and tenor roles, “Tosca” is an opera with three principal roles, with the villain of the piece, the Baron Scarpia, of equal importance to the two lovers.

It is always wonderful to have great voices singing Musetta, or Marcello, or Schaunard, or Colline, or Sharpless, or Lescaut or Prunier. However, if it were reported that a “Butterfly” was distinguished because of its Sharpless, or a “Boheme” because of its Schaunard and Colline, most veteran opera goers would interpret this to suggest inadequacies in the soprano-tenor lead singers, and the opera, therefore, likely unsuccessful.

In fact, each of the three major “Tosca” roles has great strengths that attract operatic superstars. Tosca has the title role, a major aria, opportunities for abundant dramatic acting, beautiful music, and closes the second act in an arresting pantomime as the only living character onstage.

Cavaradossi has two arias, including the third act aria he delivers while alone on stage. That aria, E lucevan le stelle is not only the most famous piece in the opera, but a true operatic “hit” beloved by the wider public (thanks in no small measure to its choice by Luciano Pavarotti as one of his signature arias). Scarpia is present only in two acts, but so dominates the action of the second act that a great Scarpia can leave an indelible memory.

The Story of “Tosca”

“Tosca” is an opera about collateral damage. Each of the three main characters will die unexpectedly, two of them because they were caught up in events with which they were not originally concerned.

A painter has arrived at a church where he is painting a picture of a Biblical subject,  Marie Magdalene. The next morning he will find himself facing a firing squad and dying. His mistress, a classical singer, will enter the church to look for him and will later that afternoon murder Rome’s chief of police and the next morning will leap to her death from the Castel Sant’Angelo.

There are backstories to the opera. First, there is the actual history. When the Bourbons, the French ruling family, were removed from power by the French Revolution, King Louis XVI’s cousin, Ferdinand IV of the Kingdom of Naples (who was married to a sister of Marie Antoinette) was also chased off of his throne. A Roman republic was declared, but did not last long, when a conservative reaction to the republic returned the King to power. Ferdinand had most of his republican enemies executed, and instituted a highly efficient secret police.

Then there is the fictional backstory. Angelotti, a former official of the Roman republic, was jailed by Ferdinand’s agents. His sister, the Marchese Attavanti, attended church each day, ostensibly for prayers, but was playing her part in an elaborate plot for her brother’s prison break. She was to stock her private chapel within the church with food and disguises for Angelotti to use as an intermediate hiding place on his flight from Rome to safety.

Cavaradossi (who in the French play that “Tosca” was based upon, was the son of French Revolutionaries and was taught painting by the French Revolutionary painter, David) observed the Marchese praying and has used her features as the inspiration for a painting of Marie Magdalene commissioned by the church. Cavaradossi, who is sympathetic to the Revolution even through employed by the church, is known to Angelotti, but Cavaradossi and the Marchese do not know each other.

Notes on the Performance

The opera opens with Angelotti, nicely sung by American bass Jordan Bisch in his San Francisco Opera debut role, seeking a hidden key (whose location, I think,  is a  bit too obvious in this production), to the Marchese’ private chapel.

Cavaradossi, played by Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre, arrives and, after some banter with the Sacristan (Dale Travis), launches into the first big tenor aria, Recondita armonia. Ventre, whose professional debut was only 15 years ago, is one of the young spinto tenors who demonstrate in role after role that great operatic performances occur today with the same frequency as in “olden times”.

(For reviews of recent Ventre performances, see:  Team Verdi: San Diego Opera’s Praiseworthy “Aida” – April 23, 2008 andGuang Yang a Stellar Santuzza in Lyric Opera’s “Cavalleria” – Chicago, February 25, 2009 and Racette, Ventre Impress in Zambello-Inspired “Butterfly” at San Diego Opera- May 20, 2009.)

Ventre’s dusky, lyrical voice, with its beautiful timbre and pleasant vibrato, has the weight to excel in the great tenor roles of the core Italian repertory.  (The reviews listed above chronicle his Turiddu in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, his Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and his Radames in Verdi’s “Aida”. Just as he appears to be shedding the role of Pinkerton, he has taken on the heavier, dramatic tenor roles like Radames, which he will sing in at least one of the Big Three American opera companies’ 2010 Fall season.)

My only mild criticism of this cast, not enough to detract from my thinking that the entire show deserved an A+ rating, was the Sacristan of Dale Travis. And, here, my concern was not that he did not sing the part well (because he did sing well) nor that he failed to act the part as required (because he did act well), but that I have memories of seeing two great Italian performers, Renato Capecchi and Italo Tajo, take on the role of this crotchety cleric in San Francisco late in their careers.

Travis is certainly in the first rank of character bass-baritones, and has mastered the comic expressions that we associated with, say, comic film actor Bill Murray earlier in his career, but make-up and mugging still doesn’t match the long experience of past Italian masters like Capecchi and Tajo in portraying this disaffected soul. However, to be fair to Travis and to General Director Gockley, I have no suggestion on who currently singing might fit the part better. Maybe I’m just feeling crotchety myself.

Yet Another Digression on the Paucity of Contemporary Studio Recordings

In the review of Ventre’s Pinkerton in San Diego, I expressed frustration that his colleague, Patricia Racette, a leading Butterfly of our day, has so little in the way of studio recordings of major operas. I feel that frustration even more in the case of Ventre. By this time in his career, comparable Italian tenors that I saw in San Francisco Opera performances of the late 1950s and 1960s, such as Giuseppe Campora, Gianni Raimondi and Renato Cioni (not even to speak of Mario del Monaco, most of whose repertory is archived) had one or more major studio recordings to their credit.

[Below: Mario Cavaradossi (Carlo Ventre) at his painter’s scaffold; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The availability of studio recordings is slightly better for Ventre’s colleagues, Pieczonka and Ataneli. Pieczonka has recorded the part of Alice in Verdi’s “Falstaff” with DGG and is in a Naxos recording of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. And both she and Ataneli have released one or more “recital albums”.

The DVD can be a valuable archival record, but even this technology has some limitations – certainly among them that the visual recording usually takes precedence over the aural. Most DVDs cannot match the sound of the legendary studio recordings of the 1960s.

And, yes we have You Tube, with performance snatches  of varying quality, some recorded surreptitiously; but, so far, that technology has not shown much promise as a satisfactory replacement for the controlled environment of the recording studio.

A Lustrous Tosca

[Below: Tosca (Adrianne Pieczonka) prays to the Madonna; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Tosca is a singing actress, whose stock in trade is theatricality. Puccini’s music takes the audience much of the way to where he wants us to be, but the composer anticipated that a great singing actress would be required to play the part of this great singing actress. For Tosca, one of the diva soprano roles in the Italian operatic repertory, is unsurpassed in the demands that the role makes on a singer to display not just emotion, but emotion that enthralls the audience.

Pieczonka, who sings Wagner and Richard Strauss as well, met the challenges of the role of Tosca. In her San Francisco Opera debut, Pieczonka demonstrated a spinto voice, with the beautiful sound that one expects of the greatest lyric sopranos, while possessing the necessary vocal control and the histrionic instincts necessary to make this complex character – sincere in her faith, jealous of her lover, true to her art, with the capacity for murder if backed into a corner – dramatically and musically interesting.

Sets and Stage Direction

On opening night, 77 years ago, of the War Memorial Opera House –  the very theater in which Pieczonka proved to be a superbly theatrical Tosca – this was the opera that was performed. The sets, although created by Thierry Bosquet, were based on the original sets that opened the War Memorial.

[Below: Thierry Bosquet’s Act I sets for “Tosca”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The stage director for this “Tosca” is a person himself trained at San Francisco Opera, the former Adler Fellow, Jose Maria Condemi. I had been impressed with his revival of the David Hockney production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” earlier this year at Lyric Opera in Chicago. He also directed the “Elixir for Love for Families” at San Francisco Opera, reviewed here also.

Condemi proved that you can follow all of Puccini’s explicit stage directions and still make interesting innovations in the stage action. Wisely, Condemi does not try to change the traditional ways that audiences expect Cavaradossi, Tosca and Scarpia to interrelate. He spends his time with staging the Te Deum (the church celebration of the mistaken news that the anti-Napoleonic coalition was victorious a few hours prior at the Battle of Marengo).

Condemi approaches staging as does several contemporary stage directors, such as David McVicar.  Each member of the chorus or “extra” in a non-speaking role becomes a personality with an individual story. The choristers come in one at a time or in small groups, and each are involved in vignettes in anticipation of the Te Deum mass. The Swiss guards move into formation for the religious procession. All of this takes place towards the rear of the stage in what would be the main part of the church, while our point of view is from the far wall of a side chapel.

Such details are seen in the second act as the police functionaries interact with the masked specialist in torture and the judge who observes the proceedings in the interest of the state. But in “Tosca” it is absolutely crucial to be innovative only where one is not obstrusive on the opera’s traditions. Condemi’s “Tosca”, as was his Chicago “Tristan”, was a brilliant rethinking of how to move people around these familiar settings.

Scarpia as Personified Evil

This website has been present at Lado Ataneli’s last two operatic assignments – the title role of  Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the San Diego Opera in March and Anckarstroem (Renato) in “Ballo in Maschera” at the Deutsche Opera Berlin in April. Both of these triumphs seemed to augur well for an impressive Scarpia in San Francisco. Not only did he not disappoint, but proved to be one of the great Scarpias of our present day.

Scarpia is a role which is the personification of evil, but evil that is most effectively presented with the utmost dignity and elegance, including a kind of perverse charm. It needs a voice of power, but one that can sing beautifully, because much of the music that Scarpia is melodious and lyrical. Ataneli has all these requisites and provided a stunning performance. (See: Power Verdi: Ataneli, Vargicova Excel in San Diego Opera “Rigoletto” – March 28, 2009 and Power Verdi: Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli in Deutsche Oper Berlin “Ballo” – April 25, 2009.)

[Below: Baron Scarpia (Lado Ataneli); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

(One notes that Scarpia’s office in the Farnese Palace is one in which he is surrounded by paintings of male nudes. Obviously, these decorations from the Renaissance in Rome were not of Scarpia’s choosing. We know him to be lascivious, but his only interest in men seems to be in their torture or in their death on the gallows.)

[Below: Thierry Bosquet’s Act II set of Scarpia’s headquarters in the Palazzo Farnese; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

“Tosca” is possibly the most difficult of the standard repertory operas to find ways to depart from the stage directions that a composer and his librettists set down and meet audience approval for that departure. I cannot recall in almost five decades of attending “Tosca” of anyone deploring a stage director for following Puccini’s instructions that Tosca place candles on either side of Scarpia’s body and a cross on his chest, but I have heard lots of abuse of stage directors (including the great Jean-Pierre Ponnelle) who ignored this ritual. Many modern stage directors obviously find it ridiculous, but they change it at their peril.

[Below: Tosca (Adrianne Pieczonka) places a cross on the body of Baron Scarpia (Lado Ataneli) whom she has just killed; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The third act begins peacefully (after a Puccinian fanfare), with its symphony of church bells and a nicely sung shepherd’s song by Zachary Weisberg, who as a young teenager has amassed enough impressive musical honors in his brief career, as might bring envy to a much older colleague. Conductor Marco Armiliato characteristically presided over the entire opera without using an orchestral score.

Pieczonka had received a heartfelt ovation from the San Francisco Opera audience after her second act Vissi d’arte, but the greatest mid-opera audience approbation occurred after Ventre’s bravura Lucevan le stelle. Modern tenors, like Ventre, know how to exude the inherent drama and energy in arias like this classic, without appearing hammy.

Some professorial treatises have been harsh on the third act of “Tosca”, but if you ignore their formulae as to how Puccini should have scored this act, or how the librettists should have written it, what Puccini gave us truly is a masterpiece. Cavaradossi is resigned to die, but regrets that he never would see Tosca again. Then she appears, like Radames’ vision of Aida in the tomb, to be with him, with the momentous news that she has killed Scarpia.

[Below: Mario Cavaradossi (Carlo Ventre) reads the safe conduct that Tosca (Adrianne Pieczonka) has secured for them; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Whether or not Cavaradossi really believes that his life has been saved, or that the safe conduct is a sham, he can face the firing squad with personal satisfaction. Napoleon was victorious at Marengo, Scarpia is dead, he has had the opportunity to sing of love with Tosca in unison octaves. If the safe conduct is real and the firing squad is using blanks, they can live on. If the firing squad uses real bullets, he leaves this life as contented as he could be under the circumstances.

[Below: the death of Cavaradossi (Carlo Ventre) by firing squad; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Among the others who contributed to this memorable perfromance were Joel Sorensen as Spoletta, and two current Adler Fellows – Austin Kness as Sciarrone, and Kenneth Kellogg as the Jailer.

The audience applause at opera’s end was enthusiastic as each of the principals – Ataneli, Ventre and Pieczonka – stepped before the curtains for their individual bows. Although Ventre appeared at the turn of the millenium in this opera house in two roles, this threesome is new to most of the San Francisco audience. It is certain that these San Franciscans look forward to seeing all three principals in future assignments here.