Review: A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera, January 30, 2010

Houston Grand Opera opened the new decade with a new production of “Tosca”, with a distinguished title role debut by Patricia Racette, supported by role debuts of Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov as her lover Mario Cavaradossi and Ohio basso Raymond Aceto as her tormentor, the Baron Scarpia.  The opera was staged by John Caird, the Canadian theater director, writer, and (for Andre Previn’s “Brief Encounter”) opera librettist. I attended the second of five Houston performances.

The “Tosca” production was clearly one championed by its conductor Patrick Summers.  It was another triumph for the successful team of Conductor Summers and soprano Patricia Racette, who appeared together for Santa Fe Opera’s summer season in Morevac’s “The Letter” (See 21st Century Maugham: Morevac, Racette Reopen “The Letter” in Santa Fe – July 29, 2009) and were colleagues again in September for all three operas of Puccini’s Trittico.

(For the first of the triple bill of operas, see: Gavanelli, Racette, Jovanovich In Rousing “Tabarro” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 2009, for the second see: Racette, Podles in San Francisco Opera’s Musically Compelling “Suor Angelica” – September 15, 2009, and for the third, see: Gavanelli’s Commanding Presence as San Francisco Opera’s Gianni Schicchi – September 15, 2009).

Racette has an extraordinarily varied repertory of roles, but has lately spent much time with the Puccini heroines, for which her spinto voice and stellar acting talents make her a natural. Some of her achievements with the Tuscan maestro’s music have been chronicled here (three separate reviews of her Butterfly can be accessed through hyperlinks at Racette, Ventre Impress in Zambello-Inspired “Butterfly” at San Diego Opera- May 20, 2009 and a review of her Magda is at Marta Domingo’s Reconceptualization of “Rondine” Returns to L. A. – June 7, 2008).

Now that her Tosca has been added to her Puccini collection of characters (Musetta in “La Boheme” is also in her current repertory), and she has prepared Manon Lescaut (although the opera company where she was to make her role debut had to withdraw the opera when the economy forced a reduced season), the most obviously missing of the high energy Puccini characters written for the soprano voice – Minnie in “Fanciulla del West” –  has to be under consideration.

Those who had the fortune to see the great soprano Dorothy Kirsten performing Puccini will know it is a compliment to suggest that Racette is perhaps the contemporary artist most obviously carrying on the Puccini legacy that Kirsten and her mentor, Grace Moore, exemplified in the early- and mid- 20th century.

[Below: Patricia Racette is Tosca; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The new production abounds with eccentricities, even though it successfully presented Puccini’s story. With Bunny Chirstie’s sets and costumes (including Tosca in a second act gown with bustle), it proved to be a striking theatrical experience.

The most obvious departure from Puccini’s stage directions is the use of what I call a “puzzle box” unit set – one that attempts to use a single unit set for several different scenes, even though the composer expected that each scene would have its own unique sets. Sometimes this works well enough (Charismatic S. F. “Tannhauser” – October 12, 2007.) Sometimes its results invite ridicule (See Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007 and Hampson Transcends Quirky “Macbeth” in S. F. – November 18, 2007.)

That unit set is obscured at the beginning of each act by one of three forecurtains, successively stained by blood pools and spatter of increasing amounts each act. At the beginning of each act the character who sings that act’s first line runs onstage in front of the forecurtain and in the audience’s view, pulls it down. (Who the characters are might make an interesting opera trivia question, with the answers being, successively, Angelotti, Scarpia and the young shepherd – or, in another departure by this production from tradition – a mysterious spirit assigned the shepherd’s vocal lines.)

The unit set consists of the same spacious room for each act, one that uses the vertical spaces of the Houston Grand Opera’s Brown Theater stage, with a row of clerestory windows ringing the three visible walls.  Of course, since the three scenes are supposed to be a cathedral, the headquarters of Rome’s chief of police, and a place of execution atop the Castel Sant’Angelo, the set is dressed differently for each act. The room has a very high ceiling with a hole it, whose purpose we will understand in the third act.

The first act has a particularly striking vertical feature – Cavaradossi’s scaffolding. His portrait of Mary Magdalene is both massive and in fragments – the lips at one level and each eye on a different one. Until Angelotti arrives, the painting is covered at each level.

Some productions of Tosca have been criticized for de-emphasizing or eliminating such religious features as Tosca’s ritual of arranging candles and a crucifix around Scarpia’s body to close the second act. But Caird moves in the other direction, adding some religious elements, including religious mysticism, beyond those Puccini expected.

Summers arrival in the pit conjured the famous chords of Scarpia’s theme, while Robert Gleadow’s Angelotti ran in front of the footlights to tear down the first act forecurtain, to remove the cloths covering Cavaradossi’s painting (of his sister) and to find his pre-arranged hiding place in the Attavanti chapel.

In the first aria of the piece, Alexei Dolgov sang Recondita armonia with a beautifully toned lyric tenor voice, with enough vocal weight to impress as Cavaradossi, but the flexibility and expressiveness that makes one look forward to hearing Dolgov’s Donizetti heroes. Dolgov’s Cavaradossi becomes aware of Angelotti’s presence and makes the fatal decision (ultimately resulting in an assassination, an execution and two suicides) to help him.

[Below: Mario Cavaradossi (Alexey Dolgov, left) assists the fugitive Angelotti (Robert Gleadow); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Racette exhibited some obvious vocal discomfort following her entrance (no longer noticeable as the act progressed), but charmingly portrayed a youthful, coquettish lover, as well as an art critic (Cavaradossi’s paper sketch for the larger portrait of Marie Magdalene is soon ripped into shreds).

Then Aceto’s Scarpia arrives in a long black coat and white shirt, surrounded by his operatives (Shon Sims earning his induction into the fraternity of sinister Spolettas). In an arresting image, Scarpia ascends to the highest level of Cavaradossi’s scaffolding where he shares his lustful thoughts with the audience while the church processional sings the Te Deum.

[Below: Baron Scarpia (Raymond Aceto, at the top landing of scaffolding at left) sings the Te Deum as the church processional begins in the first act of Tosca in Houston Grand Opera’s John Caird-Bunny Christie unit set for “Tosca”; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Aceto, whom this website regards as one of the best of the current generation of basso cantantes has, with the encouragement of Conductor Patrick Summers, taken on a role that lies higher than what a basso would be expected to sing. Although not without precedent (I saw Giorgio Tozzi perform the role to the Tosca of Magda Olivero in 1978), Scarpia’s high tessitura is unusual terrain for a bass voice.

Aceto is an effective actor and he connected well with the Houston audience. But, as I noted in a review of his Escamillo (see: Impressive Debuts in L. A. Opera “Carmen” – December 6, 2008), I believe performances in basso roles will be his destiny, rather than his excursions into the baritone repertory. (My recent interview with Raymond Aceto will be published on the website later this month.).

Skipping the step of confessing contrition for his sins, Aceto’s Scarpia then takes communion at the hands of an archbishop, then dons his black hat and leaves.

[Below: Baron Scarpia (Raymond Aceto) takes communion; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Aceto’s Scarpia, returning to the footlights for Act II, pulls down another forecurtain to reveal his offices, which, according to Caird’s notes, are supposed to reflect Scarpia’s interest in collecting (stealing) Roman artwork. Crates are everywhere, giving one the impression that we are in a warehouse room adjoining the loading dock of a Wal-Mart-supermarket complex. One of the large statues reminds one of the Castel Sant’Angelo’s Avenging Angel, which, as we will find, is nowhere to be seen in this production’s Act III.

No one plays Scarpia as a nice guy, but Aceto’s police chief was a bit more of a thug than the debonair aristocrat one often sees. When Spoletta arrives with news of his pursuit of Angelotti to Cavaradossi’s villa, Scarpia offers him wine, but when he reveals that Angelotti could not be found, Scarpia knocks the wine out of his hand and cold-cocks him.

Scarpia’s torture chamber, unlike other productions, is not hidden in an adjoining room, but is set up right in the middle of his offices, where the movements of both the torturers and tortured are visible through its slatted walls. The tortured Cavaradossi, returned to the main office to be a pawn in Scarpia’s mind-game with Tosca, overhears Sciarrone’s disconcerting news that previous reports that the Austrian General Melas had defeated Napoleon at Marengo were premature, and that the defeated Austrians were conceding much of Northern Italy to the French.

Cavaradossi’s “Vittoria, vittoria” is, in the Rome of the restored monarchy, treasonous, and gives Scarpia the justification to execute him immediately.

[Below: the prisoner Cavaradossi (Alexey Dolgov) celebrates Napoleon’s victory in Lombardy; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Clearly, the opportunity – even the obligation for a Roman chief of police in a counter-revolutionary state – to immediately conduct Cavaradossi’s summary execution, provides Scarpia with a strategic advantage in his seduction of Tosca. There is a another element of the Aceto Scarpia. All of of Scarpia’s phrases are sung lyrically. When he sings that he has waited for Tosca always, it is sung as passionately and as beautifully as any Italian love song.

Lyricism is a feature that permeates this “Tosca”. In the moment that an incensed Tosca realizes that she is being propositioned by Scarpia, most Toscas snarl “Quanto?”, as Maria Callas did, but Racette sings it at the pitch (C above middle C) that Puccini designated. Of course, what follows is one of the greatest of the Puccini soprano arias, Vissi d’arte, and Racette sang it spectacularly.

[Below: Floria Tosca (Patricia Racette) pleads for Baron Scarpia (Raymond Aceto) to save her lover’s life; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera. ]

Many “Tosca” watchers look to see at which point soprano and stage director determine that Tosca realizes that Scarpia’s dinner knife is within her reach. Racette and Caird make it a last minute, impulsive act, as she is refilling a glass of wine to calm her nerves. If Racette is showing her to be impulsive, she is also thorough, stabbing Aceto’s Scarpia in the neck as well as in the torso. Nor do Caird and Racette ignore the religious images at the end. Scarpia dies with arms outstretched in a cross. She takes a crucifix from around her neck and places it on his body, and collects some offertory candles to place alongside his body.

As the room darkens, one of the statues high atop the crates and boxes begins to glow. It is a representation of the Virgin who appears to beckon her through the doors that lead from the scene of the police chief’s assassination.

The third act begins with the ritual of pulling down the forecurtain, this time by Eliza Masewicz as the “Young Girl”, who in this production replaces the shepherd. She goes to the far wall of the unit set, where a large square opening is visible. The hole in the set’s ceiling is the aperture through which a half dozen hangmen’s nooses have been dropped, one of which stretches all the way to the set’s floor.

Since shepherds would not normally wander around a prison courtyard, which this set will soon appear to represent, one soon realizes that this is no shepherd. (Masewicz, who is indeed a young girl with a bright voice, was Peaseblossom in Houston Grand Opera’s 2009 production of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

Cavaradossi is led onstage, and then also a group of a half dozen companion prisoners, many of whom he knows and greets with affection. We see that they have been assembled to watch the hanging of Angelotti’s body (that Scarpia ordered in Act II), and it is pulled upward all the way to the ceiling, where it swings back and forth (a bit distractingly). That ceremony completed, all of the other prisoners are led away.

Dolgov’s Cavaradossi sings E lucevan le stelle, one of the tenor anthems. Dolgov’s expressiveness and soft, luscious sound made it clear that here is yet another great operatic talent. When Tosca arrives and explains how the “mock execution” is to work, Dolgov straightens out his fingers, clearly signalling the audience of his skepticism. The firing squad having left, Tosca discovers the grim truth.

[Below: Tosca (Patricia Racette) weeps over the body of Mario Cavaradossi (Alexey Dolgov); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Scarpia’s death discovered, as Spoletta and company attempt to corner Tosca, the Young Girl reappears in the large square opening in the back wall, and beckons Tosca to join her. Tosca kills herself with a blood-spurting knife wound to the neck and the orchestra, intoning a principal theme of E lucevan le stelle, signals Tosca’s reunification with her lover Mario.

“Tosca” is great theater, and the Caird staging was insightful and illuminating, even though one suspects that much of his innovative thinking about how to present the piece will be confined to this production. The singing of Racette and Dolgov was superb, and the cantante Scarpia another of Aceto’s impressive gallery of characterizations.

All performances of the Houston Grand Opera “Tosca” are completely sold out, and deservedly so.