by Todd O'Dowd
Given its status in the international scene as one of the biggest developers of new opera, and specializing in presenting the world and American premieres of new works, it pays to remember that Minnesota Opera can deliver fantastic productions of the standard repertoire when it chooses to. And there are few operas that embody the standard repertoire more than Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece Tosca, which is getting a thrilling production from our local opera company in spite of a few dissonant staging decisions, and a casting choice that could have doomed the production but actually redeems it.
Based on Victorien Sardou’s fin de siècle melodrama La Tosca which he wrote for the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, the opera tells the story of the singer Floria Tosca (Kelly Kaduce), her lover the artist Mario Cavaradossi (Leonardo Capalbo), and the trouble that they get in with the craven Baron Scarpia (Stephen Powell) in the face of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. Tragedy, of course, ensues.
There are many reasons why Tosca is considered to be the ultimate “first opera.” First off, the plot and characters are pretty straightforward in that, political situations to one side, it is very easy to follow; given the broad characters and potboiler nature of their plots, many of the “well made plays” of Sardou and his contemporaries have become the basis for operas (such as this, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Fedora). In particular, Puccini’s operas (including La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, and more) are ideal for the novice opera-goer as his music is so evocative and so singer-friendly with the core of the character built into the music that it’s easy for audiences to get and allows the performers to easily commit to the action. Not only that, but Puccini’s work in general (and Tosca in particular) is part of the verismo school of opera, where the authors were trying to go for a more realistic approach to character development and storytelling. The net result is that if everyone stay out of the show’s way, it will succeed. But the converse is that this accessibility leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and allows inspired artists to bring their own spins on this tale, catering to their sensibilities.
Given how artist and performer-friendly Tosca is, I have to applaud conductor Anne Manson’s taut reading of the score; which milked every ounce of drama and color while still being very attentive to the singers, and pulled of the near-impossible by making the interludes as compelling as all of the arias. More impressively, she pulled out all of the romanticism inherent in the score without sacrificing musical tempo or dramatic pacing. As sharp as Maestra Manson’s take on the score is I felt that director Andrea Cigni could have used more focus in his approach to the material. The biggest sin for me was in terms of the design with sets and costumes by Lorenzo Cutùli and lighting by Fiammetta Baldiserri. As sumptuous as the visual production was – and it most definitely was with its massive statues of the reclining Madonna and the winged angel of justice, gorgeous period costumes, and moody lighting – at the end of the day, it didn’t feel connected to – or more importantly essential to – the storytelling. As I was watching, I kept feeling that all of the jaw-dropping effects (like the rising dais, the turning battlements, the forced perspectives in the backdrops, and so forth) were just for the sake of effect and not connecting in any vital way to the story or to the mechanics of the storytelling. More egregiously, Ms. Baldiserri’s lighting in Act II seemed to be off, leaving the performers in shadows on their big arias (which include Tosca’s centerpiece aria “Vissi d’arte”). Ultimately, Mr. Cigni’s direction never seemed to have a point of view about the piece which would have connected the visual effects of this physical production to the story he was trying to tell. Don’t get me wrong; his actual staging of the show was very clean and allowed a lot of room for the performers to bring their own idiomatic takes to the roles (more on them in a bit) and I appreciate when a director can stay out of the way of any theatrical piece, but that exposes their artistic choices more to the audience and the result was the effect of an effective traffic cop.
Physical conception and execution to one side, Mr. Cigni’s direction succeeds for me in terms of the performances he gets from his cast. In hindsight, Ms. Kaduce is a slightly odd choice for the title role; jumping into the title role days before the opening as Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross withdrew from the production. Don’t get me wrong, the Minnesota native sings and acts the role beautifully with her shimmering soprano, some choice uses of chest voice in Tosca’s confrontations with Scarpia, dramatic commitment to Tosca’s plight, and is more than up to the challenge of “Vissi D’arte,” Tosca’s demanding and defining Act II aria, with a gorgeously phrased rendition. Moreover, she gracefully commands the stage not in the grand diva sense but by imbuing the character with sheer star presence and looks every inch the fin de siècle heroine; with the cumulative effect being a strong, smart performance. The only quibble I had with her performance is that her silvery lyric soprano (which was put to such good use in Minnesota Opera’s recent production of Rusalka) lacks the Italianate throb of the grandezza style of performance that the role of Tosca needs. This is not a knock by any means: the fact that she pulls of such a strong performance with so little rehearsal time is a testament to her considerable talents, and if she had a full rehearsal process she would probably would have had more time to explore the role vocally. But it does stand out in contrast to her co-stars, in particular Leonardo Capalbo’s very Italianate take on Mario. Everything about Mr. Capalbo’s wry, throbbing tenor and winning stage presence which was slightly off in last season’s production of The Manchurian Candidate is used to thrilling effect as the painter who becomes an unlikely revolutionary. From the first notes of “Recondita armonia” to his Act III jail aria “E lucevan le stelle”, Capalbo fully embodies the Italian romantic hero. And it must be said that there are sparks aplenty between Mr. Capalbo and Ms. Kaduce onstage who simply just look delicious together as the artist and temperamental muse. Even better, they sound great together in their Act I dueling arias (“Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta” / “Qual’occhio al mondo”) and in the tricky a capella “Triumphante” sequence in Act III, where there were in perfect lockstep unison. Of course, there is always a third part of a romantic triangle and baritone Stephen Powell dives headfirst into the role of Scarpia with delicious glee. Of course he has help; Scarpia is easily one of the best-written villain roles in all of Italian opera and Powell is so deliciously unrepentant in the role. His rich baritone has no problems with the role’s demands from his attempted seductions (and worse) of Tosca in Act II to his soaring singing in the Act I “Te Deum” sequence (featuring thrilling work from the Minnesota Opera chorus); all while losing none of venereal aspects of the character. And I have to give a special shout out to Benjamin Sieverding for his wickedly charming performance as the Sacristan at the top of the show.
It’s refreshing to see that Minnesota Opera, a company world-renown for its specialization in modern and opera works, can easily and handily deliver stunning performances of the standard repertoire. And their current production of Tosca is exactly what we should expect of a standard repertoire work; a thrilling reading of the score thanks to conductor Anne Manson, and captivating turns from the three principals. It’s both a brilliant presentation and an ideal “first opera” for any viewer, yet strong enough to please any die-hard opera fan.
Minnesota Opera’s production of Tosca continues through Sunday, March 26 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts; located at 345 Washington St in St. Paul. Performances will be Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $25 – 200 and can be purchased at the Ordway’s box office, or on the Minnesota Opera’s website.
Photo Credits: Dan Norman for Minnesota Opera