The oddest thing about the Santa Fe Opera’s Tosca is the principal set element. The audience entering the theater on Wednesday evening was greeted by an ominous sight: Silhouetted darkly against the sunset sky was what looked like the atomic bomb from John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. It was a huge globe with projections (detonators?) sticking out all around it. The fact that Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, was in the far background increased the sense.
When the sun went down, the lights went up, and details became apparent, it became clear that this was no dread object. Instead, it was a church dome lying on its side. In front of it was a gigantic painting lying flat on the floor.
Now it was obvious what scenic designer Yannis Thavoris was up to. The audience was to imagine that it was looking up into the interior of a church, like those tourists who lie on the floor of the Sistine Chapel to get a better view of Michelangelo’s ceiling.
There was another unsettling possibility, that Santa Fe was about to embark on a Eurotrash version of Puccini’s opera, with, say, Cavaradossi and Tosca as physicists working on the Manhattan Project and Scarpia as their evil, German-spy supervisor. Tosca could then go out in a real flash of glory.
Strangely, the weirdness of the set didn’t infect the rest of Santa Fe’s production, which was quite along traditional lines with only a few, sensible innovations. The main problem is that the set is distracting; a secondary problem is that it gets in the way. People keep walking all over Cavaradossi’s painting and he never complains. He is even shot to death while standing on his painting. The crowd scenes are really crowded; the set squeezes them off to either side.
Those problems aside, Wednesday’s performance went well. Bass Raymond Aceto, a familiar figure to Dallas Opera audiences, was superb as Scarpia, coming close to dominating the evening. His faux-lyric passages increased the sinister atmosphere.
Soprano Amanda Echalaz’s Tosca, a little vocally piercing at times, still presented an excellent, dramatically on-the-mark performance. I liked the way her “Vissi d’arte” was relatively simple, free of histrionics, yet deeply moving. She even did it standing up — maybe a first for Tosca.
Tenor Brian Jagde, standing in for the originally scheduled Andrew Richards, cut a heroic figure and sang nobly, if never rising much above the level of the usual, decently sung Cavaradossi.
Conductor Frederic Chaslin and the Santa Fe orchestra and chorus contributed greatly to the pleasures of the evening.
Stage director Stephen Barlow dealt with the set problem basically by ignoring it (if there’s no place else to walk, walk on the painting). He introduced a few things new to Tosca (aside from the standing-up “Vissi d’arte”). One remarkable innovation was turning the shepherd boy who sings a little offstage ditty at the beginning of Act 3 into Scarpia’s janitor. This isn’t as silly as it sounds. After singing while cleaning up Scarpia’s office, he comes upon the villain’s body. Usually the corpse is discovered offstage. It still may sound questionable, but it works.
There will be further Toscas on Aug. 11, 15, 18, 21 and 24, with Thomas Hampson stepping in for Aceto. He has a hard act to follow.
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