Opera companies often present productions that reimagine classic works, offering some sort of updated, conceptual, or otherwise unexpected dramatic takes.
When such unconventional stagings succeed, they can refresh and reinvigorate a familiar mainstay in exciting and welcome ways. But when they fail, they distort the meaning of the opera and undermine its power.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s latest production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” (1900), which opened Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House, completely takes the opposite view. It presents a version of one of the best known and most popular pieces in the operatic repertoire that could hardly be more traditional.
First seen in Lyric, the set was originally created in 1972 for the San Francisco Opera House by famed and ubiquitous French director and set designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who died in 1988.
The sets are opulent, hyper-realistic and unmistakably beautiful, especially the detailed interior of the church in the opening scene, with Ponnelle skillfully using perspective to give it an impressive sense of vastness and depth.
The extremely historic look and feel of the visuals, including the matching costumes by Marcel Escoffier, leaves little room for a dramatic overhaul. So director Louisa Muller largely stayed away and simply relied on the innate power of this searing tale of love, lust, and betrayal.
With electric performances from two of the three main characters and a lively rendition of Puccini’s endlessly compelling score by Lyric’s top-notch pit orchestra, this simple approach proved to be very effective for the most part.
Set in Rome in 1800 against the backdrop of the Napoleonic invasion, this opera begins with an artist, Mario Cavaradossi, in love with Floria Tosca, an opera diva. The singers embodying these two roles, tenor Russell Thomas and soprano Michelle Bradley, are wonderfully matched vocally and dramatically, and they generate sparks in their romantic duets in the first and third acts.
Thomas has a natural and easy feel for Puccini’s Italian musical styles. He could hardly have been more at home in the role of Cavaradossi, delivering the character’s slender lines with technical poise and thrilling expressiveness.
Cavaradossi is hiding a political revolutionary, Spoletta (tenor Rodell Rosel), who has escaped, and he is arrested by Rome’s cruel chief of police, Baron Scarpia. The official longs to have his way with Tosca, and he sees the artist’s imprisonment as the bargaining chip he needs with the singer.
Bradley in his lyrical debut is quite the equal of Thomas, hitting all the high notes and convincingly conveying Tosca’s tragic emotion and unwavering courage. She is completely convincing as she stabs Scarpia and spits out the words “Die and be damned”.
Baritone Fabián Veloz amply proves himself in Scarpia and holds his own with the other two principals, but his performance never really comes to life in the same way. While Veloz conveys some of the police chief’s villainy, Scarpia should be dripping with evil and lasciviousness, and that’s not the case here.
41-year-old conductor Eun Sun Kim, who began her tenure as San Francisco Opera’s Music Director last year, animates and enriches this production along the way. She is generating considerable buzz in the opera world, and it’s not hard to see why.
Kim displays a keen understanding of the dramatic arc of this well-constructed opera and an instinctive sense of tempo, knowing when to step back and when to seize the action with crackling rhythm. Hope to see her again soon in the Lyric pit.
One of the most memorable moments of the evening came before production even began. Anthony Freud, Chairman, CEO and CEO of Lyric, took the stage to profess the international company’s solidarity with the people of Ukraine and announce an opening performance of the country’s national anthem.
But what followed wasn’t just an instrumental performance by the pit orchestra. The curtain rose to reveal the full-dress company choir in front of the set, and they sang the anthem movingly as the audience stood in awe.