‘Tosca’: a lithe and lively leap into the abyss

Warhorse? Maybe. But Portland Opera's latest Puccini goes for the gusto.

Mark Schnaible as Scarpia, Roger Honeywell as Cavaradossi, Kara Shay Thomson as Tosca. © Portland Opera / Cory Weaver

Mark Schnaible as Scarpia, Roger Honeywell as
Cavaradossi, Kara Shay Thomson as Tosca. © Portland Opera / Cory Weaver

Watching Friday’s opening night of “Tosca” at Portland Opera, I got to thinking about Henry James.

No, not because Benjamin Britten adapted James’s ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” as an opera (which Portland Opera produced, quite well, in 2009). I thought about James because he was the master of the allusive, thoroughly explored and sometimes almost painfully drawn-out story. A little older than Puccini, he wrote some of his most elaborate novels around the time of “Tosca,” which premiered in 1900. And “Tosca,” it struck me, is everything those expansive James novels are not: terse, tense, all in a rush. While James was busily keeping the 19th century alive and kicking, Puccini was anticipating the Age of Hemingway. Get in, tell your tale, get out. Anything else is interior decoration.

Friends, this is melodrama – and I mean that with a good deal of admiration. Like other staples of the operatic stage, “Tosca” often gets dismissed as a warhorse, which means old and sturdy and unchallenging and predictable. I prefer to think of it as a war jaguar: lean, mean, sleek as a cat. Critic Joseph Kerman famously called it a “shabby little shocker,” a phrase he might have meant as an insult but quickly became a box office boon. Like Bizet’s “Carmen,” premiered 25 years earlier, “Tosca” gets down and dirty without wasting a lot of time on introspection, and it’s got the storytelling fervor of the yellow-journalism press – plus, importantly, music that’s memorable and accessible and even hummable. Shabby. Shocking. Encore!

No matter what the critics and even other composers say (Britten declared himself “sickened by the cheapness and emptiness” of the score), “Tosca” remains exceptionally popular with people who actually buy tickets, and that popularity tempted Portland Opera into bringing back the same production it presented just a few short years ago, in 2005. It’s a good, solid production, with sets by Ercole Sormani and costumes by Michael Stennett that cloak the tale in rich historical bronzes and browns and never draw too much attention to themselves: they serve the singers and the story. I liked the production in 2005, and I like it now. This “Tosca” works much better for me than last fall’s Portland Opera recycling of another warhorse (I’m tempted, in the case of that obtrusively directed production, to call it a war elephant), “Don Giovanni.”

Whatever its technical faults may or may not be, “Tosca” is terrific theater, and it’s good to remember that. Critics and fellow composers despaired of Mussorgsky’s technique, too, which didn’t keep him from creating memorable music. And while Puccini was a great composer, he was also very much a man of the theater, which honors the pragmatic art of making things work. The critic Ernest Newman (I gather this and Britten’s verbal slap from Wikipedia’s good essay on “Tosca”) allowed that Puccini’s operas “are to some extent a mere bundle of tricks, but no one else has performed the tricks nearly as well.” In other words: They work.

“Tosca” has a heroine, a hero, and a villain, and everything else exists to set them toward their inevitable clash. The hero, Cavarodossi (Roger Honeywell), is a painter who helps Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner (Nicholas Nelson). Cavaradossi loves the famous singer Floria Tosca (Kara Shay Thomson), who is devoted to him and overcomes a fit of misplaced jealousy urged on by the villainous Scarpia (Mark Schnaible), the Roman police chief, who’s a sort of corrupt Javert: he’s determined to get his man, but while he’s at it he’s going to get his woman, too. That’s really all you need to know. Oh – and everybody dies, quite satisfyingly. In that sense, the thing’s positively Shakespearean.

I can’t say there’s a huge amount of sexual magnetism drawing Honeywell and Thomson together, but that’s OK: Thomson sings Tosca beautifully, with a honeyed and full-bodied tone, and when the drama gets deep she’s hellzapoppin. Don’t cross Tosca. She’s tough. Honeywell, who was the caddish Pinkerton in last year’s lovely “Madame Butterfly,” has a lighter tenor that can sometimes get muted by the troublesome acoustics of Keller Auditorium, but his acting’s good and his voice rings out fine and clearly in the clutches. Bass-baritone Schnaible, making his Portland Opera debut, is a suitably scurvy Scarpia without pushing him into cartoon territory, and Metropolitan Opera vet Thomas Hammons, another bass-baritone, makes the most of the comic and musical possibilities in his brief role as the fussy church Sacristan. David Kneuss, the executive stage director of the Met who’s making his Portland Opera debut, keeps the action flowing swiftly and cleanly, and the orchestra, under director Joseph Colaneri, is in particularly fine fettle, playing clean and swift and reveling in the big bold dramatic moments. In brief: it’s a good, well-turned “Tosca,” with many more pluses than minuses, and if I had the time I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

A final note: Tosca, of course, leaps to her death from a parapet as the opera ends, a dramatic moment – you could call it a shabby little shocker – that’s always a challenge for opera companies. (As is Don Giovanni’s fiery descent into the maws of Hell, which was accomplished in last fall’s PO production by a ludicrous hop and leap into an open casket.) Thomson takes her tumble with a fine dive, as graceful and defiant as a dying swan. It’s a lovely dramatic moment (and for “Tosca” veterans, a moment of deep relief), worthy of a “Brava!” or three all by itself.

NOTES:

  • Portland Opera’s “Tosca” repeats February 3, 7, and 9 at Keller Auditorium. Ticket information is here.
  • James McQuillen’s review for The Oregonian is here.

 

 

 

 

 

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