Continuing the experiment from the opening of the season, San Francisco Opera’s current run of Tosca has several performances occurring on consecutive days or in close proximity, necessitating two different casts. The Thursday opening made headlines when the leading lady was felled by illness and a new talent, Melody Moore, made her mark in storybook fashion. I attended the second night, when a cast anchored by Puccini heroine extraordinaire Patricia Racette made a persuasive case that this was the Tosca cast to see. The head-to-head scheduling will naturally invite comparisons, but I was happy to report on the second cast and give this group their due without allusions to La Gheorghiu.
Tosca was the opera for the very first opening night in the War Memorial Opera House on 15 October 1932, and is therefore an important work in the company’s history. Remarkably, the sets from the original production were in use until Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s new production opened in 1972. Thierry Bosquet’s current production design, in many ways an archival reconstituting of the original one, was introduced in 1997 and has provided an old-school, respectful treatment of Puccini’s pot-boiler ever since. The production does not recontextualize the piece: it is Puccini’s brilliant, but often maligned warhorse straight up: a tale set in Rome in June 1800 about a diva, her lover, a corrupt police chief and how their heated passions lead them all to their respective dooms.
From her first entrance, Racette’s Tosca was every bit the diva, and she was engrossing to behold. She conveyed the heroine’s fiery, artistic temperament with convincing flair, and sang securely with vocal aptness. As the intensity of the opera began to tighten in Act II, this Tosca met each crisis with a combination of nobility and hard-nosed pragmatism. Her facial expression of resignation and revulsion when asking Scarpia’s price for her lover’s life was especially effective. Where some sopranos spit the words “Il prezzo”, Racette murmured them wearily as if she fully expected the interview would degenerate to a sordid proposal. During her set piece in this act, “Vissi d’arte”, Racette avoided the detached grand manner and sang the familiar aria with histrionic commitment that vividly communicated her character’s momentary despair. In the last act she forgot a line, “di leguerem, siccome alte sul mare”, but it hardly marred the total performance of this extraordinary vocal artist.
The role of Cavaradossi in this cast was originally slated for the late Salvatore Licitra, but the tenor’s fatal accident in 2011 forced the company to look within its own ranks to find a replacement. The assignment fell to third-year Adler Fellow Brian Jagde, a promising new talent who had previously sung smaller parts in the War Memorial Opera House. Though enthusiastically applauded at the end of the night, I thought Jagde’s performance was uneven and his approach to the role’s vocal demands worrisome. Pushing his voice to make bigger and bigger sounds during Puccini’s densely orchestrated climaxes, the tenor met the challenges with forceful ardor that led to whitened tone and strain. At times he achieved an impressive effect, but at what cost? Jagde has succeeded in heavy repertory elsewhere, but the demands of Cavaradossi are considerable in a house of this size. Perhaps the young tenor should shelve this role for a time and explore more felicitous repertory.
Mark Delavan had the vocal goods as Scarpia, but his characterization lacked the dangerous, threatening qualities that make for a memorable villain. Capable of singing with great volume and intensity, Delavan’s was the first Scarpia that I have ever heard above the chorus during the final bars of the Te Deum that closes the first act. As Spoletta, Joel Sorenson was a malignant shadow whose eerie, dance-like movement enhanced a fine vocal characterization. Christian Van Horn as Angelotti and veteran Dale Travis as the Sacristan were in Racette’s league dramatically and made solid contributions.
Nicola Luisotti seemed to exert more capricious control over the orchestra on this occasion than in other efforts this season. Rather than serve the opera’s inherent momentum, he slowed tempi and underscored certain effects in ways that occasionally distracted from the action on stage. The orchestra played with such mannered decelerando during Scarpia’s Act I entrance, for example, that the moment wholly lacked shock and awe and the police chief sauntered in, as if in slow-mo. Tosca is, above all, a melodrama, but this treatment robbed Delavan of the chance to make a terrifying first impression. Luisotti’s accustomed verve and good taste won out, though, and he and the orchestra hurled the opera and its eponymous heroine to their tragic ends with satisfying results.