If opera was to be relayed in newspaper format, then Puccini’s Tosca would certainly be tabloid. A “shabby little shocker” as it was infamously called by Joseph Kerman. Shocker and all, I brought a friend to this evening’s performance at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. I found out on the way there that she had never attended an opera in her life, and I wondered what she’d make of the lush Italianate melodrama, and the pile of dead bodies and no human voices left by the end. She loved it. From the very opening, in media res, on a weekday workaday church scene (atheist artist and pious sacristan at loggerheads) to the super-theatrical end, as Tosca leaps from the Castel Sant'Angelo (“What did she fall on?” my friend wanted to know. “A mattress?”), it’s nothing if it’s not watchable, accessible and entertaining. 

Marina Costa-Jackson (Tosca)
© Don Ipock

The audience, pleasingly a pretty full house for the last opera of the 2022 season, was very amused by Act 1, which was played up for comedy. Stephen West was the burly-voiced, constantly flummoxed Sacristan, always trying to pick-up, patch-up and remember his pious gestures, while throwing his eyes to heaven over loose-living artists. There were even some laughs in subsequent acts which I found more ambivalent: I’m not sure whether they came from a place of nerves or whether the unfolding of the tragedy just seemed to be too camp and predictable; was there really something about the way Tosca sang “He’s dead; I can forgive him now” that tickled their funny bone?

Carol Vaness’ production is straightforwardly traditional, and R Keith Brumley’s sets well-detailed and historically authentic looking. That said, the flag flying in Act 3 looked suspiciously like the Vatican flag of the Lateran Treaty of 1929 which would make it highly anachronistic; but it is true that from 1808, a yellow and white cockade would have been common, and keys and tiara on Papal merchant flags. Anyway, these are minor details of Roman Catholic pageantry; in the main, the religious elements in the drama were carefully observed, and indeed played nicely at all stages for juxtaposition; the eucharistic procession is backdrop for Scarpia’s blasphemous declaration of idolatry. 

Michael Mayes (Scarpia) and Stephen West (Sacristan)
© Don Ipock

Marina Costa-Jackson was a splendid Tosca. She amply portrayed just how untragic Tosca of Act 1 can be, which was an insight in itself. There was nothing foreboding hanging over her at all. With her polished, well-articulated voice, she was flighty, volatile, self-indulgent, jealous and obsessive, of course, but amusing even in her insecurities (about “blue-eyed blonds” principally) and piquantly selective in her piety (what could be done or said in front of the Madonna depended on her arbitrary whim of the moment). 

Perhaps, on reflection, that’s why the Act 1 Tosca which the audience relished bled into their perception of the very different Tosca who came into her own in Act 2 (hence the odd laughter at moments). It is in the protracted scene between Scarpia (baritone Michael Mayes) and Tosca where she is transformed into tragic heroine, icon of virtue, (Costa-Jackson’s “Vissi d’arte” aria was beautifully intoned), and at last into avenging justice (where her lovely voice becomes a scream). The drama between Scarpia and Tosca is more central therefore to the action than between Tosca and her lover, and I really think they played this scene very powerfully. The tapestries hanging in the background of the opulent chamber, represent Michaelangelo-esque angels, both good and fallen, so we are in no doubt that we have been swept up suddenly into a drama of high moral transcendence and unspeakable immoral abjection. Mayes had grown into his role, and although his lower register wasn’t absolutely as strong as it might have been, the vocal power play was exciting and effective, with Tosca dominating the high notes. His half-spoken “Ebbene?” (Well?) was a withering understatement of his power over her. Her answer is to kill him and then, in an act of piety, to surround him with candles and lay the crucifix on his breast. “Vissi d’arte” indeed. Even his death becomes her work of art. 

Marina Costa-Jackson (Tosca) and Dimitri Pittas (Cavaradossi)
© Don Ipock

Dimitri Pittas had a pleasing lyrical tenor as Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi, who is haplessly caught up a fraught network of politics and love. Roles like this benefit from vocal expanse and a disproportionate excess of lyricism, and Pittas’ tenor did not give full leeway to his emotions tonight. Anyway, we don’t mind so much because it is all about Tosca and Scarpia. Conductor Ryan McAdams believes that conducting Tosca “with its molten intensity, is like an opulent form of wilderness therapy”. Although occasionally I thought we could have benefited from even more violent contrast, I think the orchestra were largely with him in luxuriating in the big scale of the work.