In director John Caird and designer Bunny Christie's production of Tosca at the Lyric Opera, the church in which the action takes place is a high-ceilinged dungeon with small windows arrayed across the high sides of the wall, as if to deter escapees. In front, a high painter’s scaffold supports giant chunks of canvas that split the difference of a woman’s face, their jagged edges rhyming visually with a jagged piece missing from the ceiling that never lets any light in.

Brian Jagde (Cavaradossi) © Todd Rosenberg
Brian Jagde (Cavaradossi)
© Todd Rosenberg

Tosca is an unremittingly dark opera, and the touches of the macabre and the surreal in this production brought some visual variety to a relatively static set. But there is simply too much on stage, and most of it too clumsily blocked, to achieve the spareness necessary for the horror to pop. That great scaffold in the first act, for instance, blocks a large swath of stage behind; alongside some candles and statues, the stage presents a relatively flat forward tableau that stifles dynamic access to the cavernous hall behind.

Things hardly improve in Act II, in which a great deal of torture goes unshown, and the dramatic interest comes instead in the torturous game that Scarpia plays with Tosca. Again, the stage is flooded with knick-knacks, this time in the form of a riot of crates that suggest the action’s remove to a more private area. But the visually complicated set doesn’t contribute to interesting movement on stage; rather it seems to pen the characters in.

Tatiana Serjan (Tosca) and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia) © Michael Brosilow
Tatiana Serjan (Tosca) and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia)
© Michael Brosilow
It is only at the beginning of the last act that the set is stripped bare and the stage attains something like coherence and simplicity, although the effect is ruined by the production’s biggest misstep, that of having the shepherd boy, played here by a girl soprano, sing from the very back of the stage – where the sound barely carries – as she’s framed in moonlight. It is very hard to excuse a production favoring a visual effect at the expense of an aural one; here the choice is awkward and utterly unconvincing.

Luckily, other parts of the opera sounded better. Nearly everyone in this first cast (starting February 27, the four main roles will be replaced with fresh voices) was excellent. The stand-out has to be the American tenor Brian Jagde, called in at the last minute to replace Mischa Didyk. His voice is a force, clarion-clear, muscly, with just those notes of honey and throatiness that seem to wrap up an orchestra’s sound and deliver the whole package to your front door, no signature needed.

Alongside him was Tatiana Serjan’s Tosca, flirtatious and irresistible. Serjan’s great achievement in this role is how relaxed she seems in the first act, the physicality of her body marrying beautifully with the lilt in her voice. Singing with a strong vibrato that sometimes carried over the pit and sometimes succumbed to it, Serjan’s immaculate style nevertheless couldn’t match her partner for clarity and body; but few could.

That said, she and Jagde were the clear favourites of the night. Less successful was Evgeny Nikitin’s Scarpia, which may have been less an issue of performance than of casting. Nikitin’s voice has an elegance and roundness that hardly suit him for Scarpia, whose words should etch themselves into your skull. It hardly helped that Nikitin’s gestures for the villain were straight out of children’s theater – do we really need to see Scarpia raise his arms dramatically with every threat? It became clear how much the opera is held together by the force of Scarpia’s vocal and physical presence; without it, the action seems undermotivated, the acts sliding somewhat listlessly from one to the next.

Tatiana Serjan (Tosca) © Todd Rosenberg
Tatiana Serjan (Tosca)
© Todd Rosenberg

Let me end by praising one of the great performances of the night: the orchestra’s. Under Dmitri Jurowski’s baton, this night saw the Lyric’s house band find again and again an exquisite late 19th century sound, the winds and brass speaking gorgeously from within beds of strings. No signs of rushed preparation were in evidence on this opening night. Instead, with Jagde singing over the mix, it was some of the most pleasurable opera you’re likely to hear this year. 

***11