When you think of it, there is not much to the story of Tosca, either in the original play by Victorien Sardou or in the libretto for Giacomo Puccini’s opera by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. You have two moderately successful artists, the painter Mario Cavaradossi and the singer Floria Tosca, who are consumed by a “series of unfortunate events” enacted by Baron Scarpia, who has used his position as chief of police to become the most powerful and feared person in Rome (at the time when it was threatened by the advance of Napoleon’s troops). The scare quotes are intended to suggest that, in other hands (such as Lemony Snicket), this would be the stuff of comedy, even if the humor ventured far into the dark side, particularly if one were to focus on Scarpia’s excesses of self-gratification.
Nevertheless, since the opera’s premiere in Rome (ironically enough) on January 14, 1900, sopranos, tenors, and baritones have been singing their hearts out to escalate the actions of these three characters to high drama. Yesterday afternoon, however, in the War Memorial Opera House, it was the orchestra’s turn. Taking the podium of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Nicola Luisotti disclosed the rich detail of Puccini’s score with an abundance of expressiveness that could barely be confined to the orchestra pit. Through his command of Puccini’s motivic language, Luisotti brought a sense of urgency to the disclosure of the narrative through which the unfolding events were decidedly more than “unfortunate.” At the same time he saw to it that every phrase in that language was properly colored by the scrupulous attention that Puccini had given to instrumentation, whether it involved the strategic sonorities of a double bassoon or pulling out all the stops (perhaps literally) on the backstage pipe organ.
If only the leading soloists had committed themselves to joining Luisotti on this adventurous journey. Of the three leads, baritone Roberto Frontali seemed most aware of Luisotti’s designs and, for the most part, bought into them. The problem, however, is that Scarpia’s principal climax comes with “Va, Tosca!” at the end of the first act. This was as chilling as it has ever been, as Frontali engages in his self-absorbed monologue while an entire cathedral is intoning the Te Deum hymn at the top of their lungs. (This is the pull-out-all-the-stops moment.) Frontali and Luisotti were clearly on the same page in this confrontation between personal power and an overblown mass ritual, making for the most memorable moment in yesterday afternoon’s performance.
Unfortunately, neither Massimo Giordano’s Cavaradossi nor Angela Gheorghiu’s Tosca ever matched the impact of that moment for all the time they occupied the stage. Not only were there signs of resistance with regard to Luisotti’s approach to tempo; but also there were all-too-frequent lapses at the most fundamental level of pitch and intonation. Thus, while the few moments of a cappella from the chorus in the Te Deum scene were heart-stopping, the few measures of triumph declaimed by Cavaradossi and Tosca without orchestra assistance almost ran itself off the rails.
Thus, while it was refreshing to be reminded that Puccini brought an abundance of musical skills to the score he composed for Tosca, it would have been more refreshing had the principal singers given a bit more heed to the guidance coming from the conductor’s podium.