By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Based on the drama by Victorien Sardou
San Francisco Opera
Conducted by Marco Armiliato
Directed by Jose Maria Condemi
June 2-26, 2009
Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca). Photo: Gary Weaver.
Summer nights in San Francisco can be pretty darned chilly. But things are heating up over at the War Memorial Opera House where Puccini’s steamy melodrama of love, lust and bloody revenge, “Tosca,” is on the stage. The solid, traditional production is a re-creation of the one that first opened the opera house in 1932. The years don’t show and, with gorgeous costumes and sets by Thierry Bosquet, the work looks as fresh as the morning dew sparkling on the battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo. With the orchestra under the baton of Marco Armiliato the lush score was capably delivered.
Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka takes the title role, that of a beautiful, fiery Roman singer during the Napoleonic Wars. Her full, rich soprano soars in the dramatic passages and turns wistful and tender in her centerpiece aria “Vissi d’arte.” She is that coveted entity, a singing actress, and, though the libretto is pretty melodramatic, she avoids hamming it up. Carlo Ventre, who has sung the romantic leads in “La Traviata” and “Simon Boccanegra” in San Francisco, is Mario Cavaradossi, the revolutionary artist whom she loves. Ventre was a bit stiff in Act I and his voice sounded forced but, after he was arrested in the second act, he seemed to warm to the role. All it took was a little torture at the hands of the sadistic police chief and his henchmen to loosen the tenor up and his triumphant “Vittoria” (victory) rang through the house. His final scene, as he faces his death sentence, was similarly well-sung.
But forget the lovers, if you can. The linchpin of any “Tosca” is the villain and San Francisco has found a fine one in Lado Ataneli, a native of Georgia (the Russian one, not the U.S. state), who is making his Bay Area debut by way of the great baritone roles he has sung all over Europe and at the Met. Not since the glory days of Tito Gobbi and, to a lesser degree, Sherrill Milnes, has there been such a Scarpia. Autocratic, venomous, yet not without a certain slimy charm, his lust for Tosca drives a wedge between the lovers that only brings them closer in the end. So good is Ataneli in the role, you are a little sorry to see him die as the heroine stabs him with a dinner knife, rather than submit to his will.
Much of the credit for the success of this production is due to the direction of Jose Maria Condemi, an Argentinean native who is himself a former Adler Fellow of the San Francisco Opera training program. Paired with Christopher Bergen’s super titles, the action is remarkably clear and easy to understand. Motivation is transparent and one gets the sense that these are actual human beings, dealing with genuine situations, rather than puppets posturing on a stage. This is in the best tradition of verismo, the realistic form of music-drama championed by Mascagni, Leoncavallo and, most of all, Puccini himself. The maestro would be proud.