Other than the inevitable La bohème, it is the opera that I have seen and heard the most over the years.  I know it so thoroughly that I think I could sing along (don’t worry, I wasn’t tempted).  So, I always hope for some new approach or new insight that will shed light on some aspect of character or phrasing.  But while it was a very satisfying musical afternoon, neither singers nor the determinedly tradition production provided anything of the sort. 

Played out on beautiful, detailed sets by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and featuring lavish costumes by the late Marcel Escoffier, the direction of Louisa Muller was quite as you would expect of a standard production, despite her program notes indicating that she hoped to “find new layers”.  I certainly didn’t find any.

But there was plenty to love about the Lyric Opera Orchestra, under the masterful baton of the Lyric-debuting conductor Eun Sun Kim.  Kim, who recently began her tenure as San Francisco Opera’s first female music director, drew every bit of humor, melodrama, and pathos in Puccini’s glorious score. 

She led with musical intelligence and perfect pacing, and you could almost feel the high spirits of the orchestra in response to her work.  I heard numerous nuances that I’d never heard before as she led great contrast between the love duet’s romance and jealousy to the harsh and frightening chords of Scarpia’s entrance.

 The singers were something of a mixed bag, though the voices were fine.  Tenor Russell Thomas was a standout from the beginning, playing Cavaradossi as an artist and revolutionary.  His plangent tenor was a perfect fit in the role, singing with passion and gorgeous high notes that rang into the audience.  There was a real tenderness in his portrayal, as well as sensitivity and high humor in answering Tosca’s jealousies. 

The only disappointment was his second act cries of “Vittoria!”, always a highlight for me, but here it seemed underpowered and cut a bit short.  Nevertheless, he sang both his Act 1 and Act 3 major arias with power, emotion, and style.  He also brought an interesting ambivalence to the moment when Tosca tells him he must face a mock execution.  Thomas looks very much like he wants to believe it, but dark doubts cloud his face.

Soprano Michelle Bradley in her role debut and Lyric debut, was a disappointment.  Now don’t get me wrong, her singing was excellent.  She has a rich and creamy soprano, even through the registers, and she hit Tosca’s high C’s fearlessly and cleanly. 

The major problem was that she just doesn’t have Tosca “under her skin” yet.  There was nothing glamorous about her portrayal, no elegance in bearing or movement.  And I always had the feeling that her emotional moments were manufactured, distanced from herself.  This lack of dramatic commitment will, I hope, improve as she sings the role in other venues. 

She was also hampered by Ms. Muller’s direction at the climactic ending.  After she turns front on the parapet to sing a powerful “O Scarpia, Avanti a Dio!”, she nonchalantly walks behind a statue so we don’t see her jump; then we see a dummy plunge through the prison’s barred windows. Extremely ineffective!

Our Scarpia was Argentine baritone Fabian Veloz, who sang well but was underpowered most of time, his voice lost in the orchestra on several occasions. His Scarpia was menacing enough, but his underlying lustful passions were nowhere in evidence.  It was a good, standard performance lacking in depth and nuance.  He was menacing enough to receive the standard combination of bravos and boos for the villain at his curtain call, and it seemed to delight him.

The smaller roles were mostly played by members of the Ryan Opera Center, and they acquitted themselves well, though Alan Higgs is far too young for the Sacristan.  The standout was Rodell Rosel as the conniving enabler Spoletta.

I left the house with a new appreciation of the powerful Puccini score thanks to the brilliant conducting and playing, plus a very well sung afternoon.  I also realized that without fine acting and good chemistry between the leading roles, the story doesn’t fully work.  Now those who were seeing Tosca for the first time might well have enjoyed it, but for we Tosca veterans, it was a pleasant, but flawed, performance.

Photos © Todd Rosenberg