San Francisco Opera 2018-19 Review: Tosca

Carmen Giannattasio & Brian Jagde Solid Though This ‘Tosca’ Never Takes Flight

By Lois Silverstein

San Francisco Opera has always been in love with Puccini’s “Tosca.”

From 1932, when the War Memorial Opera House first opened its doors, until today, this opera has been its darling. Every Opera Director has wanted her on its stage; every dramatic soprano has wanted to perform her.

The new production in San Francisco has set her in motion once again, directed by Shawna Lucey  and designed by Robert Innes Hopkins. The performance also features debut-making heroine and debut-making conductor. This “Tosca” was received with open arms.

Slowly Growing Into the Diva

Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio, featuring a powerful, round, and full voice, sang Tosca with much rich beauty. She played the diva full-on, and took the stage in a range of guises. In her famous aria in Act two, “Vissi d’arte,” she engaged us with her searching questions about art and life compelling our attention with a flexible and well-colored voice.

This, however, stood in contrast to her pouting coquettish behavior in Act one, a hit with many audience members despite actions and expressions that aimed for cute and clever rather than depth. The paintbrush “swordplay,”   for example, called attention to itself rather than the overall building of passion. So too her not kissing Mario in front of the Madonna and making it more silly than poignant. In fact, while nice details in themselves, putting candles by Scarpia’s head, after she murdered him, crossing herself before she leaped off the parapet, didn’t develop as she busied herself a little like a mother hen than an imperious paramour, and as such didn’t contribute to the growth of personal power.

That said, there was an intricate development that hinted that she find greater depth in the role as she grows more comfortable with it. For moments, when her murderous rage toward Scarpia poured out of her body, face, voice, she gave us more than a glimpse. Despite all her pleadings up to that moment, she had been putty in his hands, but here,  she rose from wrath to power. Here was a Tosca to reckon with. We were more moved by this than by the previous ideas in play.

Hero & Villain

Caravadossi, sung by tenor Brian Jagde was hero-worthy. His soaring top register rang in each of his great arias, most particularly in “E Lucevan le stelle,” where his strength and power sent that voice to the stars above. We felt it. There was substantial intensity as he encircled Tosca in his arms, or when he threw Scarpia’s chair in Act two, or prepared for his “pretend” execution in Act three.

However, there were moments where he seemed more an observer than a major participant in the drama. He was undeniably a petulant painter, would-be revolutionary, stalwart martyr, but with attention more than full feeling. In fact, the final scene between the two lovers in Act three came across the same way. Back and forth, the two let their dreams for future happiness spill over the irony of their dialogue, creating impatience rather than despair over the forthcoming debacle.

Puccini’s aim seemed more for grit. So, when Mario doesn’t move after the so-called mock-shooting, we wait for Tosca to “get it” rather than the other way around, and hope for the dialogue to end so reality can land. He is dead: you were duped; power rules. Even her violent turnaround on the guards lacked some of Puccini’s urgency.

Scarpia sung by Scott Hendricks too lacked menace. He was oily, insidious, but never a real threat. Neither in weight of voice nor cunning, except that one stage gesture in Act two when he crept around the chair with Tosca on the opposite side. It was brilliant, the two of them peering at each other, Scarpia getting ever closer, conniving and genuinely dangerous.

But, his range was neither low and full enough nor his evil even biting enough. So too, Leo Hussain, debut-making conductor from Great Britain, often swallowed his deep registers and words were buried.


This too from the opening, when Angelotti, sung by Hadleigh Adams, who raced in, his words not well articulated, nor his limp convincing. The exposition unfolded rather than plunged us into urgency.

This too with the Sacristan, sung by Dale Travis,  playing the part more for gags, and which the audience ate up. As melodrama, Tosca needs conviction, if an apparent contradiction; it was not to be situation comedy or parody. The little buffooneries must be played with extreme lightness, skittering across the score, the stage, the character so that what we receive is all aesthetic rather than quasi-realistic. This was not to be domestic drama.

Act one suffered from that in this production: a realistic effort to convince, for the dialogue to be daily, for the emotions to be “just like ours.” Hence, the conversation should be a dance rather than a “swordfight.” However the details Shawna Lucey carefully worked out sometimes distracted from the aesthetic weight of the opera. Rather than marveling at “how-like-us” this situation was, despite the historical period – the coy games and threats, we wanted more than obvious. Shawna Lucey’s direction accented the small gestures, leaving the big moments somewhat to themselves.

British conductor, Leo Hussain, did the same with the SFO orchestra: the music overall more than serviceable but lacking substantive depth and verve. At the least, it was uneven, the tempi often too slow, the lows and grands only occasionally settling into their full depth. The “Te Deum” at the end of Act one for example, where solemnity and grandeur were suggested rather than enacted; and the shepherd’s tune at the opening of Act three, sung by Zachary Zele, which got way-laid by orchestral volume and the excess stage business of the shepherd boys.

Heightening Drama

The sets by Robert James Hopkins, on the other hand, heightened the drama. Act one featured a large painting of the Madonna, while Act two had a gorgeous fresco atop the 18thcentury window through which we could see shadows of Cavaradossi’s torture. Finally, Act three showcased a giant and dramatic statue dominating the scene, and around which the final actions occur.

Even Tosca grabbing onto the toe of the statue as she ascends to her suicidal jump, makes us see more than a prop to catch her. Here was art as well as survival, a key point in the whole production, and more than apt for this diva’s life-journey. I live and die for art, she exclaimed and the production emphasized that point. What didn’t work always as effectively were the lights, by Michael James Clark, which glared at the end of the “Te Deum” with their orange, pink and red. In Act two, they shifted from morning orange glow and dimmed blue shadow; there was little luster in this.

The costumes emphasized Tosca’s girlishness, for instance, rather than her maturity, the bow around her waist, particularly along with the curly tresses, distracting from passion, and brought a Lucia-look, complete with white gown. Where was her Cleopatra robe? Her Medea moment? Contrast mattered here less than bold admission. Tosca was less the victim than the animator, and we longed to feel that.

SFO’s girl of the hour was rooted in the times, in the parry and thrust of a bold love-affair and a contest to the death. Giannattasio and Jagde carried it off, within the intermittent bursts of power in Hussein’s conducting. Most of the SFO audience went home satisfied.


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