Canadian Opera Company 2016-17 Review – Tosca: Adrianne Pieczonka Slays As Puccini’s Tortured Diva

By John S. Twinam

Sopranos dead by the final curtain are a dime a dozen; murderous sopranos are rarer; sopranos who slay murderous roles scarcer still. As “Tosca,” in the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Puccini’s beloved work which opened on April 30th, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka died, murdered, and slayed, not necessarily in that order.

A Triumphant Diva

Her death should have been literally breathtaking: perched twenty-five feet or more above the stage on the ramparts of the Castle Sant’Angelo (picture a giant wine cask), having triumphantly navigated the dramatic and vocal challenges of the title role over sixty times now and assured of a thunderous ovation from an appreciative audience, she could have simply fallen backwards, plunged my heart into my throat, and brought the house down. I personally would have leapt from my seat in the third row to begin a standing ovation for what had been a thrilling performance from start to finish, from her jealous entrance, complete with furious denouncements and fiery accusations, to the lyricism of her one true moment of happiness in Act I, “Non la sospiri” and her mournful Act II showstopper, “Vissi d’arte” through to the delirious excitement and devastating tragedy of Act III. Instead, she turned her back to the audience, and with a little hop and still ramrod straight, jumped to her doom; not the way I would think a despondent lover would throw herself off a building. Despite this and one or two other dubious directorial choices, she got her standing ovation: Toronto clearly enjoyed her return to the role that brought her great acclaim here in 2012 and roared when the curtain opened to reveal her alone, safe and sound, center stage. She had slayed.

The murder itself was the most problematic. Since there was no dining table in the Act II set, it was necessary to take Scarpia away from his writing desk after he penned the crucial safe passage letter for Tosca in order for her to discover the knife (disguised as a crucifix – is there no end to Scarpia’s blasphemy?) she will ultimately plunge into his chest. Having Scarpia, on the verge of conquest, wander away from his desk to polish some glasses at the bar, glasses that had already been polished by a servant, was an unsatisfactory distraction. I wish I’d seen this scene from the balcony; it wasn’t until the very end of the act, when I looked for the missing candles Tosca traditionally sets down on either side of Scarpia’s head as an act of piety, that I saw a long pool of blood running downstage. The killer’s long, cool, commanding walk off stage had distracted me from that particular touch.

Pieczonka, fresh off a Met appearance in Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” has had quite a run since she appeared as Chrysothemis in the Met Live in HD broadcast of “Elektra” exactly one year ago.   Viewers will remember she had the unenviable task of making an impression on audiences while Nina Stemme and Waltraud Meier were feasting on their parts; she has since sung the role to acclaim at Covent Garden and La Scala, and brought her Tosca to Berlin and Vienna (where she will reprise the role in October, in case you can’t get to Toronto in the next few weeks).

Dueling Vocal Colors

Marcelo Puente, the young Argentinian making his COC debut as Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca’s doomed lover, is coming off his Covent Garden debut as Pinkerton. If there was some tightness in his very first trip up the staff, it disappeared as his robust, almost baritonal middle register asserted itself over an orchestra that at times, in its enthusiasm, seemed determined to drown him out.   His “Recondita armonia” was sensitively delivered, with a variety of vocal colors and unexpected dynamics highlighting the dueling, dual beauties at the heart of his introductory aria. I at first questioned the choice of having him remain seated throughout the brief aria, but on reflection, rather than seeing this as a variation of “stand and deliver” (of which there was plenty in this production), it forced the singer to focus not on any histrionic “on the one hand, on the other” arm waving to bring the audience along, but to evoke competing visions only with his voice. Puente reassured the audience that he has a vocal ability commensurate with his smoldering good looks, and they responded with a series of warm ovations for his efforts, cresting with their response his interpretation of one of the most popular tenor arias of all time, “E lucevan le stelle,” delivered straightforwardly with a minimum of portamento. It may be heretical, but I couldn’t help thinking that, in his painter’s smock, with just a little movement downward he could be just as effective a Marcello as a Rodolfo; I even started picturing him as Don Giovanni, although that just may be because I’m obsessing over finally getting to see Mariusz Kwiecien at the Met this weekend. Puente returns to the role of Pinkerton at the Staatsoper Hamburg next month.

The Monster

Marquis Marquardt swept in as Scarpia and delivered an appropriately chilling rendering of perhaps opera’s most villainous baritone. As he began to disrobe, as he his claw-like hand crept closer to Tosca’s soft, defenseless shoulders, his voice amplified the villainy vividly portrayed by the orchestra. The joy he anticipated from satisfying his dual desires was less vividly portrayed. There is no way to make Scarpia “good,” but a pure contest between good and evil is boring: there can only be one outcome. To me, Scarpia is less compelling if he is one-dimensional; you have to at least get some sense that he genuinely enjoys his sins, that he is getting something out of what we perceive to be his villainy.   Moustache-twirling isn’t necessary, but it is possible to introduce some indication that Scarpia enjoys what he does, that he is following his nature, earlier than I detected here. Given the relish with which he does evil, it’s no surprise Marquardt is adding Iago to his repertoire when returns to his home opera house in Dresden.

Making his COC debut was bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, whose desperate Angelotti was about as far away as possible from the last role I saw him in, the comic Mayor in La Gazza Ladra at Glimmerglass last season; I just wish they could have found a way to convey his desperation while searching for the hidden key to the Angelotti chapel without strewing votive candles all about the stage. Not only did I worry about actors tripping on them before they were mysteriously swept up in a crowd scene, but they also made the Sacristan’s (Donato di Stefano) astonishment that the chapel was open somewhat less than believable, as he had repeatedly passed by the mess left by the escaped political prisoner.

The Production

Designer KeVin Knight’s sets were used to great effect. Massive columns flanked both sides mid-stage, forcing the action forward to provide the kind of intimacy you don’t often get in Act I. They framed Scarpia’s entrance and then, as the act built to its frenzied conclusion as he sees the dual prizes he seeks come nearer his grasp, they pulled back to unveil a stage packed with choristers for the stirring Te Deum.   The second act, set in Scarpia’s apartments in the Farnese Palace, featured a breakfront that at first stood out for the modifications necessary to make it level when placed lengthwise downstage, but soon literally stood out as it pulled away from the wall to reveal Scarpia’s secret padded torture room, and could be conveniently opened or closed to amplify or muffle Mario’s cries of pain under torture, depending on what Scarpia wanted Tosca to hear.

This is the Canadian Opera Company’s final production of the season, which began spectacularly with Canadian Sondra Radvanovsky polishing her star-confirming turn as “Norma;” she will return to the COC this time next season in “Anna Bolena.” “Tosca” runs through May 20. Keri Alkema, Kamen Chanev, and Craig Colclough will play the roles of Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Scarpia, in the May 7, 11, 14, 18, and 20 performances.

The COC co-produced “Tosca” with the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet.


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