By Patrick O’Brien
For an opera concerning love and lust in a time of war and upheaval, Puccini‘s Tosca, the immortal “shabby little shocker”, is never less than straightforward. The physical production of Lyric Opera’s new-to-Chicago staging is certainly straightforward. There are faithful recreations of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Casta Sant’Angelo battlements (by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle), held together by a simple yet elegant red velvet curtain. Costumes (by Marcel Escoffier) are fit for Callas, based as they are on his original designs for the prima donna. Maestra Eun Sun Kim from San Francisco Opera makes a strong Lyric debut at the rostrum.
But, on press night, when the performance was preceded by the Opera Chorus singing the Ukrainian national anthem, it was as strong a reminder that Tosca concerns a lot of innocent people caught up in some very real, very sinister, and very messy business. Granted, in all manner of historical technicalities, the Rome that Napoleon is trying to conquer in Tosca‘s background is not as Kyiv is to Putin. But Baron Scarpia’s ways of running dissenters to ground have been in every crooked potentate’s playbook since time immemorial.
On the other hand, it was perhaps this accidental real-world subtext that pointed up how Tosca, however serious its stakes, risks unintentional parody, moreso than other heavy-hitting operas. Even if the libretto is smart enough to defuse some of its Grand Guignol outsizedness—”Tosca on stage was never so dramatic,” taunts Scarpia’s number-two as she shrieks in terror—there were some grim chuckles sprinkled throughout the house, especially after the diva knifes Scarpia. Rather than make tracks for her imprisoned beloved, she performs a mock-Catholic ritual over the hypocrite’s corpse. The razor-thin margin between “operatic” and “silly” was never so close to tearing the whole thing apart.
Happily, Louisa Miller‘s direction, too, is straightforward enough to keep it together. Key to this is the central trio: Michelle Bradley as Tosca; Fabián Veloz as Scarpia; and Russell Thomas as Caravandossi, the former two making their Lyric debuts, and Bradley singing her first Tosca. If the former two were also a tad underpowered at the start—though, in fairness, it’s hard to compete with a full chorus on that “Te Deum”—they gained in power as the evening went on and much more was at stake than Caravandossi’s painting models. (For his part, Thomas scored an ovation before his opening aria was over.)
Like an ur-Casablanca, it dawns on Tosca that the petty problems of the individual don’t amount to much when the chips are down. If her ultimate solution is not as noble as Rick Blaine’s, well, they didn’t have planes back then, and her situation by that point has truly spiraled out of control. Some things are not so straightforward, on the stage or in life.
Tosca runs through April 10th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr. For tickets or more information, please call (312) 827-5600 or visit lyricopera.org.
Photos by Cory Weaver and Todd Rosenberg.