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Tosca Leaps Prematurely

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
02/25/2000 -  
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
Marcus Haddock (Cavaradossi), Galina Gorchakova (Floria Tosca),
Sergei Leiferkus (Baron Scarpia), Michael Bicoy (Spoletta),
John Marcus Bindel (Sciarrone), Stephen Morscheck (Caesare Angelotti),
Rod Nelman (Sacristan), Robert Cantrell (Jailor)
Lena Rivkina (costumes), Alexander Beliaev (scenery)
Heinz Fricke (conductor)
Frank Corsaro (director)
Washington Opera Chorus

There are some things in life on which you depend that you just don't expect to disappoint you. Washington Opera productions fall into that category. When not just right, they're at least close to being just right. Rarely does one its productions miss the mark and fall way short on the satisfaction scale. However, Washington's recent production of Puccini's Tosca does just that.

The overall problem boils down to production values. Good productions of any performing arts endeavor require balance across the boards--from talent to sets to production to acting to singing. Quite surprisingly, Washington's Frank Corsaro production was not balanced. And, quite surprisingly, the primary culprit was Heinz Fricke, who is a very talented conductor who knows his way around and into a score, knows how to elicit the utmost from his singers and his orchestra, and knows how to balance the two. At least he normally does.

In this Tosca, Fricke let the orchestra sound wash over the vocalists, causing all to go into overdrive
simply to compete with the wall of sound coming from the pit. Only the lovely Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova (Tosca) could handle the challenge. But then her voice is so immense that she could sneeze and be heard over the orchestra. While her role has been double cast, I doubt she really needs the rest.

However, tenor Marcus Haddock (Cavaradossi) will need the double cast relief if he has to contend with this situation every night. Although not double cast, Sergei Leiferkus (Scarpia) likewise was put to the vocal test and, through no fault of his own, came up short. Both men are fine, strong singers. They each posses a voice easily capable of filling the hall and providing musical magic. But there, right at the beginning, was Haddock seemingly singing his heart out in "Recondita armonia," with no clear vocal lines being heard in the audience. How Fricke could not be aware of the situation and how he could allow the orchestra to play with such force, causing such notable imbalance, is puzzling.

Similarly, there's no excuse for staging that is stagnant, nor for changing elements of the opera
around to suit a desire to do a new version. Why replace the pivotal portrait of the mysterious woman who arouses jealousy in Tosca with a giant statue that looms over the set? It makes no theatrical or dramatic sense. Of course, in opera, we're asked to suspend belief, and that's fine. But there are limits.

For example, Tosca makes much ado about the color of the eyes of the woman in the portrait and both Tosca and Cavaradossi sing about those eyes, but there is no portrait and there's no way anyone could see the eyes of the statue which was high, high above the stage. Small point, but a point.

As for the overall staging, the Opera House stage is quite large, which is ideal for large scenarios. But, most of Tosca, save the large-scaled "Te Deum," is intimate and only focuses on a handful of people. The set was so much larger than the action that what movement Corsaro allowed became static and less than dramatic.

In most things, less is usually best. So, why did the production find it necessary to use the same trap door in two of its three acts, which, each time, resulted in awkward stage exits and entrances. Now, I don't know if there's a requisite number of times Tosca is supposed to stab Scarpia. Most productions do it once and get it over with. In this production, she stabs him three or four times, which is fine. I've no serious problem with that. But, given the repeated thrusts, Scarpia should have died of multiple stab wounds. Instead, he's presumed dead until the closing moments of Act II when he begins a slow crawl across a very wide stage toward a Crucifix, reaching out for,
presumably, forgiveness or a last chance at salvation. It remains a mystery why Corsaro decided to humanize this wicked chief of police. Scarpia's an evil man who's done dastardly deeds. Yet, he's allowed to show a sign of remorse, while Tosca looks on, instead of the more traditional business of Tosca placing candles around the body and placing a Crucifix on his chest. After all, she's the one with religion. The concept just doesn't work.

And thus it went throughout this production--imbalance. Even the final scene left something lacking. For whatever reason, Corsaro had the firing squad stand on the parapet to shoot Cavaradossi who was standing in a courtyard area below. Then, he has Tosca dash up steep stairs to the
parapet and take the traditional leap to death. But the moment is marred by moving groups of Scarpia's henchmen past the spot where she jumped, like curious bystanders at an accident. It was anything but a fine touch.

Most assuredly, this Tosca was not a disaster. But it didn't meet Washington's usual high standards for excellence in production and music making. It was quite satisfying to hear and see Gorchakova, whose extravagant, elegant costuming, incidentally, reminded one of a Princess, complete with sparkling tiara, and it was gratifying to hear those snippets we could of arias well-known to us all. But the whole experience didn't cause the usual Puccini rush afforded by well-balanced productions, which this Tosca was not. In many ways, Tosca made the leap long before Castel Sant'Angelo.

John C. Shulson



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