Seattle Opera’s “Tosca” and the Wisdom of Convention

Johann Van Niekerk
Posted on January 12, 2015, 7:48 pm
8 mins

Innovation has become de rigueur in our modern society, with updates, expansion packs and new models introduced on an almost-daily basis. The same could be said for the classical arts post nineteenth-century, where truer depictions of reality have made way for expressionist proportions, post-modern deconstructions, geometric re-imaginings, ironic metaphysical interpretations and other ‘innovative’ presentations of familiar material. It is not surprising, then, that the respective genres of ballet and opera have explored these concepts as well, most notably through set design, constantly inventing visually striking ways to depict their milieux.

A list of the world’s most famous artists have lent their talents to set design, including Dali’s surrealist Salome, Nolan’s aboriginal Australian Rite of Spring, and Hockney’s neoclassical Rake’s Progress, the latter widely considered a benchmark staging of the opera. Even Pablo Picasso had a foray into set design, with his cubist-inspired set for Massine’s ballet Le Tricorne. Closer to home (and 2015), architect Frank Gehry recently captivated audiences in his Walt Disney Hall with a crumbled paper design for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Seattle Opera will stage an ultra-modern production of Handel’s Semele in February with multimedia-infused set design by the brilliant Erhard Rom.

It is against this backdrop of constant innovation that the conventional stage design for Seattle Opera’s Tosca, currently running at McCaw Hall, truly stands out. Tosca features the same conventional style of scene design enjoyed by audiences at the work’s Rome premiere, and as such, is a marvel to behold. Ercole Sormani’s sets comprise elaborate muslin cloth paintings create a seamless three-dimensional appearance. Last seen in Seattle in 1986, they were originally acquired in the 1960s. While many opera productions require the viewer to ponder the metaphor and message of its stage design, Sormani’s Tosca designs frees up the mind to readily accept the illusion of nineteenth-century Rome, and focus instead on the narrative and melodrama of this much-loved opera.

The cathedral in Act 1 of Tosca

Seattle Opera presents Puccini’s Tosca Jan. 10-24 at McCaw Hall. Photo by Alan Alabastro.

While the stage design might have been conventional, the performances were everything but. The stellar opening night cast, led by Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte and Italian tenor Stefano Secco, delivered mesmerizing performances as Floria Tosca and her lover Mario Cavaradossi. (This duo was previously seen in Seattle Opera’s 2012 performance of Madame Butterfly.) Another Seattle favorite and previous Artist of the Year winner, Greer Grimsley, played the scene-stealing villain, Scarpia.

Ausrine Stundyte as Floria Tosca

Ausrine Stundyte (Floria Tosca) in Puccini’s Tosca. Photo by Elise Bakketun.

Ausrine Stundyte pulled no punches in the title role of the diva, Floria Tosca. Maintaining a beautiful core tone to her rich soprano voice throughout, she nonetheless added elements from her character’s development to her singing: from the erratic jealousy of a suspicious lover in “Non la sospiri” to the reminiscence and resolve of the show-stopping aria “Vissi d’arte” and the ominous chantlike raging of “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma.”

Stundyte, who is known as a powerful singer with “unconditional, relentless, unsettling intensity” surprised the audience (and stage director Jose Maria Condemi) by throwing tables, lunging at Grimsley’s villainous Scarpia and incorporating this physicality in her singing with unique finesse. Stundyte has astounded audiences around the world; with her particular brand of magic perhaps best described by German newspaper Die Welt’s Peter Krause: “[She] brings us straight back to the bygone days of opera, when incomparable singing personalities such as Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi so completely understood the dialectic of singing: beauty and truth are not mutually exclusive.”

Stefano Secco as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca

Stefano Secco (Mario Cavaradossi) in Tosca. Photo by Elise Bakketun.

Stefano Secco delivered an equally enthralling performance as the romantic counterpart Mario Cavaradossi. His rich, even tenor tone, with impressive lower register, suited the role of the idealistic revolutionary artist, and Secco impressed as he transitioned to a brighter formant in the long-held top notes in the aria “Recondita armonia” and to a more vulnerable, lyrical tone in the third act’s captivating “E lucevan le stele” and “O dolci, mani.” Secco and Stundyte’s duets were another highlight of the evening, especially the almost-erotic intimate love duet, “Qual’occhio,” humorously (and aptly) coined ‘pornophony’ by opera writer Burton Fisher.

Greer Grimsley’s portrayal of the villainous Baron Scarpia had the audience at the edge of their seats. Grimsley, mostly known for playing Wagnerian roles (he will return to Seattle Opera next season as the Flying Dutchman), all but stole the second act, in which the dynamic pairing with Stundyte was truly sensational – the opening night audience interrupted them on more than one occasion to show approval.   Grimsley’s booming Wagnerian bass-baritone was perfect for the uncompromising, dogmatic Scarpia, yet he, similar to Stundyte, expertly incorporated some of the inflections and verismo of Italian opera, most notably in the aria “Già, mi dicon venal.”

Greerg Grimsley as Baron Scarpia in Tosca

Greer Grimsley as Baron Scarpia in Tosca. Photo by Elise Bakketun.

Puccini’s music was brought to life under the capable direction of Bulgarian conductor Julian Kovatchev and the orchestra supported the main singers splendidly. At moments during the night, they slightly overwhelmed some of the smaller roles, but considering the overwhelming affect of the first act’s final moments, this is easily forgiven. The third act also had a bumpy start, especially in the brass section, which might be ascribed to the familiar opening-night jitters.

The authenticity of Sormani’s sets were further enhanced by Andrew Marley’s spot-on costumes and hair and makeup by Joyce Degenfelder. Finally, mention should be made of Connie Yun’s lighting design which brought another layer of authenticity and three-dimensionality to the performance. Memorable moments included the appearance of Scarpia in the hitherto ‘warm’ church, which plunged the scene into a palpable ‘coldness’ with uncompromising starkness. Finally, as Tosca gazes out over the rooftops of Rome in the third act, the night sky with its sparkling stars transformed into a bright red morning sky with ominous clouds foreboding death and tragedy.

The combination of the cast’s stellar acting and singing with the beauty and unique value of the set design makes Tosca an experience not to be missed. It is the perfect (and rare for Seattle) opportunity to dress up and be transported completely into the beauty and melodrama of opera at its finest.

Johann Van Niekerk

Johann Van Niekerk is a writer, conductor and collaborative artist based in Seattle, WA. He holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Washington where his research focused on the role that music has played throughout history in effecting social change. Van Niekerk covers performing arts events in and around Seattle.