Stephen Barlow's new production of Puccini's Tosca at Santa Fe Opera(seen August 8) is deliberately traditional but within this framework, both sets and staging introduced innovations. Yannis Thavoris's sets took elements of the real life locations (Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese and Castel Sant'Angelo) and re-cast them in a spectacular and non-naturalistic manner.
For act 2, the front portion of the acting area lifted up to reveal on the underside, one of the Raphael frescoes from the Palazzo Farnese which formed the key feature of Scarpia's room. The configuration for act 3 was similar to act 1 except that we had exteriors of domes of the Roman churches outlined against the dark New Mexico sky.
Barlow's production was, frankly, less innovative with many of his changes seeming to be change for change's sake. The naturalistic presentation was 'enhanced' by a great deal of extra detail and by play (someone cleaning windows at the Palazzo Farnese, bickering between Spoletta and Sciarrone etc.) The first half of act 1 included a lot of comic business whose function seemed purely to put the audience in a good mood.
Dale Travis's sacristan was a master class in over acting, the like of which I never hope to see again. At the end of act 1 the procession was a liturgist's nightmare. It is difficult to get this right on stage, but I have seen productions (at Scottish Opera and Opera Holland Park) where the procession worked dramatically and liturgically. This matters because it mattered to Puccini, he took great care to ensure that he used the correct plainchant at this point. Barlow and Thavoris's procession was a symphony of meaningless gesture and liturgical ornament. I will not go into the tedious detail of exactly what was wrong.
At the end of this act, the scene started to change to the next act, so rather than have Scarpia outlined against the assembled church congregation he was alone, grimacing as the act closed.
At the end of act 2, after Tosca had stabbed Scarpia, his body ended up in the entrance of a doorway to a side chamber, rather than centre stage. His letter of passage for Tosca and Cavaradossi was in plain sight, Tosca searched his body not for the letter but for the key to the room (change for change's sake). Then Tosca laid out the body simply by covering it with a cloak and shutting the door to the side room, thus hiding the body. The whole point of Puccini's careful stage directions at this point are to emphasise Tosca's religious beliefs, even a being as evil as Scarpia should not go unshriven.
For the opening of act 3 we were still in the Palazzo Farnese, the window cleaner sang the shepherd boy's song, rather indifferently, and then discovered Scarpia's body. During the lovely prelude depicting dawn with the tolling of the Angelus, we watched (and listened to) the set being changed. Balance here was all wrong in the orchestra, the tolling bells were barely audible with conductor Frederic Chaslin encouraging the orchestral strings to be overly prominent in their self indulgent phrasing. The tone and placing of the bells is important, again this was something that Puccini took great care over, .
At the end, Sciarrone put hand cuffs on Tosca and for one awful moment I thought that this was going to be my first ever Tosca to end with Tosca not jumping, but luckily she struggled away and jumped just in time.
None of these alterations and additions were awful or fatal in themselves, but the general accumulation began to make the production seem fussy, with a constant nagging thought of why is she/he doing that?
The singing was generally very creditable with some strong individual performances. Amanda Echalaz (making her US debut) was a very young and girlish Tosca; jealous and passionate with something of the diva, but all done with a light touch. She did not essay the grand, passionate manner of divas of the past and this sat well with the naturalistic production style. Her voice seemed to lack tonal depth at the top, but this was a very finely sung account of the role, with a beautifully controlled Vissi d'arte with no grandstanding at all.
Singing Cavaradossi was the young American tenor Brian Jagde. He has an attractive lyric voice which he had an unfortunate tendency to 'big up' at dramatic moments – a worrying habit in someone so young. You feel that he would be better off appreciating the lyric beauty of his voice rather than attempting to emulate Pavarotti. More worrying still were his vocal habits, and in this he seemed to be aided and abetted by conductor Frederic Chaslin. Jadge hung onto high notes until they were well past their sell by dates, pulled phrases around and generally made a meal of tempos and phrasing in a way which seemed designed to generate applause rather than to investigate Cavaradossi's character. This is a promising young man who needs to be taken in hand before bad habits develop further.
Raymond Aceto was obviously a local favourite. He has an attractive baritone voice, though not one which easily dominated the ensemble at the end of act 1. Aceto's Scarpia was full of detailed acting, but the effect accumulated into something rather studied, and not a little camp. Fundamentally, Aceto did not project the feeling of contained evil which sits within Scarpia's civilised exterior.
There were one or two moments during act 2 when the dialogue between Aceto and Echalaz caught fire and you got a glimpse of an entirely different Tosca.
Zachary Nelson was a fine Angelotti and Dennis Petersen and Christian Bowers provided strong dramatic support as Spoletta and Sciarrone.
In the pit, Frederic Chaslin favoured relaxed speeds and an elasticity of phrasing which threatened damage to Puccini's musical structures. Chaslin seemed content to dally and admire details without worrying over much about the essential structure.
This was an entirely pleasant evening at the theatre. A less experienced opera goer, who had not seen a tauter, more dramatic performance of this opera, might come away satisfied. But this company is capable of so much more.
Further coverage of Santa Fe Opera on this blog