Out of the Shadows

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Tosca in an iconic location: Seattle Opera film's Puccini's opera at St James Cathedral, Seattle

Puccini: Tosca - Alexandra LoBianco during filming of Act Three - Seattle Opera at St James Cathedral (Photo Philip Newton)
Puccini: Tosca - Alexandra LoBianco during filming of Act Three - Seattle Opera at St James Cathedral (Photo Philip Newton)

Puccini Tosca; Alexandra LoBianco, Dominick Chenes, Michael Chioldi, dir: Dan Wallace Miller, cond: Kazem Abdullah; Seattle Opera filmed on location at St James Cathedral, Seattle

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 June 2021
A film of Tosca in real locations which also manages to pay tribute to the work's melodramatic side

For all that Victorien Sardou's play La Tosca could be described as a 'shabby little shocker',  Giacomo Puccini exercised great care when writing his opera Tosca based on Sardou's play. And whilst the action is pure melodrama, Puccini's anchors it both with the sophisticated way he writes musically for the characters, and the fact that the work is set in real places. For instance, the opening prelude Act Three with its bells, is based quite closely on the actual sounds of the bells in Rome.

But Puccini plays up the melodramatic element too, the way the action in compressed so that the entire opera lasts well under two hours and the second act imaginatively plays two of Sardou's acts simultaneously (Tosca's singing of the celebratory cantata for the Queen off-stage whilst Scarpia and Cavaradossi are on-stage).

This combination of realism and melodrama can trip productions up on stage; I have only seen one production (directed by Anthony Besch for Scottish Opera in 1980 and still going strong) where the religious procession at the end of Act One is liturgically convincing.

Seattle Opera, for its final opera in its digital season, has created a performance of Puccini's Tosca which is filmed almost entirely at St James Cathedral, Seattle. Directed by Dan Wallace Miller and conducted by Kazem Abdullah, the production featured Alexandra LoBianco as Tosca, Dominick Chenes as Cavaradossi, and Michael Chioldi as Scarpia with Adam Lau as Angelotti, Matthew Burns as the Sacristan, Andrew Stenson as Spoletta, José Rubio as Sciarrone, Ellaina Lewis as the Shepherd boy and Ryan Bede as the jailer.

Puccini: Tosca - Alexandra LoBianco, Michael Chioldi - Seattle Opera at St James Cathedral (Photo Philip Newton)
Puccini: Tosca - Alexandra LoBianco, Michael Chioldi - Seattle Opera at St James Cathedral (Photo Philip Newton)

Liesl Alice Gatcheco's costumes were in correct period (1800) and production designer Christopher Mumaw made very effective use of the cathedral which has a very neo-classical look to it. Act Two took place in a room, dressed very much as you might expect, but Act Three opened in the confined area of Cavaradossi's cell, though we transferred to the outer spaces of the cathedral for an imaginatively filmed ending.

From the outset, it was clear that this was a filmed opera. There was no attempt at naturalism in the acting or stage style, and after all would we want it (just think of the torture scene). The work was performed to a pre-recorded sound track and the principals concentrated on emoting rather than convincing us they were singing for real. The production had a stage director, Dan Wallace Miller, and a video director, Ken Christensen, and where it scored was where it allowed itself to be film. When Cavaradossi, in Act One, thinks of the Angelotti's sister we see her, and at the end instead of that problematic procession the film concentrated on Michael Chioldi's Scarpia with the procession as shadow-play in the background, and the lighting highly dramatic and non-realistic. This was rather effective, a neat way of getting round the filming of large-scale scenes in the present climate, as well as solving many problems in an effectively filmic way. Similarly, the execution in Act Three was done as shadow play. 

At the end of Act Two, LoBianco's Tosca places a crucifix on a chain on the desk, by the side of Scarpia's body and as the music closed we saw blood running down and engulfing it. A wonderfully telling image. Similarly at the end of the opera we see Tosca leap of the ramparts, but then this transforms into the statue of the Virgin falling and smashing. These filmic touches made you regret that much of the main action was played out so conventionally and you wished the directors had opted for something more stylised. That said, within this structure Wallace Miller drew some strong performances from his cast and created a piece of highly effective, and gripping filmed opera.

Puccini: Tosca - Dominick Chenes - Seattle Opera at St James Cathedral (Photo Philip Newton)
Puccini: Tosca - Dominick Chenes - Seattle Opera at St James Cathedral (Photo Philip Newton)

Kazem Abdullah's speeds were sometimes a little on the steady side (though that might have been more to do with the logistics of filming than for any artistic reasons) and there were moments when I wanted him to surge ahead more and use more rubato. Also, the orchestral sound seemed a little recessed but that is very much personal taste.

Alexandra LoBianco made a very dignified Tosca, convincingly in period and entirely comfortable in her Empire-line frocks, making the costumes and their limitations part of the whole character. Flirty in private with Cavaradossi, but very proper elsewhere, she showed her youth in the way she was easily roused to jealousy. But, I sometimes wanted a bit more bite for the camera, perhaps even the odd moment chewing the scenery. Still, LoBianco knew when not to do anything, and her account of 'Vissi d'arte' seated immobile was profoundly moving.

It is, however, in Tosca's duets that the action really progresses and lacking an audience to hold things up both LoBianco's Act One love duet with Dominick Chenes' Cavardossi and the Act Two cat and mouse game with Michael Chioldi's Scarpia were highly effective drama. Whilst the Act Two scene did not quite reach the tension of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi filmed live at Covent Garden, this was still edge of the seat stuff. LoBianco has a fine youthful dramatic soprano, which seems on its way to heavier roles (she is covering Brünnhilde in Die Walküre for Vienna State Opera, where her roles also include Leonora in Fidelio and the title role in Turandot). She used the voice intelligently and fully, and though occasionally the emotions were a bit broad brush, this was a finely sung performance.

Dominick Chenes made a youthful and convincingly revolutionary painter. He has an ardent lyric tenor voice which was well captured by the film, and he certainly makes a pleasing and believable hero, both in terms of looks and sound. He did not feel as comfortable as LoBianco in his period gear, and there were moments when Chenes made us very aware of his long wig. But musically there were few gripes and he produced plenty of rich, lyrical tones, his flirting with LoBianco in Act One developing into fine rapture for the duet. For the climactic aria in Act Two, Chenes was suitably stagey and frankly I cannot think of another way of doing it. Act Three was confined to his cell, which reduced the focus down to just the singer at times, in a rather effective way.

Michael Chioldi was quite a youthful Scarpia, and seemed to delight in the way the character combined highly proper behaviour with extremely improper desires. At key moments I wanted him to be a bit less dignified, but overall this was a fine, musical performance. The way the end of Act One was filmed meant that Chioldi had no need to try to impose himself on a busy stage, the camera focused on him and he wisely did not do too much. The Act Two scenes crackled nicely, though there were moments when he seemed a bit too soft-edged, but his whole final moments worked well.

The smaller roles were all creditably taken, with Adam Lau as a vividly stagey Angelotti and Matthew Burns as a wonderfully characterful Sacristan. Spoletta (Andrew Stenson) and Sciarrone (José Rubio) were both well sung but I have seen performances where these two characters tell rather more than Stenson and Rubio did, creating more of a feeling of menace. Ellaina Lewis was the off-stage Shepherd boy whilst Ryan Bede lowered suitably as the jailer.

St James' Cathedral was built in 1903/1904 and I did wonder whether in might have been interesting to set the production then, taking advantage of the period setting. Tosca is the sort of story that works well in a variety of settings. But, this was a highly imaginative solution to a particular problem, and the way the production used the full range of spaces available in the cathedral gave the performance a very special atmosphere. 

Puccini: Tosca - Seattle Opera at St James Cathedral (Photo Philip Newton)
Puccini: Tosca - Seattle Opera at St James Cathedral (Photo Philip Newton)

Puccini's Tosca from Seattle Opera, filmed on location at St James Cathedral, Seattle, is available on-line from 25-27 June 2021 (subscribers are getting early access). Further details from Seattle Opera's website.


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