New York City Opera
Thursday, March 15, 2001
Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica, Giuseppe Giacosa
Based on the play by Victorien Sardou

We finally got to attend the “new” production of Tosca at NYCO, and I have had to wait a while to sort out my feelings. There has been much said about moving the time from the early 1800s to the late 1930s/early 1940s. Although the reference to Napoleon’s victory was generalized and changed somewhat, and Tosca’s costumes in all three acts were elegant and stylish, I found the costumes of Cavaradossi and the Sacristan -- as well as all the worshippers in Act I -- uninteresting and prosaic. The costumes designed for Scarpia and his men were duly scary, with their black shirts, jackets, overcoats, and boots that recalled Mussolini’s men.

What really threw me for a loop, however, was the abstract, minimalist set designed by Michael Yeargan. You may imagine the surprise of this literal-minded opera fan who has been attending this opera at the Met and elsewhere for over 40 years when St. Andrea is changed to a generic church consisting of two 12-foot high black metal gates opposite each other, a yellow carpet set in a cross, a small easel with a painting no larger than 12”x16”, some folding chairs, and, way downstage right, a group of votive candles on the ground that were visible before the curtain opened. We were led to believe that the statue of the Virgin was set downstage from the candles (i.e., in the audience). Scarpia’s apartment in the Castel Sant’ Angelo consisted of the same metal “screen” on opposite sides of the stage, the doors of one opening on the courtyard through which one can hear the music and the cantata, the door of the other leading to the torture chamber. Scarpia’s desk features a telephone and intercom, as well as some papers. There are no candles, since everything is now electric. The carpet is as bright red as the one in the previous act was yellow, and a sliding door the height of the stage opens on a hallway bathed in the same red light.

Most distressing to me, however, was the set for Act III. After so many years of productions attempting to reproduce or suggest the top level of the Castel Sant’ Angelo and its famous statue overlooking Rome with some view of Roman rooves, I found Mr. Yeargan’s set devoid of history, charm or anything else. It was a naturalistic set featuring, at stage left, a bloody wall of sandbags before which prisoners are shot, a table and chair at stage right, an upstage balustrade below an expanse of bright, white nothingness with two guards on sentry duty. Against the white, these guards appear as shadow-figures. A staircase from the balustrade leads down to the stage, and that is how Tosca enters. Spoletta makes Mario kneel in profile and shoots him with his pistol in the back of the head. Other men are at the ready to shoot if he is still alive.

Yeargan is apparently a very “in” set designer, having also designed NYCO’s Norma (1985), Madama Butterfly, and Central Park. Other work includes the Met’s The Great Gatsby, Così fan tutte, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Otello, as well as San Francisco’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Dead Man Walking.

I think little may have been said about the physical effects of this production because the level of singing and acting is, generally, so high.

The Angelotti of Kevin Burdette provides us with a full-blown character whose exhaustion and fear nearly paralyze him. We are drawn into his plight and truly sorry when we “learn” he committed suicide rather than be recaptured by Scarpia’s goons. Next season, this Knoxville born bass-baritone will sing Papageno and Masetto at NYCO.

Reprising his 1998 début role of the Sacristan, Vienna-born Peter Strummer successfully portrayed the character’s simplicity and religiosity. Other roles he is performing at NYCO this season include Cook in Love for Three Oranges and Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro. He has already sung Beckmesser at the Metropolitan Opera.

As Mario Cavaradossi, Mexico born Alfredo Portilla was most satisfying both vocally and histrionically. He hit his high notes with ease. The acoustics of the State Theatre are, however, not very kind to this talented tenor’s voice, eliminating any “ping” it might have and occasionally making him hard to hear. His début role was Rodolfo in 1995, a role he has also sung at the Met. At NYCO he has also sung Pinkerton and Macduff. He has upcoming performances of most of the “standard” lyric and spinto tenor roles all over the world. If he should appear in your part of the country, I would recommend you go hear him and make your own assessment.

Amy Johnson has been the featured Tosca in most, if not all performances of this production, having also appeared in the Live from Lincoln Center telecast, which I, unfortunately, missed. This gifted lyric-spinto soprano from Iowa made her NYCO début as Mozart’s Donna Anna in 1997. In addition to starring roles in world premières of contemporary works, she has sung Butterfly, Aida, the Countess (Figaro), Salome, Marguerite, Fiordiligi, the Trovatore Leonora, Rosalinde, Nedda, Musetta and Desdemona, with upcoming international performances of Tatiana and Giorgetta. This very svelte and attractive soprano must have great training and coaching behind her to handle this broad spectrum of roles successfully. Furthermore, she is a fine actress, expressing every element of Tosca’s love, flirtatiousness, jealousy, fear, self-pity, and horror with great believability. At the close of Act II, the production prevented her from placing candles at each of Scarpia’s hands and dropping a large crucifix on his chest. Instead, she removes her own small crucifix from her purse and drops it on his chest, leaving the true grandeur of her gesture and the great drama of the moment -- as expressed in the orchestra to accompany her actions -- rather empty of meaning.

The Scarpia of Jeffrey Kneebone was quite well sung and acted. This tall and imposing bass-baritone, who resembles a slimmer version of Ben Heppner, débuted at NYCO in 1991 as Zurga in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Other roles at the house include Sharpless and Germont. Elsewhere, he has sung Marcello, Alfio and Tonio (Cav/Pag), Di Luna, Iago and Horace Tabor. Personally, I found his Scarpia not nasty or vicious enough. If the truth be told, he looks, to me, like a handsome all-American “nice guy,” (think Heppner) rather than a power-hungry, manipulative, sly and sadistic Roman rapist. Perhaps assumption of this role in other productions will help him develop the evil of the character. I would love to see his Scarpia in a more traditional production where the wig and costume could contribute to his nastiness. Here, his black outfit and boots really looked like a costume rather than his normal clothing, no matter how nasty he tried to be.

The lighting of Robert Wierzel contributed much to the moods of the opera. In the Act I Te Deum, when Scarpia sings of his lust for Tosca, the light gradually changes to red.

-- Howard of Griswold Hall   

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Copyright:  © 2001 Howard Levin

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