Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


January 25, 2009

Greer Grimsley as Scarpia and Sylvie Valayre as Tosca
Photo: Ken Howard/SDO 2009

The 2009 opera season kicked off on a dramatic note Saturday down in San Diego with a revival of Puccini’s Tosca. And as with most arts organizations these days, it seems to be a contest whether more drama is onstage or off given the financial straits many houses now find themselves in—what with greatly reduced endowments, dwindling contributions, and decreasing ticket sales. As if to drive that point home more clearly, the company’s general director of over two decades, Ian Campbell, appeared on stage before the performance to update the festive crowd on just how tight things have gotten and to appeal for the crowd’s support in face of a reduced season of productions in 2010. While this stiff-upper-lip stuff is certainly necessary, it did run the risk of making the show that followed comparatively anti-climactic.

But luckily, the show itself was a reasonable evening that was warmly received by a near capacity audience, although it certainly isn't going to set the world, much less anything smaller, on fire. The San Diego production, originally designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and directed here by Andrew Sinclair, is a fairly effective if standard-issue affair that dates back over 30 years. It still works well without being overly dark or cartoonish. Edoardo Müller was at the podium and the orchestra performed admirably. The Tosca for this run is Sylvie Valayre, who has worked primarily in Europe but is making more U.S. appearances this season. She sings most of the big Puccini gals specializing in Turandot, Butterfly and Tosca. And while her voice is not small, it is a rather blunt instruments that does get the job done despite weakness in the lower range. I was rather thankful she elected to go with more of an ingenue approach to the role as opposed to the “fiery” histrionics favored by too many others. She also eschewed the whole Callas cross and candle preparation of Scarpia’s corpse in Act II, a gesture which frankly has looked tired for almost the entire age of this particular production. Valayre’s Tosca is never quite dangerous, but seemed somewhat more accessible, although her retelling of her murderous actions to Cavaradossi in Act III did produce a few unintended titters from the audience.

On the men’s side were two known quantities – Marcus Haddock as Cavaradossi and Greer Grimsley’s Scarpia. Haddock sounded less strained than I’ve heard him recently and he is convincing in a youthful way. Grimsley is probably the strongest vocally in the cast and he is menacing despite having to perform such gestures as removing a periwig in preparation for a planned ravishing. But still, if you like Puccini and live in the area, you could do worse than this Tosca. Or maybe not. With the dwindling opera options in Southern California following the closure of Opera Pacific, San Diego may be one of the best options for those interested in fully-staged fare that don't want to drive up to L.A. San Diego has a number of other interesting productions this winter including a rarity in Massenet's Don Quichotte in February with Ferruccio Furlanetto and Denyce Graves; and Peter Grimes with Anthony Dean Griffey in April following his sensational performance of this role in New York last year.



That "cross and candle" business was not invented by or for Callas: it was the celebrated climax of the original Sardou play, where its purpose was to allow Sarah Bernhardt several minutes of thrilling, over-the-top mime. Puccini's challenge was to provide music for an action that had been famously carried out in complete silence. I can't really imagine Tosca without it.
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