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Second-hand Puccini : A Standard-brand 'Tosca' In San Francisco

October 07, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Ho hum. Another "Tosca."

Sunday afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera trotted out Puccini's virtually indomitable warhorse one more time.

Contrary to expectations, however, this wasn't a revival of the provocative and somewhat problematic production created by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in 1972. This was a far more traditional version, a "Tosca" that would have looked perfectly comfortable any time in the past 87 years on any stage from Augsburg to Zanzibar.

The sets, borrowed from Chicago, were designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi in 1970--two years before the Ponnelle edition. Pizzi depicted the Roman chapel, palace and prison ramparts in loving canvas detail. His goal, apparently, was to provide a neat, literal background for the drama, not necessarily to enhance it, to focus it or to add interpretive comment.

Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

Within this neutral milieu, Matthew Farruggio has directed traffic efficiently, in time-honored patterns. He obviously didn't want to get in the way.

The innocent visual scheme might have been advantageous as a showcase for an earth-shattering cast. Unfortunately, Terence McEwen, the company director, populated this standard-brand "Tosca," for the most part, with standard-brand singers.

Most problematic among them was Olivia Stapp, the presumably tempestuous but essentially lady-like protagonist. She looked lovely, moved gracefully, acted intelligently, sang carefully. She also sang flat, much of the time, and her tone tended to be thin and breathy. She joins a long line of ersatz divas.

Ermanno Mauro, her occasionally clumsy Cavaradossi, emitted bright, clarion tones worthy of an Otello in the extrovert passages. In introspective moments, he made poignant, if not altogether successful, attempts to simulate a Di Stefano pianissimo. He was always conscientious, seldom memorable.

Under the circumstances, this "Tosca," like so many before it, could just as well have been called "Scarpia." Alain Fondary, making his U.S. stage debut as the ever-fascinating villain of the piece, revealed an incisive baritone, a solid technique and sound theatrical instincts.

Knowing that Fondary is French, one approached the performance hoping for an elegantly sinister Scarpia in the mould of Martial Singher, Rene Bianco or Gabriel Bacquier. With his rotund figure, primitive authority and aggressive vocalism, however, Fondary recalled another fine Scarpia of the recent past, Robert Weede.

Fondary made Scarpia's brutish obsession with power plain from the outset. Yet this was a man who still could play the baron, still could quote Shakespeare knowingly and convincingly, still could revel in a profoundly perverse sensuality.

He inflected the text with telling nuance, proved that soft tones were an important part of his vocabulary, and, when the conductor would let him, rode the climaxes with reasonable strength. The conductor didn't let him, alas, at the climax of the "Te Deum."

The only dubious detail in his performance involved his decision to play the entire second act without Scarpia's white powdered wig. The shock of the bald Mussolini image made dramatic sense, to a degree, as long as the police chief was alone at home with the boys. But a man of his breeding, his outward civility and desperate amorous intentions surely would have put the wig back on for the tryst with Tosca.

Eric Garrett was the amiably fussy, big-voiced Sacristan, Monte Pederson the suitably urgent Angelotti. The comprimarios tended, as is current San Francisco custom, toward the pallid.

Richard Bradshaw conducted with a reasonable facsimile of Italianate passion. That often got translated, unfortunately, as excessive fortissimo crashes. In contrast to the general stress on propulsion, he chose a snail's pace for "Vissi d'arte," which did not make phrasing--or breathing--easy for his already beleaguered soprano.

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