Opera audiences love new productions with lavish sets and ornate costumes, but it wasn’t the furniture in Puccini’s “Tosca’’ that won the night on Oct. 3, it was an Italian diva making a starry San Francisco Opera debut.
Soprano Carmen Giannattasio is not only new to San Francisco, she is new to the role of the great Roman beauty who kills for love. Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi make up two corners of the triangle; at the third corner is Scarpia, the brutish Roman police chief who plans to sexually assault Tosca at the first opportunity. “All Rome trembles” before Scarpia, but not our heroine.
Giannattasio won the Placido Domingo Operalia award some years back and was called by Domingo “the Lady Gaga of opera,’’ which may or not be the case, but her Tosca was bold, sexy and a little imperious.
She played the role for all it is worth, singing with gleaming high lines and creamy dark colors, her voice secure and thrilling in its many moods: exultant in her love, tormented by the imprisonment of her lover, desperate in learning of his fate. Her “Vissi d’arte’’ was as regal as it should be, without a trace of self-pity. There were melodramatic moments in Act I when she plays jealous over Cavaradossi’s painting of a pretty congregant as Mary Magdalene, but her scene with Scarpia was all business, and she managed the terror of the finale persuasively.
Giannattasio was fairly matched by tenor Brian Jagde’s Cavaradossi. Jagde sang with vibrant colorings and showed a striking presence throughout. His two big numbers rang powerfully. But what was the most telling aspect of the performance was the combustible chemistry between Giannattasio and Jagde at every encounter. Sparks flew and energized the night, and Leo Hussain’s conducting, intense and detailed for the most part, generated even more electricity between them.
Scott Hendrick’s Scarpia was somewhat wan voiced, but his baritone has a grainy quality that, coupled with his potent physical performance, made for a mostly convincing villain. Bass-baritone Hadleigh Adams was impressive vocally as the escaped political prisoner being pursued by Scarpia for his anti-Napoleon activities.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ production, with vibrant lighting by Michael James Clark, and Shawna Lucey’s direction, is handsome to look at, but offers little that is different from other period productions seen here throughout the years: the interior of an Italiian church, Scarpia’s gussied-up office, the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo where Tosca commits her final act of rebellion. It is as if the old settings had simply been rotated a few degrees to stage left. No one who saw the explosive Jean-Pierre Ponnelle settings of the 1970s, on the other hand, could forget a production that literally played to the music; for example, Tosca’s exit following the murder of Scarpia was made through massive doors cued to musical crescendos.
“Tosca’’ is one of the most often-performed operas; San Francisco Opera has presented it over 175 times in 38 previous seasons. This one is for Giannattasio; there are seven more performances at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House through Oct. 30.
Top photo: Carmen Giannattasio in the title role. (Cory Weaver/S.F. Opera)