At the Lyric Opera

March 3rd, 2015


The Lyric's version of Tosca was almost universally panned.

I loved it, myself, and I'll explain why in a bit. But the reviews were so unified in their dislike that my boss decided not to go. The fact that she is incredibly busy, and in the middle of publishing six papers or so might also have had something to do with it, but I didn't complain when she gave me her tickets.

The Opera

It's an odd opera, because the first two-thirds of the play are dominated by the villain. As is often the case, the romantic leads are fairly bland,but the bad guy is delicious. In this case, the female lead, Floria Tosca, is more interesting than usual… but the evil Baron Scarpia really is the heart of the play.

The opera opens without overture as a fellow named Angelotti runs in to the church, having just escaped from jail, and has a scene with his best friend Cavaradossi. Cavaradossi, who is currently painting a church mural, offers to let him hide in a secret compartment halfway down the well behind his remote villa. He races off to hide, and Floria Tosca comes in. Tosca is a celebrated opera star. She's Cavaradossi's lover, and she's as beautiful as she is jealous. She has a lovely duet with Cavaradossi where she interrogates him about who he's using for the model in the Madonna he's painting, and then he leaves.

Baron Scarpia, the Chief of Police and Total Bastard arrives at the church next, hot on the heels of his escaped prisoner, Angelotti. Suspecting that Cavaradossi is hiding him, Scarpia convinces Tosca that her lover must be hiding another woman in his remote villa. He twirls his moustache and yells, "Tosca's jealousy has been unleashed like a falcon!" and it is great.

Then a huge processional of priests come in, following the Bishop, and they perform an Amazingly Ominous Te Deum as Scarpia tells the audience how in lust he is with Tosca. Act I ends with his glorious baritone declaring "Tosca, you make me forget god!".

In Act II Scarpia brings Tosca to a room in the palace, and also arrests Cavaradossi and brings him there too. Tosca is less petty than he expected, and he's been unable to find Angelotti, so instead he tortures Cavaradossi. Tosca breaks down and confesses that Angelotti is hidden in the well.

They take Cavaradossi off to be hanged, but Scarpia suggests that Tosca can save Cavaradossi's life by having sex with him. Then he has an unbelievably creepy aria about how much he enjoys rape, "For myself the violent conquest has stronger relish than the soft surrender."

His guards come back to say that they found Angelotti, but that he committed suicide rather than be arrested. Scarpia tells them to hang the corpse anyway, and they leave. Tosca agrees to sleep with him, and in exchange Scarpia orders his minion to shoot Cavaradossi "as we did with Count Palmieri". He claims that this is a code for a mock execution, a that there's nothing to worry about. After the guards all leave, Scarpia even writes out a writ of free passage for Tosca and Cavaradossi, and then prepares to get down to business with Tosca. Instead, she stabs him repeatedly in the neck.

It's great. It's believable--he has his back turned, there's a knife just sitting there, we have seen how strong-willed and determined Tosca can be. And yet at the same time it's a total surprise. So often this genre ends with the woman getting sexually assaulted and then committing suicide while the audience all feels sad about it. So great to see a strong-willed, agentic female protagonist who refuses to play by the standard script! It's also satisfying because Scarpia is such a completely evil fellow. If anyone deserves to get it in the neck, it's him.

In Act III Tosca arrives at the site of Cavaradossi's "execution" (a prison yard, in this production). A "simple peasant boy", who in this production was a ghostly blue girl that also symbolised Tosca's youth and innocence, sings a plaintive air. They bring Cavaradossi out, and Tosca tells him to be sure to fake getting shot convincingly. It's worth noting that at this point there's technically no irony--the audience hasn't heard anything that Tosca hasn't heard, and there's no textual reason for anyone to think they won't really shoot him with blanks. And yet, somehow Tosca is the only one who thinks they'll actually get away...

Sure enough, after one last reminder to play dead, the guards shoot the hell out of Cavaradossi. They walk out, and just after Tosca checks his pulse and finds out that they really did shoot him to death the guards outside hear that Scarpia has been murdered. Tosca races over to the large bay window in the back of the set, stabs herself in the throat and awkwardly falls to her death.

My reaction

I realize that Puccini is one of the Great Composers, and that La Boheme is the single most popular opera in the history of popular opera, but I am deeply distrustful of him, and all the Romantics. Puccini, Byron, Goethe, and the whole crew (except for Blake! I love William Blake!) are all very shady characters in my book. I see them as emotionally manipulative, glorifying tragedy and celebrating the "exquisite pain of heartbreak". I understand that they have a place in the post-Industrial context, and that in a world that was devoting itself more and more to clinical, heartless, numbers it was important to bring back the emotive balance.

But still, they went to fair. And certainly in this day and age there is no more need for us to be worshiping tragedy. There's nothing exalted or noble about torture, death, and sexual assault. When the police kill your lover, it isn't "sublime", it's horrific. And suicide is a sign of communal failure, as well as (often) untreated mental illness. It isn't a matter of mere aesthetics.

Tosca is traditionally set in 1800, with lush, lavish sets full of velvet costumes and powdered wigs, with beautiful people being cruel to other beautiful people. That would not have worked for me at all--it would have felt like it was celebrating the tragedy of these two lost lives!

Instead, this production set the story in the 1940s. Although it was still beautiful and still tragic, but it was also now clearly terrible. So although it wasn't what Puccini fans may have wanted, and possibly not what Puccini himself would have asked for, it was definitely the right staging for me.

The Scenic Design

The first thing that I noticed upon entering the theatre was the scrim--a 1750 square foot piece of gorgeous cloth. It was a brilliant red in the lower right corner, otherwise white and heavily patched. I'm not sure if the patching was because they were using up their old, busted scrim or (much more likely) purely cosmetic.

The thing about scrim is that, in the high school theatre where I "grew up" as a techie, they were basically treated like the Shroud of Turin. To work well a scrim needs to be a) large enough to completely cover the front of the stage, and b) in immaculate condition. And so in most theatres the scrim is the most expensive thing that is easiest to destroy--one careless actor dragging a prop sword along it, and the next year's budget is gone. So seeing the Lyric using (or pretending to use) a patched up, busted old scrim was amusing. And then when the opera began Angelotti ran in a ripped it down with his bare hands! Well, that was altogether thrilling.

The scrim was a major visual tool throughout, appearing again at the top of Act II, where it was almost entirely blood red, and angrily ripped down by Scarpia. For Act III the scrim was almost entirely black, although the top left corner was blood red, and lit from behind. The Young Girl / Shepherd / Tosca's Innocence (a somewhat problematic conceit of the this production) walked up center stage, her shadow loomed out onto the scrim, and moved her arms so that her shadow ripped the scrim down for the last Act.

As it happened, the night that I saw it there was a technical glitch, and only two-thirds of the scrim came down, before the rest was hastily pulled aside by the folks backstage. I suppose it threatened the illusion, but I loved it because it also made it clear that I was watching live theatre by human beings, for all the amazing money they had to spend on it.

The second thing that I noticed, after gawking at the beautiful scrim, was the location of my seats. As I said, I was sitting in my boss' usual seat, which is in the center of row D. Which is three rows behind the conductor, and almost literally the best seat in the theatre.

My usual seat is almost as far from row D as it is possible to get--on the highest balcony, in the furthest section, right up against the wall--so this was quite a treat! In fact, there were two things about the seats that especially surprised me. First, the acoustics were no better in Main Floor D than they are in Upper Balcony Q. The acoustics of the house (and the athleticism of the performers!) is so phenomenal that at least to my untrained ear it sounded just as good.

The second thing that I found surprising was that everything else was profoundly better. To see the actors so clearly, and to have the action of the play so close at hand, was absolutely enthralling--much more so than I had anticipated. Don't get me wrong, I've spent many happy hours in Upper Balcony Q, and am currently saving up to buy a season's worth of Upper Balcony Q tickets. Deborah Voigt moved me to tears by making out with a severed head while I was sitting in Upper Balcony Q. But this was something qualitatively more engaging! (Well, not more engaging than Voigt's Salomé, but little is).

Anyway. Doomed, escaped convict Cesare Angelotti (Richard Ollarsaba) ran in and ripped down the scrim (and my high school theatre teacher felt a pang in her chest, no doubt) revealing Bunny Christie's set. Which was gorgeous and evocative and clever and efficient. And also clearly the end product of a long running feud with the Lighting Designer, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Each Act is in a different location--a church, a palace, and a castle--but they are all functionally prisons for Tosca and Cavaradossi. Christie expresses this by making her set one huge box with grey stone walls, a few doors, and tiny windows at the very top. Only the interior changes throughout the opera.

In Act I there are pews, a statue of the Madonna, a huge hole in the ceiling where a mural once was, and a giant scaffold with the broken mural bits, getting re-touched by Cavaradossi. The rear wall (of the same intimidating gray stone) also has enormous church doors. It didn't look festive, necessarily, but was certainly the least grim scene.

Act II is clearly in a storage warehouse at the bottom of the palace. The bulk of the room is taken up with packing crates stacked floor to ceiling, with a few (quite beautiful) statues haphazardly stacked on top. No one ever says that these crates are full of stolen art to be shipped to the nazis, but it was heavily implied. There is one large crate that is apparently empty, and lit from within with golden light. That's the crate where they torture Cavaradossi.

The final scene is a vast prison yard, completely empty except for a series of nooses hanging from the center. At the top of the act (after that kid's shadow pulls down the scrim) they bring Angelotti's corpse onstage, put a noose around its neck (as promised in Act II) and hang it thirty feet above the stage. It continues to dangle there all through the curtain call--it was delightfully grim.

Oh, and I almost forget--in Act III the rear wall has a giant open window in the back. It looks out to the night sky, and really is beautiful. It is, in fact, the only time there's really a hint of the outdoors in the entire show, and there are some very beautiful stars to be seen. They twinkle, even! Also it's pretty high up, and looks like it could be dangerous if anyone were to stand in front of it with a knife later on.

So that was the set. Functional, beautiful, evocative, and brutalist. Oh, and apparently Christie also really had it in for Duane Schuler, the Lighting Designer, because remember how the set was nothing but floor-to-ceiling brutalist gray walls? That basically made it impossible for him to get any real side light in there. There were these tiny little prison windows at the very top, and he could fit one or two instruments through each one, but that was it. And did I mention that every set had a roof? The roof did have a large hole in it, but for the most part any dreams Schuler may have had about backlight, side light or top light were dashed.

The Lighting Design

From a lighting perspective, it was basically the Worst Possible Set. The only way it could have been worse is if Christie had also included a wall that blocked all the front light, but then the audience couldn't have seen it either. Or maybe if she had made everyone wear large-brimmed hats--Christie was also the Costume Designer, so I'm kind of surprised she didn't go this route!

That being said, of course Schuler did a great job. He's been lighting theatre at the highest level for forty years or something, and has apparently transcended the need for side light. Everyone looked great, everyone was crisp and sharp. Really, my only complaint is that I thought his color work wasn't great--especially in Act I, there were bits where the color temperature (and even hue) was markedly different from place to place on stage. I'm assuming that because he simply didn't have the room to hang enough instruments to get even coverage for his amber wash, and at the end of the day just said, "Screw it--those dude have candles, that's why they're warmer, and that dude is the Tenor so that's why he's in a completely different world".

Likewise, there was no indication of the progression of the day. Although the first act is in the afternoon, the tiny windows were letting in nothing but cold moonlight. Maybe it was overcast or something? But it meant that in the second act, and then especially in the third there really should have been a dramatic change in the quality of the light through the windows, as evening and then night fell and the temperature (metaphorically and literally) dropped… But he probably had to fight tooth and nail just to get the scenic design to carve out those few meager windows at all, and was happy with what he could get.

That being said, there were some lovely moments throughout. In Act I there's that Te Deum, where the full chorus escorts a bishop and everyone has candles. And yes, that's the scene where I thought the color was too patchy, but when I could overlook that I thought that it was gorgeous. And one of the few warm, comforting images in the opera. There's also a moment where Tosca has a sort of vision? Or something? And sees maybe an image of her youthful innocence, or the Madonna as a Youth, or something? And although I never really understood what that was about thematically, the first revelation involved a beautiful blue wash, with a really nice purple special on the statue of Mary.

In Act II he did a great job with the dim and disused store room shadows, there was a great feeling of place--a discarded, little-used store room that was also vast and empty (although jam packed with crates, nonetheless). The perfect place to torture someone, basically, and the lighting almost made me see cobwebs in the corners. The torture box was interesting--it was lit from within, and when the door was closed (to torture him in private) the light shone through the cracks. It was a very yellow light, a little out of place in the cool blues of the rest of the scene, but in a good way. This and the purple wash (and that little girl, which I'll get to in a second) were slightly surprising notes of surreality in an otherwise fairly realist design.

This is the bit where I mention the shadow of the girl ripping down the scrim in Act III, and how much I loved that. Perhaps it didn't have anything to do with the overall themes of the design, and perhaps it was technically self indulgent, but I certainly don't care. It was great!

Finally in Act III all the scenic clutter is gone (well, all of it except the giant walls that continue to block 95% of the sidelight. And the roof still blocks 70% of the down and back light). The Stage Right wall had huge prison doors, and a cold, hard light spilled in from outside and cast some lovely (if dismal) shadows. Again, Schuler did a great job of conveying space--only unlike the cramped, disused cellar of Act II it was a vast, bleak prison yard.

Finally, I should mention that young girl again. Dressed all in white, she represents... something or other. "A remembered image of Floria Tosca's own innocence and youth", the director says. I thought it was so-so, myself, although my neighbor to the left just hated it. Anyway, Duane Schuler did a great job of making her appear and disappear with his lighting, and occasionally made her blue, which is the color of Mary, so I guess that's something.


Bunny Christie's was also the costume designer, and her choices were fine. Everyone (except for the bishop et al. in Act I) in gray or black and white (Tosca in a very nice black and white print in Act I). The noteworthy thing was the style--1940s instead of 1800s. It all worked, but nothing really blew me away.

The Actors

Scarpia was just wonderful, as I may have mentioned. He was played by Mark Delavan when I saw him, and his baritone was lovely to listen to. He also really seemed to be enjoying himself as the villain, chewing on the scenery in exactly the right manner. I also really loved the fact that although he was certainly cruel and a terrible person, they didn't go over the top turning him into a monster--at heart, he was a fairly banal, corrupt fascist with just enough power to really wreck some lives.

Floria Tosca was performed by a woman named Hui He when I saw it, and although her voice sounded just fine to me Puccini didn't write any of the soaring, screaming craziness that I most prefer in sopranos. I think this role called for more "lyricism" than "insanity", and so I thought it was certainly very pleasant, but couldn't go further than that.

Cavaradossi was played by a young tenor named Jorge de Léon, and I'm afraid that my only real comment about his work is that he was extremely loud. I mentioned this to someone else, who knows a lot more about opera, and she looked impressed--apparently a loud tenor is an incredibly rare thing! So there you go. My only real reaction to Mr. de Léon was that I was very impressed with the strength of his voice. And I mean that un-ironically--filling a room the size of the Lyric Opera is like being a pro football player or a weight lifter, say, a physical feat that is enormously difficult! Still, I didn't necessarily enjoy his work.

The Music

Well, if my inexperience and lack of knowledge betrayed me in discussing the tenor, it has really let me down when it comes to the music itself. I lack the exposure (this was my first time hearing Tosca) and I lack the training, to fully appreciate Puccini's work here. I didn't even make out a single theme.

I can say that I loved the somber, ominous, foreboding Te Deum in Act I. And every so often throughout Act II the music would ironically become light and playful--I'm told that the torture scene was a bit of a gavotte, in fact, which is a type of folk dance. I noticed that, and I appreciated it.

Still, although I am equally ignorant about Verdi's work, I do know that I enjoy it a great deal more. For all I know Verdi is simply less subtle than Puccini, and I'm just responding to an excess of cheap stylistic tricks, who can say.

The Bottom Line

Any play with a main character like Floria Tosca, no matter how it may Romanticize torture and rape, is at least on the right track. So many folks would make the male lead the hero of the play, whereas here he's kind of hapless compared to Tosca. And I also love that Puccini recognized how wonderful his terrible villain was, and gave him the bulk of the opera to exult in.

It's worth noting that other critics talk about Tosca's Act II aria about Art as a means to effect change in the world, and I believe that that's one of the great things about this piece. For whatever reason, however, it was not a significant part of this production for me. Certainly it was well over shadowed by her stabbing him in the neck.

Similarly, I applaud Bunny Christie for recognizing that the correct setting for brutality is not a mahogany-paneled drawing room, but rather a massive concrete slab of a building, be it a church, a palace, or a fort. It seems that everyone else in Chicago wanted a nice, pretty Tosca, but I maintain that something like Tosca should be neither nice, nor pretty. When it premiered it was compared to the (recently opened) Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, and I think that that is the appropriate style for this art.

Finally, it was heartening to see the theatre is theatre, whether you're struggling to afford fifteen lights in a postage stamp stage in Roger's Park, or whether you're lighting a major production at the Lyric. Sometimes you have an infinite number of fixtures, but you are only allowed a dozen holes in the top of the set so you just have to make do. Sometimes the scrim gets stuck, and the stage hand has to haul it awkwardly offstage.