'Tosca' at Tanglewood: wrong approach

The tumultuous ovations for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's first opera at Tanglewood in too many years -a performance of Puccini's "Tosca" -have just died down, with thunderous praise and the 9,741 people in attendance have now headed home very, very happy.

So now, here comes the critic, wrinkling his nose and carping in a critic's usual form. But the Tanglewood audience is not an opera audience. Many were no doubt sitting through an opera for the first time, and "Tosca" is nothing if not exciting.

Nevertheless, if what the orchestra put on is a harbinger of things to come, then some serious assessing must be undertaken before anyone begins planning next summer's opera.

To begin with, "Tosca" is the wrong opera to do in concert, particularly whn the decision has been taken over a semi-stage with no props. Melodrama without props simply asks too many questions that cannot be answered, particularly when a diva is forever waving an empty hand that is supposed to contain now a knife, now a fan, or now a pair of gloves.

One suspects that had Seiji Ozawa not recently done a string of "Toscas" at La Scala in Milan, some other work would have been presented. For concert opera to work, the orchestral score must be rich enough to take the bill. But the opera must benefit more from this glorious symphonic exposure than it wuld from merely a good reading by a competent pit orchestra in an opera house, where sets and costumes and props also share the limelight.

"Tosca" needs sets, costumes, and props. One has to believe that Floria Tosca is the greatest star in Rome, the Scarpia is chief of police and perhaps even and intimate of the queen, that Sant' Andrea della valle is one of the most beautiful churches in Rome, etc., etc. With the series of interconnected arches that served as a set, one got a hint of this or that and a good deal of awkward in-betweens which the concert dress did not aid in clarifying. One singer addresses one panel as the painting Cavaradossi is executing in Act I, while another points to a different panel. These absurdities continue unabated all evening long.

Things become particularly problematic in Act II. Sherrill Milnes as Scarpia goes out on a balcony that is "designated" as outside an invisible wall. A bit later on, Shirley Verrett as Tosca leans against that railing as part of the inside. We are supposed to get a real sense of the sexual menace that Scarpia holds over Tosca, yet the singers spend most of the act at opposite ends of the stage, with just a tame touch of the hand to suggest the actual attack Scarpia is supposed to launch on the hapless diva.

When she spots the nonexistent offstage knife, her "take" would have set off an earthquake. The same hand that held a nonexistent fan now holds a make-believe dagger, then a pretend safe-conduct pass. . .And so it went.

Director David Kneuss had his hands tied, because this sort of approach is an inescapable trap. There were some fine moments, here and there. Tosca sings her big aria "Vissi d'Arte" on a darkened stage, standing motionless against one of the arches -a vivid, consecrated moment. At the end of the act she is framed in a center arch with a single spot on her anguished face (though by stage-whispering those mawkish "Forgive mes" (Perdonami) the effect was somewhat marred). But for each of those good instants, there were too many others that did not work.

Casting was representative of most major houses today, though hardly representative of the best or even a very high level for Puccini's opera. Shirley Verrett's least effictive foray into the soprano literature has been as Tosca, and though she was in better voice here than at the Met two seasons back, only the "Vissi d'Arte" connected with anything geniune all evening long. Veriano Luchetti is a lyric tenor with big ideas who wants to be more dramatic, and Cavaradossi should not be one of them. The top is no longer in the best of shape, and only now and then did he reveal the true quality or substance of his instrument. Sherrill Milnes has the voice and presence of Scarpia, but his Roman manner does not suggest Italian elegance except in a vaguely stereotypical, American manner.

The only real performance of the evening was from Italo Tajo as the sacristan. This veteran master made the most of every precious moment. Douglas Lawrence as Angelotti lacked stage presence, Keith Kibler's wooly bass projected badly in such a big space, and the energetic Kim Scown did not have the real biting sounds needed for Spoletta.

There were problems with the audience, too, which seemed especially restive. (And the first minutes of all acts were marred by the various trustees and overseers of the BSO straggling back during the music from their special party in the patrons' tent).

But the biggest problem was in Ozawa himself. He wants to be doing opera. He should be doing opera. His account of "Eugene Onegin" a few years back was one of the highlights of his Boston Symphony career (and should have been the model of overall excellence for this evening, but was not).

This "Tosca" lacked the essence of what makes Puccini's score tick. Tempos were slow to the point of being sluggish. Orchestral detail was vivid here and there, but there was no sense of luxuriant opulence, no real bass underpinning so crucial to textures, no reveling in the heady joy of the rich orchestral writing. More critically, there was little revealing of the precise dramatic mood and gesture that the music is conveying. Ozawa's conducting did not breathe.

And at times the singers, and, at the end of Act I, the members of the chorus , were hard put to keep up. Too many times there were lapses between stage and "pit" (actually, the cast was on a raised stage and the orchestra was in front, dressed in unobtrusive black). Within the orchestra, there were more false entrances than permissible for this sort of ensemble.

If one is going to use one of the world's great orchestras for concert opera, there must be dramatic justification. This Ozawa did not give. It was purely a musical performance, with little life, drama, or style, and virtually no authenticity of approach. That is a specific shortcoming that no one could have expected and that one hopes will not be a trademark of Ozawa's operatic performances.

In the future, one hopes an opera of rich orchestral merit (say, Puccini's "Turandot' or a Strauss or late Verdi opera) will be chosen that lends itself to nonacted, nonstaged performance. Just letting the singers stand in a small, contained stage and act their hearts our is all that is needed. It would reduce the cost of the production, and keep attention firmly focused on the music rather than the trappings, which is what concert opera is supposed to be all about.

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