WHEN ``The Grapes of Wrath'' opened on Broadway four seasons ago to unanimous acclaim, adaptor-director Frank Galati was virtually unknown in New York. But in Chicago, this Renaissance man (as local critics are fond of calling him) has been a revered figure for some time.
The celebrated Steppenwolf Theatre Company, for whom he created the stunning John Steinbeck adaptation and now directs two productions a year, counts him as a full member. But he also serves as associate artistic director at the equally prestigious Goodman Theatre, where he has directed at least one project a year since 1986. On weekdays, Galati can be found in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, in nearby Evanston. And this season features not one, but two productions directed by him at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Three years ago, Galati tackled Dominick Argento's ``The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe'' for the Lyric, in a production that was so well received that he was invited back last season to stage Debussy's ``Pelleas and Melisande.'' This fall, his new Verdi ``Traviata'' was selected as the opening-night attraction, followed five weeks later by the Puccini classic, ``Tosca,'' in a production shared (and originated last year) with San Francisco.
This is Tosca-as-theater, with simulated footlights and a hand-painted curtain that help transport the audience to another era. While the quality of performance varies from singer to singer, there is an unmistakable effort to make the drama psychologically valid and at times even intimate.
Galati also takes pains to let us know that Puccini's characters live very much with an awareness of both church and state. Signs and symbols of their power subtly make their presence known. For example, the director has the infamous Baron Scarpia and the opera's heroine wield crucifixes at critical moments to justify their actions: At the first act's climax, with the sound of ``Te Deum'' ringing behind him, Scarpia shakes his fist with the cross, announcing his diabolical goals; in the second act, Tosca places a small wooden crucifix on the body of Scarpia after she has murdered him. The point is clear: Many deeds are done invoking Christ's name.
Tony Walton's sets are utterly Roman, recreating landmarks of the city in exaggerated perspective reminiscent of mannerist painting. (The whole opera is even presented within a large Baroque gold frame.) His first-act cathedral set suggests great height and width simultaneously, while creating a plausible downstage area where the painter Caravadossi is completing a portrait of the Marchesa Attavanti.
Walton's second-act set, however, is dominated by a ridiculously oversized gladiator sculpture coming out from the wall opposite a fireplace so enormous it would be believable only in a Scottish castle. His third act flattens the Castle Sant'Angelo bridge to a degree that barely provides enough height for Tosca to jump to her death at the end. Nevertheless, his palette is vivid and entirely of a piece with the score, one of Puccini's finest.
In contrast to Franco Zeffirelli's crowd-filled tableaux vivants for the Metropolitan Opera, Galati, Walton, and conductor Bruno Bartoletti pursue every opportunity to make the melodrama plausible on a moment-to-moment basis, delineating one character's motivations with nuance and feeling and another's change of heart with gradual awareness. In short, this is a production with much chiaroscuro and attention to detail, though for reasons beyond Galati's control not altogether consistent.
Maria Ewing withdrew from the title role after rehearsing in it for four weeks, reputedly due to sudden illness. Her replacement, Elizabeth Bryne, never conveys the theatricality of a diva nor the vulnerability of a romantic, impetuous temperament. She does sing the score with conviction that increases by each successive act, though she has clearly had less rehearsal than others with Galati. (Ewing withdrew 48 hours prior to opening; I was at Bryne's third performance.) Under the circumstances, she's reasonably good, though overshadowed by her two fellow principals.
James Morris's command of the role of the villainous Scarpia is internationally known and highly regarded, with reason. This superior artist thought out every phrase, planned every step. If this Scarpia does not vary from opera house to opera house, it succeeds on sheer authority and mastery of the singer's instrument.
The revelation of this production, though, was Kristjan Johannsson as Caravadossi. Short in stature, he is nevertheless a fresh, intelligent presence who never anticipates an emotional or musical moment. More important, when he opens his mouth to sing, the sound that emerges is one of those natural phenomena that send the heart soaring. (Why his Met debut last season in ``Cavallera'' was not considered more important remains a mystery.) The opera world is fortunate to have him; and his native Iceland has reason to be proud.
When ``Tosca'' resumes performances here on Feb. 5, all three principals will be replaced. With Maria Guleghina, (who originated the role in San Francisco), as Tosca, it should be worth a trip to Chicago for theater and opera lovers alike.