Sounds Good, Looks Better

Houston Grand Opera's dazzling new production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, which opened last Friday, is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the ears. Though HGO has assembled a first-rate cast for this new rendition of Puccini's deeply dramatic and profoundly tragic opera -- at the premiere, the ensemble, headed by Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova in the title role, sang and acted magnificently -- what really makes this production so memorable is the staging. The sets, costumes and lighting are awe-inspiring.

When HGO last staged Tosca in 1991, the action was set in Rome during the Fascist era of the 1930s. That staging was excellent, and it was hard to believe that any new production could top it. This latest production, however, does just that.

Director Michael Blakemore has returned the action to its traditional setting -- Rome around 1800, the era of the Napoleonic wars and political upheaval in Italy. The lavish sets effectively evoke the spirit of the age.

As the ill-fated diva Tosca, Gorchakova lives up to her surroundings. She sang superbly, and although she overacted a bit in the first act, in general her portrayal of the tragic heroine was outstanding. Equally as impressive was American tenor Franco Farina as the artist Cavaradossi, Tosca's lover. And Russian baritone Valery Alexeyev was thoroughly believable as the sinister and menacing Baron Scarpia, the chief of police who in Puccini's opera is the very embodiment of evil.

In two of the less prominent roles, bass Eric Owens was noteworthy as the escaped prisoner Angelotti, while baritone Jozsef Gregor turned in an amusing performance as the Sacristan.

The opera's first act takes place in a church where Angelotti takes refuge and is hidden by Cavaradossi. The elegant but slightly faded interior of the building, as depicted on-stage, is highly reminiscent of the many small, centuries-old churches found throughout Italy. The act ends with a magnificent procession through the church, while worshipers sing the opera's famous Te Deum. The procession even features a high-ranking cleric being borne on a litter. The effect is breathtaking.

In the second act, the scene shifts to Scarpia's chambers, where Cavaradossi has been brought to be interrogated concerning the whereabouts of Angelotti. Tosca is summoned to the room, and Scarpia puts pressure on her to provide sexual favors in exchange for Cavaradossi's release. Instead, Tosca stabs Scarpia to death. Scarpia's candle-lit room is sumptuous, but dark and foreboding. Particularly ominous is a large bust of a satyr, which betrays Scarpia's lecherous nature.

But perhaps the opera's most magnificent staging is in the third act, which takes place on top of the tower of the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome. Here, Cavaradossi is executed by a firing squad, and Tosca leaps to her death. A magnificent golden statue of an angel dominates the scene. And the depiction of dawn breaking behind the turrets of the tower is spellbinding.

About the only drawback to this staging is that it at times tends to draw the focus away from the singers' performances. And Tosca, unlike many of Puccini's other operas, doesn't feature standout arias that can grab back the audience's attention. Instead, it puts its emphasis on dramatic action. In this sense, it's typical of many other Italian verismo operas, with their emphasis on everyday characters caught in life's struggles.

The opera's finest dramatic moments take place in the second act, when the full extent of Scarpia's sadistic, treacherous and lecherous nature is revealed, and Alexeyev's portrayal of the heartless chief of police was thoroughly convincing. Farina was also excellent in conveying the heroic character of Cavaradossi, who despite being tortured refuses to reveal Angelotti's whereabouts. Although the torture scene took place off-stage, the screams that resonated from behind a closed door made it one of the opera's more chilling moments.

It's at the end of Act Two, when Tosca stabs Scarpia to death, that the drama reaches its highest point. Gorchakova was excellent in conveying the emotional stress that the normally gentle Tosca undergoes, causing her to commit this desperate act.

While the primary emphasis in Tosca is on the drama, the opera is not completely without its musical high points. The work's most famous aria, "Vissi d'arte," is sung in the momentous second act. In this touching number, Tosca wonders why evil has befallen her despite her many good deeds. Gorchakova's beautiful, heartfelt rendition of this aria was deeply moving, eliciting enthusiastic applause. Farina also drew a warm response from the Friday night crowd for his moving interpretation of "E lucevan le stelle" at the beginning of the third act. In this song, Cavaradossi laments the loss of his beloved Tosca.

Another musical highlight was the Te Deum at the end of Act One. The HGO chorus offered an inspired rendition of this uplifting number, while conductor Pinchus Steinberg led members of the Houston Symphony in offering a moving interpretation of Puccini's dramatic score.

About the only quibble I have with this production is that the intermissions are too long. The first intermission ran about 35 minutes, while the second lasted nearly half an hour. These lengthy interruptions detracted from the opera's dramatic flow. It might have been better to eliminate the second intermission altogether. True, the complexity of the scene changes may make this impossible, but something needs to be done to prevent the sense of tension from seeping away.

This is, however, a minor point. Operagoers in general, and Puccini lovers in particular, won't want to miss this Tosca. It sets the standard that other productions will have to live up to in the future.

Tosca plays through November 3 at the Wortham Center, Brown Theater, 500 Texas. 227-

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Bruce Guynn