Lady Killer

Glimmerglass Opera has always treated the warhorses with due consideration, but this elite summer festival will perhaps have to ride them even more carefully and more frequently in the future. After all, virtually every production lovingly prepared upstate in Cooperstown now eventually finds its way into the repertory of the New York City Opera, which, like all repertory companies, must have plenty of audience favorites on hand. So this year’s festival has opened with fresh stagings of two staples destined to travel south: Puccini’s Tosca, which launches the City Opera’s fall season on September 10, and Verdi’s Falstaff, scheduled to be seen at the State Theater at some future point.

What to do about Tosca? Whether presented as a chilling study in existential evil or as cheap melodrama, the opera once needed only three ingredients to guarantee a successful performance: a larger-than-life, charismatic soprano, a baritone who can act, and an uninhibited tenor with a gorgeous voice. That combination, which seemed so simple for impresarios to produce 30 years ago, is now apparently impossible to find, so other embellishments must be added. The most obvious device to juice things up is to relocate the action in some time or place unknown to Puccini and his librettists, and lately Fascist Italy of the thirties has been the update of choice. Director Mark Lamos has taken that familiar option for his vision of Tosca, letting references to Napoleon, the Battle of Marengo, and other topical anachronisms fall where they may.

Purists will be offended, but at least Lamos never overplays the obvious, calling upon just a few key elements of Mussolini’s jackbooted-thug police state to suggest the milieu. In effect, he has simply cleansed the stage of scenic fripperies and focused the action squarely on the three principals, forcefully reminding us of just how frightening this pessimistic drama of cruelty really is. Michael Yeargan’s stark sets are in a similar spirit. The iron grillwork and threatening suspended crucifix of the opening church scene are cleverly transformed into Scarpia’s ominous office, a barred detention room lit by an overhead crisscross of harsh neon lights. This lean-and-mean Tosca contrasts startlingly with the Metropolitan’s lavishly decorative period production by Franco Zeffirelli, and offers a genuine alternative.

That said, some will still miss the big personalities who once galvanized this opera, and without the assistance of an inventive stage director or surprising changes in locale. Looking perfectly lovely in her thirties’ gowns designed by Constance Hoffman, Amy Johnson moves gracefully over the stage and sings the title role with a modest but secure soprano, suggesting that she has listened to all the right recordings – a thoughtful and efficient performance but one of no special character. Michele Bianchini’s one-dimensional, raspily sung Scarpia is even less than that, a dull dog scarcely worth kicking, let alone hacking to death. And I’m still trying to figure out why, during the Te Deum at the end of Act One, he suddenly takes a fit and falls frothing to the floor. As Cavaradossi, Ian DeNolfo shows plenty of tenor muscle but not much ability to caress the lyrical phrases that Puccini has so considerately given him.

I’m bound to report that a capacity audience loved the show – the singers, conductor (Stewart Robertson), and production team all received ovations. It set me to thinking about how reactions to the performances of repertory standards have become increasingly generational over the years, and how much expectations have changed. My idea of Tosca was probably set at age 13 when my father took me to see Ljuba Welitsch imperiously take charge of the stage, that carrot-red hair positively aflame as she fought off Scarpia’s advances and pressed herself like a crucified woman against the wall, her pinpoint soprano as keen as the knife she used to murder the cad. Although never a great operagoer, Dad had been around, knew what he liked, and preferred the more nuanced erotic appeal of the Tosca from his youth, Mary Garden. Of course, that was back in 1913, when the opera was still new and Puccini was alive and at work. Possibly that made a difference, too.

If the outsize opera stars of yore are not missed by today’s audiences, it’s probably because most of them have never seen any – even Maria Callas is now a figure of misty legend. Besides, resilient operas like Tosca are so cunningly written that they can’t fail to deliver on some basic level, as long as all the important ingredients can be as smartly packaged and intelligently presented as they are at Glimmerglass. Falstaff benefits even more from this approach because, unlike Tosca, it is a true ensemble opera. I could argue over dozens of details in the new production, but the entire performance has such zest and energy that in the end one can only wonder anew over this miraculous creation of Verdi’s old age – surely a sign that something is going right onstage.

This time there are no fancy inventions to cloud the issue, but then, it’s hard to think of how a character like Falstaff, so securely anchored in his own life and times, could ever be uprooted and planted elsewhere. In an admirably self-effacing effort, director Leon Major mainly concentrates on clarifying the swift-moving action, here buoyed by many lively but light touches of humor and George Manahan’s fleet musical direction. Less successful are John Conklin’s curious sets and costumes, more beholden to sixteenth-century Dutch portraiture than to the England of Elizabeth; the perversely designed final scene – a barren heath dominated by a bare-branched Herne’s Oak (has Windsor Park been ravaged by fire?) – is downright ugly.

No one, not even Mark Delavan’s bluff Falstaff, steals center stage, although it is hard to look elsewhere whenever Amy Burton’s adorable Alice Ford takes charge of the merry wives’ intrigues. Her fine-spun soprano gains in richness and strength each time I hear her, a clear indication that more ambitious roles are sure to come her way. Apart from Stephen Powell’s robustly sung Ford, the rest of the cast is rather undervoiced, but even that doesn’t seem to matter. The quickening spirit of Verdi’s sublime comedy registers everywhere, holding up a mirror to human folly in each measure.

Lady Killer