“Tosca,” cries the evil and lusty Baron Scarpia at the apex of Act II, “finalmente mia!” Then the ungrateful diva plunges a dagger into his generous gut.
The situation, reenacted Monday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, bears a certain metaphorical significance. Puccini’s virtually foolproof little melodrama, as performed by forces of the Deutsche Oper of West Berlin, was finally ours. It represented the first, long-awaited, down payment on world-class opera sponsored by our cultural shopping center on the hill. It should have been cause for unmitigated rejoicing.
The rejoicing, alas, was somewhat mitigated. There was no need to plunge any daggers here. The performance was solid, the 16-year-old production looked respectable, the elegant first-nighters--who had paid up to $250 for a good ticket plus dinner--were docile, the house (not quite sold out) was enthusiasitic, and one superstar graced the stage. There have been worse nights at the opera.
There also have been better nights, however, and certain questions nagged. Does one really have to go as far as Berlin to import a routine, conventional, hand-me-down “Tosca”? Did this move reflect sound economics and enlightened priorities in an opera-starved city? Is “Tosca” a vehicle that tells us much about the special attributes of what purportedly is one of the world’s leading companies?
And, last and possibly least, what was German about this “Tosca” anyhow?
Not much. The singers of two minor roles, the Sacristan and Angelotti, happened to be Germans. The stage director happened to be German. The national anthem played after the “Star-Spangled Banner,” to the understandable discomfort of some auditors, happened to be German: “Deutschland ueber Alles.”
Otherwise, this could just as well have been just another “Tosca” in San Francisco or San Diego or Rome or Chicago. One waited in vain for illumination, one hoped in vain for excitement, one longed in vain for the distinction of a specific musical or dramatic perspective.
The cast should have been dominated by the prima donna in the title role. A really imperious and impetuous Tosca, after all, can salvage even the most listless of “Toscas.” An inspired singing actress, an artist with a flexible middleweight soprano and wide-ranging theatrical instincts, still can breathe life into the old war horse .
The challenge can be mastered with the passion of a Callas, the purity of a Tebaldi, the majesty of a Milanov, the canny intelligence of a Kirsten. . . .
It cannot be mastered, unfortunately, by the bland conscientiousness of Teresa Zylis-Gara. The Polish soprano, last heard here as an excellent Donna Elvira with the San Francisco Opera in 1969, is a past mistress of the limpid line demanded by Mozart and Richard Strauss. Even now, she can sing with remarkable sweetness and purity. She doesn’t force and she doesn’t exaggerate. She also doesn’t come within hailing distance of Floria Tosca.
Vocally, she remains a lightweight. Histrionically, she remains a figure prone to generalized poses, an actress whose emotional resources confuse stilted placidity with amorous abandon, petulance with fury. She presented a well-mannered, well-schooled Tosca, down to her prim fingertips--fingertips encased, incidentally, in gloves that made Cavaradossi’s ode to her “dolci mani” a rather prophylactic apostrophe. Flamboyance and pathos were conspicuously absent.
Under the circumstances, the men in this Tosca’s life were left pretty much to their own devices. In the case of Placido Domingo’s Cavaradossi, that meant heroic stances, stentorian splendor worthy of an Otello, and, at the end of the short evening, even a few lovely attempts at a caressing Di Stefano pianissimo.
In the case of Ingvar Wixell’s burly Scarpia, it meant a big-bully portrayal of the potentially elegant baron and loud, unsubtle, healthy vocalism that stilled any worries caused by his feeble Rigoletto in San Francisco last year.
The strong supporting ensemble included Manfred Roehrl (Berlin’s inciient Figaro) as a forceful Angelotti, Klaus Lang as a whimsical, unmannered Sacristan, and Donald Grobe (formerly a leading romantic tenor) as a restrained Spoletta.
Silvio Varviso, replacing the originally announced Jesus Lopez Cobos, conducted with the stress on ponderous languor. An expanded Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra played reasonably well for him in the pit; the Los Angeles Master Chorale delivered a neat Te Deum, and the boy’s choir, prepared by Carole Keiser, mustered a lively “baccano in chiesa.”
Barlog’s stage direction, now entrusted to Gerlinde Pelkowski, followed familiar patterns faithfully. Filippo Sanjust’s old-fashioned, ill-lit designs--realistically detailed in San’Andrea della Valle, spartan in Scarpia’s prison-like study and at the summit of the Castel Sant’Angelo--looked imposing despite stylistic contradictions and obvious wear.
And so, grand opera, of sorts, has returned to the land of the plastic lotus.