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REHEATED PONNELLE STAGING : HO HUM, ANOTHER ‘TOSCA’ BY SAN FRANCISCO OPERA

Times Music Critic

There was nothing seriously wrong with the revival of “Tosca” Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House. Unfortunately, there was nothing excitingly right, either.

Puccini’s virtually indomitable warhorse was trotted out one more time by the San Francisco Opera. The worthy old nag looked--and sounded--as if it had seen better nights.

That doesn’t mean all the battles were lost. Seasoned professionals such as those enlisted here could never entirely exterminate the familiar verismo theatrics or the tried-and-usually-true sonic surges.

It just means that everyone involved seemed threatened by a certain degree of operatic somnambulism. Often, the resident riders allowed the old warhorse to stumble and bumble over predictable hurdles, relying on second-hand maneuvers.

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No company could really produce an opera as difficult as this one with its eyes closed. But Terence McEwen and his San Franciscans did manage to put on a remarkably convincing imitation on this occasion.

The troubles began in the pit. Carlo Felice Cillario conducted politely. He accompanied the singers considerately. He obviously knows his way around the score, and has known it for a long, long time.

What he doesn’t seem to know any more is that Puccini wrote in blood, that a red sea of compelling musico-dramatic passion is raging here. Unwittingly, the Italian maestro suggested that it is safe, even wise, to close one’s eyes and wade through the musical waves sporting water wings, a wet suit and ear plugs.

The troubles continued on the stage. The production in question is--or, rather, was -- the quirky vision of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. First exhibited here in 1972, it is a “Tosca” in which the action at Sant’Andrea della Valle is observed, awkwardly and illogically, from behind the altar.

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It is a “Tosca” in which the heroine doesn’t fuss with candles and crucifix after stabbing the nasty police chief, but instead strolls homeward through a series of portals visible only to the select few in smack-center seats.

It is a “Tosca” that offers an odd rear view of the Castel Sant’Angelo terrace, the flat and ugly back of the presumably glorious statue of the avenging angel buttressed with pipes, wires and braces.

Ponnelle’s innovative ironies didn’t seem like improvements 13 years ago. At the time, they at least were presented as a unified part of an original, semi-symbolic narrative vision. Given the vicissitudes of the repertory system, the director soon had to move on to other challenges, however, leaving his concept in the hands of assorted assistants and promptbook holders.

This year, Ponnelle’s eccentric, egocentric “Tosca” has become the responsibility of Matthew Farruggio. A competent house factotum, he tried, without much success, to direct traffic in a jam of clashing cliches.

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Still, all might not have been lost if McEwen had found a trio of inspired singing-actors to ignite the fundamental sparks. He didn’t.

In the title role, Maria Slatinaru, the Romanian soprano, looked handsome; sounded strong, dark, rough and technically insecure; and tended to strike superficial, time-dishonored poses.

As the potentially ardent Cavaradossi, Giuseppe Giacomini, the Italian tenor, rose to the grandiose climaxes with a fine, stentorian, metallic ring; actually made conscientious efforts to sing softly in moments of introspection; and acted with mechanical calm whether confronting love, jealousy, torture, victory or death.

James Morris, the American bass-baritone, brought easy, wide-ranging vocal power to the first Scarpia of his career; cut a dashing figure on the stage; and didn’t quite seem to know--yet--how to play with the insinuating words, how to paint with subtle colors or how to fuse brooding menace with smoldering eroticism.

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Apart from Renato Capecchi’s crusty, senza-voce Sacristan, the comprimarios remained pallid. Stanley Wexler introduced a lightweight Angelotti, Frank Kelley a wimpy Spoletta, Richard Pendergraph an innocuous Sciarrone. It was the offstage voice of Rachel Lopez as the shepherd boy that attracted the most positive attention.

Under the circumstances, Puccini’s tempestuous melodrama and poignant lyricism were reduced to dutiful rituals. The rituals, not incidentally, were ornamented with distracting, sometimes comic supertitles.

Perhaps the time has come to put this particular warhorse to pasture.


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