Lyric Opera

A friend of mine claims to know in opera lover whose answering-machine message incorporates a snippet of Renata Scotto howling her way through the title role of Lyric’s 1988 Tosca. A dog bark abruptly cuts in and then his own voice saying “Down, Killer, down!” If there is one thing to be said for Lyric repeating Tosca within two years, it is that it should soften the infernal aural sensation left by Scotto’s “interpretation.” It was an all-time low for Lyric, done because the Chicago opera public craves “stars”–even if those stars have long been unable to produce pure pitch.

It was star selling, too, that prompted Lyric to agree to produce Tosca again within such a short time; Lyric desperately wanted superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti to be somehow included in its 35th gala anniversary season, and Tosca is what he chose. They would have mounted Man of La Mancha if he’d picked it. That the opera is general director Ardis Krainik’s favorite and that Lyric was the venue for Pavarotti’s first Cavaradossi 13 seasons ago didn’t hurt either. But then, less than two weeks before rehearsals were to begin, came the dreaded letter from his manager saying that Pavarotti was pulling out of the performances because of an inflamed sciatic nerve that would keep him from being able to move onstage (when has he ever?).

Krainik knew that the opera public would go nuts at this news (his last scheduled appearances here two years ago were also canceled at the last minute, as have been almost half of his Lyric commitments since 1981). Though known for her theater background and expertise, she suggested that Pavarotti could perform from a stationary chair. Understandably, Pavarotti declined. However ridiculous opera may sometimes be, the action of Tosca, which includes Cavaradossi’s torture and execution, would make little sense if he sat in a chair. Thinking of allowing this, let alone requesting it, raises some fundamental questions about Lyric’s aesthetic priorities: is the company committed to art or to selling tickets?

The end result has been the much publicized and heralded decision by Krainik to release Pavarotti from his scheduled 1991 Lyric appearances and to “banish” him from future performances. It was a quick-fix decision made to appease a town that has suffered from Pavarotti’s regular jilting, but the long-term implications of such a decision don’t seem to have been clearly thought out. More than, just a box-office name, Pavarotti is also a consummate artist, with unquestionably the most beautiful tenor sound to his voice, bar none, of anyone singing today. In fact, it is precisely his pampering of that voice and his steadfast refusal to allow it to be heard at anything less than its very best that prompts the many cancellations. What does Lyric–or Chicago–gain by permanently losing the operatic services of such an extraordinary artist in a temper tantrum? Pavarotti half the time is worth a dozen typical tenors all the time.

So Lyric was stuck with another Tosca, minus the star who was its reason for being scheduled. Given the state of affairs, my expectations were pretty low.

Perhaps most startling about the opening performance was what I would have least expected–Bruno Bartoletti’s masterful conducting of the work. Lyric’s artistic director for 25 years, he usually interprets scores in a manner I find superficial and unimaginative. Perhaps I was still hearing Michael Tilson Thomas’s harsh 1988 reading, but Bartoletti evoked wonderful poetry from the score, rather than blast his way through its virtually shameless melodrama. There is a tendency to take such a familiar work for granted, but Bartoletti brought out several details that I had never heard before–particularly Puccini’s meticulous and subtle shadings in the quietest sections of the score, such as the pastoral opening of act three. He tended toward a slower pace, and preferred atmosphere over effect, but it was all convincingly done. He never lost sight of balances or allowed himself to oversentimentalize, wisely realizing there’s more than enough sentimentality in the score already. The Lyric Opera Orchestra never was more responsive nor played more beautifully, although the recapitulation of the sacristan’s music in act one was marred by the harp and winds not entering together.

Bartoletti never lost sight of the work’s overall structure and seemed to fully grasp something that is seldom admitted–that this is really Scarpia’s opera. From the three ominous chords that open the opera, the sadistic police chief who plots to possess Tosca and destroy her lover Cavaradossi is the center of the opera musically and dramatically. This was Puccini’s first major baritone role–a voice type he was said not to favor. Everything leads to and away from Scarpia, and his overbearing presence is felt before his dramatic entrance midway through act one as well as after his act-two murder by Tosca’s hand as he tries to rape her. Having set up a real execution of Cavaradossi instead of the mock one he promised Tosca, Scarpia’s dirty work continues even after his death. Perhaps Bartoletti’s having worked so much with Tito Gobbi, the late legendary Scarpia and original director of the Lyric’s production, led him to emphasize Scarpia’s importance, but it was something that his reading was constantly and keenly aware of. Bravissimo.

Scarpia was in the very capable hands of Siegmund Nimsgern, who picked up the role in the ’88 production after Sherrill Milnes began in it. I heard only Milnes’s chilling interpretation then; but if Nimsgern was unable to evoke quite the same deliciously hypocritical and subtly sadistic nature of the police chief, he was still a foreboding presence and sang the role with great technique and style.

Hungarian soprano Eva Marton sang the lead, and even if she wasn’t as absurd in the role as Scotto, she had many problems with it. Her act-one entrance was quite wobbly, her voice way out of control and with a slow vibrato that fluctuated across quarter tones, She was also hitting her higher notes on the flat side, and her acting was often hammy and superficial. Her best moments–vocally and dramatically–came in act two, when she tried to bargain with Scarpia for Cavaradossi’s life. She brought great elegance and her most beautiful singing to the famous “Vissi d’arte” aria (“My life was art”).

The second act was slightly disrupted by a poorly translated supertitle that left the audience giggling during the usually serious ending. Marton was so enraged that she scolded the audience after the act and demanded that the supertitles be suspended for the rest of the performance–which they were. Marton reportedly has a history of such tantrums, and I suspect that the supertitles will have been edited by the second performance.

The real star of this production was tenor Giuseppe Giacomini, who stepped in as Cavaradossi on short notice for the first two performances (Icelandic tenor Kristjan Johannsson, making his Lyric debut, takes up the role for the rest of the run). He was in glorious voice, particularly in his actone aria “Recondita armonia” (“Oh, obscure harmony”). The instant ovation that followed was as frenzied as any I’ve heard at Lyric in the middle of an act. It was as if the audience said defiantly “Chicago can have beautiful tenor singing–even on short notice–without Pavarotti.” Giacomini’s voice center is lower than that of most tenors, and he gets a full-bodied lower range that could almost belong to a baritone–yet his color and power are no less diminished in the upper tenor stratosphere. It was a remarkable performance, especially under the circumstances.

The production’s largest problem may have been the fact that neither Marton nor Giacomini connected with the other musically or dramatically. Marton could not match Giacomini’s pure pitch or sound, so she attempted to compensate in their love duets by overpowering him. The effect was not pretty, as she sometimes slipped into screeching. She had much better luck connecting with Scarpia, and their scenes were the dramatic highlights of the evening.

Luckily, this is a Tosca that is extravagant in much of even its minor casting, and it was a particular pleasure to hear veteran bass Italo Tajo recreate his internationally renowned interpretation of the sacristan. The role of the young shepherd heard at the beginning of act three, often sung by a woman mezzo-soprano, was given to the remarkably gifted boy soprano Jedidiah Cohen, who most recently stunned locals with his stirring account of the national anthem at Mayor Daley’s inauguration at Orchestra Hall. The ever fruitful Lyric Opera Center for American Artists was well represented by two fine young voices: bass Henry Runey as the escaped political prisoner Angelotti and bass-baritone Michael Wadsworth as the jailer.

There is much to hear and see in the present Tosca; even Pier Luigi Pizzi’s gorgeous costumes and sets show no sign of age (they were first seen here in 1971) and are still among his finest designs. Beppe di Tomasi’s stage direction is crisp and refreshing, as he has rethought some of the opera’s most familiar moments with considerable imagination. Perhaps there are no superstars, but there is a beautiful score that, for the most part, is given its due.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.