Powerful Cast Lifts “Tosca” Beyond Disappointing Sets

Tosca” has everything. A chilling story of an opera singer and a painter trapped in the political turmoil of 1800 Rome; their passionate, doomed love story; and blood—oh yes, lots and lots of blood—all borne on the crest of Puccini’s magnificent music.

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened a new production of this glorious tragedy at the Civic Opera House the evening of Saturday, Jan. 24, and first-nighters found themselves cheering at every turn—for Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan in the title role of the opera diva, and for American tenor Brian Jagde as the artist Cavaradosi, both making powerful Lyric debuts.

Before Tosca ever gets on stage, Jagde lets us know in his first aria that the story is about the painter as much as about her.

But we can’t take our eyes off the beautiful Serjan, the only woman in this male-dominated society. Her voice is molten silver, bright, fluid and strong, plus she is a superior actress—at times playful, flirtatious, beset with jealousy and in the end, stopping at nothing to save the life of the man she loves. Her defining aria (“Visi d’arte”) late in the second act is exquisite, her rich voice filling the vast Civic Opera House and then moving effortlessly to the softest pianissimo.

Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin is the black-hearted Baron Scarpia, the man we love to hate. And while he is not as menacing in the role, for example, as American baritone Sherrill Milnes, he’s still the bad guy, and the character he portrayed was evil enough to receive  multiple boos on opening night.

There were some problems. For this co-production of Lyric and Houston Grand Opera, stage director John Caird and designer Bunny Christie, both from Britain and here in their Lyric debuts, give us puzzling visuals, quite at odds with the atmosphere of the passion-filled Roman setting.

In the first act, the interior of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle is nearly hidden by a three-story scaffolding on which Cavaradosi is painting a large surreal and very ugly face of a woman, who is supposed to be the Magdalene. In Act II, Scarpia’s apartment in the Farnese Palace is cluttered with large statuary depicting violent encounters, as well as crates of artifacts. Whatever for?

The iconic roof of  Castel Sant’Angelo is barely suggested in Act III, though the firing squad is real enough and Tosca’s traditional leap is still shocking.

There are certainly reasons to see this opera. The cast, which will be in place through Feb. 5, is superb, the Lyric Opera Orchestra slices and shimmers under the baton of Russian conductor Dmitri Jurowski in his Lyric debut, and the raw emotion in this story pierces the heart. The major roles will have a second cast, with Hui He as Tosca, Jorge De Leon as Cavaradosi and Mark Delavan as Scarpia, Feb. 27 to March 14. For more information, visit Lyric’s website.