Lyric Opera of Chicago Tosca Review - Violence Rules the Day

Act II of "Tosca." Tatiana Serjan as Tosca and Evgeny Nikitin as Scarpia photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Tosca, this year’s Puccini entry from Lyric Opera of Chicago, is an opera whose appeal, like of all Puccini’s work, lies in its simplicity, so the best strategy is not to complicate things. The Lyric’s current production, while hardly complicated, is a new presentation of a work almost guaranteed to remain near the top of list of the most-produced operas.


Brian Jagde photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

For the current production, a coproduction with the Houston Grand Opera directed by John Caird, the period setting of Italy during the Napoleonic Wars has been shifted a hundred years forward to 1900. In this production, opera’s easiest-to-hate, most one-dimensional villain, the Baron Scarpia (baritone Evgeny Nikitin), has been refashioned as a thug who, in addition to using the church as a tool for his licentious desires, has commandeered crates full of artworks for his personal gain. It is in an warehouse stocked with crates containing these pilfered artworks that the drama-heavy second act, in which Scarpia attempts to seduce Tosca (soprano Tatiana Serjan) takes place.

Evgeny Nikitin as Scarpia and Tatiana Serjan as Tosca photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Caird and Bunny Christie, who designed sets and costumes, did not, despite moving the action ahead 145 or so years, overcomplicate the production with symbolism, but there are certainly new elements. Each act, confined to one setting each, is introduced with a dramatic silkscreen, covered in what is presumably an increasing amount of blood, being torn away to reveal the set. The frescoes of the heroic painter Cavardossi (tenor Brian Jagde), Tosca’s lover and the opera’s great martyr, have been turned into what appear to be jigsaw puzzle pieces sitting atop the massive scaffold that is part of the basilica where Act I is set, making for a slightly abstract effect.


Act III of "Tosca," featuring Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

More surprising and troubling is the unflinching addition of violence to the opera. On top of the climatic stabbing of Scarpia by Tosca in Act II, the beating of Cavaradossi in the same act, and Cavaradossi’s execution in Act III, Caird and Christie have introduced some additional visceral macabre elements in Act III. A hanging noose appears and it is used on (presumably) a dummy, which is hanged and then raised high, providing a morbid visual over the tender love scenes between the condemned Cavaradossi and Tosca. An additional motif is provided with a young girl in white, described as "a child Madonna and ghost of Tosca's innocence" (Annie Wagner, who, confusingly, also got the shepherd’s role in Act III), illuminated in dark corners of the stage, making what is supposed to be a haunting appearance at the opera’s grim moments. Also, in the opera’s final moment, when Tosca leaps to her death, she stabs herself first before falling, adding more blood to the running total.


Evgeny Nikitin as Scarpia and Rodell Rosel as Spoletta photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

The cast of Tosca, with the lion’s share falling to the three principals, was proficient but hardly spectacular. Brian Jagde, the American tenor making his Lyric debut, no doubt the fan favorite by the end of the evening, has an ample, ringing voice, which he sometimes held longer than called for to show off his gifts; however, his tone is almost baritonal and does not quite possess the lyrical sweetness associated with Italianate tenors who make their livings with Puccini.

As Tosca, Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan, could be described as proficient but not memorable, though her high notes and her tone were certainly admirable. Another Russian, baritone Evgeny Nikitin, seemed to fit the mold for Scarpia—he’s just what you’d expect for the hammy villain, and vocally left nothing to be desired, but the ground these three principals are treading is so familiar, it's hard to expect novelty at this point.

Musically, the Russian contributions to the production did not stop with two of the principals. Conductor Dmitri Jurowski, like the three principals making his Lyric debut, led the Lyric’s orchestra in a performance that occasionally overshadowed the singers, particularly with some exaggerated brass effects. Overall, the conducting was competent and wisely “got on with it,” moving the action along without too much idiosyncrasy.  

Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski, at the Civic Opera House of Chicago, 20. N wacker Drive, January 27, Februrary 2, 27, and March 3, 14 at 7:30 PM; January 30, February 5, 8, and March 11 at 2:00 PM. IMPORTANT NOTE: the cast reviewed above, featuring Tataina Serjan, Brian Jagde, and Evgeny Nikitin, will be replaced by Hui He, Jorge de Leon, and Mark Delavan for the February 27-March 14 performances. 

Brian Jagde and Tatiana Serjan in Act I of Tosca photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

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