Serjan’s sensational debut lifts Lyric’s bleak “Tosca”

Sun Jan 25, 2015 at 3:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Tatiana Serjan stars in Puccini's "Tosca" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Tatiana Serjan stars in Puccini’s “Tosca” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Lyric Opera has been long overdue for a fresh take on Tosca, and Saturday night the company unveiled its new (to Chicago) production of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker.”

The decidedly bleak staging by director John Caird and designer Bunny Christie proved largely effective—with one jarring exception—but it was the vocal side that was exceptionally well served with Tatiana Serjan more than living up to the high expectations in a sensational Lyric Opera debut.

With a different blood-spattered scrim torn down to reveal the tableau for each act, Caird and Christie were clearly going to go to a dark place. The duo has updated the opera from the Napoleonic era to the late 19th century, the time of the Victorien Sardou play, which Puccini adapted.

Christie’s sets are striking if decidedly gloomy and noirish. The Sant’ Andrea della Valla church is here a war-ravaged space with a gaping hole in the roof. Cavardossi’s painting is a massive jigsaw-like puzzle of a woman’s face, his scaffold a towering two-level affair that rises about 25 feet off the ground–which necessitated much climbing up and down by the lovers that seemed awkward and distracting. Rather than the usual elegantly appointed room in the Palazzo Farnese, Scarpia’s lair is the same unit frame converted into a claustrophobic shipping depot with the villain’s plunder of riches and huge statuary piled high on crates of his ill-gotten goods.

In Act 3, we are not on the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo but a vast, empty green-gray prison. Following Scarpia’s order, the corpse of Angelotti is hung high through a noose in the same hole in the roof. Cavaradossi is dispatched by the firing squad as per tradition but Tosca commits suicide by plunging a knife into her throat before falling out of the (seemingly) not-so-high window.

None of these changes are fatal and the British director mostly plays it straight this time. Yet Caird is one of those people who seem unable to direct any opera without freely rewriting the libretto to add some dubious conceit of his own (as with the muddled PC revisionism of his Parsifal last season).

This time Caird’s Big Idea—justified at great length in his program insert—is to make the tiny part of the offstage shepherd at the start of Act 3 into an integral part of the action. In defiance of the libretto and common sense, Caird changes the boy to a girl (Annie Wagner) and has her enter stage center and even step on a center-stage pedestal as if to conduct, instead motioning for the bloody scrim to drop.

Worse, he inserts the phantom shepherd girl—representing, Caird says, the heroine’s innocence and youth—into crucial dramatic points of each act, appearing as a glowing John Singer Sargent-like spirit to a transfixed Tosca. This grievous bit of directorial overreach is wholly unjustified by the score, libretto and scenario and proves just as intrusive and distracting as you might imagine. Let’s hope that this unwonted gimmickry gets jettisoned before the end of the run.

Tatiana Serjan caught Chicago’s attention two years ago with her Lady Macbeth in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert performances of Verdi’s opera in 2013. Saturday night the Russian soprano showed she truly is the complete package as a singer and actress, with her Tosca as affecting and vulnerable as her Lady Macbeth was chilling and evil.

Serjan encompassed the diva Floria Tosca’s myriad qualities: charming, capricious and jealous with her lover, damaged, tragic and forced into violence against the malevolent Scarpia (giving him an extra stab for good measure). The final scene seemed like a work in progress and didn’t quite come off opening night, more because of Caird’s awkward blocking than any lack of dramatic conviction on Serjan’s part.

Vocally, the soprano was beyond reproach, her gleaming lyric-dramatic instrument communicating a wide range of intense emotions as touchingly as her expressive face. One could go a lifetime and not hear a finer “Vissi d’arte” in the theater than the one Serjan delivered Saturday night. With gleaming, sensitively shaded tone, ringing top notes and a genuine confusion and emotional desperation at why God is treating her this way, the effect was heartbreaking and unforgettable. Tatiana Serjan needs to be a regular fixture at opera performances in Chicago.

“And he’s handsome too!” exclaimed one captivated female patron of Brian Jagde at intermission. The American tenor was pressed into service to make his Lyric debut two weeks ago when Mischa Didyk abruptly departed the show in mid-rehearsal

With an ample voice, natural acting style and likable stage presence, Jagde made an impressive house debut. He delivered an ardent and impassioned “Recondita armonia,” clarion cries of “Vittoria!” in Act 2 and an impassioned “E lucevan e’ stelle.” The staging of Act 3 seemed a bit uncertain in places yet Jagde showed fine chemistry with Serjan and made the lovers’ plight credible and gripping.

Dramatically, Evgeny Nikitin proved a smooth and aristocratic Scarpia yet provided rather mixed vocal rewards. The Russian bass-baritone’s voice lies low for the role of the villainous police chief, and too many crucial moments in the high range were weak or even inaudible, as with the climax of his underpowered Te Deum. Nikitin improved markedly in Act 2, singing with firmer projection and providing an aptly loathsome, nicely understated threat to Serjan’s imperiled heroine.

Richard Ollarsbaba was effective as a properly disheveled and anxious Angelotti, and Rodell Rosel made an aptly oily, vestpocket Spoletta. Dale Travis’s Sacristan was vivid if a bit on the grouchy side this time around. Michael Black’s chorus sang magnificently as usual. Christie’s free-range costuming is imaginative and eye-catching, apart from the dowdy scullery maid getup for Tosca in Act 1.

As with all three principal singers, Dmitri Jurowski was also making his company debut Saturday night. The young Russian conductor proved a capable hand, accompanying the singers efficiently and allowing enough time for their clambering up and down that scaffold.

Still, the overall effect was one of bland anonymity. The Lyric Opera orchestra played with customary commitment and polish—some wayward cello intonation at the start of Act 3 apart. Yet there was little Italianate warmth or interpretive individuality coming from Jurowski in the pit, with climaxes underpowered and even Act 2 lacking dramatic intensity.

Tosca runs through February 5. A second cast featuring Hui He, Jorge de Leon and Mark Delavan opens February 27 and runs through March 14.; 312-827-5600.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Serjan’s sensational debut lifts Lyric’s bleak “Tosca””

  1. Posted Jan 25, 2015 at 10:20 pm by Anne-Marie

    You are so right on the money, Mr. Johnson. The singing of the two principals, particularly Tatiana Serjan’s heart-wrenching Tosca, made the night brilliant. On the other hand, I thought the sets were depressing and the fragments of the painting on a three-level scaffolding seemed more like a Chagall throwback rather than early 19th century Rome. Furthermore, it was awkward, not to say risky, to have the lovers running up and down those steps!

    With due respect to the talented director, I must still ask why Mr. Caird took such liberties with the libretto by changing the shepherd boy into a girl, and then manipulating Puccini’s original intent, by interjecting this character into certain crucial scenes of the opera? There should have been a caveat in the program to read: John Caird’s interpretation of Puccini’s Tosca!

    More and more I am turned off by the liberties these celebrated directors take with classical works: take Robert Falls’ killing off a redeeming character in the recent Goodman production of Shakepeare’s “Measure for Measure” or, for that matter, the premature introduction of the Commendatore in the Lyric opening opera for the 60th season, “Don Giovanni.” Why do they feel obliged to rewrite a masterpiece to prove that they can?

    If the Lyric wants to attract the next generation of subscribers, artistic management should set some limits to these outrageous directorial fantasies! If I were to take my grandchildren to a memorable opera I would wish them to remember not only beautiful voices but the totality of the performance — from the music to the sets and the costumes. Let’s have some artistic integrity.

  2. Posted Mar 22, 2015 at 5:13 pm by Elisa Kay

    Yes, Mr. Caird insisted on throwing in Butterfly’s suicide and Suor Angelica’s apparition, but I don’t see how Tosca could possibly have gone on with Act 3 as written, after only a cursory, shocked glance at the hanging corpse of the man whose death she caused. Maybe this Tosca had a touch of Turandot’s bloodthirstiness, too.

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