Take one good-looking couple, she a fantastic soprano and he a very good tenor, add a not-very-threatening villain, a heavy-handed conductor, mix well and bake for a little over two hours. What comes out of the oven is San Francisco Opera’s “Tosca,” pretty digestible but not a wholly satisfying gourmet dish.
The frosting on the cake is a stupendous San Francisco debut by Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian in the title role. Blessed with a voice that is as beautiful as the rest of her, Haroutounian is a fine actress as well and, if she is not destined for a big career, I’ll eat my computer. Matching her note for note is the handsome tenor Brian Jagde, a Merola alumnus and former Adler Fellow who strikes some sparks with his lady love, both vocally and dramatically. He is the painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi and she a famous singer, with the temperament to go with it: jealous, melodramatic and passionate.
When her lover is arrested for treason, after aiding an escaped political prisoner (bass Scott Conner in a small but pivotal role), Tosca is offered an unholy bargain by the corrupt and lascivious police chief Baron Scarpia: either she offers herself up to his lust or the painter dies. And therein lies the rub. While serving San Francisco well as Wotan in the 2011 Wagner “Ring” Cycle, Mark Delavan could not convince me that his Scarpia was more menacing than businesslike. Even the tremendous Act I finale, where he vows his determination to win Tosca for himself as a solemn and colorful church procession passes behind and around him (nice work by the Opera chorus here), was lackluster where it usually raises goosebumps. Of course, the fact that music director Riccardo Frizza allowed his orchestra to drown out the singers didn’t help.
Dale Travis was a lively Sacristan, interpolating some clever comic touches in Act I, Joel Sorensen was an appropriately creepy police henchman, threatening to those beneath him but scared to death of his boss, and young Pietro Juvara sang sweetly as the offstage shepherd boy in the Act III prison scene.
The costumes are sumptuous in Thierry Bosquet’s venerable production and the sets, while looking a little flimsy, especially in the last act, are true to their sources, which are genuine Roman landmarks.
It’s funny that, no matter how many times you hear this Puccini score, something new is always waiting around the bend. This time it was the echo of city bells, in different pitches, that follows the shepherd’s lament. It is a masterful musical stroke. Soon after, we get the final duet between the lovers, their voices soaring in a glorious blend of soprano and tenor. And then, one toll of the bell, as if to foreshadow the tragedy that is about to occur.
More proof that even the oldest warhorse (in this case, 114 years and still running) can sprint across the finish line.