Thursday, August 3, 2023

Santa Fe Opera 2023: Goodbye Covid & Hello "Tosca"

Santa Fe Opera's Crosby Theatre interior/exterior.


Introduction—Opera production in a time of pandemic

Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 season is at its mid-point as this report is written. LA Opus will review all five productions in three installments. We'll begin here with some thoughts on opera production in the era of Covid, followed by a review of Tosca. The second installment will review of Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Dvořák’s Rusalka, and the third, Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

All performing arts enterprises, including Santa Fe Opera, have suffered anxious moments in this third decade of the 21st century due to the worldwide Covid pandemic. A plague of biblical proportions, it has already taken the lives of over a million Americans. The very modus operandi of opera production has been threatened. While televised or filmed performances might be of value temporarily, they are neither as visceral an experience nor the inherited norm for appreciating this art form. Media broadcasts are important, but more supplement than solution.

Opera is a labor-intensive enterprise, and, in the circumstance of a communicable disease, hazardous. Every live performance involves singers and musicians interacting in proximity, with singers emitting mouth fluids on stage and at each other in the act of singing. Wind and brass players have similar issues in the orchestra pit. Audiences for opera sit in theatre seats designed to pack them in close proximity. Strangers next to each other may or may not practice safe protocols for live attendance.

Coping with the Covid pandemic in such an enterprise has not been easy. National politics collide with personal preferences amongst our country's heterogeneous population, and tensions between the two have skewed how we collectively deal with that pandemic. Remedial precautions are all over the map from disciplined to cavalier.

Forced  to cancel the Santa Fe Opera’s 64th Festival Season in 2020 (the first summer in company history without live opera), General Director Robert K. Meya assembled a team of experts, in epidemiology, sanitization and public health, to plan for a safe reopening in 2021 with simulcasts of productions, and in 2022, live performance with mandatory masking, followed by optional masking when later conditions permitted. Frequent performer tests were and are continuous, with limited runs of productions until this season.

Happy to report, the current season is the closest to normal company operations in four years. During my attendance this year, it seemed to run even smoother than before the pandemic. That the company has survived and is thriving again is a tribute to the grit of its performers, its management and staff, and to the extraordinary generosity of its donors.


Scarpia (Reginald Smith, Jr.) gloats over his plan at the end of Act 1 of Tosca.


"Tosca" by Giacomo Puccini, Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera

Giacomo Puccini around the
time of Tosca's composition.
So here we were, back on the first day of August, for another production of Tosca (the company's eighth) at Santa Fe Opera’s Crosby Theatre, its open side walls greeting the arriving audience with skies of accustomed Technicolor glory, right up to curtain time, after which those skies soon would transition to cooler colors on a warm evening, and Puccini’s "shabby little shocker" (Joseph Kerman's famous words) would commence in fiery, melodramatic conflict. There would be surprises in the unfolding action, by now almost too familiar to opera lovers.

It was a pleasure, on this first evening's return here, to again enjoy the remarkable acoustics of the Crosby Theatre. Puccini’s orchestra establishes an oppressive emotional climate in this work, his musical metaphors alternating between the warm affections of lovers and the cold brutality of authoritarian power. The motifs and harmonies emanated clearly from the SFO orchestra under the direction of John Fiore. Puccini's orchestrations are a large part of why this shocker still shocks.

The actual basilica of Sant'
Andrea della Valle in Rome.
He composed Tosca in 1900, setting its action exactly a century before, when Rome was a police state and Napoleon still the admired liberator of authoritarian regimes. Tonight’s action, however, was moved up to early 20th century Fascist Italy. We are clued into this change of eras in the first act, when a floor-polishing machine and its operator clean the historic church of Sant’Andrea della Valle.

Baron Scarpia’s authoritarianism will now mirror the fascism of Benito Mussolini. Reinforcing this oppressive climate are the set’s high rows of uniform arches in Acts 2 and 3, invoking both the historic power of ancient Imperial Rome and this story’s early 19th century wannabe revival of it by an ambitious strong man.

The bold neo-fascist scenic design by Ashley Martin-Davis, with lighting design by Allen Hahn.

In an evening of great singing, the most dramatic stage entrance must be awarded to baritone Blake Denson. The first singer on the scene, he made his SFO company debut as the on-the-lam Angelotti. From high up in the rafters, he shimmied down a dangling rope, as his character seeks asylum with best friend Cavaradossi. In the latter role, tenor Joshua Guerrero made memorable his own final season appearance. From his opening aria, comparing Tosca’s brown eyes to the blue eyes of his painting (apt drama in this casting), to his last one praising Tosca’s sweet hands, his every moment bristled with passion. (For the rest of the season, Freddie de Tommaso will take on the role.)

Leah Hawkins.
Soprano Leah Hawkins was originally scheduled as Tosca in the first and last segments of a long run from June 20 to August 7, with Angel Blue relieving her in the middle of it. However, Blue cancelled, so Hawkins has the whole run. At mid-season, her plangent voice remained remarkably fresh. Possessing a bright upper register, she also has the powerful middle range so essential to this dramatic role. With it she conveyed the full gamut of emotions in this echt melodrama.

The large-framed Hawkins, dressed to the Tosca nines for her every appearance, was somewhat less than agile in her stage movements. The cramped working quarters of Cavaradossi in the first act, more cluttered and dank than other productions I've seen, certainly didn't facilitate much movement anyway. She seemed more comfortable standing and singing gloriously than navigating a cramped stage.

l-r: Spencer Hamlin (Spoletta), Reginald Smith, Jr. (Scarpia),
Dale Travis (Sacristan), Ben Brady (Sciarrone).
Fine turns in supporting roles were also delivered by Dale Travis as the Sacristan, Ben Brady as a sycophantic Sciarrone, Spencer Hamlin as the executioner Spoletta, Kai Edgar as the sweet-voiced Shepherd boy, and Dylan Gregg as the jailor.

In an imagined competition between stage villains, Scarpia must be accounted the most loathsome arch-fiend in opera. Reginald Smith Jr.’s cavernous and dark baritone was the personification of evil here, confirming Scarpia’s dreaded hypocrisy, lust, and deception, in cynically invoking Catholicism to entrap and eliminate Cavaradossi. This, while he pursues his carnal lust for Tosca. Scarpia’s chambers, updated to a fascist Italy, sharpened the cynical cruelty. But stage director Keith Warner had some tricks up his sleeve for Scarpia and the audience this evening.

While in the original libretto Tosca stabs Scarpia to death, in this evening’s horror-show, as he sits smugly in his chair, she lunges at him from behind, strangling him with a cord. Soon suffocated, Scarpia's limp body signals the monster’s death, but as Tosca later passes by him, he suddenly awakes to grab her arm, causing the biggest collective gasp I’ve ever encountered in the Crosby Theater. It may be horror show boilerplate, but in an operatic setting this clever film interpolation one-upped the by now clichéd stabbing that has lost its shock value in conventional stagings. (Consider the upside: strangling Scarpia here saves a lot of post-performance washings of his blood-stained shirts.)

Cavaradossi (Joshua Guerrero) and Tosca
(Leah Hawkins) in the final scene.
Another surprise was in store. With Tosca having planned an escape for her and Cavaradossi after his “fake” execution in a deal she cuts with Scarpia (just before she strangles him), she is caught completely unaware when Spoletta actually executes Cavaradossi by firing squad on Scarpia’s earlier orders. Tosca is now suicidal, but there would no traditional jumping off the parapet in this production.

In a trance from this final shock, she quietly exits stage left, perhaps to jump after the curtain falls, while her devotional double, gowned in white and blood red, walks off the rear stage in the diagonal corner from the live Tosca, a spiritual if undramatic deliverance from her pain into a higher realm.

Where the unexpected Scarpia death scene had stunned the audience, this anticlimactic gesture for Tosca left the audience puzzled. But this interpolated finale was certainly a practical decision, given the chance for injury when a performer attempts a stage jump. The double human image of Tosca also offered a hint of heavenly redemption for her.

Postscript: This author took in a Tosca
Birgit Nillson as Tosca.
production a half century ago at the Los Angeles Chandler Pavilion. Produced by the New York City Opera, it was a last minute replacement opener for the company's 1974 season in L.A. In those days of the NYCO, its productions could uncharitably be characterized as rough-and-unready. Starring as Tosca was Birgit Nilsson, then age 56, substituting for an ill Beverly Sills (and enjoying singing Italian as she so infrequently had the chance with a career centered in Wagner and Strauss). Starring with her was a young tenor by the name of José Carreras. All of 28 years old, he looked like a skinny boy next to the stout Ms. Nilsson in their scenes together.

Known by the Chandler's production crew, I was able to sneak into the back stage area, in those more innocent days, to see how Nilsson would jump off the Castel Sant'Angelo's parapet. Just below and backstage, behind the façade of the parapet, was an elevated pinewood frame at head-level height, on top of it a floppy old mattress. I was a foot away from this contraption, near where Nilsson would jump. The moment came and she made the leap facing toward me and landing first on her knees, then like a pro all the rest of her came forward on her forearms. Her head was then about 18 inches from mine and her flop on that mattress kicked up a huge cloud of dust, enveloping the two of us now staring at each other. We were both spontaneously laughing until the stage hands arrived to help her down. I made a hasty departure to get out of the way. Though we had that moment of amusement together, we never spoke and I never had a chance to meet her again.


Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM, Tuesday,
August 1, 2023, 8:05 p.m.
Images: Theatre interior/exterior: Robert Godwin; Theatre entrance: Regina N. Emmer; Puccini: Wikimedia Commons; Sant'Andrea della Vale:; The production: Curtis Brown; Birgit Nillson: Facebook opera page.

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