Don’t go to see Puccini’s Tosca expecting complex insight into human nature. The opera’s plot and libretto are paper-thin, about as deep and unpredictable as your average summer action flick. Tosca will shine, or Tosca will stink, purely on panache. On Saturday at War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera played it old school: painted flat sets and luxuriant costumes by Thierry Bosquet in the style of the theater’s 1932 Armando Agnini production, and a cast as solidly reliable as that of a beloved classic film.
Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian made her American debut as a picture-perfect Tosca, but her voice was sometimes swallowed in Ricardo Frizza’s lively orchestra. Her onstage chemistry with both men was also lukewarm for the first two acts. She claimed she “burns with love” for Cavaradossi, but the lack of passion in the lovers’ demeanors indicated otherwise. However, Tosca’s vulnerable aria “Vissi d’arte” dripped with pathos without being overblown, and her post-stabbing “And all of Rome trembled before him” was gutturally defiant.
Mark Delavan’s Scarpia marched into the church like Darth Vader arriving on the bridge of the Death Star, his back ramrod straight with a long black cape sweeping behind him. His hefty bass breached the orchestral fortress, with even quiet asides crisp and clear until the “Te Deum” ending of Act I, when he too was drowned out. His scenes with Haroutounian were subtly menacing but lacked much of the essential back and forth, not for his lack of trying. He directed his lines at her; she always directed hers to the audience. This Tosca is an actress to the core, for better or worse.
Brian Jagde’s Cavaradossi was also weakest in Act I, looking and sounding more like a pampered princeling than a revolutionary artist. Once the police stained his face with blood and tore his shirt, he was potent and immediate. “Never have I loved life so much,” Cavaradossi sings in Act III. By that point, it was believable.
The first act’s savior was Dale Travis as a deadpan wine-stealing Sacristan, beset by the rambunctiously excellent San Francisco Boys Chorus. Joel Sorensen’s Spoletta was so slimy, it is a surprise the stage is not still crawling with worms.
Haroutounian’s fervor and fire show great potential for future roles. As it stands, a strong supporting cast and the production’s sumptuous visual feasts saved this Tosca from the middle of the road.