John Caird is best known to Broadway and L.A. auds for his staging of “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Les Miserables,” but he also helms operas, such as “Tosca,” now on display at LA Opera. If ever there’s an opera that resists wild interpretations, it’s Puccini’s tale of revolution, authoritarianism and unbridled lust in old Rome. Caird tries to half-reinvent this warhorse, and he only half succeeds thanks to a vocally robust cast.
“Tosca” takes place in three very real Roman locales: the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle (act one), the Palazzo Farnese (act two) and the Castel Sant’Angelo (act three). Caird wisely sticks to the church to set up the action that has the jealous diva Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky) bickering with her lover-revolutionary Cavaradossi (Marco Berti) while fending off the unwanted advances of police chief Baron Scarpia (Lado Ataneli).
Instead of a well-appointed study in the palazzo, however, Caird has Scarpia operating from a storage room in act two, as if this chief of police has fallen on hard times. And in act three, the roof of the castle has been converted to a prison yard. Which must be the reason Tosca slits her own throat before she jumps to her death only a story or two below.
Much more confusing is the little girl decked out in her white communion dress who wanders around the sets and ultimately beckons Tosca to commit suicide. If she’s to represent Tosca’s Roman Catholic conscience, Caird hasn’t read his Catechism lately.
Even more than the locales, Puccini’s music resists reinterpretations of the text. Like a movie score, it signals very specific action: Tosca’s entrance in the church, Tosca’s spotting of the knife that she’ll use to kill Scarpia, Tosca’s frightened departure from Scarpia’s study.
Caird doesn’t ignore these music cues; he just comes up with different visuals. For example, the expansive music that cues Cavaradossi’s entrance in act three now accompanies the hoisting of a dead revolutionary, and so on. None of these are improvements on the original; they’re just different and, for the most part, slightly less effective and extraneous.
“Tosca,” fortunately, lives or dies on its three principal singers. And this “Tosca” lives victoriously.
Radvanovsky’s “Vissi d’arte” incited an extended ovation. High C holds no terror for Berti. And Ataneli brings real elegance to fascism. In the pit, Placido Domingo is a most supportive conductor — he never swamps his singers with Puccini’s lush orchestrations — but sometimes he’s too supportive. He could shape the score more rather than follow his singers’ lead.