'Tosca' and a plate of spaghetti

Tosca Who Syracuse Opera  Where 800 South State St., Syracuse When Performed Oct. 19 & 21 Review by Greg Cwik

Tosca, that shabby little shocker, should be big and boisterous, loud and melodramatic and gaudy—a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs with too much marinara. You should feel good and plump when it’s over, like you need a napkin to wipe the sauce off your face.

It’s a verismo, so it has to be bloody and gritty, suicides and murders and executions and love as poison; no one walks home humming the theme song. Giacomo Puccini, who adapted the 1887 French play La Tosca for his three-act opera in 1900, injected Wagnerian leitmotifs into Tosca, which, however diluted—though compared to Wagner, what isn’t diluted?—should signify a certain ambitious grandiosity. You can’t do Wagner with a whisper, and Puccini understood this; his opera bellows and barks, a series of barbaric yawps accompanying unfortunate events.

But it’s not just shock and awe: There’s emotion coursing the operatic veins. The opera premiered to a Roman audience still licking its wounds, still reeling from Napoleon’s invasion. Puccini dissects the cultural ramifications of the short man’s campaign and portrays a society fighting a two-front battle: against Napoleon and his army, and against its own squalid innards. Puccini goes big, staging a double reverse faked execution, his brass swelling and bloating with callous glee every time the villain steps on stage. He ends the opera on the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo with multiple corpses. He doesn’t pretend to peddle in subtlety.

Syracuse Opera’s rendition of Puccini’s fan favorite is skimpy, constrained and not restrained, more akin to the remnants of that plate of spaghetti after Pavarotti gets through with it.

Devoid of the opulent but ravaged imagery that a viewer might expect of war-torn-Rome, Syracuse Opera’s production strives for a more minimalist aesthetic. This is a mistake. Instead of showing us the corrupt skeletal structure of Roman politics with unnerving austerity or cruel asceticism, the company simply decorates the stage as sparsely as possible. When the curtains first part, we see a group of chairs facing an altar and a small scaffold, on which Mario Cavaradossi (Patrick Miller) paints a portrait of Mary Magdalene. His friend Cesare Angelotti (Marc Webster), former consul to the Roman Republic and current prison escapee, arrives to pick up a key left at the feet of the Madonna by his sister.

Mario’s dark-haired lover, Tosca (Veronica Mitina), enters, seemingly just to accuse him of cheating on her because he gave Mary Magdalene blond hair and blue eyes (“make her eyes dark,” she says … twice). Tosca is suspicious and jealous; while war rages around her, she’s concerned with Mario giving Mary Magdalene brown eyes. The melodramatic elements are immediately established, as our characters belt out their squabbles in lush Italian.

A lot of space is left on stage, which could have been used to portray … something. Anything. The emptiness of promises; the void lurking within all of us that not even love can fill; the impossible gap that our tragic lovers can never transverse, at least not in life. But it doesn’t serve any purpose here. Images are thrown against a backdrop; statues and paintings are used to remind us that we’re in Italy in 1800. But they’re not a good substitute for actual set pieces.

The third act disappoints the most, as our characters take to the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo. The statue of Saint Michael is silhouetted looming over them like impending finality, the Archangel a promise of justice and serenity that will die unfulfilled.

Those who aren’t already familiar with Tosca will have a difficult time surmising the location, though, since the statue is projected against a screen (and not very vividly), with the black-blue spill of nighttime sky on either side. There is no skyline, no St. Peter’s Cathedral in the background, no river. The height of Puccini’s climax is completely lost, and a melodrama expunged of its climactic swell is not a melodrama; it’s an unfunny comedy.

The actors struggle to be heard over the majestic ubiquity of the orchestra (conducted by Syracuse Opera’s Music Director Douglas Kinney Frost). Mario and Tosca share a nice final aria in the third act (“Amaro sol per te m'era il morire”), their voices conflating into one singular stream of inevitable tragedy. But, by and large, the actors drown in the wash of orchestral upsurge, particular Mitina’s Tosca in the first act. Miller fairs a little better, particularly toward the end of the opera, but for the title character to go unheard for large chunks of the almost three-hour performance is self-defeating. These characters are hyperbolic, yet they sound meek.

As the insidious Scarpia, Kristopher Irmiter almost recedes into the aural ether. His baritone, thick and dark like syrup with a sinister agenda, fills the theater when he’s unaccompanied by music, but doesn’t quite boom enough to penetrate the atmosphere when the orchestra joins him. Irmiter spews a cruel laugh while describing his misogynistic, hedonistic manipulation of Christen morality, and it would have been nice if we would have gotten to hear more of him. Lead-footing around the stage in a too-big blue shirt with contrasting white collar and suspenders, channeling Gordon Gekko, Scarpia should be an omnipresent entity of greed, selfish indignation and corruptibility. When he gets what’s coming to him, we should be shocked, caught between sweet elation and mortification. There should be a profound rush of mingled emotions blitzkrieging our heads and hearts, one weight removed from our souls only to be replaced by another.