The Philadelphia Orchestra's eagerly awaited semi-staged Tosca at the Kimmel Center wasn't able to cast the classic Puccini voices of your dreams and memories. But that grand spirit from a more emotionally extravagant time was evident at the first of three performances on Saturday in a mixed package that's still recommended — heartily — to anyone who has ever loved this opera.
This isn't polite Puccini (like La Rondine). It's Tosca, an opera that uses every effect in the book, with its story of an innocent though tempestuous opera singer caught between her freedom-fighter boyfriend and a cruel, lecherous police chief. Along the way are rowdy choir boys, a nosy Sacristan, a wistful shepherd boy, and a gallery of malevolent henchmen. And nobody, neither music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin nor stage director James Alexander, made any excuses for it.
Star soprano Sonya Yoncheva was initially slated for the titled role but canceled due to illness in what promised to be a characterization that went beyond her well-received Tosca this season at the Metropolitan Opera. Yet Saturday's lead singers — Jennifer Rowley (Tosca), Yusif Eyvazov (Cavaradossi) and especially Ambrogio Maestri (Scarpia) — did indeed have the vocal goods in a sometimes-effective make-do staging that unfolded in the Conductor's Circle overlooking the stage. And Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra with customary passion and also great clarity of musical intent.
Premiered in 1900, Tosca anticipates all manner of cinematic effects, in the compactness of the storytelling and highly specific orchestral characterization. Even a superficial encounter with the opera tells you that. But with the Philadelphia Orchestra dominating the performance, Puccini's astounding theatrical precision was all the more apparent — how quickly and effectively the orchestra changes points of view among the different characters, plus the musical equivalents of close-up shots. Scenes that are packed with multiple events felt more sharply juxtaposed. The usually cloyingly cute music accompanying the Sacristan was more inviting; Tosca's inner crisis had greater depths of sorrow. Any number of instrumental colors came off just right. I could go on, but that would be the true spoiler, even in an opera whose characters die in unexpected ways.
Singers probably shouldn't be judged by their entrances, especially Rowley and Eyvazov, whose respective opening notes were pretty nasty. Both settled down, especially Rowley, whose large, lush, beautifully produced voice was full of phrase readings with great expressive impact. Sometimes, this hugely promising singer went a bit far with a sob interpolated into her big aria "Vissi d'arte." Similarly, Eyvazov was heroic enough with the kind of long-held high notes associated with singers of past eras. Such flourishes can be thrilling, or seem more like a vulgar effect than a considered musical choice. Both singers moved on both sides of that fine line. Maestri's Scarpia, though, was pure mastery, with the character's courtly pretensions expressed with an effective vocal veneer but with no stinting on the character's dark heart. Some singers in this role have stage business that telegraphs the character's sexual perversity. Maestri does it all with his treatment of the opera's words. Kevin Burdette gave the Sacristan an interestingly dark (and somewhat boozy) undertone.
The staging had singers and chorus somewhat removed from the orchestra in the Conductor's Circle — which was a great choice for vocal projection. Period costumes and well-worked-out character relationships really were enough to sketch the theatricality of this action-packed opera. A few extra effects, such as a giant incense burner and some video at the end, were good ideas but not necessary. Crowd scenes worked well, with director Alexander drawing a wonderful playful energy from the Philadelphia Boys Choir, while the third act's boy soloist, Cameron Bowden, showed none of the stage fright that often comes with young performers. Yet the constricted space among rows of seats was problematic, especially for anybody who needed to navigate around Scarpia's imposing corpse.
And Tosca's climactic leap off the fortress walls? That was tentatively promised within the concert hall confines of the space. But audiences for the future performances are advised to keep expectations low.