Tosca, the most action-packed of Puccini's great operas, isn't settling seamlessly into the Kimmel Center.

Volatile, lyrical, and infused with strong sexual undercurrents, the opera's story of freedom fighters up against a cold-as-ice dictator — with a temperamental diva caught in the middle — asks for scenery that's both atmospheric and chewable. Yet the Verizon Hall stage – where the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform the opera May 12, 16, and 19 — wasn't made for any kind of scenery, existing more to enshrine star talents in concert.

And even that basic element has had last-minute challenges: The single most celebrated Metropolitan Opera soprano of the season —  Sonya Yoncheva — canceled out of the title role this week due to an ear infection, her replacement being up-and-coming Jennifer Rowley.

For this grand finale of the Philadelphia Orchestra season, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin — aided by the singer-finding resources of the Metropolitan Opera — admits he’s had a week of “emails, phone conversations, and waiting to see if the health was going to get better or not.”

Sonya Yoncheva and Placido Domingo in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Sonya Yoncheva and Placido Domingo in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Metropolitan Opera.

With its vocal and dramatic demands, the role of Tosca isn’t easy to cast, and Nézet-Séguin — who is also music director-designate of the Met — has been particularly close to Yoncheva. “All year, we texted and emailed. And when we saw each other a couple weeks ago, we were so looking forward to doing this in Philadelphia,” he said. “But planning is one thing, life is another.”

Opera casts have a way of slipping into a revolving door. Yoncheva originally planned to sing this Philadelphia program as her first-ever Tosca, working with Nézet-Séguin, who conducted her 2015 breakthrough in the Met’s new production of Otello. That plan had been set  for at least a year.

Then, late in 2017, the Met was suddenly Tosca-less, itself — in a new production, no less — with the cancellation of Kristine Opolais.

Yoncheva learned the role in a matter of days — and looked forward to the Philadelphia semi-staged production to come, whose artistic scales promised to be tipped more toward music than drama.

‘A great score’

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has some singer-finding skills thanks to his Metropolitan Opera role as music director designate.
Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin has some singer-finding skills thanks to his Metropolitan Opera role as music director designate.

Yes, the opera has murder, attempted rape, and a firing squad. But Nézet-Séguin sees more important qualities underneath. “The guiding principal was to have the orchestra show its colors and qualities in a great score,” he said. “For me, it’s about the physical tension between the three characters … and the kind of intimacy in that.”

To stage it, Nézet-Séguin said, “we went immediately to [director] James Alexander so that we don’t feel we’re missing any action.” Alexander had worked resourcefully with Verizon Hall in a semi-staged St. Matthew Passion with platforms built around the orchestra.

He is also a trained psychotherapist who is used to probing the inner motivations of even the most standard operatic figures. And yet here he works with the rehearsal limitations of a symphonic presentation — and knowing that audiences don't expect the opera to be swathed in some super-cinematic Franco Zeffirelli production.

"I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not in an opera house. If you had a Rolls-Royce and invited somebody to see it, would you put a cloth on it?" said Alexander. "In the usual sweeping moments when stage directors are stuck with doing stuff, it's time to say, 'Hello orchestra!' "

One thurible, coming up

And so there will be platforms, unconventional use of space, and visuals including a giant thurible (used for burning incense during Mass) that suggests how Tosca's world — Rome, 1800 — was outwardly religious, though with ruthless power-mongering going on underneath. Video technology will suggest how the characters dream about their future — in contrast to a more brutal reality.

And the ending? When Tosca jumps off the Castel Sant'Angelo fortress to her death? Will there be any place for that in Verizon Hall?

Only a matter of hours after being confirmed as Yoncheva's replacement, Rowley had that answer — kind of. "'I'm leaping," she said. "They've figured out a way to do it. But we have to see how they do it."

At 38, Rowley, of Detroit, comes with a kind of can-do energy that has served her in some 20 performances of Tosca and any number of other roles in Italian opera, from the opera mills of Germany to the Met. In contrast to lighter-voiced Yoncheva, Rowley is a powerhouse. In fact, this robust singer has a physical fitness video on YouTube prompted by the demands of singing Tosca in Dresden.

Toe to toe with ‘Tosca’

Though Rowley has no problems with vocal stamina, the purely physical demands are something else. "I remember after Act II feeling like a boxer between rounds," she said, "with somebody squirting water in my mouth, dabbing my makeup, and me feeling that I was so done, so tired."

Since then, she has sung Tosca at the Met in a characterization molded by the original Victorien Sardou play on which the opera is based. Her Tosca is young and vibrant, with the emotional life of a teenager, but one who grows up quickly.

Her lover, Mario (sung here by Yusif Eyvazov), is a resistance fighter being tortured by the evil baron Scarpia (sung by Ambrogio Maestri). Tosca bargains for his life, first with the promise of her own body and ultimately with a dagger stab that she refers to as "Tosca's Kiss."

In the middle of this realistic drama, time stops and she sings the famous aria "Vissi d'arte" that asks, "Why is all of this happening to me?" Maria Callas, the greatest Tosca of the 20th century, famously said that it gets in the way of the piece's theatrical sweep. Rowley, with all respect, disagrees.

"It's a moment for her character to change," she said, "and a very important three-and-a-half minutes."

Less scenery, more discovery

Such interior moments perhaps justify the less-theatrical circumstances of Verizon Hall, where scenery won't get in the way of fundamental emotions. Another potential plus is hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra discovering the rich Puccini score.

Though Tosca was performed in concert by the orchestra under Riccardo Muti (released in a live recording in 1994), the music will be new to a majority of the current players. With any luck, such performances can have the exhilaration of fresh discovery.

“In the first reading, the players don’t have the reflexes [of an opera orchestra]. They don’t necessarily know that they have to wait for a particular syllable [that’s being sung] before landing on the chord. It’s my responsibility to convey that. It’s the core of what we do with Puccini … to follow and listen to and breathe with the singers,” said Nézet-Séguin.

"I know there are some orchestras who feel that it's punishment when they're submitted to accompanying a stage with singers," he said. "But there's no such thing in the Philadelphia Orchestra. … They're going to listen in the same way that they would with a clarinet and oboe. And if you have this approach, there's an incredible realm of treasures in some of the greatest music ever written."

AT VERIZON HALL

The Philadelphia Orchestra's "Tosca"

  • Performed May 12, 16, and 19 at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. Tickets: $59-$249. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.