WHAT A FIRST-RATE PIECE of stagecraft Puccini's Tosca is: swift and taut, with nothing extraneous in the text or the score. The melodrama—the visceral blow of a sudden revelation or a gradual, excruciating heightening of tension—is always artfully arranged for maximum effect.
Seattle Center, Opera House ends March 10
Seattle Opera honors Puccini's craftsmanship by giving the opera a similarly straightforward, intellectually uncluttered production by Bernard Uzan. It may sound like faint praise to note that the strength of his Tosca lies in its absence of bad ideas, but there is an admirable courage in Uzan's faith in an opera that hasn't gotten much respect over the decades. (It is impossible to write about Tosca without noting the famous three-word epithet critic Joseph Kerman bestowed upon it: "shabby little shocker.") Tosca is just the sort of old-fashioned, emotionally black-and-white piece that shouldn't work anymore, and that tempts directors to tinker and tart up its "relevance for today's audiences" or whatever such theoretical buzzwords directors use to justify getting their ideas in between the work and the viewer. Uzan just lets the opera do what it's supposed to.
Above all, Tosca is a star turn for a diva (there is, in fact, only one female role in the whole thing). Floria Tosca is an opera singer in love with Cavaradossi, a painter arrested for political crimes. In love—or lust—with her is Scarpia, the chief of police, who proposes sparing Cavaradossi's life for a night with her. (Obviously, you can find out what happens to them all in any book of opera plots, but I won't reveal it here if you're a Tosca virgin. Suffice it to say all three die superbly over-the-top deaths.)
Based on an 1887 play that Victorien Sardou wrote for Sarah Bernhardt, the opera allows its female lead to visit the heights of amorous bliss and the depths of despair and rage. Carol Vaness, with her effortless, clarion soprano, met the title role's every challenge—again, with enough faith in the opera to play it all to the unselfconscious hilt. Vaness was stunning, for example, in the stabbing scene, quite convincing as a woman pushed to the edge—and this after she'd already wrung herself out for "Vissi d'arte," the score's greatest hit, an intense lyrical outburst addressed to (no less than) God.
Seattle Opera favorite Vinson Cole brought an impressive dignity to Cavaradossi. His shining moment came in Act III as he awaited execution: "E lucevan le stelle" showed off the silken way with a phrase that's his great specialty, but also, at the climax, a touch of throbbing, from-the-gut passion that I hadn't before heard as part of his dramatic arsenal. Greer Grimsley played Scarpia with granitic authority, a man quietly but chillingly accustomed to ruling through fear. (Scarpia is one of opera's ultimate villains, but he does have one weirdly sympathetic aspect: In one aria he sings of wanting to taste all the pleasures that life has to offer—basically the same philosophy of life as Auntie Mame—and who can blame him?)
Thierry Bosquet provided three gorgeous trompe l'oeil sets: the spacious interiors of a church and a palace, and the Roman skyline. The flats for Scarpia's palace were especially lurid, depicting ornate rococo scrollwork that resembled, if you squinted, gaping, screaming mouths. Puccini's music in the hands of the Seattle Symphony sounded satisfyingly sumptuous; conductor Antonello Allemandi brought it a sort of cold grandeur that served beautifully as a vast frame for Vaness' white heat.