in two nights
by Jason Victor Serinus
It was exciting enough that San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley gave us two strong casts for Tosca , with "dueling divas" Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette pitted against each other in a role where going for broke is the norm. But when Gheorghiu could only make it through Nov. 15's opening night's first act before being ambulanced to the hospital with intestinal flu and nausea, and her understudy Melody Moore was rushed into costume, far more drama unfolded on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House than anyone had expected.
What made matters even more exciting, for those with lavender hearts, is that both Moore and Racette – Melody and Pat to their adoring fans – are out lesbians in committed relationships. Add to the mix out and married Canadian sister Adrianne Pieczonka, the Tosca for SFO's 2009 run of Puccini and Illica's potboiler, and the male nude frescoes that dominate Scarpia's apartments in the familiar production's Farnese Palace, and you being to wonder if SFO's Rainbow Series has expanded to include entire operas.
I was going to use "delicious" to refer to SFO's lesbian triumvirate, but that word must be reserved for Racette's Tosca of Nov. 16. From the moment she appeared onstage, lips tight with jealousy, eyes darting about, and voice flying high and strong, it was clear that we were in for quite a show. The top of Racette's range may have grown more tremulous since her Butterfly of over six years ago, but she knows how to sing through its wide but still fast vibrato, and her voice and being remain beautiful and supremely communicative.
Determined not to miss a trick in the book, Racette was a diva delight. Add to the mix tenor Brian Jagde, a young and somewhat beefy Cavaradossi with an invitingly natural ease onstage and a big, burnished, ardent voice that mixes baritonal heft with a ringing top, and baritone Mark Delavan, a larger-than-life Baron Scarpia who melds throaty force with evident glee in flipping from dastardly charmer to despicable devil, and you have a theatrically charged trio that transformed Puccini's 112-year old melodrama into living theater.
The loving interplay between Racette and Jagde was a relief after the lack of chemistry between opening night's Cavaradossi, Massimo Giordano, and both of his Toscas. Giordano's face and figure lacked electricity, and the voice, at least on opening night, wasn't strong enough to project his character's ardor across the footlights. Too many high notes were pushed up from the octave below, and his short-lived cry of victory in Act II proclaimed his vocal limitations. Roberto Frontali, the cast's Scarpia, possessed the only strong voice of the three principals, but his Scarpia was less subtle than underplayed. To contrast the look on Delavan's face as he was about to pounce on Tosca with Frontali's apparent lack of animal zeal spoke volumes about their theatrical expertise, at least in matters horizontal.
(Photo: Kristen Loken)
There was a break of close to an hour before Moore was ready to step onstage for her first stab at Tosca. Lord knows what the flurry was like backstage, but she seemed exceedingly pulled in before the footlights, as if she wasn't quite ready to inhabit the "diva unhinged" role on short notice. Far more heartfelt than hearty, she seemed as though she didn't have an ounce of diva bitch in her being.
The audience, nonetheless, was on her side. Just about everyone who has seen Moore perform at multiple LGBT events, or at SFO as the deeply moving lead in Heart of a Soldier and gleeful First Lady in The Magic Flute, has grown to love her. Attendees made their support known with a huge ovation after her beautifully sung "Vissi d'arte." By the final act, she came into her own, with a performance notable for both its vocal beauty, absolute surety on high C, and presence. If Gheorghiu does not recover in time for Sunday's matinee, I expect Moore's first full Tosca on any stage will make a considerable mark.
In secondary roles, Christian Van Horn's towering Angelotti was so powerful that I wished the plot had allowed him more time onstage before his death. Veteran Dale Travis' Sacristan made clear what character acting is all about, and Joel Sorensen's sniveling Spoletta was suitably despicable. The offstage voice of Shepherd boy Etienne Valdez on opening night was a major asset, and the chorus was, as expected, excellent. The orchestra played gloriously, but on opening night, Music Director Nicola Luisotti refused to hold back in Act II, putting orchestral swells before respect for a last-minute replacement's reticence.
As for Gheorghiu, whose recent ROH Tosca with Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel – coincidentally Racette's Tosca duo at the Met – has just become available on DVD, it's unfair to judge the smaller-voiced, more subdued performance of a diva in major distress who seemed less than totally present. I don't know if Director Jose Maria Condemi can inspire Giordano to get more with the program – Jagde, Racette, and Delavan need no such prompting, and relished adding a host of stage business unseen on opening night – but I fully expect fighter Gheorghiu to return to the stage prepared for a collegial duel to a blazing finish.