An Aisle Seat Review! San Francisco Opera’s Drive-in “Tosca” – by Vic Cordell

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

San Francisco Opera’s stage at the War Memorial Opera House has remained dark for nearly a year.

Happily, the company keeps touch with its patrons by initiating informative programs and delivering streaming performances of previous productions online.  It has now embarked on events to rouse its community out of their chairs and sofas.  Last weekend, SF Opera offered four screenings in the drive-in movie format at Fort Mason.  The filming was the company’s 2009 fine production of Puccini’s brilliant “Tosca.”  A review of the film of a 12-year-old stage production that has completed its drive-in run may seem fatuous.  However, it could be of interest to those who might consider viewing a future streaming of the production or buying an electronic copy.

Although not without its detractors, who consider it melodramatic and musically harsh, audience and most music critics’ love of “Tosca” have not wavered since overcoming its hostile debut in 1900.  In contrast with the lyrical beauty of the other two of Puccini’s top three operas, “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca’s” music and drama are bombastic and conflictual almost throughout.  But this opera is also exceptionally artful in many dimensions and includes several masterful arias and love duets.

As specified by the score, the SF Opera’s Marco Armiliato-conducted orchestra roars and often punctuates with the deliciously ominous and powerful Scarpia leitmotif.  As one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire, the title character demands a soprano with the dramatic vocal power of a Wagnerian, who is able to caress poignant Pucciniesque melody.  Oh, and she must possess a full palette of acting colors with an array of emotions.  Two male leads must also be of top-caliber.

San Francisco Opera appeals to opera singers as a company, and it possesses one of the great singer development systems, thus performers in support roles are generally excellent.

Since aficionados value seeing multiple productions of the same opera, the notion of a plot spoiler doesn’t really exist in this realm.  So here’s a synopsis of the central plot.  In 1800, painter Cavaradossi is a partisan sympathizer opposed to Napoleon’s domination of Rome.   When caught harboring a political enemy of the state, he is tortured by the police.  The scheming chief of police, Scarpia, courts sexual favors from Tosca with the promise of freeing her lover, Cavaradossi.  All goes awry.  All three die – violently, of course.

Adrienne Pieczonka plays Tosca, and she possesses the vocal and dramatic chops required.  She retains pitch control while singing at full power for extended periods, especially during the high tension train wreck of Act 2, full of intrigue, interrogation, intimidation, betrayal, torture, and more.  But amidst this melee comes Tosca’s beautiful signature aria “Vissi d’Arte” (I lived for art).   It emerges after a significant pause which renders an almost dreamlike quality as Tosca seems to imagine herself removed to another place.  Pieczonka delivers the aria with confident assertiveness, but the style of a plaintive lament might better fit her ethereal escape.

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

Antagonist Scarpia is deftly performed and solidly sung by Lado Antoneli, though his “Te Deum” would have benefited from a stronger lower register.  The artist’s patrician gray wig and unthreatening visage belie his character’s nihilistic sadism.  Though falsely pious, polite, and proper when necessary, Scarpia’s singing “I savor violent conquest more than surrender” reveals his inner rage.  Antoneli mines these contradictions well as he punishes Cavaradossi and manipulates Tosca into a compromising position.

Spinto tenor Carlo Ventre is Cavaradossi.  Blessed with a warm vibrato, he sings in a manner associated with some Italian singers which is the opera corollary to country music twang.  Some listeners may not care for this style which is most evident in his beautiful Act 1 number “Recondita Armonia” (Concealed harmony).  But in his Act 3 lament, “E Lucevan Le Stelle” (And the stars were shining), the whine is less discernable, and he excels in this famed aria as he reflects on love and contemplates his imminent execution.

San Francisco Opera appeals to opera singers as a company, and it possesses one of the great singer development systems, thus performers in support roles are generally excellent.  This is true of “Tosca,” led by Dale Travis as the nervous sacristan.  Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi marshals top-ranked creative designers.  The opera plays on a world-class set designed by Thierry Bosquet.

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

Of course, this is a filming of a stage performance, not a movie, and some shortfalls should be expected.  A great fear in filming a staged opera is that it will seem static, like a video archival record.  In this case, multiple cameras are used, but they shoot from fixed positions — meaning they can zoom and pan, but not dolly.  Editing cuts are sharp, so while there is reasonable variety in camerawork, the outcome is somewhat jerky and stilted.  In addition, lighting and sound production are designed for the live audience, not for filming, so some deficiencies exist.  That said, this is a fine production with a great cast performing one of the great operas in history.  It is a worthwhile watch.

“Tosca” composed by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was produced by San Francisco Opera in 2009 and played on-screen outdoors at Fort Mason on February 12-14, 2021. SF Opera has also announced newly-coined “live at the drive-in”—including productions of “Barber of Seville” and a concert of the Adler Fellows.

Reviewer ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 4 of 5
  • Script: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.





AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Praise for Hershey Felder’s “A Paris Love Story” – by Victor Cordell

Hershey Felder occupies a unique and enviable position in the world of live entertainment. He has created a series of solo theatrical performances that draw on his powerful strengths of master story telling and piano playing. And if the subjects of the shows aren’t all personal heroes, which they probably are, each is a brilliant star in the constellation of great music composers. He has written and performed music biographies for the stage of Gershwin, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and more at some of the finest performance venues in the country, often breaking box office records.

He now takes on the life and works of Claude Debussy in a world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The great turn of the century composer is credited as the originator of the classical music genre of impressionism, though he didn’t care for the term. But his compositional style led to the designation because of its parallel with impressionist painting with its shimmering, ethereal quality like the dizzying, elusive mix of colors on canvas representing tangible items.

As with his previous successes, Felder weaves together a composer’s music with biographical highlights, but the structure of his newest work differs. He avows that Debussy actually is his favorite composer. At the age of 19, Felder visited Paris and haunted the places and followed the footsteps where Debussy trod, including a pilgrimage two hours on foot each way to visit the composer’s apartment. Because of this special connection with Debussy, Felder’s theatrical conceit is to insinuate his own story in with that of the composer. The device works well both because Felder himself has a following and because of his personal passion for the composer and the city. The one jolting aspect of the new production is that in Felder’s catalog of titles written for the stage, Debussy’s name does not appear except in the likely ignored third line of the title.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

The performance takes place on a darkened stage, with a few props emblematic of Paris. Animated chalk figures festoon a black backdrop to further depict the architecture and the ambiance of the city. Hershey Felder plays with brio at the black Steinway grand and regales, often with great humor. Interspersing his own growth and his travelogue with the compositions and many loves of Debussy, he details many vignettes, including attempted suicides by two of his love interests.

Despite his esteem as a respected composer, Debussy works are perhaps not as broadly popular as Felder’s other honorees. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer are well known, and opera aficionados will know the important opera Pelléas and Mélisande, though it is seldom performed or excerpted onto recordings. But the musical extracts that Felder plays charm and scintillate, including those less likely to have been heard by audience members before. The jaunty piano solo for children, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, is a fine example that also reflects the composer’s iterative relationship with African-American musical forms.

…clever and enticing… engenders anticipation…”

Felder does note the critical role that Debussy’s innovativeness played in directing classical music away from the weightiness of Wagnerian romanticism. Debussy felt that music should reflect the delightful way people feel when they engage with nature. Influenced by a Javanese gamelan performance he witnessed in 1889, he adopted the whole note scale, which facilitates the dreamy sound that is associated with impressionism. With this change, he not only disrupted the direction of classical music but also developed the musical vocabulary that led to improvisational jazz as best realized by the great pianist Art Tatum.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

Of course, Debussy’s signature piece which makes him a household name and exemplifies his dream-like musical style is Claire de lune. Felder’s treatment of this piece is clever and enticing. He opens the performance with the story of how he learned the piece, his mother’s favorite, at age six. By playing only a brief but familiar phrase from it, he engenders anticipation for the work throughout the performance. It comes as the finale, and it is played with such grace and delicacy that it quieted the venue and had the audience on the edge of its seats – a worthy finish to a fine confection.

This review must close on a tragic note. As I write on April 15, 2019, one of the world’s great architectural masterpieces and cultural assets for all of civilization, Paris’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame, is engulfed in flame. This is a great loss to humanity. Indeed, this landmark is significant to A Paris Love Story, as the author speaks warmly of Notre Dame and of the magic of point zero, the designated spot in front of the cathedral that represents the symbolic center of Paris. The spot will remain, but can any of the cathedral be saved or reclaimed for posterity?

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.



ProductionA Paris Love Story
Written byHershey Felder
Directed byTrevor Hay
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough May 5th
Production AddressMountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Telephone(650) 463-1960
Tickets$35 – $113
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!