Tosca in Shades of Pastel

Elena Stikhina, photo @ Ken Howard
Critic Joseph Kerman famously said that Puccini's Tosca was a "shabby little shocker." It's also cast-proof: the blood and guts verismo drama is startlingly effective theater. So many years of opera-going, and never saw a Tosca that wasn't engaging, even if the voices were less than world-class.

My luck ran out on January 14, 2022 when I finally saw what I had previously thought impossible -- a boring Tosca. It was so lifeless, so pale, that it felt like the entire evening was in shades of pastel pink and lavender. No primary colors.

It wasn't badly sung. On the contrary, the leading lady Elena Stikhina has one of the loveliest voices heard in recent memory. She has a medium-sized lyric voice that remains round and velvety all the way up to high C. There's no shrillness, no pushing -- she just opened her mouth, and lovely sounds came out. She also looks darling -- huge eyes, a petite build. You could imagine her being totally fetching as a Mimì or Liù.

Calleja and Stikhina, photo @ Ken Howard
Alas, she was painfully miscast. This Floria Tosca showed no temperament -- no passion about Cavaradossi, no fear or disgust towards Scarpia, no desperation that her lover was being tortured in the next room. It was all so placid and smooth. She made not even a cursory attempt to act -- the long duet with Scarpia is usually seat-of-your-pants gripping. But Stikhina sat calmly on Scarpia's couch for most of the scena. She looked like she was a Queen requesting an audience with the Prime Minister. When she stabbed Scarpia it was such a gentle, good-natured poke with the prop knife.

She's also one of those singers that has a consonant-free vocal production. Her diction was as mushy as Joan Sutherland's. You just heard lovely "ah" sounds the entire night. "Visse d'arte" was sung with the kind of calm, sweet demeanor of Amina in La Sonnambula.

Last night was the first time I heard Stikhina and while it was definitely a worthy voice, this was not the vehicle to show off her talents.

Veteran tenor Joseph Calleja never was a very involved actor, but he was more torpid last night than usual. He barely attempted to paint. His body langauge towards Angelotti was so frosty and distant that the driving storyline of Cavarodossi helping his fugitive friend made no impact. Calleja's voice retains its lovely, warm quality but the high notes bleat under pressure. 

Calleja is also not a singer that connects to the text. "Recondita armonia" sounded lovely, and that was the high point of his night. But the later scenes with Tosca and Scarpia were sleepwalked through and again, deadly dull.

Gagnidze and Stikhina, photo @ Ken Howard
George Gagnidze is also a veteran singer who I have seen as an effective Scarpia in the past. His voice was surprisingly weak last night -- it got drowned out by the chorus and orchestra in Te Deum. He did attempt to act in a bug-eyed, cartoonish way but exuded no real menace -- this is not a Scarpia that really scares people. 

Conductor Carlo Rizzi was completely uninspired and uninvolved in the pit. He indulged all the singers' worst traits -- Stikhina and Calleja both tend to sing behind the best, so Rizzi would slow the orchestra down to a crawl. But somehow, Stikhina would find a way to sing even more behind the beat. The result was that Puccini's vivid, slashing orchestration sounded like muzak. 

Ever since omicron tore through NYC in mid-December, Broadway shows and other performing arts have shut down or canceled shows. NYCB just postponed their winter season to the end of January. The Met is the rare institution that has not had to cancel any shows. You want to root for the Met in a time like this. Last night's listless, uninspired Tosca did not make a strong case for the company. At the end of the second act, many members of the already-sparse crowd made a beeline for the exits. I rarely leave shows early unless it's an emergency. But I knew that the evening was not going to get better, so I also left before Act 3.

ETA: I thought maybe Stikhina was just miscast as Tosca, but I found this video of her Letter Scene in Eugene Onegin, and she's very placid and detached there as well:


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