Share story

Audiences who attend Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of “Tosca” are well-advised to keep their eyes wide open.

There will be something very special to take in: the exquisite painted settings, which are much like the style of scenery audiences saw during the first performances of Giacomo Puccini’s popular opera in its premiere at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi in 1900.

“Before 1950 there was very little architecture in opera sets. Everyone used painted scenery,” notes Robert D. Schaub, longtime technical and facilities director of Seattle Opera. “It’s kind of a lost art now.”

The representational sets for this “Tosca,” a juicy story of love, suicide and murder set in early 19th-century Rome, were designed by the late, prolific Ercole Sormani, a modern heir to this tradition of painterly scenography. They were purchased in the mid-1960s by Seattle Opera and used for several productions of “Tosca” here — the last one in 1986.

But while Seattle audiences haven’t taken in their pictorial beauty in nearly three decades, the sets have been in high demand, and over the years they were rented out for productions in Florida; Vancouver, B.C.; Pittsburgh; and elsewhere.

Before his death in 1985, Sormani was the head of an illustrious scenic studio founded in Milan in 1838 by an ancestor (also named Ercole Sormani), in an era when Italian opera was flourishing with the successful new works by Donizetti, Verdi, Rossini and other major Italian composers.

The Sormani designers and artisans were experts at employing a wing-and-drop system that uses panels of detailed landscapes and interiors painted on muslin cloth to evoke locales. Developed in Italy during the Renaissance, the system took advantage of the increasing sophistication of perspective techniques in painting, and gave flat scenic pieces a sense of multi-dimensionality through a configuration of “wings” (side panels) and “drops” (back panels).

“The painting and perspective work is remarkable,” Schaub points out. “Your eye just believes the drop is not flat, but has depth. Couple that with really good lighting, and you have an extraordinary-looking show.” (The lighting for this “Tosca” is by contemporary designer Connie Yun.)

According to the website of Sormani’s firm (now known as Production Designer Sormani Cardaropoli), the company has as its primary objective “to defend and assert the pictorial tradition of the stage setting. [A] beautiful design and a beautiful painting are essential ingredients to create atmosphere and magic that [fascinates] the viewer, while not ignoring modern techniques and new technologies.”

It is up to Schaub and his colleagues to keep the “Tosca” scenery in vibrant condition.

“It’s not something you can repaint, but you can refresh,” he explained. “A lot of the dyes used back then were pretty toxic, so we don’t intend to use them anymore. But there’s something to be said for lead paint. It lasts five times longer [than nontoxic paints], and it looks pretty great.”

There have been some near-misses. In 2006, the young company Opera Naples in Naples, Fla., rented the lavishly painted scenery for its own “Tosca,” but had no storage space for it. According to the Naples News, the sets languished for some days in a high-school parking lot while the company prayed for sunny weather until they could be moved indoors.

In addition to sprucing up the sets, Seattle Opera has upgraded the props and furniture for the current production, which features in the gold cast Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte and American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, a great local favorite. They play, respectively, the lovelorn singer Floria Tosca and her nemesis Scarpia, the chief of Rome’s secret police. (Mary Elizabeth Williams and Philip Horst co-star in the silver cast.)

Schaub hopes that, while listening to one of Puccini’s best-known scores, listeners will also appreciate the visual masterworks. “It’s like looking back at the history of theater when you see these sets,” he reflected. “It can be very beautiful, and I’m a sucker for it.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com