Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Boston Lyric Opera, Tosca, November 16th, Shubert Theater

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Floria Tosca (soprano Jill Gardner) makes a drastic decision to protect herself and her love from Baron Scarpia (bass-baritone Bradley Garvin). Photo Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera © 2010.
Floria Tosca (soprano Jill Gardner) makes a drastic decision to protect herself and her love from Baron Scarpia (bass-baritone Bradley Garvin). Photo Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera © 2010.

Conductor – Andrew Bisantz
Stage Director – David Lefkowich
Original Production – Anthony Besch
Set and Costume Designer – Peter Rice*
Lighting Designer -Paul Hackenmueller
Projected English Titles – Kelley Rourke
Wig and Makeup Designer – Jason Allen
Cast in order of vocal appearance
Angelotti – Anton Belov
A Sacristan – T. Steven Smith
Mario Cavaradossi – Diego Torre*
Floria Tosca – Jill Gardner
Baron Scarpia – Bradley Garvin*
Spoletta – Neal Ferreira
Sciarrone – Taylor Horner*
Jailer’s Son – Ryan Williams
A Jailer – Fred S. Furnari

It has been interesting to see Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca just a few weeks after seeing Opera Boston’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, just down the street at the Cutler Majestic Theater. The two operas, in their very different ways, invoke a powerful atmosphere of political repression — the world in which everyone lives, the trap that everyone is caught in, the air that everyone breathes — and in both cases a woman at the center of things wreaks havoc with the status quo. Kierkegaard, writing about Mozart’s Don Giovanni, says that music is by nature seductive and thus that Mozart had found the perfect subject — seduction — for music drama to spin out and reflect upon. The music of Fidelio seduces our better, aspiring selves into acceptance of a good and persistent and forceful woman character, and acceptance of the idea that the desire for liberation on the part of the oppressed can be answered, that the blazing sun can break through. The music of Tosca seduces some other part of us — baser? more realistic? — into the recognition, the feeling, of corruption at all levels of the working of the world, all levels of human motivation. This sense of things does not preclude beauty or the full-throated expressiveness of those who long for happiness. And Tosca is the great opera of Rome, bella Roma, which Puccini evokes with love, using the same chromaticism as for evoking the sinful twists and turns of human nature, letting the bells toll and the church choirs sing out, surprising us with oriental-sounding harmonies that suggest the multi-ethnicity of the great ancient city.

Boston Lyric Opera’s production was a great success, as audiences realized. I saw the final night, and there was murmuring among the staff and also among audience members who had attended more than once, that this was the best performance of the run. The production was adapted from the Scottish Opera, and much good sense, dramatic conviction, and imagination were shown, evidently in the Scottish Opera original and certainly in the Boston adaptation. The original setting of the 1900 Tosca is the early nineteenth century, with rumors of Napoleon’s approach as a liberator from oppression. The present production, like others before it, moves the time to Mussolini-era Italy, and this works very well. The evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia, and his minions look appropriately scary in their Fascist, Nazi-like uniforms — this more recent instance of political terror is easier for an audience to relate to than Napoleonic Europe, which has now an aura of romance about it. The sets, beautifully lighted, are magnificent and drew applause on their own — the interior of the vast church of Sant’Andrea della Valle; Scarpia’s Palazzo Farnese office with its high marble walls and grand windows and now touches of 1920s furniture; the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo tower with the great statue of Saint Michael, here set up for executions and for photographing the corpses under an arc light. The diva Floria Tosca and the painter Mario Cavaradossi, her lover, looked quite appropriate in the high-end bohemian clothes that prosperous and popular artists would wear in the 1920s — less barrier here than with quaint early-nineteenth-century attire.

This drama, like any good one, can take various inflections, and the BLO production was compelling because every role had dramatic focus, and, even more important, the group as a group had dramatic focus. The singers, conductor, and orchestra were living for a time in a world they all believed in. Jill Gardner’s Tosca is a fallible woman constantly surprised and thrown by what happens to her, constantly evolving, finding new sides to herself, becoming something new at every point. In Act I she seems rather frivolous, showing jealousy toward her lover, her voice a bit one-dimensional — one seemed to hear mostly the treble end of the spectrum. In Act II her voice gained in voluptuousness as she worked through her scene with Scarpia, realizing what she is being forced to in giving up a political secret and giving up her self to rape, then realizing that something now in her will say no and commit violence. Gardner sang the great set piece “Vissi d’arte” splendidly, stopping time in the intense ongoing scene, remembering her identity as a singer, now all but lost in what the world is doing to her and making of her — the world of a love affair and jealousy; the world of violent politics where one cannot be careful enough; the world of a monster with power, whose sights are now set on one. In Act III Gardner seemed almost crazed, trying to bring off a fantastic escape with her lover, and suffering absurdities and reversals that compound out of control — finally taking an astonishing back flip off the parapet. Tenor Diego Torre has the ideal voice for Cavaradossi — big, thrilling, with sufficient Italianate plangency and flexibility. He is not tall and striking in looks, but immediately established himself with his vocal command and stage presence. Here was a man who loved his work painting, had a bit of a roving eye for women, and sympathy for revolution when fired by his political friend in need — in short, a man with love for “life,” as he puts it in the famous Act III aria on the execution ground, “E lucevan le stele,” stunningly put across like everything Torre sang, right from the beginning. In this production Tosca and Cavaradossi do not seem to be soul mates or destined great lovers, but strong individuals absorbed in their own identities, having come together with a certain excitement, and finally ready to go to great lengths for each other in face of what the world catches them up in. Baritone Bradley Garvin as Scarpia was tall and imposing, grand of voice, adept in drama — the perfect embodiment of the “normal” — in a crazy world — established powerful figure who is at bottom a rapist and killer. Everybody moved about the stage well, focused on being who they were, as well as on singing splendidly. This goes for all the cast: baritone Anton Belov as Angelotti the escaped political prisoner who draws everybody into hope and trouble; bass-baritone T. Steven Smith as the Sacristan, kindly but very ready to cooperate with the evil powers that be; boy soprano Ryan Williams, mopping up blood at the beginning of Act III and introducing what follows in a melancholy and accepting mood. The orchestra sounded full and fine. Conductor Andrew Bisantz deserves much credit, one feels sure, for all the dramatic coherence and vitality. He does not stress the long line and build-up, but focuses on the character and details of each moment — which suits this production’s sense of people caught in an ever-changing and unpredictable maw of history. Puccini’s contemporary Joseph Conrad called it “the horror.”

Baron Scarpia’s henchman  Spoletta (tenor Neal Ferreira, in black uniform) prepares to have Mario Cavaradossi (tenor Diego Torre) executed as Floria Tosca (soprano Jill Gardner) looks on. Photo Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera © 2010.
Baron Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta (tenor Neal Ferreira, in black uniform) prepares to have Mario Cavaradossi (tenor Diego Torre) executed as Floria Tosca (soprano Jill Gardner) looks on. Photo Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera © 2010.
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Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of "T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare," and edited and contributed to the volumes "Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film" and "Jean-Luc Godard's 'Hail Mary:' Women and the Sacred in Film."

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