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Opera North’s ‘Tosca’ Fits All the Pieces Into a Magical Whole

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/8/2016 10:00:12 PM
Modified: 8/9/2016 5:56:59 PM

Opera North’s current staging of Puccini’s Tosca, which will be performed this evening and again on Friday at Lebanon Opera House, is a happy example of a production in which all the elements that go into opera — singing, conducting, direction, sets and lighting — come together in transfixing fashion.

That’s the way it should be, and it’s what you hope for when you go to the theater or opera, but to experience such a miraculous fusion of artistry and craft is rather rare.

I’ve seen Tosca before, in a previous Opera North production in 2005, and on film (the 2001 version with Angela Gheorgiu as the opera diva Tosca, and the great Ruggiero Raimondi in one of his signature roles as the Roman chief of police, Scarpia).

But I can’t pretend that I’m as deeply steeped in the opera as other aficionados who have seen and listened to numerous productions and recordings, and who can recite chapter and verse the virtues of Maria Callas’ Tosca vs. that of Leontyne Price, or Raimondi’s Scarpia vs. the Scarpia of such other great baritones as Bryn Terfel or Tito Gobbi.

In fact, I’ll make a confession that undoubtedly marks me as a philistine.

I have never cared for the voice of Maria Callas, who is strongly identified with the role and widely considered to be one of the greatest Toscas (if not the greatest) of the 20th century. And, further, I hadn’t been moved by the opera, preferring Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La Bohéme.

But this staging has made me reconsider my previous indifference.

What this Opera North production brings to the fore is the ecstasy of singers inhabiting their roles so completely, both dramatically and theatrically, that the contrivances of the melodrama not only seem plausible, but are also given the full weight of tragedy by Puccini’s soaring melodies.

Based on the eponymous play by the Frenchman Victorien Sardou, the opera is set in the pre-Italian-unification Rome of June 1800, a few days before Napoleon and his army take the city and establish a long occupation.

As the city waits for news, believing that Napoleon has been defeated at the battle of Marengo, there is a fierce struggle for dominance between pro-republican forces, who include the painter Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, and those who would hold on ruthlessly to power, exemplified by Baron Scarpia.

Between them is Floria Tosca, a great diva who has been apolitical, preoccupied by love affairs and her career, but is forced by the lecherous Scarpia to take a stand. When Cavaradossi is taken prisoner and tortured by Scarpia’s men, will Tosca sacrifice herself to Scarpia to save the life of her lover?

The superb staging by Russell Treyz and sensitive, nuanced conducting by Filippo Ciabatti show Tosca to its best advantage by doing something that sounds counter-intuitive for an opera that runs a brisk 2 ½ hours, including intermission: they take their time.

What Treyz and Ciabatti accomplish is to make the audience experience each dramatic juncture as if time is slowing down.

This is no small feat because the plot itself moves with lightning speed and abrupt reversals of fortune. Cavaradossi seems to hold all the cards, then he doesn’t. Scarpia seems indomitable, until he isn’t. Tosca’s beauty and talent appear to be enough to save her, until they don’t.

We often say retrospectively that in moments of crisis, we experience time as having expanded; in reality a crisis may last only a few seconds or minutes but in our memory it seems an eternity. Here, something similar happens. We are completely with the protagonists as they ponder the decisions that will change their lives.

Watch the moment when Tosca realizes that there is another way to outmaneuver Scarpia as he crudely demands her body in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life. Watch Cavaradossi, awaiting the firing squad, lament that he has found unmatched happiness with Tosca.

Or watch Scarpia, who pretends to be devout, throw whatever propriety he has to the winds as he declaims, “Tosca, you have made me forget even God,” in the magnificent Te Deum that concludes Act I, and which is one of the greatest set pieces in all of opera.

The counterpoint between the religious imprecations of the chorus singing the Te Deum, church bells pealing in the background, while Scarpia plots to ensnare Tosca, is a scene of exquisite tension.

I defy anyone who is indifferent or hostile to opera to experience the Te Deum and not feel the frisson that comes from great art (and great entertainment) firing our primal emotions, and senses of perception.

This production has three beautifully matched singers in the lead roles: soprano Sandra Lopez as Tosca, tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney as Cavaradossi and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Scarpia. All three singers have sung previously with Opera North and have gone on to international careers in North America and Europe.

Lopez has the necessary glamour, fire and eroticism to play Tosca, but she also brings an unexpected and affecting pathos when she realizes, in Act II, that Scarpia has backed her, quite literally, into a corner. In the aria “Vissi d’arte,” in which Tosca sings that, until now, she has thought only of her art, not of the political exigencies that come from living under authoritarian rule, Lopez manages to convey a profound anguish and insight.

And in her scenes with Gwaltney, Lopez moves from the somewhat comical jealousies of Act I, in which she imagines that Cavaradossi is seeing another woman, to the tenderness of a deep, abiding love in Acts II and III.

She is also powerful in the scene when — spoiler alert! — a desperate Tosca kills Scarpia. but feels compelled, because of her religious faith and her horror at what she has done, to perform a kind of final benediction over his corpse.

Gwaltney is particularly moving in his last scenes, as Cavaradossi waits to be executed. His voice rings out piercingly as he cries that never has he loved life so much as when he is about to leave it, an aria that brought me to tears. Here, Gwaltney embodies the true nobility of Cavaradossi’s nature.

Any production of Tosca really rests, however, on its Scarpia, one of opera’s greatest villains. Scarpia is a charismatic mixture of sacrilege, calculation and savagery, and takes great pleasure in them.

This production is blessed to have Bogdanov, who is as fine an actor as he is a singer. Yes, Scarpia tends to throw his head back in mocking laughter that seems to have emerged straight out of the old 1920s silent movie serial Perils of Pauline. But that’s called for in the libretto. And you can’t hold back when you play Scarpia: this is a wicked man.

Bogdanov commands attention the minute he comes on stage in Act I, and he holds it all the way through. He pays attention to the small details: there’s even a flicker of something that looks, for a mere second, like shame, or at least reflection, when Tosca upbraids him for his coarse cynicism.

But Scarpia can’t control his baser instincts, and there’s a certain grim satisfaction to be had from watching him sink lower and lower. In Scarpia’s case, character is destiny. If you detect a slight resemblance between Scarpia and a current presidential candidate, well, this is what makes art endure: the capacity to evoke a resonance between its time and our own.

In the smaller roles of the dissident Cesare Angelotti, the sacristan and Scarpia’s henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone, singers Joshua South, Eric Lindsey, Justin Manalad and Trevor Neal, respectively, offer strong support. Alexandra Burkot acquits herself credibly as the shepherd boy.

Conductor Ciabatti, who also directs the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra, brings out, with an unforced lyricism and clarity the seamless quality of Puccini’s noble score, in which the tolling of bells is sometimes indistinguishable from the thumping cannons of war and gunshots of a firing squad.

Yet he also draws out those moments in which we hear the twittering of birds at dawn, the animated chatter of people in the streets, or the plaintive tune of a shepherd. He brings out the best of the Opera North musicians, who play the score with supple control.

Russell Treyz, who directs the drama, does a stellar job of balancing the vocal demands placed on the singers with the theatrical demand for persuasive and credible acting.

The sets of Paul Tate dePoo III are sumptuous, and the lighting by John Bartenstein highlights the action without calling attention to itself too obviously. This is an outstanding production.

Toscawill be performed this evening and Friday evening at 7:30. For information and tickets ($15 to $88) go to operanorth.org or call the opera house box office at 603-448-0400.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

Correction

Alexandra Burkot sings the part of the Shepherd Boy in the Opera North production of >italic<Tosca>res< at the Lebanon Opera House, and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov plays the role of Scarpia in the production. A review in Tuesday’s Valley News gave an incorrect first name for Burkot and misspelled Bogdanov’s name.




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