Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cincinnati Opera's purposefully detailed 'Tosca' draws you in with great staging, singing

Cavaradossi interrupts work on his painting of Mary Magdalene to talk with the watchful Sacristan.
When Puccini's "Tosca" was just over 50 years old, the musicologist Joseph Kerman wrote a well-regarded book called "Opera as Drama," which is most often cited for one dismissive phrase about the opera. He called it a "shabby little shocker."

Those who overthink opera tend to find encouragement in the dismissal. But decades of audience acclaim have shown them to be off base. There's a little irony that a book with such a title disparages a composition that "as drama" needn't take a back seat to anything in the repertoire. That was evident in the enraptured reception opening night Saturday of a new Cincinnati Opera production.

"Tosca" succeeds as drama and as theater. Those are two different things. Its interplay of forces both political and romantic proceeds with an unparalleled efficiency and intensity. That's the dramatic side. The opera's excellence as theater has to do with the striking effect of its sensational tension, and the pacing of its vivid events musically in such a way to yield a succession of memorable scenes.

Stage director Jose Maria Condemi displays an extraordinary sensitivity to Puccini's variegated reinforcement of the drama his librettists delivered to him out of Victorien Sardou's expansive historical play. Still, their sure-handedness, focused on momentum and the central romance, resulted in some sketchiness about the political conflict that gripped Rome in June 1800.

The city's fate teetered between the promise of a republic held out by the advance of Napoleon's armies and continued domination by a Neapolitan queen ruthlessly defending monarchy. The fugitive Angelotti, anxious and exhausted in Evan Boyer's performance, scurries into view (to the nimble accompaniment of the orchestra under Christopher Allen's baton) and helps establish the mood of mortal peril that will eventually engulf him and the three main characters.

The exhaustive detail of this production's sets and costumes helps provide the sense of period and place that the opera itself signals in broad strokes. As a result, we know just enough to drive our sympathy of the danger the aristocratic rebel Cavaradossi places himself in. Consequently, the audience's high regard for his romance with the celebrated singer Floria Tosca develops after we first meet the couple in somewhat comical bickering spurred by her jealous temperament. More outright comedy was contributed with droll self-possession by Peter Strummer as the bustling, fussy Sacristan.

That first scene, fleshed out with magnificent architectural and decorative detail by Robert Perdziola, brings the worlds of religion, politics, and romance together in a gathering storm of intrigue and outsize emotion at the church of Sant' Andrea della Valle. On opening night, the rapport between Marcello Giordani as the lover and secret rebel and Evelina Dobraceva as the title character, a celebrity singer devoted to art, love, and religion, was fully achieved.

The timing of gesture and movement Condemi imparts to the show was evident in Tosca's pointed teasing of her lover as she suspects that his painting too closely resembles the Marchessa Attavanti, a visitor to the church (and Angelotti's sister) with the aristocratic privilege of worshiping in the nearby family chapel. The fine duet in which this takes place was sung with the requisite romantic lift and momentum and staged supportively and flowingly.

Tosca furtively palms a knife as Scarpia signs a safe-conduct.
Two other examples of exquisite timing will have to suffice. Building to a climax that both celebrates the reported victory over Napoleon and underlines the despotic control of the city by Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, the first act is crowned with a great crowd scene: a choral "Te Deum," harmonized with Scarpia's false piety and assertion of his godless, predatory values.

Condemi has the magnificently costumed congregation of worshipers, choir, and clergy assemble gradually as Scarpia proclaims, in Gordon Hawkins' commanding performance, his desire for Tosca and joy in the prerogatives of corrupt power. This production's sheer spectacle at the climax was overwhelming.

The pacing is superb, as it is in the intimate scene that ends the second act. Productions often follow Tosca's quasi-ritualistic placing of candles to either side of the assassinated Scarpia, with a crucifix on his chest. Condemi uses the wholly instrumental music ending the act — whose tortures, threats of rape, and payback killing are surely what Kerman most had in mind with his "shocker'" label — to have Tosca pause and re-enter the scene. She is appalled by the horror of her deed, despite her conviction that Scarpia's barbarity deserved it. The candles remain extinguished. The crucifix is taken from Scarpia's desk; Tosca has prayed imploringly in front of it moments before, in the great aria "Vissi d'arte." Now, with deeply mixed feelings, she knows the discovery of her hypocritical tormentor's body needs to be accompanied by such potent symbolism.

Cavaradossi, a condemned man, extols the beauty of Tosca's killing hands.
Dobraceva warmed to her role, having in the first act projected her character dramatically better than vocally. In the second and third acts, she was superb in both respects. The company debut of the Russian soprano with hardly any Italian opera in her background was a triumph overall. She paired well opposite the vastly more experienced Sicilian tenor. In particular, here was a couple who seemed truly passionate about their dangerous affair. And Giordani brought considerable heft and interpretive nuance to the role of Cavaradossi.

He had stunning reserves of power, but he was never merely loud. The outburst of "Vittoria! Vittoria!" in the second act, when news is brought of Napoleon's unexpected defeat, might have been heard outside the Aronoff Center on Walnut Street. In the finale, I admired the way Giordani emphasized the convulsive regret in "E lucevan le stelle," a brief statement often treated as a lyrical showcase. By roughing up his delivery somewhat, Giordani brought the aria's dramatic meaning to the fore. He saved his lyricism for the duet with Tosca that opens with Cavaradossi's solo "O dolci mani," praising the daring hands of his beloved. The vocal contrast freshly illuminated the scene on the platform of the Castel Sant'Angelo before the deliberately staged process of Cavaradossi's execution, wrongly supposed by the couple to be fake: it's Scarpia's last treachery.

In such a conscientious production, Tosca's leap off the parapet, fully anticipated by anyone familiar with the opera, managed to seem both regrettable and unavoidable. And as thundered out Saturday night, the orchestra's final measures put an embossed seal of rightness and dramatic truth on the inevitability of the heroine's fatal plunge.