Tuesday, November 9, 2010

'Tosca' proves opera is accessible for all

Sujin Shin, of the Brandeis Justice reviews Boston Lyric Opera's production of Tosca

The Shubert almost feels like home now. Some of the greatest opera in Boston is performed here and there is a reassurance that fills each gilded corner: one knows that whatever is being played that night will be exquisite. Tosca goes above and beyond. This particular opera, put on by the Boston Lyric Opera, one of the finest and most beloved operas ever written and countless productions, good and bad, have been put on. But the BLO steps up to the hype and really delivers something that left this little would-be opera connoisseur completely blown away at the end of the night.

The turbulent tale of Tosca and Cavaradossi starts with just as unstable a beginning. An escaped political dissident by the name of Angelotti, played by Anton Belov, rushes nervously through a church, which is currently wrapped in tarps and littered with art supplies as it is being refurbished. He meets the hero of the story, Mario Cavaradossi, played by Richard Crawley, who is the resident painter and an apparent old friend with rebel sympathies. Enter Floria Tosca, played by Jill Gardner, Cavaradossi’s beloved and greatest inspiration.

She is a spirited and feisty woman, truly pious but also jealous, she starts a fight with Cavaradossi the woman he is painting as the Mary Magdalene on one of his canvases. That woman is blonde and blue-eyed, and not her. But he seems rather unfazed by her remarks and jealous quips—he is secure in that Tosca is the only woman who he loves and does not take her jealousy seriously. Then, Cavaradossi exits to help Angelotti hide. The scenes at the start of the opera are lighthearted, the love between the two heroes is as sweet as that of two new paramours, and Tosca’s jealousy is endearing rather than stifling. But then all spirit is splintered with the entrance of Scarpia, the monstrous policeman on the trail of Angelotti, played by BLO debutant Bradley Garvin.

Upon first meeting the captivating and sable-eyed Tosca, Scarpia is immediately overcome. Not with love, but a predatory and lecherous hunger for her. He vows to claim two bodies by the end: Angelotti’s and Tosca’s. He tortures Cavaradossi for information as an anguished Tosca is forced to listen to his screams of pain, while withholding the information that could spare him. She finally gives in and reveals the location of Angelotti. But Scarpia still threatens to kill Cavaradossi if she doesn’t give herself to him. A monumental struggle between Tosca’s immense disgust for Scarpia and her unflappable love for Cavaradossi tears Tosca’s judgment to pieces. The ensuing phenomenon of storytelling by Puccini and his libretto is one that left audiences reeling through the ages from its first performance till the present. To reveal such details would be unfair to the exquisite expositions of the performance itself—such discoveries are best impressed in an audience’s chair, listening to the sounds of true human emotion borne on the slides of trombones and the conductor’s baton.

Though the vocalists were playing without one of their own that night (for their true Cavaradossi, played by Diego Torre, was recovering from a bronchial infection) the chemistry between the actors was still largely unfettered, though there were a few moments that occurred within the love triangle that seemed emotionally reined in where they shouldn’t have been. But each actor shined brilliantly in their respective roles.

Crawley’s robust interpretation of Cavaradossi’s steely moral fortitude as well as tender adoration of Tosca was shrewd with the knowledge of previous experience. With a voice that could pierce straight through the ceiling, his presence was unable to be ignored. Debutant Bradley Garvin’s depiction of the self-possessed and barbaric Scarpia was ruthless but tended to be slightly soft in his physical lechery toward Tosca. However, his voice suited the role of power-hungry savage quite well—his “Te Deum” is a glorious visual and aural barrage. His rich baritone and tightly wound vibrato electrified the air with menacing currents. But it was the resident Tosca that shone the brightest. An exceptional actor who could slip to and from coy to heartbroken convincingly, Jill Gardner was the one to keep an eye on that night. A heavy-hitting soprano, Gardner grabbed the role of Tosca and refused to let go; the role was right in her wheelhouse and she excelled in both her vocalizations and acting.

The sets and dress were exquisite. Not one raise of the curtain failed to produce gasps from the audience. The BLO’s production of Tosca deviated from the original setting of Rome in 1800 in which the rebels were Napoleon and his forces. Instead, they chose to set the performance in Nazi-occupied Rome, with Scarpia as the head of the fascist police. With the women clad in 40’s glamour and soldiers in Gestapo uniforms, this production of Tosca feels easier to relate to and the story of love and anguish finds a firm foothold in this interpretation. And Puccini’s music, conducted by Andrew Bisantz, was supportive without being insistent. The chemistry between the voices on the stage and in the pit was always finely balanced, one never overpowering the other.

Tosca is an experience. No other words are necessary to describe it. It is something that everyone should try to see at least once. And though some might be a bit wary of opera, thinking that it’s something too esoteric and daunting, Tosca is the show that can break the stereotype. Opera is just another medium through which a story is told. And with as captivating a story as that of Tosca’s, it’s hard not to enjoy it.

Tosca is playing at the Shubert Theater until Nov. 16th. Students can purchase a subscription to the BLO and receive highly discounted tickets with special seating.

- Sujin Shin, Brandeis University

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