Puccini's music is lovely — and at many points in the opera even
achingly beautiful — but the melodramatic, even pulpy plot, along with
some questionable compositional choices, has led many critics to
dismiss Tosca, as contemporary musicologist Joseph Kerman put it, as a
"shabby little shocker."
The Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) has presented a production of "Tosca" that
is delightful to watch. The small cast is made up of exceptionally
strong singers whose clear and characteristic voices not only do
justice to the music, but also add layers of nuance to the plot.
Soprano Jill Gardner returns to BLO as the titular diva, Floria Tosca,
and her commanding and full voice fits the bill of the jealous, fiery
heroine. Her second act aria "Vissi d'arte," arguably the most famous
to come out of the opera, was brilliantly sung, and Gardner ably
conveyed all the emotions wrapped in the aria without overstepping the
bounds of believability.
As wonderful as Gardner's performance was, the standout performance of
the evening was Bradley Garvin as the malicious Baron Scarpia. The
opera originally took place during the Napoleonic invasion of Italy,
but BLO has cleverly updated it to Mussolini's Rome. Garvin appears as
a higher ranking member of Mussolini's army, and he looks truly
imposing with his tall frame clothed in a dark, sleek uniform.
Garvin was handily the best actor of the bunch. While stage director
David Lefkowich allowed some members of the ensemble to wander around
the stage distractingly at times and the focus of the singers was often
centered more on musicality than believable acting, Garvin appeared
ever-comfortable as he strutted around with decisive movements and
presented the audience with a complicated and eerie villain, backed
with dominating and precise vocals.
Attacks on the other singers' acting may not be entirely fair, though,
given that tenor Diego Torre, who normally appears as Tosca's lover,
was sick and had to be replaced at the last minute by the Metropolitan
Opera's Richard Crawley. Crawley was a wonderful addition to the cast —
his third act aria "E lucevan le stele" was a literal showstopper — but
some awkwardness must be expected to ripple through a production when
an unfamiliar cast member is injected into the production in the
Aesthetically, the production was a mixed bag. Gorgeous lighting design
appropriately enhanced the moods of each individual scene and truly
interacted with the plot and the characters on stage. The costumes were
rich and also helpful in building the tone of the production — the
soldiers' dark, shiny boots and Tosca's luxurious fur stole were
visually stimulating and exciting.
BLO may have gotten a little too enthusiastic with their sets, though:
An opulent Catholic church, an over-stocked study — with a conveniently
placed bed that appeared to exist just to make the attempted rape of
Tosca more comfortable for the actors but would normally serve no
practical purpose in a military leader's office — and a prison roof
equipped with a story-high stone angel all combine to overwhelm the
Levels are always nice to have on stage, but Cavaradossi's painting
platform in the church was awkwardly situated such that actors were
constantly climbing up and down steps and turning toward and away from
the action as they go. With so much drama playing out in the opera, a
barer set would have been welcome. Instead, bombarding the performance
space with so many unused elements and props made the show come off as
trying too hard.
I have been ranting about the dramatic plot of Tosca, but I have to
admit that drama is not always a bad thing. This opera will certainly
arrest an audience's attention, even if one has seen the show before —
a mad cocktail of jealousy, lust, torture, murder, suicide and
betrayal, coupled with some truly wonderful music, does tend to go down
well. BLO has mishandled some aspects of the play — the sets and some
awkward stage direction — but ultimately it isn't the backdrop that
matters as much as the sweet, ever-popular music of Puccini, and with
that, the production succeeds handsomely.