BLO's "Tosca": Dying for Art and Love

Elena Stikhina & Daniel Sutin in "Tosca"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

Tosca, the beloved opera created in 1900, composed by Giacomo Puccini with scenario by Luigi Illica and libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa (the same trio that created La Boheme and later Madama Butterfly) is the season opener by Boston Lyric Opera (in a co-production with Opera Omaha). Based on an 1889 play of the same name by Sardou, set against the historical backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, it's a true potboiler in the best possible meaning of the term.

What can one say about the plot of such a familiar work? Would it be a spoiler to allude to the fact that the date of this performance was Friday the thirteenth, and that bad luck awaited all three of the principals? Most opera devotees will already know that the story takes place in three real Roman settings, in each of its three acts. In the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, sensitive painter Mario Cavaradossi (tenor Jonathan Burton) is interrupted as he paints a portrait of Mary Magdalene, first by a Sacristan (baritone James Maddalena), then by his friend the political prison escapee Cesare Angelotti (baritone David Cushing, whose sister posed for the painting), whom Cavaradossi helps to hide. Then arrives the painter's lover, famed opera singer Floria Tosca (soprano Elena Stikhina), who is aware of his political beliefs but is herself apolitical. Finally appears the Chief of Police Baron Scarpia (baritone Daniel Sutin) who is hunting Angelotti. Subsequently, in his suite in the Farnese Palace, Scarpia summons Tosca to interrogate her while he has Cavaradossi tortured within earshot, finally getting her to agree to his lusty demands if he will set up a mock execution of her lover. Scarpia arranges with his assistants Spoletta (tenor Jon Jurgens) and Sciarrone (baritone Vincent Turregano) to pretend to carry out a mock firing squad, while actually using real bullets. Tosca then stabs Scarpia to death. Finally, atop the Castel Sant'Angelo, as a Shepherdess (soprano Sara Womble) sings, Tosca witnesses what she believes is a fake execution, but turns out to be real (not fake news?). She then makes her final statement of resistance.

Elena Stikhina & Jonathan Burton in "Tosca"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

From the first familiar chords, this was a production to cherish. Burton immediately impresses with his soaring presence, from his first entrance to his last act aria E lucevan le stelle, about how the stars shimmer but his life has come to nothing. Sutin also excels, notably in Scarpia's Hapiu forte sapore, as he foresees Tosca bending to his will. But it is the Russian soprano Stikhina, in her U.S. debut in the role, who makes this production a true gem, creating the title character with her magnificent vocalizing and acting chops, especially in the most famous aria, Vissi d'arte , about how she has lived for art (and love). She's a true find, a singing actress who even looks the part of a young opera star, rare indeed in a role that requires that a soprano deliver a polished sound and fury. She was the greatest source of pleasure even for opera buffs very familiar with the work, but by no means the only such reason to celebrate.

In a brilliant stroke of genius, the orchestra of fifty-eight players, under Conductor David Stern, was placed ten feet above the stage to compensate for the relatively small pit in the Cutler Majestic. It made Stern's conducting and his orchestra's playing more integral to the opera and enhanced the overall experience, as did the chorus under Chorusmaster Michelle Alexander. The more-or-less unit set by Julia Noulin-Merat worked very well without overwhelming the singers as some past productions of this work have been known to do. The strikingly apt Costume Design by Deborah Newhall and effective Lighting Design by Paul Hackenmueller and Sound Design by Joel T. Morain also contributed to the performance. And above all, the Stage Direction by Crystal Manich was solid and sometimes surprising (no spoilers will be revealed here), which may dismay some purists but for the most part served the opera quite well indeed. It's a wonderful treat to re-encounter an operatic war horse that displays such an original yet respectful approach.

Given the outcomes for the three headliners, this is opera's ultimate triple header for pessimists and lovers of tragedy, as well as, not coincidentally, those members of an audience who live for art and love, and great music.

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