Boston Lyric Opera Tosca

Fine Cast but a Misguided Production

By: - Oct 20, 2017

Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Adapted from the play “La Tosca” by Victorien Sardou
First performed: Rome 1900
Conductor: David Stern
Stage director: Chrystal Manich
Set designer: Julia Noulin-Mérat
Costume designer: Deborah Newhall
Lighting designer: Paul Hackenmueller
Vocal cast: Tosca, Elena Stikhina, soprano; Cavaradossi, Jonathan Burton, tenor; Scarpia, Daniel Sutin, baritone; Angelotti, David Cushing, baritone; Spoletta, Jon Jurgens, tenor; Sciarrone, Vincent Turregano, baritone; Shepherdess, Sara Womble, soprano
Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston
Oct. 13-22, 2017

There is no more sure-fire hit in all opera than Puccini’s “Tosca.” It has passion: Two young lovers, the opera diva Floria Tosca and the painter Mario Cavaradossi, are so hot for each other that with the right actors playing the parts they burn up the stage; and the evil police chief of Rome, Scarpia, feels the same way for Tosca without the feeling being reciprocated. It has politics: Cavaradossi is a supporter of the short-lived Roman Republic that has been overthrown by the forces of reaction - the monarchy and the Church - and Scarpia is the tyrant who enforces the reactionary code. It has violence: without I hope giving it away, all three principals end up dead. It has art – and celebrity: Floria, the most glamorous singer in Rome, and Mario, a painter, would be Page 6 regulars today. And the story it tells of corrupt men in power preying on women could be “ripped from today’s headlines” as a popular TV police procedural put it.

It is knit together with the ravishing late romantic music Puccini is known for, peppered with some of his most sensuous and dramatic arias, and it is concise and succinct, totaling just under two hours of music. Not a note is wasted and none is lacking. As an act of flattery for the Roman opening night audience, each of its three acts is set in a Roman landmark – the magnificent Baroque church Sant’Andrea della Valle, the (partly) Michelangelo-designed Farnese Palace and the Castel Sant’Angelo – which give the set designer an opportunity to create vivid stage pictures.

Although some self-appointed connoisseurs dismiss the opera as melodrama – it was shot down by a fusty academic as a “shabby little shocker” – it is wildly popular. In the latest reckoning it was the fifth most often performed opera internationally – I’m surprised it wasn’t first.  While there are certain often-performed operas the seasoned opera-goer says after the latest hearing, “I’m not going to that again!” (I feel that way about Mozart’s beloved – by others - “Magic Flute”) I will always go to a performance of Tosca. Tawdry thriller that it may be, like most opera-goers, I love it.

So why does the Boston Lyric Opera have such a hard time getting it right? I have now been covering opera in Boston for seven years, long enough to have experienced two BLO productions of “Tosca.” In the 2010 outing, the production, which updated the story to the fascist era of Mussolini, was smart and stylish. The singing was inadequate. No company should engage a soprano who cannot sing “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art, I lived for love), Tosca’s famous statement of her dilemma as an artist facing a potentially fatal political decision, without bringing chills to audience members. In the current production the problem is just the opposite. The singing is often as thrilling as the story – thank you very much, Elena Stikhina! – but the production is misguided, causing unsatisfactory innovations like having Tosca shoot herself rather than jump off the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo and jettisoning the pleasures of the three very different settings for a dark and ugly unit set – no thanks to you, Julia Noulin-Mérat.

The good news first. Elena Stikhina, a talented young – and glamorous - Russian soprano making her American stage debut here in these performances, was terrific, electrifying at the requisite moments – her “Vissi d’arte” brought cheers as well as chills. Her voice was beautiful, rich and full, warm, if a little steely as it rose. Her dynamics ranged from intimate pianissimos to full-out fortissimos. Her fortissimos might have been a little too loud for a small theater like the Cutler Majestic, but they are the notes that viscerally stirred the crowd. And those fortissimos are the ones that will make her attractive to the directors of large theaters. If all goes as I’m sure Stikhina hopes, she’ll soon be singing exclusively in major companies – she already has an impressive resume. The BLO was smart to sign her up before other American companies nabbed her. One can only hope that it has engaged her for future productions. That’s not of course guaranteed. A couple of years ago the young Nadine Sierra sang here as Gilda in “Rigoletto,” in a production that had her sing “Caro nome,” her signature aria, lying flat on her back. She has not returned, that stupid directorial decision probably not the reason, before her career has taken her to the world’s major stages.

Stikhina is still a work in progress, and her acting was not at the same level as her singing. A telling moment was in one of her two spoken lines. She threw away both “Quanto?” and “Il prezzo?” (How much? The price?), her insolent questions to Scarpia during their “negotiation” over the terms of what is essentially her rape. Other sopranos have spit it out in contempt; others tremblingly in terror. Some have been defiant, others submissive. None in my experience have uttered the two words with so little inflection, so little affect. (She did better with her post-assassination comment to her tormentor, which is intentionally performed dispassionately, “Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” (Before you all Rome trembled).)  She did look ravishing – maybe that’s not the best word in the context – as she leaned against a column, lighting director Paul Hackenmueller bathing her in an isolated ray of light, her low Empire dress neckline exposing the whiteness of her bosom, looking like Rita Hayworth in “Gilda.”  (Costume designer Deborah Newhall did not turn in distinguished work. She must have spent all of a half hour copying period designs from a style book.)

Although Stikhina was the brilliant center of the production – “Tosca” is Tosca, after all - she had collaborators who held their own. As her Mario, tenor Jonathan Burton was a physically stodgy hero, but he had the ringing high notes one hopes for in Italian opera.

As Scarpia, baritone Daniel Sutin gave a distinctive performance, one I am sure local connoisseurs of the opera will be long debating. Scarpia, a tyrant, a rapist, a fascist, is one of the most interesting characters in opera. I have seen him performed as a chillingly suave aristocrat, as a crude henchman elevated into a power position and as a young and sexy opportunist, all of which can work. Sutin performed him as an old man, tight and stiff, paranoid and insecure in his power, a conceptual rapist. One wondered whether he would be even able to perform in an age that predated Viagra. Which made his drive to conquer Tosca, even more chilling. Sutin’s Scarpia was a thug even in his gold-embroidered black suit – at his solitary dinner, he tore at his chicken with his fingers, shoving the meat into his mouth like a peasant. And his voice, tight and strangulated, was an apt complement to his dramatic interpretation. It was a performance lacking beautiful or elegant singing, but it was effective.

“Tosca” remains relevant more than most operas written over 100 years ago. In 2010, the BLO production connected the thuggery of Scarpia and his henchmen to Mussolini’s Italy. Today, it is not hard to see the vile sexual politics of certain men in power from the White House to Hollywood in Scarpia’s 19th century version of the casting coach, in this case the life of a lover rather than a role in a potentially Oscar-winning movie the reward. I’m sure everyone in the audience was aware of the parallels to events in today’s newspapers even though the production made no explicit links.  

The other cast members were all adequate or better. As Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner who sets the plot in motion, baritone David Cushing was as usual excellent. As the Sacristan, veteran baritone James Maddalena, was gruff and underpowered vocally, but his subtle performance of an unquestionin follower of authority was telling. In smaller roles, Jon Jurgens and Vincent Turregano as Scarpia’s enforcers, were fine. As the shepherd, Sara Womble, was not. I had never noticed before that Tosca is the only woman in the cast, the other six roles being sung by men, which underscores her isolation. (The shepherd was written for an off-stage boy soprano; here it is an on-stage woman, not an improvement.)

Now the bad news. The production was marred by misguided decisions. The first decision was well intended and achieved its goal. The BLO closed the orchestra pit and built an onstage structure a story high that held an expanded orchestra. The small pit could hold only 35 musicians and its sound was muffled. The elevated “pit” accommodated 58 players who produced a clear and powerful sound. From the very first chords the full BLO orchestra never sounded so good, producing the rich and full sound the opera required. And first-time BLO conductor David Stern led his players propulsively, giving added urgency to the unfolding drama.

The need to build a structure for the orchestra, which then led to the problems that will soon be discussed, underscores the need Boston has for an opera house. Not a behemoth like the Metropolitan Opera or the San Francisco Opera, which have become white elephants that those companies struggle to fill night after night, but a theater more attuned to opera today, in which smaller scaled operas from the Baroque and modern are done as much as “Aida” and “Götterdämerung.” BLO director Esther Nelson has said that a 1,500 seat theater would be ideal for her company. (The Cutler Majestic seats about 1,200; the Met and the San Francisco theaters seat more than 3,000, the Met, 3,800.) The developer of a large site in the “Innovation District” who has been pressed to comply with providing a cultural component has proposed a couple of smaller theaters that seat a few hundred each, not what opera in this city needs. Where was Julie Burros, the city’s chief of arts and culture on this one?


Anyway, the raised stage did wonders for the BLO’s sound, but it is not a permanent solution. 


And it created problems that hobbled the production. First off, it demanded a two-storied unit set, and most of the action occurred at the lip of the stage, under the orchestra or on a narrow ledge above. Which made siting each act in a recognizable Roman landmark, which are essential to the opera’s evocative power, close to impossible.


The first act suffered least, but its wounds proved fatal. The scene could have been in the large church’s lower sanctuary given over to an ad-hoc painting studio for Cavaradossi. However, Scarpia’s entrance with his entourage toward the end of the act, which usually creates a sense of menace, was undercut by the necessity of having them squeeze through a narrow door at the rear of the shallow stage under the orchestra. And the Te Deum procession that ends the act on a musical and dramatic high note was also undercut by the necessity of having it take place above the interaction of the characters rather among them. I don’t know what stage director Chrystal Manich could have done to save the situation, but whatever it was she didn’t do it. Set designer Noulin-Mérat tried to make the space look like a church with oversize black columns and gilded statue of the Virgin, but they were not enough, in fact the statue of the Virgin looked like one of the concrete statues that often appear in the yards of working class Catholic homes spray-painted gold.


Things get worse. In Act II, instead of a grand room in the Palazzo Farnese fit for the tyrant before whom all Rome trembled, we get a cramped room suitable for a lower functionary. There is no sofa for Tosca’s “seduction,” so it happens on his desk/dinner table. Again, a failure of the stage director.


The third act suffered the most from the unit-set. Set at dawn on the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angel, built as the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian and converted into a fort to protect nearby Vatican City, it is as iconic a structure as the Palazzo Farnese and Sant’Andrea della Valle. One of the most beguiling arias in the opera is Cavaradossi’s reflection on his fate, “E lucevan le stelle,” sung as the sun rises on a Roman dawn. Burton sang it as a man in deep despair, undercutting the beauty of the aria’s lyricism, a legitimate but questionable decision, but here it looked as if he were singing in a dungeon rather than in the open air. And in the opera’s climax the production team’s lack of imagination was most evident. The executioners are lined up above on the narrow ledge in front of the orchestra, and they shoot down to kill Cavaradossi, certainly an ungainly angle of execution, and since there is no parapet for Tosca to jump off of unless we were to witness her go splat directly before our eyes, she pulls out a pistol and shoots herself over Mario’s corpse. Hardly an improvement over the original.


Let’s hope the BLO gets both its musical and its dramatic acts together the next time it stages this sure-fire hit. And by the way none of the quibbles I have made seems to have bothered the opening-night audience, which stood and cheered, most heartily particularly for Elena Stikhina, and to tell you the truth, I joined them without hesitation.