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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Opera Review: She's Bigger Than Life

Angela Gheorghiu brings her Tosca to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The odd couple: Angela Gheorghiu (left) menaced by Željko Lučić in Tosca.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
A revival of the Metropolitan Opera's ugly and unloved Luc Bondy staging of Puccini's Tosca is not a cause to celebrate. However the appearance of Angela Gheorghiu in her first performances of the title role in New York City, is. On Monday night, Ms. Gheorghiu sang the second and last of her two Met appearances this season, in the title role of Puccini's most violent opera.

Since her breakout performance in a 1994 Covent Garden production of La Traviata, Ms. Gheorghiu has cut a colorful path across the Italian and French repertory. At 51, she remains one of the leading divas, and a genuine box-office draw. She is also notorious for cancellations, withdrawal from productions, backstage tempests, and a hard-headed insistence on participating in traditional stagings of classic, repertory operas.

For this Tosca, the singer chose to remove or alter much of the stage business that goes with Mr. Bondy's production, resulting in an interpretation that was both fresh and spontaneous. She sounded muted, even muffled in the opening scene with Cavaradossi (Roberto Aronica) but once her veil came off, so did her vocal inhibitions. From her second entrance, the performance took off like a rocket.

What sparked this performance? It could have been her interactions with the sleazy Baron Scarpia (Željko Lučić) or her ardent scenes with Mr. Aronica, whose own, heroic interpretation of Cavaradossi proved a wonderful and pleasurable surprise. Or it could be her awareness that this was New York's chance to hear the soprano in a role that suits her well: that of an impulsive, passionate and sometimes viperish opera singer--the most famous one in Rome in the year 1800.

An unlikely pair of suitors vied for this Tosca's affections. Mr. Aronica sang this difficult tenor role with swagger and robust power, from a warm and caressing "Recondita armonia" to a "Vittoria!" that burst from his throat despite his character's tortured condition. His "E lucevan le stelle" was sung without any dramatic trappings and was all the better for it, ending with a clarion high note. Mr. Željko Lučić was a gruff but suitable Scarpia, with a knowing smirk in the Act I line where the bad cop compares himself to Iago.

Ms. Gheorghiu sang  with a clean, slightly plummy soprano, caressing the vocal line one moment, turning and spitting venom the next. She brought that impetuosity to each scene, with the whole climaxing in her moving and perfectly delivered "Vissi d'arte." The most famous aria in this score, it was sung with passion and growing intensity, rising to a magnificent climax even as it captured inner crisis. The following murder of Scarpia seemed not the act of an insane woman, but that of a tortured soul given no other choice.

The third act, with its pastoral opening and tumultuous end was superbly conducted and paced. There was even a sense of giddy romance underlying the insanity of Tosca and Cavaradossi's final duet. Sure, she had killed the chief of police. And sure, he was about to step in front of a firing squad. The excitement and bloody vigor of this opera were there writ large. With a performance like this, it no longer mattered what the sets looked like.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.