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Friday, March 11, 2016

Opera Review: Torching the Warehouse

Loft Opera goes to the mattresses with Tosca.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Police brutality: Scarpia (Gustavo Fuelien) menaces Tosca (Eleni Calenos) in Act II of
Puccini's Tosca at LoftOpera. Photo by Robert Altman © 2016 LoftOpera.
The industrial warehouses that line the Long Island Rail Road tracks on the north side of Flushing Avenue in Bushwick  are used for myriad purposes: art studios, rehearsal rooms, and (presumably) past  underworld activity. This month, the old bus depot at 198 Randolph Street is home to LoftOpera, and the three-year-old company's first-ever foray into the murky waters of grand opera. Thursday was opening night, and the company put its back into mounting a budget-friendly and yet compelling version of Puccini's bloody thriller. This was the second Puccini production for this young company, and a watershed, as Tosca is rife with technical challenges and many dramatic and vocal pitfalls.

It helped that Loft found a trio of strong artists to play Floria Tosca, Mario Cavaradossi and Baron Scarpia, the three leads of this little melodrama. In the title role, Eleni Calenos held the audience rapt from her first act entrance. A slim sword of a woman, she has a strong core in her voice, flexible and brightening under pressure without turning brittle or hard. A great outburst in the second act seemed to cut glass, drawing a shouted "Brava!" from the house. (No, it wasn't me.) She produced dulcet tone for the Act I duet, white-hot rage in the confrontation with Scarpia and had enough gas left to almost burn down the warehouse with an incendiary Trionfal! sung in close cadence with the tenor. There was no leap from the battlements: to find out how this Tosca ends, see the show.

James Chamberlain is a converted baritone, a fact apparent from his first notes. The burly singer clearly used "Recondita armonia" to warm up and unpack his instrument, and the sweetness came out as he pushed up into the head register, moving neatly through the passagio for the big top notes. Best of all was his "Vittoria!" outburst, the tenor-tripping bit that Puccini slipped into the already difficult second act. He nailed it with clean tone and a bright, heroic sond that made the cinder block walls ring. And yes, "E lucevan le stelle" wasn't perfect, but it was sung with a warmth and honesty that are necessary in this most passionate of arias.

Gustavo Feulien looked good and sounded better as Scarpia. The Argentinean import sang the role in its usual baritone register, and had power to dominate the Te Deum scene. This was expertly paced by conductor Dean Buck, who somehow solved the balance and resonance problems in this warehouse space. largely by placing the singers in one corner of the space, the orchestra opposite and the audience (seated in a V) between. In the second act, Scarpia's loneliness at his "poor supper" in the Palazzo Farnese was emphasized, with only his flunkies and the offstage gavotte and Tosca's cantata (done as a radio broadcast) for company.

Any empathy ended when Cavaradossi was brought in and the torture started. (In another contemporary update, the silent role of the inquisitor Roberti was played by a willowy blonde.) Mr. Feulien gleefully chewed the scenery, his baritone rising to a dark roar. Scarpia's lust for Tosca manifesting itself as he assaulted her not once, twice, but thrice attempting sexual congress on the dinner table. Ms. Calenos sang "Vissi d'arte" standing on the table, a pristine figure like the Madonna that Tosca venerates. The denouement of the act followed with power and shocking swiftness.

Conducting from the opposite corner, Mr. Buck did an expert job of managing the large orchestra. Little details in the score were bright and pointed, from the queasy glissandi in the strings, to the bells that announce the dawn in Act III, to the crashing, rolling leitmotifs in Puccini's writing that pile upon each other in the opera's finale. The chorus was small but effective, right for the space, and not overpowered by the orchestra and offstage (electronic) organ in the Te Deum. The supporting cast was well-trained and effective. The highlights included Jordan Pitts and Joel Herold as Spoletta and Sciarrone, Stefanos Koroneos as the Sacristan and Joseph Beutel as Angelotti.

The production by Raymond Zilberberg gleefully ignored traditions that can sink this opera, choosing a smart and contemporary setting. Scarpia appeared in a leather jacket and in the second act a natty suit. His two goons carried automatics and cell phones. The diva herself entered in a high-fashion hat and a pair of shades, and Cavaradossi spent the second half of the evening in a t-shirt that eventually turned bloody. His painting of the Magdalene looked like a piece of street art, entirely appropriate to this grungy warehouse setting. In an era where audiences complain the need for opera to be "traditional", this was a modernization that worked.

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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.