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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Opera Review: Night at the Museum

New York City Opera Renaissance presents Tosca.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Painted set design depicting the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Rome.
Painting by Adolfo Hohenstein, © 2016 New York City Opera Renaissance.
This week, at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, located at the north bastion of the Time Warner Center, the New York City Opera officially came back to life. Now dubbed New York City Opera Renaissance, the company's first offering since coming out of Chapter 11 is the same opera it started with way back in 1944: Puccini's Tosca. With its painted trompe l'oeil flats and discount rococo furniture, this was a very traditional, somewhat stodgy production, using the set and costume designs by Adolfo Hohenstein that date from the opera's world premiere in 1900.

Tosca is suited to this museum treatment. The opera takes place on a specific dates (June 17th and 18th, 1800) in three specific locations in the city of Rome. It is based on a particularly violent French play by Victorien Sardou. It is the story of attempted rape, bloody murder, and the best suicide scene in all of opera. It is Puccini's bloodiest show, an expression of Italian verismo style written in the broadest possible strokes. It requires a hero, a heroine and a villain: three high-powered singers who can bring these comic-book figures to vivid life.

Thursday night's Tosca featured the second of two rotating casts installed for this six-performance run. It was anchored by soprano Latonia Moore, regal and firm in the demanding title role. Her potent, chesty soprano pushed above the orchestration and managed the transition from a sweet if jealous woman to a character pushed to desperate measures by the machinations of the evil Baron Scarpia. In the third act, she managed a kind of sweet denial that bordered on dementia as she urged her boyfriend through the farce of a "fake" execution by firing squad. Neither of them were aware that the bullets were real.

As the hapless Cavaradossi, tenor Raffaele Abete had some rough passages in his opening aria 'Recondita, armonia' but settled admirably once Ms. Moore swept onto the stage. He was very fine in their long duet that explores Tosca's obsessive jealousy and the characters' love for each other: essential if the events that follow are going to work. Mr. Abete was less pleasing in the cruel, sadistically written "Vittoria!" outburst, a test for any tenor worth his salt. He salvaged his night with  a glorious Act III aria, singing "E lucevan la stelle," with yearning and real power in its climactic notes.

Scarpia is the classic villain, played here by veteran baritone Carlo Guelfi. In Act I, Mr. Guelfi occasionally resorted to throaty growls and snarls (presumably to sound more "evil") but was sonorous and powerful in the big Te Deum scene. The baritone was at his best in the long Act II scene where the top cop tries to seduce, and then rape Tosca. Although he did his best to appear charming, the singer added violent outbursts that showed the animal hiding within. A villainous performance like this makes one regret the character's early death, but it's necessary to move the plot forward.

The rest of the cast was able, if unspectacular. Standouts included the sonorous Jailor of Kevin Thompson, the not-quite as firm Christopher Job as Angelotti and the oily Spoleta of Blagos Nacoski. Less impressive: the hammy and overdone Sacristan of veteran character bass Donald Hartmann, whose mannered performance kept trying to steal the spotlight. Luckily, he was drowned out by the excellent choral forces supplied by Kent Tritle and Musica Sacra, substituting for the not-yet-reunited City Opera Chorus. The orchestra played to the letter of the score for Pacien Mazzagatti, who needs to pick up the pace of the drama in the first act.

Mounting an opera in a style 116 years out of date may not seem like the best idea for an opera company struggling to get back on its feet after three years in bankruptcy. In fact, this Tosca is a straight appeal to the most conservative (read: older) New York opera-goers, who like their productions safe and traditional. With characters in powdered wigs and stagings straight out of the black and white pencil sketches included in the New Grove Book of Opera, this production is (literally) nothing new save for the fact that it exists. Perhaps the future plans of this revived company will be more innovative.

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