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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.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Opera Review: Woman On Fire

Sondra Radvanovsky burns up the Met's Tosca.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She doesn't get mad. She gets stabby. Sondra Radvanovsky is Tosca at the Met.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2018 The Metropolitan Opera.
In the twenty-two years since her Met debut, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has sung many roles, including Floria Tosca, the fiery and jealous opera soprano who is the star of the opera that bears her surname. And yet, this current run of Tosca, which had its second performance on Monday night may mark the first time that New Yorkers really got to see this great American soprano tackle this formidable part head-on.

Part of that is the production, a stylish and over-the-top depiction of Rome on June 17, 1800. This show, by Sir David MacVicar, debuted on New Year's Eve, 2017. It brings back the opulence of the Met's old Franco Zeffirelli staging without being quite as extravagant. Ms. Radvanovsky seemed happy with her new setting from her first entrance, a proactive duet with tenor Josef Calleja that saw her ironing out a few tiny vocal rust spots. (She had mentioned on Twitter that afternoon that she was fighting a cold.)

These peccadilloes banished, she settled into a full and developed portrait of Tosca, a woman caught between two men and in an impossible situation. It was all here: the ardent love for  her Mario, and the ability to turn emotions on a dime. Feeding the toxic seeds of jealousy, Ms. Radvanovsky built a slow fire of fury which burst at the end of the first act. Here, Tosca, goaded by the evil Baron Scarpia, seals her lover's fate through her suspicions and jealous leanings. She was helped by unusually sensitive conducting from Met mainstay Carlo Rizzi.

The second act was even more extraordinary. Here, the soprano went from puzzlement to despair to homicidal fury in her long scene with Scarpia. Interrogated by the police chief (sung by the baritone Claudio Sgura, more on him in a minute) and brought to the realization that Mario's fate hangs in the balance, she sings "Vissi d'arte", a crie de coeur aria that is infinitely better than its reputation as a fan favorite. At the end of this, on her knees, she held the pose, bathing in the rapture of the audience at this intense performance.

When Tosca shows her third face, Scarpia is not long for this world. Indeed, the gritty attempted rape and subsequent murder of the police chief held the audience rapt, as the singers struggled and Ms. Radvanovsky eschewed singing for a kind of harsh Italian sprechstimme. In the third act, she was even more gloriously over the top, until she plummeted to her death in a satisfying and traditional manner against the stark, searing chords.

It's Tosca's world and Cavaradossi just lives in it. But Joseph Calleja made a noble cavaliere, putting color and form into "Recondita armonia!" and the duet that follows. In Act II, the Maltese tenor belted out a powerful "Vittoria!" that sounded proud, noble and true. In the third, he was at his very finest for "E lucevan le stelle," adding shading and pianissimi to the aria where other singers usually just belt. Finally, he did have enough to get home in the punishing "Trionfal!" sung in unison with Ms. Radvanovsky at his side.

As the villain of the piece, baritone Claudio Sgura cut an imposing figure. As Zeljko Lucic was enlisted to sing the prima, this was Mr. Sgura's house debut. Towering over Ms. Radvanovsky, his performance as Scarpia embodied all the horrors that the #metoo movement stands against: from "handsiness" in the first act to naked abuse of police power against his trapped victims. This singer, a late substitution for the role did well but sung with a tone that turned blurry and harsh when put under pressure.

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