Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tosca's tragedy unpacked fresh in a new Lyric Opera of Chicago production

From the first decidedly and beautifully drawn out notes of Puccini's score, the curiously over-sized fragmented female portrait spread over a three-level scaffold and Richard Ollarsaba's impressive vocal resonance accompanying his entrance in the smaller role as the revolutionary escapee Angelotti, Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Tosca punches with a sense of freshness and talent from the start. It's fortunate a strong cast of finely voiced and nuanced performances continue, giving this Tosca something special, but director John Caird's reinventions and directorial surprises come hit-and-miss.

                                       Mark Delavan as Scarpia and Hui He as Tosca
The story is updated from its original 1801 setting in Rome to the same city around 100 years later around the time Puccini wrote the opera. Set and costume designer Bunny Christie's glum, grey-cemented, un-ornamented aesthetic of a three-act lofty, boxed enclosure effectively removes the drama from its usual attachment to the opera's three distinctive Roman settings (the church of Sant'Andrea, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant'Angelo). The effect creates a tension between elucidating Caird's intended historical update and conversely stripping away attachment to a particular place. The political landscape appears fabricated and confused, not helped by a gaping blown-out hole in the set's roof, more distracting than informative, which makes reference to the city being ravaged by an enemy.

Act I's three-level painter's scaffold gets plenty of use, supporting Scarpia high above the gloriously sung 'Te Deum' while he is being spied by the bishop in an awkward-looking finale to the act. Act III's usual shepherd boy solo is replaced by a young sweet-voiced girl, Annie Wagner, who also appears in each act as a reflection of Tosca's own peasant childhood. It's a tasteful idea but it doesn't attain the poignancy it could, especially so in Act II, in one of opera's greatest dramatic scenes. During the extended pensive orchestral ending after Tosca murders Scarpia, the figure appears clumsily and Tosca looks more perplexed than transfixed before departing the stage.

But in Act III, Caird's other spark, the decision to hang the body of the murdered Angelotti in front of Cavaradossi (who didn't know he was already killed) is riveting. The impact on Cavaradossi is moving and gives his subsequent aria added emotional power. But overall, there's a feeling that every idea brainstormed is vying for attention and while there's ample detail the results come mixed.

Jorge de Leon as Cavaradossi and Hui He as Tosca
As the eponymous Tosca, Chinese soprano Hui He brings vibrancy and charm to the devout catholic and lauded singer accidentally caught in a ruinous political and violent mess. Hui He's Tosca is jealous, a soupçon highly-strung but delightfully playful. And how her stirringly rich creamy voice wraps Tosca with un-melodramatic passion. In the  opera's most famous aria, "Vissi d'arte", in which Tosca questions God about why he has abandoned her, Hui He sings with clean enunciation, effortless phrasing and gravitas, working her vocals expansively and most expressively in the mid and upper ranges then effortlessly lengthens a high pianissimo to a gentle rest. In the lowest range, however, the power of the voice collapses.

Spanish tenor Jorge de León, as the painter Cavaradossi and harborer of the escaped Angelotti, makes a convincing impact as Tosca's lover while sharing with her a special unison. In his solo work de León has immensity of amplitude and displays confidence in his highest range. Stilted phrasing and a slovenly legato, however, take away from an otherwise solid performance.

Mark Devalan's Scarpia is a thuggish, less deep-seated villain who entertains Tosca more romantically than forcing himself on her lustfully. It makes him look vulnerable when it is he who should be playing the cards, not entirely giving credence to Tosca's ensuing act of murder. Devalan does however show great detail in his performance with a fearsome tone but as much as it is a big voice, it gets lost in the full orchestra and chorus of the "Te Deum".

Dale Travis enlivens the role of the sacristan with pottering prominence. David Congeloso as Spoleta, Bradley Smoak as Sciarrone and Anthony Clark Evans add dramatic weight and vocal balance to complete the cast.

Puccini's score was completed with the beauty and shape which conductor Dmitri Jurowski opened the performance with, keeping an even tempo and drawing noteworthily superb string playing and a consistently solid sound from the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Plenty of attractive ideas imbedded in this new production of a popular operatic work together with a bevy of talented singers will keep the production alive for a few seasons despite some questionable creative choices. But the first thing needing to be addressed is fixing that hole in the ceiling.

Photos courtesy of Michael Brosilow

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