Houston — “It is the ultimate Italian meatball and red sauce opera,” said an audience member on Tuesday at Houston Grand Opera’s Tosca at the Wortham Center. The person he was speaking to was attending his first performance of the opera and had, presumably, inquired what it was like.
Is there a better description? I think not.
Interestingly, both Houston Grand Opera and Dallas Opera are producing Tosca at the same time; Houston’s opened Oct. 23 and runs through Nov. 14 while Dallas’ is Nov. 6-23, running in repertory with the world premiere of Great Scott (note: The Nov. 6 performance in Dallas will also have a free live simulcast in Klyde Warren Park). It will be a fascinating study to see them both in such close proximity. A review of each will appear on this site, followed by a piece comparing and contrasting the productions.
Here is the Houston review.
Tosca’s story, revolving around the struggle for freedom from a repressive regime, is one that is all too familiar. It has happened, too many times, throughout history. It would have been especially familiar to the Italian audiences that attended the premiere in 1899. That was a “holy year” and Rome was filled with unrest. There were anti-clerics, anarchists and general roustabouts looking for a fight, any fight, filling the streets. There was even a bomb threat on opening night.
The actual war referenced in the libretto is the struggle for the long-hoped-for unification of Italy, established by the forces of Napoleon prying it from the hands of the Austrians when the 18th century turned to the 19th. It is the defeat of Austrian forces at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, under the command of Michael von Melas, that Caveradossi celebrates at the end of act two with his high-note-laden cri de voce of “Vittorio.”
By the time of Tosca’s 1899 premiere, Italy experienced another wave of political and social unrest. The start of the Holy Year in December of that year attracted the religious to the city, but also brought threats from anarchists, anticlericals and other roustabouts hunting for a fight.
This production is from 2010, directed for HGO by John Caird (and a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago), keeps Puccini's settting of June 1800, which is refreshing. There was a 2007 production by Philipp Himmelmann that featured a huge eye peering on the action. It has also been set in other dictatorial regimes such as Hitler’s Germany.
Bunny Christie does costumes and the production design, which is dark and moody and contained by stark concrete walls that appear to have suffered bomb damage. The walls stay but the interior changes for each act. Caveradossi’s painting in the first act appears to be a recovering of an existing Madonna portrait that has been damaged to the point of being in pieces.
In the second act, Scarpia’s private rooms hold a collection of pilfered statuary with which he is obviously planning to leave the country. The last act is bare. As it starts, the body of the patriot, Angelotti, is carried in and the police and hang him from the ceiling, where he remains throughout the entire act.
The cast is very strong and replete with many un-Italian Italian voices. The most Italian of the bunch is the Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov. He possesses a bright, but hefty, sound with Nessun Dorma-worthy ringing high notes that fills the Wortham Center to the rafters. He is also a natural actor and believable as the impulsive, handsome and passionate young artist.
Another great voice is the Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber. His sound is dark and burnished yet clearly focused with a bright edge. He makes a stately Scarpia, like a greedy CEO of a company. He lacks the snakelike quality and can make the character so deadly, with the hanging threat of a sudden lethal strike suddenly coming out of a more placid exterior. He is more impatient with incompetence but Tosca causes him to lose is composure. Even his line about being willing to give his life if it would dry even one of Tosca’s tears sounds more fatherly than disgusting with drool. But, his is a valid interpretation.
However, all voices on the stage are dwarfed by the mesmerizing sounds produced by Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska. It is a stunning instrument, rich and almost mezzo-like, until she gets to the highest ones. On these notes she opens her mouth completely and blasts them wide open. The sound borders on shrill, without actually crossing that line, and is megawatts louder than anything else on the stage (or on any stage for that matter). What a Turandot she will make!
Her acting is mostly done vocally, with lots of detail in her singing. Very loud notes are followed by a barely caressed pianissimo sound. She rarely descends into cheat voice; making the times she did on Tuesday all the more dramatic (there is even one marvelous scope from chest to the top of the register). Her physical acting is rather sparse and, if you were just listening, you would think she was doing more. But this matters not at all to fans of great singing in the role. Her acting is much better than some exalted historical Toscas.
The singers in the other roles are perfectly able to stand in the vocal array on the stage. Of special note is the Angelotti of the Russian bass, Dmitry Belosselskiy. This is a truly gorgeous bass voice with enough baritone sonorities in it to allow it to project as effectively as the other singers without sounding all hooty.
The American bass-baritone Kyle Albertson’s Sacristan starts out slowly in his initial interactions with Caveradossi but he wakes up when he prepares for the Te Deum.
The youthful voice of Jacqueline Hickman was inaudible as the young shepherd on Tuesday. The American tenor David Cangelosi made a suitably subservient Spoletta.
Conductor Patrick Summers (also the conductor for Dallas’ Great Scott) delivers an impeccably paced, clear, uncluttered and perfectly balanced performance filled with surprising details. “I’ve never heard that orchestral line before,” was a frequent thought. The orchestra responded with a fine performance marked by excellent intonation. Special kudos goes to the clarinet and the group of divisi celli for their playing in the last act. Give a razzberry to the offstage music played in the pit and the electronic bells and organ. (Whaddya gonna do?)
This Tosca is a fine evening of theater: full of lust, war, murder, suicide, executions, thievery, deception, jealousy and betrayal. You know, the usual stuff of opera.
My big suggestion is to get rid of the second intermission. The last act is too short to stand by itself, unless the goal is to milk the bar, of course.
There are different casts—all equally fine. Dallas baritone Weston Hurt sings Scarpia on Nov. 5 and 14, which should be worth a return visit.