LHO’s Puccini’s Tosca: An Admirable Adaptation

March 12, 2010

There’s nothing better than a heavy dose of Puccini’s passion to transform a dreary evening in a dining hall to a spectacular musical experience. This remedy for the mid-term blues, provided by Lowell House Opera (LHO), comes in their current production of Tosca, one of Puccini’s most beloved operas.  Stage directed by Michael Yashinsky ’11, Tosca features an almost fully professional cast and pit orchestra.

The piece begins by introducing two Italian artists: a painter, Cavaradossi, and the titular, over-jealous singer, Tosca.  At the start, the story is playful; the love problems between the strong willed Tosca and her obliging Cavaradossi are presented only as comical and lighthearted; all is well at the church of Saint’Andrea della Valle.  Of course, this lightness cannot be sustained forever; Tosca roots itself quickly and violently into its politically and emotionally volatile setting; Cavaradossi helps aid a fugitive (Angelotti) from the sinister chief of police (Scarpia), and all the blithe romance of Tosca‘s opening dissipates into a politically charged, emotionally riveting, and blood-soaked clash of artistic, romantic innocence and the violence of totalitarian brutality.

Yashinsky sets Tosca in wartime Fascist Italy, a bold move, especially considering the renowned nature of the opera.  As he states in his program notes, “Puccini was a man of the twentieth century, and his Tosca is in its essence a very twentieth century tale, depicting as it does the happiness of innocence being destroyed by a barbaric political machine.” The production takes great measures in placing the opera in this new context.  Within the physical setting, the words “Fascismo é Libertá” are projected onto the set throughout the play, and a banner reading “Viva la Morte” makes an appearance in the last act.  The period costumes, including the villain Scarpia and his crew dressed as Fascist policemen, complete in black dress with nightsticks and guns, and Tosca’s vibrant red dress and fitted cap serve particularly to project us into the 1930s. The set, which was strikingly rendered by Mark Buchanan features strong columns and angular torsos: token examples of the monumentalist architecture promulgated throughout Italy under Mussolini’s reign. The production team also took the liberty of changing some lines to be appropriate to their setting, like mentioning both Churchill and Mussolini as taking a part in the war within the libretto.  Although this may be frowned upon by some, it is very effective in creating a parallel between the original libretto and this new setting of a similar struggle for liberty. Overall, LHO’s production does a great job in setting Tosca in a new and exciting way.

Much of the cast itself can be considered professionals in their field, and their performance Saturday evening (February 27) definitely showed it.  Michelle Trainor as Tosca and Jeffrey Michael Hartman as Cavaradossi each exhibited both vocal virtuosity and superb acting, especially in their scenes together as the opera progressed. Trainor presented Tosca as a passionate yet jealous lover, creating gentle vocal phrases of love and hope, as well as almost terrifying spurts of envy through well-supported arias of passion.  Hartman served as a worthy counterpart to Tosca, though his acting sometimes failed to captivate at the level of Trainor’s romantic zeal, especially during the first Act.  Greg Kass, playing the villain Scarpia, was excellent in portraying the slimy, despicable nature of his character.  Kass mastered the physicality of evil by slinking around the stage, and was particularly convincing during a difficult attempted rape scene of the second Act.

For the most part, the periphery characters provided adequate support for the “main” characters; but the weak volume and musicality of Joshua May as Spoletta was noticeable.  Also lacking were the somewhat awkward interactions between Cavaradossi and James Dargan’s Sacristan during Act I, which unfortunately revealed the acting limitations of both actors.  Seth Grondin’s Angelotti was a real highlight of the show.  Although he started off a bit rough during the first act, he was resplendent and utterly successful in the most difficult moments of the opera, defying any and all acoustical difficulties presented by the venue.

The orchestra, occupying nearly as much space as the stage itself, provided a beautiful and integral accompaniment to the richness of the performance. Musical director Channing Yu ’93 skillfully led the pit through Puccini’s swells and intricate orchestral passages, in both accompaniment and melody. Yu drew a very warm sound from the orchestra which was more than welcome, however many of the tempi seemed erratic, either lagging and disrupting the legati of the singers, or jumping in occasional paroxysms of faster tempi—catching the performers, and sometimes the orchestra, off guard.  The wind section on Saturday night encountered some slight intonation discrepancies, especially in the quieter sections, but was able to overcome these within the full orchestra texture. In general, Yu, as befits his considerable experience in the venue, achieved a balance between the orchestra and the singers that was even and effective, making a cohesive unit of sound.  However during some of the more intimate arias, the singer would attempt to make larger musical and dynamic shapes, and unfortunately were covered by the orchestra, one of the perennial downfalls of the dining hall acoustic.

More attention could have been paid to the musically delivered narrative arc of the story, as the tempi choices, particularly right before the famous Act 1 finale “Te Deum” often seemed to counteract the dramatic potency of the music simply through overly melodramatic choices. Puccini’s music can only deliver its full visceral potential when interpreted with a clear idea, that often means finding a balance with and occasionally resisting the all-too-easy inclination toward the melodramatic, and letting what was composed ring true as written. With masterpieces like Tosca, such futzing can provide a gloss that at worst turns sentiment into sentimentality and is an unfortunate act of compromising self-indulgence.

Despite its minor pitfalls, Tosca triumphs with its high emotions and creative setting.

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