Two superb debuts spark BLO’s traditional “Tosca”

October 14, 2017 at 12:47 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Elena Stikhina and Daniel Sutin in Puccini's "Tosca" at Boston Lyric Opera.

Elena Stikhina and Daniel Sutin in Puccini’s “Tosca” at Boston Lyric Opera.

Floria Tosca, the eponymous character in Puccini’s Tosca, was caught up in the moment.

Driven by love for the artist Mario Cavaradossi, she is swallowed up in a political conflict. She hides secrets about the whereabouts of an escaped Roman Consul, but later gives them up to spare her beloved from torture. Her feelings also drive her to revenge, and she murders the wicked police chief Baron Scarpia in a moment of passion. When the charge catches up to her, she commits suicide rather than face justice from a corrupt government. 

In Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of Tosca, which opened Friday night at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the woman comes off as both victim and hero and in equal measures powerless and powerful. She is, as scholar and critic Lucy Caplan put it, fully and inescapably human.

One couldn’t imagine the character having a better performer than soprano Elena Stikhina, who made her American debut with this BLO role. Stikhina is a marvelous actress and she fully captured Tosca’s jealousy and loving warmth in her scenes with Cavaradossi. Her singing was sublime. Vocal lines were supple and hinted with a shade of darkness, but her voice flowered beautifully in her upper register. Her performance of “Vissi d’arte” was the highlight of the evening. Young singers tend to overstate the quivering emotion of this aria, but Stikhina sang it with a distant glow for an effect that was both haunting and heart wrenching.

Stikhina had a wonderful partner in tenor Jonathan Burton, who sang warmly and radiantly as Tosca’s doomed lover Cavaradossi. Burton, who also was making his BLO debut, possesses a voice of strength and beauty. His upper notes sailed freely over Puccini’s thick orchestration, and he found resonant warmth in the painter’s character. Even his singing of “E lucevan le stelle,” the character’s sorrowful farewell to life in Act 3, had a subtle vibrancy.

Burton also had fine chemistry with Stikhina, and their quarrels took on the humor of an old married couple. Burton’s Cavaradossi groaned when Tosca asked him to change the color of the woman’s eyes in his painting to reflect more of her own features.

As Scarpia, Daniel Sutin was aptly menacing. His baritone was deep and rich and grew even more powerful when the character became consumed by his lust for Tosca. His phrases of “Va, Tosca” encapsulated the character’s dark desires and rang out boldly in the close of Act 1.

Filling out the cast were David Cushing, who sang the role of Angelotti with stentorian voice; James Maddalena, whose penetrating tone brought a touch of humor to the Sacristan; and Jon Jurgens and Vincent Turregano, who both sang capably in the roles of Spoletta and Sciarrone respectively.

Recent BLO productions have experimented with psychological devices that sometimes have made for curious staging. But Crystal Manich’s production of Puccini’s shabby little shocker places the story squarely in the original setting, July of 1800. Pillars framing a double-decker stage, which provided a gothic look to the scenery, effectively captured the church, Castel del Sant’Angelo, and prison cell. The stage direction, with its mix of static placement and action sequences, was traditional and engaging and kept the drama moving. Yet there was a nod to psychological theatre. In the opening to Act 3, a Shepherdess, sung nimbly by Sara Womble, appears before Tosca like a ghost from the past. (In the original play, Tosca was a shepherd’s daughter).

Deborah Newhall’s costumes enhanced the dark tones of the story, with only Tosca’s red dresses providing a splash of color. Cavaradossi and Scarpia were dressed in vests, waistcoats, pants, and boots that reflected early nineteenth-century dress. Scarpia’s white, George Washington-style hair, added an air of authority.

The only unusual thing about this staging was the placement of the orchestra. Rather than being seating in the pit, conductor David Stern and the fifty-eight musicians were situated on the second tier of the stage set behind a scrim. It was a choice that worked. Facing stage left, the musicians were able to play without fear of drowning out the singers. And musically, the performance was rich in lyricism. Lines ebbed and flowed in grand arcs of sound, and solo cello and winds added sunshine and shade to the opening scene of Act 3.

The chorus, prepared by Michelle Alexander, and Voices Boston, prepared by Steven Lipsitt, were the other heroes of the performance, singing resplendently in the Te Deum.

Tosca runs through October 22 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.


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