Opera Review: Boston Lyric Opera’s “Tosca”

For my taste, too much of the stage action during Friday’s performance was stiff and shopworn.

Tosca, portrayed by Elena Stikhina, submits to Scarpia, played by Daniel Sutin. Photo: courtesy of BLO.

Tosca, portrayed by Elena Stikhina, submits to Scarpia, played by Daniel Sutin. Photo: courtesy of BLO.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

“Opera cuts deep,” as Boston Lyric Opera’s (BLO) promotional materials for this season remind us. So, too, at a pivotal moment, does the title character in Giacomo Puccini’s much-loved Tosca, which opened BLO’s 41st season in a new production at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre on Friday night. (The production runs through October 22.) How did it all go?

Puccini’s tale of love, jealousy, betrayal, vengeance, and death is an opera par excellence. It offers emotion and drama – not to mention some spectacular music – in spades. What it needs, above all, are three strong leads.

In the title role on Friday, soprano Elena Stikhina showcased a winning stage presence. She sang with warmth, effortless projection, true pitch, and velvety tone across her range. Her upper register was particularly resonant and brilliant, though, lower down, her diction became less distinct: vowels tended to sound the same, as did too many consonants. The text of “Vissi d’arte,” for instance, was too often muddled. But the overall hue of her voice and the conviction of her acting made Stikhina the night’s most compelling principal.

As her paramour, Mario Cavaradossi, Jonathan Burton sang with similar intensity in his upper register; a raw, intense timbre; and securer enunciation. His voice seemed to fade a bit over the course of the night, though it filled the theater well enough and he certainly ramped up the passion when called for. His duets with Stikhina – particularly Act 1’s “Qual’occhio” and Act 3’s “O dolci mani” – built to some finely-matched climaxes that soared over the orchestra. The musical intensity of those episodes helped to compensate for the otherwise general lack of chemistry between the two leads.

Then there was Daniel Sutin’s Scarpia. This is a one-dimensional, Trump-ish character, duplicitous and reprehensible, without a single redeeming quality. Sutin ably projected Scarpia’s devilish persona, giving it plenty of force. Perhaps too much of the latter, though: in the intimate confines of the Cutler Majestic, Sutin regularly came across as monodynamic and barky, rather like a drill sergeant bellowing orders. His acting was rather starchy, too – but he wasn’t alone in this; more on that below.

The rest of Friday’s cast was, on the main, adequate to the demands of the score and the performing space. David Cushing delivered a muscular account of the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. James Maddelena was a bit overwhelmed, volume-wise, in ensemble passages as the Sacristan, but his delivery of that character’s moralizing asides concerning Cavaradossi were appropriately droll. Jon Jurgens and Vincent Turregano sang menacingly as Scarpia’s henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone (respectively), while Sara Womble made bright, fluent work of the Shepherdess’s song at the beginning of Act 3. The BLO Chorus and children from Voices Boston also provided strong musical contributions in their climactic Act 1 appearance.

BLO’s new production was directed by Crystal Manich and it sits firmly in the traditional camp. This, in itself, is a welcome development, given the unevenness of some of BLO’s updatings of the standard canon over the last few seasons. Besides, more than some operas, Tosca’s plot is set in a particular historical period and one avoids unnecessary confusion (like the libretto’s several references to Napoleon) by staging it there.

But one of the biggest challenges in doing a traditional production is that nothing can feel ham-fisted or clichéd. And, for my taste, too much of the stage action on Friday was stiff and shopworn. There was, on the one hand, little obvious attraction between Stikhina and Burton, which meant that their arguments and passionate embraces in the outer acts lacked any real tension or spark. Outside of that, though, hardly anything anyone did on stage really felt spontaneous, especially in the more action-packed second act. In it, Scarpia and his goons beat and torture Cavaradossi, but their assaults on him – and, later, Scarpia’s threats to Tosca – looked boxed-in and mannered (the less said about Scarpia’s painfully deliberate unbuttoning of Tosca’s bodice, the better). Only Burton made the most of his moments here, bringing, through facial contortions and body language, a measure of authenticity to his character’s suffering.

Suffice it to say, if you’re going to act out the spur-of-the-moment fury, violence, and passion that’s at the heart of Tosca, everything needs to feel fresh, be exaggerated, and the whole cast needs to throw itself into the action without hesitation. Otherwise you end up with a caricature of a traditional opera. Friday’s staging sometimes resembled the latter more than not.

That said, Manich’s use of the stage was generally fine: the crowded scenes in Act 1 moved fluidly and never felt cluttered and, even when there were just one or two people to be seen, they employed the whole of the space smartly.

Other aspects of the production were strong, too. Julia Noulin-Mérat’s sets were the picture of simplicity: five columns with a grated wall and built-in doors behind functioned efficiently as the inside of a church, Scarpia’s lair, Cavaradossi jail cell, and the place of his execution. Deborah Newhall’s period costumes (especially those for Tosca and the chorus) brought welcome color and warmth to several scenes. And Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting design was subtle and effective.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of BLO’s staging had nothing to do with singers or sets. Rather, it involved the orchestra, which was placed not in the pit but on the stage on a platform above and behind the singers. The result of this arrangement was getting to hear the BLO Orchestra in rather fine fettle. The ensemble hasn’t always been flattered by its homes – the Shubert Theater was particularly unkind – but here its sound blossomed, the group reveling in Puccini’s sumptuous orchestral colors, from Ina Zdorovetchi’s lush harp arpeggios to the lyrical cello section solo near the end of Act 3. David Stern’s conducting was articulate and well-paced and he coordinated the extended ensemble (via flat screen TVs placed throughout the theater) deftly.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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