A Tosca of High Artistry and Overwhelming Conviction

03/06/2018

Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Philadelphia Symphonic Choir (director: Joe Miller), Philadelphia Boys Choir (artistic director: Jeffrey R. Smith), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 19.5.2018. (BJ)

Jennifer Rowley (Tosca) & Ambrogio Maestri (Scarpia) (c) Philadelphia Orchestra

Cast:

Floria Tosca – Jennifer Rowley
Mario Cavaradossi – Yusif Eyvazov
Baron Scarpia – Ambrogio Maestri
Cesare Angelotti – Richard Bernstein
A Sacristan – Kevin Burdette
Spoletta – Greg Fedderly
Sciarrone – Federico De Michelis
A Jailer – André Courville
A Shepherd Boy – Andrew Owens

Production:

Designer and stage director – James Alexander
Lighting designer – Jon Weir

I harbor the keenest respect and admiration for the late Joseph Kerman, from whose perceptive study of The Beethoven Quartets I learned more about music than from any other literary source with the exception of Sir Donald Tovey’s Studies in Musical Analysis. But when, in another of his books, Opera as Drama, he calls Tosca a ‘shabby little shocker,’—well, there he and I part company. To me, it is by some distance Puccini’s masterpiece. It deserves to be regarded as such by virtue not only of the power and emotional heft of the score but also of its characterization of the pair of lovers central to the plot. Whereas there is a certain fecklessness about the superficially ‘artistic’ characters in La bohème, and whereas the putative ‘hero’ of Madama Butterfly is a thoroughly repellent personage, Tosca presents us in Cavaradossi and Tosca herself with a completely believable man and woman of enthralling emotional intensity who, quite apart from their political convictions, are deeply in love and involved in major artistic careers, and whom I for one find it impossible not to admire and indeed to love.

What the Philadelphia Orchestra offered with this Tosca stood somewhere between a pure concert performance and a semi-staging. There were appropriate costumes (with Molly Hanulec credited as coordinator), there were some modest lighting effects, and there was a fairly rudimentary set, centered on a walkway complete with handrail behind and above the orchestra.

As it happens, the first opera performance I saw when I first came to the United States was none other than Tosca, presented by the then Philadelphia Lyric Opera company in a production boasting a starry cast headed by no less celebrated an exponent of the title role than Renata Tebaldi. The singing was mostly very fine, but the effect was undermined by some inept — if somewhat amusing — visual touches. In the second act, when Scarpia rang a little bell to call Spoletta into his office, he rang it a good few seconds after Spoletta had already obeyed the summons. Before that, and a much more serious howler, was what happened when Cavaradossi was dragged back on stage after being tortured: Tosca, who is supposed to be in love with him, coolly and elegantly moved her long skirt out of the way to avoid any danger of its getting — heaven forbid! — splashed by his blood.

There were no such gaffes on the Verizon Hall stage in this performance. Director James Alexander deployed his cast skillfully. Admittedly the various characters’ understandable hanging onto the handrail every time they traversed the flimsy-looking walkway created a rather repetitive visual effect; and it was equally understandable that, faced with the impossible challenge, in the concert-hall setting, of staging Tosca’s story-ending leap from the battlements to her death, the director clearly decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and allowed her instead a dignified retreat up the long staircase on stage right. We were left, perhaps, to picture her for the rest of her life lighting commemorative candles and shedding a silent tear on each anniversary of her beloved’s demise. Nevertheless, the support of a cast of which every member — the comprimari as well as the front-line principals — was tirelessly faithful to the character of his or her role and to its function in the plot — sadly topical with its focus on an egregious act of sexual harassment — enabled Alexander to realize successfully a conception of the opera that was lucid and refreshingly uneccentric.

I was probably not alone in wondering how Ambrogio Maestri, admired by many for his unrivaled Falstaff — a portrayal rich in humor, lovable humanity, and, in the denouement, compelling pathos — would fare in a role of so radically different a character as Scarpia. We need not have worried. I would not dream for a moment, in these days of the #MeToo movement, of suggesting that the police chief’s lecherous villainy was forgivable, but Maestri masterfully rendered it at least understandable, and he sang the part with a voice as regally sumptuous as ever. Yusif Eyvazov was a similarly excellent Cavaradossi both dramatically and vocally. Jennifer Rowley, a late replacement for the indisposed Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca, gave us a spellbinding and ravishingly lovely account of ‘Vissi d’arte,’ which I would unhesitatingly call the greatest aria Puccini ever wrote, if it were not for the rival claim of ‘E lucevan le stelle’—and (let me be fair to operas of his that I love much less) the claims also of ‘Un bel di’ in Butterfly and ‘Che gelida manina’ in La bohème.

Featuring the comparably fine voices of Richard Bernstein as Angelotti and Kevin Burdette as the Sacristan, this amounted to the best-sung Tosca I can remember hearing (though Maria Callas’s Tosca remains unforgettable, and having once heard her bloodcurdling ‘Quanto? Il prezzo?’ I find it hard to listen to any other soprano’s delivery of that line). The phenomenal power and beauty Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew from his orchestral and choral forces, moreover, were of a piece with the qualities already enumerated.

Bernard Jacobson

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