Opera Philadelphia takes the leap into live opera with The Drama of Tosca

United StatesUnited States Puccini, The Drama of Tosca: Soloists, Opera Philadelphia Chorus & Orchestra / Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Opera Philadelphia, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, 5.5.2021. (RP)

Quinn Kelsey (Scarpia) and Brian Jagde (Cavaradossi) (c) Dominic M. Mercier

Adaptation – Francesco Micheli
Director – Gregory Boyle
Chorus master – Elizabeth Braden

Tosca – Ana María Martínez
Cavaradossi – Brian Jagde
Scarpia – Quinn Kelsey
Shepherd – Alex Ramirez
Narrator – Charlotte Blake Alston

There were two moments in Opera Philadelphia’s The Drama of Tosca that captured what has been all but missing from the world since March 2020. The first was when Brian Jagde’s voice soared through the amphitheater of the Mann Music Center on a cushion of orchestral sound that swelled as effortlessly as his singing in ‘Recondita armonia’. The second came a short while later during the ‘Te Deum’ when the audience was suddenly enveloped in sound emanating from both the stage and the rear balcony where 40 members of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus were singing. It’s the kind of thrill that you just don’t get on a video stream.

Opera Philadelphia is fortunate in many ways, but one is the multiple venues at its disposal. A fully staged production of Tosca was scheduled to be performed in the Academy of Music, but COVID protocols scuttled those plans. In its place, The Drama of Tosca, a ninety-minute concert adaption of Puccini’s grand opera, is being done at the Mann Music Center. The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and countless other acts have performed here. The Mann also has the advantage of being minutes away from the city center.

The Drama of Tosca adaptation is by Francesco Micheli, whose multi-faceted career includes creating and directing innovative projects in the sphere of opera. He is also the artistic director of the Fondazione Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo, the city of his birth. For this adaptation, Micheli did with words what directors have been doing visually for decades. He sought to make an opera composed a century ago and set in Rome in June 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars real for today’s audiences.

There was musical surgery to reduce the opera’s length: all of the minor characters, save the shepherd whose song opens Act III, were excised. The drama began with Tosca giving Cavaradossi instructions on how to feign his death. After that the story unfurled just as Puccini intended, save that ‘Vissi d’arte’ came at the very end, placed there as a reminder, although prayer might be the more apt description, of the importance of art in our lives. It was an appropriate ending, for what more was there to sing or say after Ana María Martínez sang Tosca’s glorious paean to art and beauty.

Micheli received input from local historians in crafting the narration which served to both provide dramatic context and link the story to our times. Scarpia was compared to Nicodemo Domenico ‘Little Nicky’ Scarfo Sr., the boss of the Philadelphia Mafia family in the 1980s, who was notorious for his short temper and violent streak. Cavaradossi was portrayed as not only a lover and artist but also a champion of freedom, which provided an easy segue to the Liberty Bell, a symbol of American independence that still hangs in Philadelphia. There was even a reference to the Talmud which advises that gratuitous hatred is the most vicious form of that poisonous emotion. Tosca, as the personification of art, beauty and passion, needed no context to make her relevant.

Charlotte Blake Alston. a nationally acclaimed storyteller, narrator, instrumentalist, librettist and singer, delivered these words with flare, conviction and enthusiasm. She instills emotion though her expressive voice, as well as her compelling and engaging stage presence. The Drama of Tosca should have a life after this run with Alston as a Pied Piper drawing new audiences to opera.

Ana María Martínez (Tosca) © Dominic M. Mercier

The trio of international stars – Martinez and Jagde were joined by Quinn Kelsey as Scarpia – were all making their Opera Philadelphia debuts. Martinez and Kelsey were also singing their roles for the first time. Through voice alone, albeit none of the three are slouches when it comes to acting, they summoned the drama and grandeur of Tosca.

There was a rare delicacy and grace in Martínez’s Tosca. She eschewed histrionics for depth and detail both vocally and dramatically. Her voice has beauty and bloom to spare. Jagde is a hit-the-ball-out-of-the-park singer, who provides the pure visceral thrills that makes opera exciting, but he also knows how to finesse a musical phrase. His ‘Recondita armonia’ might have stretched the definition of a romanza, but what could have been more lyrical than his ‘E lucevan le stelle’ or as tender and soft as ‘O dolci mani’, which followed a few minutes later.

With the passing years, Kelsey’s baritone has gained depth and grit. He has the power and presence to capture the pure evil of the despicable Scarpia. It is a role that he will undoubtedly own in the years to come. The only other singer on stage was Alex Ramirez, a young man with a clear, true voice, who sang the role of the shepherd boy.

For all of the glorious singing, in many ways the sixty-five members of the Philadelphia Opera Orchestra were the real stars of the evening. Corrado Rovaris led them in a performance that captured all the power, tenderness and glory of Puccini’s score.

The dedication, creativity and persistence that went into presenting The Drama of Tosca cannot be underestimated. Due to capacity restraints, the audience was limited to 400, in a space that can accommodate 14,000. Opera Philadelphia (click here) is one of the few companies that have managed to pay its artists, create innovative and exciting videos that are available on the Opera Philadelphia Channel, and stage a live opera with an audience in the US. Bravo!

Rick Perdian

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