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Stylishly elemental Tosca

New York
New York City Opera
09/10/1998 -  and 13, 15, 18, 23, 26, October 1, 4*, 9, 14, 1998
Giacomo Puccini Tosca
Richard Hobson (Angelotti), Peter Strummer (Sacristan), Carl Tanner (Cavaradossi), Amy Johnson (Tosca), Jeffrey Kneebone (Scarpia), John Lankston (Spoletta), William Ledbetter (Sciarrone)
The New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus, George Manahan (conductor)

NYCO's new Tosca, produced in association with Glimmerglass Opera, emphatically proves their assertion that they are "Making Opera Matter". This production reduces the warhorse to it's fundamental elements, then rebuilds it in such a way as to make it as exciting, and even shocking, to modern audiences as contemporary productions must have been to the audiences a century ago.

This production immediately creates resonance for the modern audience by updating the action from the misty Napoleonic era that means little to the non-historian, to a 1930's Fascist regime that is fraught with significance for anyone alive in the second half of this century. Certainly Scarpia is a diabolical figure whatever his costume, but the connotations implicit in his black military uniform with shiny knee-boots effects a chill that is just not possible with a lace collar and high-heeled shoes. Tosca is always the diva in her empire waist velvet gowns, but her position as a "star" is made more immediately clear by stunning couture that Wallis Simpson would have envied.

The draperies, the fringe, the gold leaf, the clutter cloying most productions has been entirely stripped away. The space of the church in Act I is articulated by three set pieces of bars, simultaneously suggesting sanctuary and prison. Oversized candlesticks indicating the position of the altar are disconcertingly reminiscent of gigantic chess pawns. Scarpia's apartment in Act II retains two of the bar set pieces and adds a desk and small table. Contrasting sharply with the colorlessness of the rest of the set, a slash of red carpet across his floor is rife with violence, suggesting both a military sash and a gaping wound. Act III appears to take place in a concrete bunker, bloody sandbags evidencing the diligence of the firing squad and a small desk for the jailer are the only breaks in the stark whiteness and right angles of the set. These minimalist sets are entirely adequate for the dramatic requirements of the story, and have the effect of focusing concentration on the music and the conflict instead of competing with or distracting from them.

The staging was likewise designed to shake up preconceptions of this over-familiar work held by the traditional audience. Tosca neither merely holds the knife for Scarpia to impale himself in his frenzied passion, nor impulsively stabs him once as he attacks her. She actively peruses him, stabbing him four times in her rage and revulsion. Mario's execution, re-staged so that he is not standing defiantly in front of a firing squad, but is forced to his knees and shot through the back of the head at point blank range, actually elicited gasps from the audience. These changes in staging are not divergent enough from the original conception to alter the composers intentions, but they are fresh enough to restore some of the original shock value. The updated staging has the added benefit of being more accessible to the younger audience being actively courted by NYCO under its admirably far-sighted General Director, Paul Kellogg—an audience for whom violence-as-entertainment is a more familiar construct than for the typical opera-goer.

The interest and excitement generated by the new production are captured and propelled by the outstanding performances of the lead singers. Amy Johnson's Tosca is a force of nature, or rather several forces of nature. She is by turns as flighty and playful as air, as mercurial and lovely as running water, and as passionate and dangerous as fire itself. Ms. Johnson hit no false notes, either musically or emotionally, in the entire performance. She is blessed with a remarkable instrument that soars over and through the orchestra with astonishing ease. Her mastery of this instrument freed her to execute an extraordinarily focused and powerful interpretation of what has become a rather over-ripe plum in the diva repertoire. She produces glorious phrases that seem to be as much carved from the tenderness or tension inherent in a scene as produced from within herself. Vissi d'arte as sung by Ms. Johnson is more than the poignant articulation of Tosca's personal anguish, it is the distillation of the horror that had gone before, and a presager of the violence and despair to come. This accomplishment is even more remarkable considering the peculiar blocking that has her lying on her stomach for most of the aria.

Carl Tanner's Cavaradossi is the perfect complement to Johnson's Tosca. There are numerous examples of productions of Tosca where the relationship between the lovers can not be easily reconciled. Why he would endure her jealous hysterics, or how she could be so passionate about such an ordinary fellow are questions too often raised and too seldom answered by this opera. Such questions are no part of the NYCO production--these people entirely belong to each other. To Johnson's air, water, and fire, Tanner provides the earth. Everything about his performance, his person, and his voice speaks of solidity and steadfastness, but he never allows the character to lapse into a dullness or one-dimensionality. His soothing of Tosca's jealousy is another round of a familiar lover's game, almost a private joke, between the two of them. His wonderfully clear, ringing tenor demonstrates the passion and dignity that bind the glamorous and capricious diva to him. His Reconita armonia leaves no doubt why a woman would dare anything for such a man. His Victoria!'s are hurled forth with such force of triumph, that the very air reverberates with their power and conviction.

Jeffrey Kneebone is, unfortunately, nothing more than an adequate Scarpia. He is able to provide an acceptably sinister foil to the other characters, but is unequal to the challenge of making anything remarkable of the role in itself. His voice is expressive, but Scarpia requires a certain level of vocal power in addition to expressiveness to communicate the nature of the man. Kneebone is not able to produce this power. He also fails to manifest another power that is crucial to the characterization of Scarpia--sexual power. Sexual power that is so overwhelming as to encompass both attraction and repulsion is the vital component of a really compelling Scarpia. The power that makes the vitals quiver while the skin crawls; the power that renders interaction between Tosca and Scarpia complex, conflicted, and ambiguous instead of black and white; the power that separates Scarpia from cartoonish and melodramatic villains; this power was not there.

The New York City Opera Orchestra under the baton of George Manahan demonstrated deep understanding of the dramatic requirements of both the score and the singers. Equally adept at conjuring exquisite tenderness, hurtling the action relentlessly forward, and compounding tension by restraint, the NYCO Orchestra absolutely surpassed itself in this production.

It's exceptional execution has made this Tosca a triumph for both Glimmerglass and New York City Operas. It's daringly modern, yet valid, conception could make it a standard for future productions.

MK Blackwood



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