|Mark Delavan and Hui He in Act II|
Photo: Michael Brosilow
What: Puccini's Tosca
When: February 27-March 14, 2015
Where: Civic Opera House, Chicago
Chicago opera lovers are getting a "twofer" with this season's production of Puccini's 1900 political melodrama "Tosca." Originally created by British director John Caird for the Houston Grand Opera in 2010 and later revived for Los Angeles, Lyric's "Tosca" opened on January 24th, closed on February 5th, and then re-opened with new singers in the principal roles of Tosca, Cavaradossi, Scarpia, and Spoletta on February 27th for a run that concludes March 14th.
We caught the newer version on opening night, and it's a winner. Cavaradossi and Tosca are very strong, Scarpia is thoroughly creepy, and both dramatic and musical values are first-rate. I'm not completely convinced by all of the choices made by Mr. Caird or set and costume designer Bunny Christie, but they're certainly interesting, and they feel entirely consistent with the intent of Puccini and his librettists. And that, of course, is the important thing.
Anyone seeking an example of how an operatic classic can have contemporary resonance need look no further than the character of the villainous Baron Scarpia. A textbook case of how an elaborate display of public piety can be a false front for lust and violence, Scarpia also provides us one of the great moments of Italian opera in the final scene of Act I as he plots the seduction and betrayal of Tosca while the crowd celebrates High Mass.
|Hui He in Act I|
Photo: Michael Brosilow
That means you need a strong Scarpia for the drama of "Tosca" to work, and Lyric certainly has one in baritone Mark Delavan. He has a big, bold voice and a fine understanding of the character's psychology. Scarpia, he observes in his program bio, is "an arch-conservative, but one who doesn't understand the purpose of the law." His Scarpia is an energetic, sociopathic sensualist who is as fascinating as he is repellent – an essential combination, if we're going to get any satisfaction out of seeing Tosca stab him and then curse him as he dies in Act II.
And speaking of Tosca, soprano Hui He makes a strong impression as the singer whose passionate attachment to her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, leads her to betray both him and the political prisoner Angelotti, with tragic results for all concerned. She has a wonderfully supple voice that can whisper and cry with equal power and accuracy. Her "Vissi d'arte" in Act II brought cries of "brava" from the house, and they weren't the first ones of the evening.
Spanish tenor Jorge De León is a wonderfully passionate Cavaradossi who sounded equally comfortable with both the lyrical and dramatic musical aspects of his character—not surprising from someone whose signature roles include Radames in "Aïda." He and Ms. He also had the kind of onstage chemistry that made their passionate affair credible.
Tenor David Cagnelosi gave Scarpia's henchman Spoletta a bit more depth than I have seen in some other productions, and his body language imbued the character with a kind of ferret-like grace.
Bass-baritone Dale Travis is a comically pompous Sacristan. He's the only bit of comic relief in the opera's otherwise grim verismo mix of passion, deceit, and violence, so a strong performance here is always welcome.
Rounding out this very strong cast are bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba as a haunted Angelotti, Opera Theater of St. Louis favorite Bradley Smoak as the thuggish Sciarrone, and Anthony Evans-Clark as the Jailer.
Child soprano Annie Wagner makes a strong impression in a role that is essentially Mr. Caird's invention: a white-gowned figure who appears to Tosca in at key dramatic moments and sings the little Act II song which, in the original libretto, is sung by a shepherd boy offstage. Mr. Caird says the character is intended to represent "a child Madonna and the ghost of Tosca's innocence." That's one of those choices I mentioned at the top of the review, but it's still a provocative idea.
|Jorge De León and Hui Hein Act III|
Photo: Michael Brosilow
Unusual choices? Yes, but they're theatrically valid and, more to the point, they work—and do so while honoring the intent of opera's creators.
Puccini's rich, dramatic score is well served by Russian conductor Dmitri Jurowski, making his Lyric Opera debut. Judging from his biography, Mr. Jurowski's musical interests are wide-ranging, and his work here shows great assurance in the late Romantic Italian repertoire.
Lyric Opera's "Tosca" runs through March 14 at the Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop. For more information: lyricopera.org.