21 April 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — TOSCA (A. LoBianco, S. Quinn, M. MacKenzie, S. Karabudak, D. Hartmann, J. Kato, T. Federle, R. Stenbuck, T. Keefe; North Carolina Opera, 7 April 2019)

IN REVIEW: soprano ALEXANDRA LOBIANCO as Tosca (left) and tenor SCOTT QUINN as Cavaradossi (right) in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): ToscaAlexandra LoBianco (Floria Tosca), Scott Quinn (Mario Cavaradossi), Malcolm MacKenzie (Il barone Scarpia), Sabri Karabudak (Cesare Angelotti), Donald Hartmann (Il sagrestano), Jacob Kato (Spoletta), Ted Federle (Sciarrone), Rachel Stenbuck (Un pastore), Thomas Keefe (Un carceriere); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joseph Rescigno, conductor [David Paul, Director; Scott MacLeod, Chorus Master; Nick Malinowski, Children’s Chorus Director; Tláloc López-Watermann, Lighting Director; North Carolina Opera, Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 7 April 2019]

An opera lover who cited Gounod’s Faust as his favorite work, Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as stating that ‘you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’ The attribution resulting from a labyrinthine series of mistaken assumptions that is itself worthy of opera, it is unlikely that Lincoln actually penned those words, but the aphorism is consistent with his rustic wit. Were he a Twenty-First-Century musicologist, Lincoln might have used the sentiment credited to him to assess the enduring popularity of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, dismissed as a ‘shabby little shocker’ by noted critic Joseph Kerman six decades ago but still performed frequently throughout the world. When pondering the reasons for an opera’s prevalence in the international repertory, American presidential politics yields another nugget of wisdom: ‘the economy, stupid.’ Opera companies stage Tosca because audiences buy tickets to hear it. Productions of Tosca can indeed be shabby, little, or shocking, but the merits of a work that lures listeners who do not know Cavaradossi from Caravaggio to the opera should not be spurned.

Critics of his work who allege that he wrote saccharine melodramas with little musical distinction tend to neglect Puccini’s artistic ancestry. His great-grandfather was an organist, member of Bologna’s exclusive Accademia Filarmonica, and composer whose sacred music was admired by the celebrated Padre Martini. By the time of the younger Puccini’s birth in 1858, the family name was widely respected in his native Lucca, where the composer’s forebears had been maestri di cappella at the city’s Cattedrale di San Martino for more than a century. In addition to his exposure to his family’s musical legacy, Puccini’s education included studies with Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of La Gioconda, at Milan’s Conservatorio. Composing for the church having been in his blood, Puccini’s preference for the opera house likely incited disapproval among his fellow Tuscans, but the extraordinary success of his career surely vindicated the wisdom of his decision. Distinguished by musical values worthy of the world’s greatest stages, North Carolina Opera’s production of Tosca substantiated that, though liturgical music may have coursed through his veins, Puccini’s soul was fed by writing for the stage.

When Tosca premièred at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on 14 January 1900, Puccini’s career as a composer of opera had been legitimized by the tremendous successes of Manon Lescaut and La bohème. The notion of adapting Victorien Sardou’s 1887 drama La Tosca occupied Puccini even before the composition of Manon Lescaut, the musical potential of the rôle of the eponymous prima donna made famous by Sarah Bernhardt having engaged his creativity from his first encounter with the play. From the inception of Puccini’s interest in the project in 1889 until he began composition of Tosca six years later, legal and artistic maneuvering had the rights for utilizing Sardou’s play first in Puccini’s hands and then in those of his contemporary Alberto Franchetti. The task of writing Tosca’s libretto assigned to Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who contributed to the libretto of Manon Lescaut and refashioned Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème into the text of La bohème, Puccini became Tosca’s musical champion.

Illica’s and Giacosa’s influence notwithstanding, the dramatic atmosphere of Tosca more closely resembles that of his early opera Edgar, unsuccessfully premièred at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1889, than the prevailing moods of Manon Lescaut and La bohème. Without surrendering to the temptation to over-emphasize the semblances between Tosca’s and today’s political climates, North Carolina Opera’s production placed the opera within logical contexts, both in Puccini’s compositional development and in the history of Rome in the Napoleonic era. Like Edgar, Tosca inhabits a dangerous, hostile world: inflicted physically and psychologically, violence was the most prominent resident of Raleigh’s Rome.

IN REVIEW: Maestro JOSEPH RESCIGNO and the North Carolina Opera Orchestra rehearsing for North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Pit, no pendulum: Maestro Joseph Rescigno and the North Carolina Opera Orchestra rehearsing for North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Director David Paul organized a staging of Tosca that filled the Memorial Auditorium stage with sights and situations that recreated Puccini’s and Sardou’s vision of turn-of-the-Nineteenth-Century Rome with commendable fidelity. Tosca is an opera of grand gestures, which can engender the sort of overwrought stage business that provides critics of opera’s dramatic verisimilitude with fodder for their arguments. Though the production was essentially traditional, Paul’s direction reflected a conscious effort to avoid the kind of conventional stand-and-sing inertia that undermines the theatricality of some performances of Tosca. The cumulative momentum of the opera’s narrative was refreshed without being injuriously rethought.

Paul’s endeavors were aided by Glenn Avery Breed’s costumes and Martha Ruskai’s makeup and wigs, all of which contributed to each character having a unique visual profile but also looking as audiences expect the people in Tosca to look. Designed for New Orleans Opera Association, David Gano’s sets sometimes imperiled dramatic clarity with sharply-angled sight lines, and, arrayed as it was in this production, the Attavanti chapel was as much a prison as the cell in Castel Sant’Angelo that Angelotti occupied. Not least in the representation at the beginning of Act Three of dawn gradually spreading its light over the rooftops of Rome, the sets were also splendidly evocative. An oddity in Tláloc López-Watermann’s otherwise sensible lighting designs—or an unfortunate malfunction thereof—marred the final scene of Act One: Scarpia’s blasphemously lecherous musing was rightly the principal focal point, but it was a disservice to the choristers to leave them in shadows as they sang the celebratory ‘Te Deum.’

Conductor Joseph Rescigno’s musical lineage rivals Puccini’s. His uncle, Nicola Rescigno, was a co-founder of Lyric Opera of Chicago, under the auspices of which he conducted the company première of Tosca with Eleanor Steber in the title rôle, as well as conducting Maria Callas in Bellini’s Norma and I puritani, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s La traviata and Il trovatore, and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in LOC’s first two seasons. The younger Rescigno’s link to Callas, who is still widely recognized as one of the greatest interpreters of Tosca, is tenuous, but his pacing of North Carolina Opera’s Tosca exhibited the indefatigable musicality for which his uncle’s and the soprano’s performances were admired. Tempi were unwaveringly right for the music and the singers, and a remarkable degree of transparency was maintained in passages of densest orchestration. Rescigno engineered thrilling climaxes without rushing or overwhelming the cast. With its engrossing synthesis of intimacy and grandeur, Rescigno’s Tosca was sometimes shocking but never shabby.

Under Rescigno’s leadership, the playing of North Carolina Opera’s orchestra was fantastic, the woodwinds and brasses acquitting themselves with particular excellence. The sound of the organ that accompanied the ‘Te Deum’ was excessively loud, more redolent of the Mormon Tabernacle than of Sant’Andrea della Valle, but the tolling of bells was very capably handled. Harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett played elegantly whenever Puccini called upon her instrument, and the doleful clarinet obbligato in Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ received a profoundly expressive performance from David Ochler. Heard in the ‘Te Deum’ that ends Act One and the offstage cantata in Act Two, the choristers had fewer opportunities to impress, but, the adults trained by Scott MacLeod and the children by Nick Malinowski, they resoundingly seized those opportunities, singing powerfully and accurately.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor JACOB KATO as Spoletta, baritone MALCOLM MACKENZIE as Scarpia, and baritone TED FEDERLE as Sciarrone in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Roman triumvirate: (from left to right) tenor Jacob Kato as Spoletta, baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as Scarpia, and baritone Ted Federle as Sciarrone in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

The unseen Pastore’s brief song at the start of Act Three was attractively sung by mezzo-soprano Rachel Stenbuck, a Cary native whose voice from offstage was both lovely and plausibly boyish. The Carceriere who guards Cavaradossi in the final moments before his execution was given an unusually notable presence by bass-baritone Thomas Keefe, a longtime member of NC Opera’s chorus. Baritone Ted Federle was a wily, dangerous Sciarrone who sounded like a lighter-voiced Scarpia in training, musically and dramatically. He advanced the amoral baron’s ruthless agenda with perverse joy evinced by firm, vibrant vocalism. Transitioning from baritone to tenor in this production, Jacob Kato depicted Spoletta as a hesitant henchman, his obedience prompted as much by fear of Scarpia as by loyalty. The quality of Kato’s instrument was apparent despite the rôle’s brevity, but the music’s tonal center of gravity did not yet sound wholly congenial for the voice.

IN REVIEW: tenor SCOTT QUINN as Cavaradossi (left) and bass-baritone SABRI KARABUDAK as Angelotti (right) in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Man on the run: tenor Scott Quinn as Cavaradossi (left) and bass-baritone Sabri Karabudak as Angelotti (right) in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Aside from disclosing that he was by some means in communication with his sister, Marchesa Attavanti, Puccini and his librettists provided no specific information about precisely how the political prisoner Cesare Angelotti escaped from his bondage within the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo. In the person of bass-baritone Sabri Karabudak, he might well have blasted through the fortress wall with a well-aimed vocal bombardment. Fully convincing as a man running for his life, Karabudak sang as though he might evade his pursuers by hiding behind a wall of sound. The singer’s intonation was occasionally compromised by the intensity of his declamation, particularly at the ends of phrases, but his Angelotti was uncommonly empathetic, heightening the effect of the news in Act Two that, when discovered in the well at Cavaradossi’s villa, he took his own life rather than allowing himself to be recaptured by Scarpia. In many performances, Angelotti is little more than a personification of a plot device, but Karabudak made him a man of flesh and blood whose fate mattered.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Il sagrestano (center), with tenor SCOTT QUINN as Cavaradossi (left), in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Man of God, more or less: bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Il sagrestano (center), with tenor Scott Quinn as Cavaradossi, in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

There is perhaps no more experienced interpreter of the rôle of Il sagrestano, the sacristan who oversees the daily operations of Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle, in America today than Greensboro-born bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, who has donned the cleric’s cassock—it is prescribed by canonical law that the sacristans of basilicas in communion with Rome should be ordained—in productions by an array of companies including Michigan Opera Theatre, Central City Opera, and Piedmont Opera. In North Carolina Opera’s Tosca, Hartmann was a Sagrestano whose only loyalty was to his charge, the church under his care, and he devoted every modicum of his courage and cunning to defending it first from Cavaradossi’s revolutionary proclivities and then from Scarpia’s violation of its sanctity.

A stage animal whose attention to detail can make moments of great significance of a production’s seemingly unimportant intricacies, he approached the character’s first scene as a duet with the Madonna, who rudely never responded. His refilling of the holy water font with a watering can was somehow transformed into a bizarrely sincere act of piety, and his exasperated exchanges with Cavaradossi echoed an intractable but endearing resistance to change. His reaction to Scarpia’s interrogation conveyed fear, suspicion, and loathing in equal measures. Endeavoring, mostly unsuccessfully, to corral the young choristers for the singing of the ‘Te Deum,’ Hartmann was the rare Sagrestano who did not seem like a pedophile. Hearing desiccated, wobbling tones in the Sagrestano’s music is commonplace, making the sonorous solidity of Hartmann’s singing all the more enjoyable. It could be argued that the talents of such an immersive, impactful-voiced artist are wasted on a part like Il sagrestano, but Hartmann’s performance suggested that this part is often wasted on singers who lack the imagination needed to completely inhabit the rôle.

IN REVIEW: baritone MALCOLM MACKENZIE as Scarpia in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Fanning the flames: baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as Scarpia in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Some interpreters of Tosca’s antagonist, the sadistic superintendent of Rome’s Stasi-esque police, Barone Scarpia, inspire hatred solely by delivering the part’s music with Sprechstimme more appropriate for Berg’s Wozzeck than for a Puccini rôle. The villainy of baritone Malcolm MacKenzie’s Scarpia was all the more startling for being enlivened by appealing, impeccably-controlled vocalism. Not once in his commanding portrayal of the loathsome reprobate did he resort to shouting or snarling. At his first entrance, his declamation of ‘Un tal baccano in chiesa!’ instantaneously heightening the tension of the scene, it was apparent that faith was little more than a weapon in this Scarpia’s arsenal, one that he used to his advantage in manipulating the pious Tosca’s jealousy. MacKenzie’s Scarpia was unquestionably a bully but a treacherously seductive one, voicing ‘Tosca gentile la mano mia la vostra aspetta’ with chilling sultriness. In the final scene of Act One, the brash arrogance of MacKenzie’s portrayal indicated that Scarpia’s boldness before the Madonna was born not of a supplicant’s trust in intercession and absolution but of a misogynist’s sense of superiority.

The self-satisfaction with which MacKenzie sang ‘Tosca è un buon falco!’ at the start of Act Two made Scarpia’s stratagem sickeningly lucid. It was again the superb caliber of his singing that ignited the baritone’s characterization. The duplicity of the baron’s civility in questioning Cavaradossi was exemplified by MacKenzie’s mellow enunciation of ‘Ed or fra noi da buoni amici,’ his ability to adapt vocal colorations to nuances of text allied with unassailable technical assurance. There was a maddening insouciance in his pronouncement of ‘Nel pozzo del giardino - Va, Spoletta,’ his show of indifference calculated to insinuate that Tosca’s betrayal of Angelotti’s location was similarly nonchalant.

MacKenzie’s portrayal assumed a dimension of Shakespearean equivocation in the fateful scene with Tosca, the artifice of his chivalrous courtship accentuating his sardonic lust. Although protracted death struggles are not incompatible with the innate cowardice that escalates Scarpia’s cruelty, the lack of histrionics with which MacKenzie’s Scarpia expired was considerably more effective. [Admittedly, the melodrama of Scarpia’s death was commandeered in this performance by Tosca, whose repeated stabbing of Scarpia was disconcertingly cathartic, even receiving enthusiastic applause from the audience.] Eschewing excess, MacKenzie out-sang a number of the Tosca discography’s most acclaimed interpreters of Scarpia, bringing to the Raleigh stage a magnificently-sung performance of the rôle that made compelling virtues of the baron’s voice-battering vices.

IN REVIEW: tenor SCOTT QUINN as Cavaradossi in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Addio, Roma: tenor Scott Quinn as Cavaradossi in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Débuting in the rôle of the reactionary artist Mario Cavaradossi in this production, tenor Scott Quinn brought to the part a bright-timbred, focused sound that could be beautiful and piercing at once. On the whole, the success of his performance was achieved more by intelligent projection and engaging acting than by vocal amplitude. There were moments in which his lyric instrument lacked heft, but the earnestness of his singing provided the necessary dramatic muscle. The annoyance that permeated Quinn’s singing in his opening scene with Il sagrestano was an apt depiction of an artist’s reluctance to have his process observed by an outsider. With poetic phrasing and a ringing top B♭, he gave a lovely account of ‘Recondita armonia.’ Interrupted first by the disheveled figure whom he ultimately recognized as Angelotti and then by Tosca, Quinn’s Cavaradossi channeled his irritation into his vocalism. The tenor’s lines in the duet with Tosca were vividly sung, and Quinn denounced Scarpia’s brutality with an exhilarating exclamation of ‘La vita mi costasse, vi salverò!’

Few moments in opera are more beloved by tenors than Cavaradossi’s cries of ‘Vittoria!’ in Act Two of Tosca. Having suffered torture without divulging Angelotti’s whereabouts to Scarpia’s adjutants, Cavaradossi extols the unexpected news of Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo with long-held top As, fervently sustained by Quinn. Exultation quickly gave way to anger as Cavaradossi grasped that Tosca’s will was broken by hearing his groans of pain, but Quinn’s singing limned disappointment more discernibly than ire, lending his expression of despair at being separated from Tosca in Act Three added credence.

Quinn voiced that surge of sorrow, the well-known aria ‘E lucevan le stelle,’ entrancingly, neither crooning nor spoiling its expansive melodic arcs by over-singing. The aria was a deeply private reverie, and the almost childlike surprise with which Quinn reacted to her sudden appearance emphasized the link between Tosca’s arrivals in the first and third acts. His Cavaradossi seemed genuinely moved by the lengths to which Tosca went to save his life, and the tenor’s singing in their final duet was particularly impassioned. Quinn clearly approached his first portrayal of Cavaradossi with thorough preparation, and he conquered the demands of the music without overextending his vocal resources.

IN REVIEW: soprano ALEXANDRA LOBIANCO in the title rôle of North Carolina Opera's April 2019 of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Living for art, living for love: soprano Alexandra LoBianco in the title rôle of North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

In the 119 years since Tosca’s première, the title rôle has been sung by a broad spectrum of voices. The first Tosca, Hariclea Darclée, created the name parts in Mascagni’s Iris and Catalani’s La Wally, but she also sang Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto and the heroine in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Historically, the most memorable Toscas can be said to have been those who, like Darclée, were stylistically versatile—artists including Callas, Magda Olivero, and Marisa Galvany. Soprano Alexandra LoBianco’s portrayal of Tosca for North Carolina Opera fleetingly recalled qualities familiar from the performances of famous Toscas of the past—Maria Caniglia’s and Zinka Milanov’s hauteur, Renata Tebaldi’s and Dorothy Kirsten’s sincerity, Sena Jurinac’s and Gilda Cruz-Romo’s femininity, Carol Neblett’s and Ghena Dimitrova’s abandon—but was also her own singular creation, crafted to capitalize on her considerable visual, dramatic, and vocal assets. [Paying homage to fellow Toscas who sang also Wagner heroines, notably Birgit Nilsson and Dame Gwyneth Jones, LoBianco will return to Raleigh in November 2019 to sing Brünnhilde in North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried.]

Calling to Cavaradossi from offstage, LoBianco’s repetitions of ‘Mario’ were the utterances of a woman who expected to be answered, and, unlike singers who simply enter, this Tosca emphatically made an entrance. In the subsequent duet with Cavaradossi, LoBianco alternated playfulness with bursts of pique and romantic ardor, drawing a kaleidoscopic portrait of a complex woman. Ensnared by ruthless exploitation of her vulnerability, there were tears when Scarpia produced fabricated proof of a liaison between Cavaradossi and Marchesa Attavanti, but LoBianco did not indulge in the embarrassing sniveling and exaggerated sobbing employed by some Toscas. All of Tosca’s music in Act One was capably, captivatingly sung.

Aside from its exciting top C, the cantata on which Scarpia eavesdrops in Act Two is not of great interest, musically, but LoBianco’s radiant singing uplifted the ensemble. Subjected to the torment of listening as Cavaradossi was tortured, her Tosca’s agitation reached a point of no return at which, not unlike Minnie in the poker game with Rance in Act Two of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, she played the only ace in her hand by trading Angelotti’s life for Cavaradossi’s. In LoBianco’s portrayal, this was the first glimpse of Tosca’s descent into the cycle of violence that consumed the world around her. The soprano’s performance of ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ was an oasis of beauty and tranquility in this desert of depravity and desperation. Her top B♭ gleamed, and she managed a ravishing diminuendo without sputtering on the final ‘così.’ Plunging the knife into Scarpia’s back with frightening ferocity, she sang ‘Questo è il bacio di Tosca!’ with astonishing subtlety. Forgoing the libretto’s instruction that Tosca should place a crucifix on Scarpia’s corpse, the aftermath of the stabbing was here a silent contest between Tosca and a small statue of the Madonna, fostering an analogy with the diva’s devotion to the Holy Mother in Act One.

LoBianco sprang onto the stage in Act Three with the euphoric sense of purpose of a youthful Brünnhilde determined to rescue Siegmund from Hunding’s vendetta. She voiced ‘Il tuo sangue o il mio amore volea’ with conflicting emotions, unashamed of her defense of her own and her lover’s lives but unnerved by the horror of taking a life. As LoBianco sang it, ‘Amor che seppe a te vita serbare’ was as meaningful a portal into Tosca’s psyche as the aria in Act Two. A measure of the character’s delicate vivacity returned in her final sequence with Cavaradossi, making her discovery that his execution was unfeigned wrenching. The blazing top B♭ with which LoBianco resolved ‘O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!’ echoed the aura of spiritual liberation that her Tosca gained in death. Symbolically paralleling her dorsal assault on Scarpia, this Tosca hurled herself into the Tiber with feline athleticism, unhesitatingly plunging backwards from the parapet. LoBianco’s Tosca died as she lived, following no one’s rules but her own. Musically, though, few Toscas other than Callas have served Puccini as faithfully as LoBianco did throughout the performance. This, North Carolina Opera demonstrated, is what is truly required to justify Tosca’s undiminished marketability.